Wednesday, March 19, 2014

never starving

Since I am an artist, I hear the term "starving artist" more than the average person, and it creates a deep fission of annoyance in my heart and mind every time. It's the term itself, and the way people say it.

Sometimes it's said casually, which shows the speaker is not thinking about it, just taking the myth as an understood truth. Sometimes with an edge of derision of self-righteousness, as if the artist in question-- or maybe all artists-- asked for starvation by choosing art and will get what they deserve. Sometimes it's said with earnestness, and this is the worst, because it often comes from other artists who think they must suffer in order to be an artist. Or their current low economic status is correct and will never change.

Also, I deeply dislike what the term implies: that for anyone to choose to be an artist in this world of practical need and hard realities means you will go hungry, not be able to provide for yourself, and suffer deeply.

I have a client, a good, longtime one, who discussed with me how his daughter wants to be an artist but he has persistently tried to steer her into a profession where "she can make some money." When I suggested she could make money making her art, he waved me off.  No no, honey, people don't make real money doing what you do, is the message I got from the encounter. Never mind he's handed over hundreds, if not thousands of his dollars to me for my art.

Artists don't starve, they are too creative and smart for starvation. They figure out a way to survive before they starve.

I understand the starving artist myth is a metaphor, and I find it to be an supremely annihilating one. The metaphor implies that creativity is of the lowest value in our culture, unless it directly serves the culture in the form of generating money. Lots of it. And that people who choose to be artists are of similarly low value.

I think the metaphor persists because people understand there's truth in there, but it's backwards-- it's the culture that is actually starving for artists, dying for beauty, gasping for the meaning art brings to us. I believe there is a deep fear of articulating the truth of this because of the long hard look we would have to take at the way we live now, which debases and profits off the destruction of the most beautiful, valuable things we have.

I encounter people all the time who wanted to be an artist, but because of parental and or/cultural pressure, chose to go into a money-making or conventional profession.  And because their true calling has been denied and they are not creating for us, for the world, we all starve. What beautiful works have not been made, what deep truths have not been uncovered, what leaps of evolution have not been made because the people who would have brought that to us were coerced and intimidated into serving another calling?

For those of you thinking right now "real" artists will always yield to their calling, we haven't lost anything, I say bullshit.

I aim this post directly at teachers, parents, and other people who have any kind of authority over young people's lives. I want you to ask yourself how you respond when a young person says they want to be an artist when they grow up. Do you say, "Artists have really hard lives"? Do you say, "I hope you plan to learn something practical too so you have something to fall back on"? Do you say, "How do you plan on making money by being an artist"? Then I want you to recall what you wanted to be when you grew up, and try to feel how it would feel to hear those words when you stated your intention. I think that not many people who read my blog would say any of those things, but maybe you know someone who would, or has. Send this post to them.

I wonder what would happen if people let go of this myth. What if every child who stated they wanted to be an artist was met with "What kind of artist do you want to be?" What kind of new world could we create with that simple response?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

signs of burnout

I have been a little bit off the radar-- no newsletter the past two months, one blog post, very little on the social media network--but there is a lot of things happening behind the scenes right now.

As I step back into a routine of making pottery-- and I use the word "routine" very loosely here because for every day I manage a whole day at the studio there is probably a week of barely getting in there-- I've been re-imagining and and re-designing a bunch of components that make up my creative life. My creative life is also the engine that powers my livelihood, so it's a lot of work. Everything from redesigning my website, business cards, and the way I process the orders I receive; to deeper work around the way I create, how I approach my work, and what I put into the world.

I recently hired a business/life coach to help me stay on track with all of these different paths, because it gets pretty thick and I don't know what I'm doing.  I just know where I want to be. But I keep running into this question: where is the joy? Right alongside that question is: are we having fun?

Joy and fun are the reasons why I started making pottery. It was fun, that gave me joy. I never questioned whether or not it was a good idea to turn pottery into a money-making enterprise. When I was in the process of creating my business, I was in my 20's and if someone had asked me that question, I would have thought the question was stupid. Why shouldn't you make money doing the very thing that brings you so much happiness? It would have never occurred to me that there would come a day when making pottery could be as much of a grind as cubicle work (whatever that is) and I would be as worn out and empty as any other person burned out on teaching, lawyering, climbing the corporate ladder, or working any job that requires us to show up day after day.

My coach asked me for my personal signs of burnout, and here they are:

  • Boredom: not excited by the work I am making.
  • Resentment: toward difficult customers, toward the work I have to do, toward pieces not coming out as planned.
  • Rushing: trying to get it over with rather than being present with the process.
  • Procrastination: we all know that one. Procrastination equals avoidance.
  • Anger: when anger starts replacing my other emotions, like sadness, I become a ball of fury that is downright dangerous. Cars get kicked when they cut me off on my bicycle, fights get picked with people who can kick my ass, the cat starts hiding under the bed, my husband wonders why he ever married me. 
I doubt these signs are unique to me.

