Tuesday, September 29, 2015

no plan b

Mention to someone that you want to be an artist when you grow up, and you will most certainly be met with a pat on the head and the question, "What is your back up plan?"

For most people, there is no back up plan.

I was listening to one of my podcasts, Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, and he was talking to the comedian Brian Regan about why he dropped out of college before finishing his degree so he could pursue stand-up comedy:
What motivated me even further was when people would say, "Why don't you just wait and get your degree, so you have something to fall back on if this comedy thing doesn't work?" And I didn't want to think that the comedy thing might not work, I didn't want to feel I had something to fall back on. I wanted it to work. It had to work. It was going to work. It was very difficult for me to pursue a goal that I didn't want to happen.  For me to get the degree was for a life that I didn't want for myself. That was the safe route. I was like I was like how am I supposed to wake up, and go to class, so I can get a degree for this "fallback" plan? I don't want that plan, I want this plan that's murky, and weird, and scary, that's the plan I wanna go for. So, I went that route.
I'm not saying not having a Plan  B will assure your success in the arts, but expending a lot of energy on the "back up plan" means that your Plan B is actually Plan A.

I'm feeling a little  Seth Godin today.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015


All of the sudden I am very burned out on social media. This came up for me because I've been working in some new mediums, and of course I feel the need to whip out my phone and document my process and some images. And then I think ought to share them, but I really don't feel like it.

I know exactly why I don't feel like it. Putting it out there is inviting people's thoughts and opinions about what I'm making, and I'm not interested right now. I just want to focus on getting better at what I'm trying to do and I don't want encouragement from strangers or passing comments on Instagram.

My friend Sara Paloma has said many times over the years that she thinks it's very important for young artists to protect what they are making from the public while they are still in that steep learning curve of figuring out what they are trying to make. Too many opinions, too many voices is distracting and even confusing.  They can create value where perhaps there is none or undermine an idea before its had time ripen