What I'm learning about myself is that I take my creativity for granted, I use it up. I'm like a teenager who borrows the parent's car and burns all the gas with no thought, because the assumption is the parents will just re-fill the tank. And they do, until they get totally sick of being taken advantage of.

I've started feeling pretty sad for my inner artist, who gives and gives and gives to the taskmaster-- me-- and is rarely rewarded with the things that will keep her inspired. I'm a hard-ass boss. The more I look at that picture, the more I don't like it. I want to protect my inner artist at all costs, always yielding to that little voice that pipes up, "I think I've had enough for today, let's go have fun somewhere else." Yes, sometimes that voice pipes up at 11 in the morning.

I know a lot of artists and creative types read this blog, so what do you do to keep your inner artist flowing,? Or are you just a taskmaster too?

Friday, January 24, 2014

a new page

When some people want to change something in their life, they may buy a membership at the gym, join a like-minded group, enroll in a class, or get a therapist.

Me, I buy a notebook.


This is a collection of my notebooks. In the interest of full disclosure I will say that this is not all of them. All have been acquired within the past 3 years, with the exception of #12, my wedding notebook that my Aunt Shelly sent to me back in 2001 when I got engaged to my husband. She knows the power of the notebook.

I have always wished that I were the type of person who could carry around a moleskine notebook and jot all of my thoughts and ideas into that one place, and when I was done, file it and buy another exactly like it. And when I needed to refer back to something, a genius thought or creative idea-- of which I have many-- I could simply crack the moleskine. My inner creative life could be documented in a linear way that would create a beautiful pocket of order in my universe.

But that's not me. I am addicted to the new beginning a fresh notebook represents. When I decide I need to make a change in my life, such as getting more exercise,  a new notebook must be purchased (#15) so I can use that notebook as a way of tracking myself. I can't write down my daily exercise in notebook #10, which holds my grocery lists and menu plans, or notebook #21, which lists all the annoying household things that need to be taken care of, and certainly not notebook #9, which lists my studio to-do's for the day. Crossover creates confusion.

And it's not just lists of things that I like to have going. #14 is my daily journal (always spiral bound and college-ruled). #13 is strictly for pottery ideas and drawings, while #3 is for other creative ideas, like papercuts. #4 is dedicated to happiness and happiness resources รก la Gretchen Rubin, and #7 stays in my purse for moments when I am struck by inspiration when out to dinner or a museum (empty except for notes on directions and places to eat). #3 was for when I decided to start doing sketches with little stories underneath, of which there are two in the past year (sketches, not stories), and somewhere in there is a notebook related to money, but I'm not sure which.

I'm going to confess what you probably saw coming from the beginning of this post: the only notebook that regularly gets any use is my journal, my day planner, and my sketch books. In large part, the rest of the notebook are testaments only to my ambitions, desires and goals. 

For people like me, who believe in the strength of words and writing, notebooks and paper hold a powerful sway over our psyches. As I was writing this post, and reading about notebooks and moleskines, I found this notebook, and my heart started beating a little faster. Maybe this is the ultimate notebook. Maybe this is the one that can change everything.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

old blog posts, new thoughts

I received a new comment from another potter on an old blog post the other day that brought up some thoughts I wanted to share it with you all:

I'm still trying to figure out my message. My (blog) posts have a tendency to be all over the place. Some about pottery, some about my daily health struggles, and some just because! Do you really think that it is beneficial to narrow the point/audience of a blog, or will the "wide net" approach I've got going on work?

When I first started this blog just over 7 years ago, I knew I wanted to share my world with people, but I struggled with distilling my world into interesting blog posts.  My biggest mistake initially was thinking I had to maintain a professional facade for the sake of potential customers. Like my blog is a fancy store or I'm going to sell you an appliance or something.  I wrote about a dozen polite, very restrained, heavily edited posts that I hoped gave the impression that I was a serious artist with deep thoughts. By the way, only click on those links if you are feeling suicidal and think being bored to death might be a painless way to go (it's not).

Then, I had a terrible weekend at a bad retail show and I let loose in a blog post how I felt about it. I was completely honest about my anger, discomfort, and disappointment when I have to stand around like an idiot all weekend and people don't buy my work, or even talk to me.

That post was a lot of fun to write, and I was so scared to publish it because I was afraid of what people would think of me, complaining like that.  But I did publish it, and it was the first time I had more than one or two comments. I made the great discovery that people pay branding companies lots of money to manufacture for them: authenticity creates connection.

Authenticity is scary. Knowing who you are deeply enough to show your authentic self is work in itself, and you also have to accept that some people are not going to like you and what you have to say. And you know what? Fuck them. Not in a personal way, people aren't bad for not liking you. In a general way, fuck the people who are not into your world. The people who love your world can't wait to see what you do next, and they are the people who matter.

The question about narrowing the point/audience of a blog vs. wide net is not what needs to be considered, that's approaching it from the back end. The front end approach is  honing your point of view through writing and sharing. If you don't know what your point of view is, keep writing until you figure it out.


Friday, December 20, 2013

the re-education of whitney smith

Now that my studio re-model is done, I have been easing myself back into the studio. I have not done any serious ceramic work since the beginning of the year as I have dealt with my burnout issues. I spent at least 3 days trying to figure out what I should work on first. That was fun, arguing with myself about where to begin. Finally, realizing my inclination to make things hard so I feel like an effort is worthwhile, I decided to start with the easiest thing, which was an order for a cake stand.

I'm treating myself like someone who has been injured and has to be handled very delicately, and I'm watching every thought, every move to check for signs of burnout, boredom, disgust, and despair. As those things come up, and they do, I have to pause, and check myself:

  • Am I trying to move fast when I need to move slow? (Years of production has made me hurry all the time.)
  • Am I giving my process a chance to work out the problems of this piece? (Sometimes my lack of patience makes me give up quickly when I  think something isn't working.)
  • Am I following my impulse with the direction I want to follow with the piece or am I trying to force an outcome? (This is all about trusting my instincts as an artist.)
  • Am I deciding how this piece will be accepted or not accepted in the world before I've even had a chance to finish it? (I compare this to parents who have decided what their children are going to be when they grow up.)
  • Am I staying present with what I'm working on, or am I drifting off into thoughts about the past, the future, or just not paying attention at all? (Hello bad habits.)
Asking myself these questions helps me adjust my pace, attitude, and internal dialogue. It takes discipline and patience to stay on top of myself like this, like trying to teach a child. An angry, drunken child. It's the re-education of Whitney Smith. I have this little sign on my studio wall, courtesy of rae dunn, which are serving as my current watchwords:


Monday, December 09, 2013

open studio

My Open Studio + Holiday Sale is THIS WEEKEND!
I will have LOTS of beautiful work on hand for all of your gifting desires.
I hope to see you there!

Holiday studio hours:
Saturday, Dec 14: 10 am to 4 pm
Sunday, Dec 15: noon to 4 pm
539 Athol Ave
Oakland, CA 94606


Sunday, November 24, 2013

making things happen

I loved a recent post from one of my art heroes, Elsa Mora. The title of the post is "Making Things Happen," and it's about, well, how a busy artist can make so many things happen the way Elsa does. The steps she names go like this:
  • Think: sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and think about what to make and why. This helps to clarify the mind and gives you focus and purpose.
  • Make a Plan: figure out what the big picture goal is, and break it down into small steps.
  • Start: the hardest part-- do not abandon the project or plan. One foot in front of the other, and begin.
  • Manage your time: try to work in 2 to 3 hours bursts with no interruptions (internet, phone, people) followed by a break.
  • Discipline: set a deadline, hold yourself accountable to finishing the project.
  • Have fun: Elsa believes projects are more likely to get done when it's fun, and a project stops being fun when one step has not been done correctly.
This formula has been incredibly helpful to me as I get back to working on creative projects. Like Elsa, I am very impulsive. Often when I get an idea, I run headlong into trying to make it, leaning heavily on my creative abilities to carry me through and not thinking about a concrete plan. My studio is littered with unfinished projects that seem to hold promise but stopped being fun to work on.

Her post inspired me to work on a large scale papercut for my front window at the studio. It's something I've been thinking about since the springtime, but I was hesitant to start because I know my penchant for starting big projects and then not finishing. I didn't want to let myself down or have some lame bullshit in my window. I followed each step, including the working for 2-3 hours at a stretch. This piece took about 8 hours and it about 3 feet by 3 feet:



The thing I really learned through this process is that I have a tendency to rush through "tedious" details. For instance, I wanted to somehow cheat on cutting the scallop frame properly.  I noticed that I wanted to rush, or get bored with the process, but then I remembered the plan, and that the scallop frame was really important to making the piece pop on the window. That helped me re-focus on it, enjoy it, and do the work so it would look great and not sloppy.

I've started using this technique with every project and I'm hoping it will continue to help me finish great projects. Stay tuned.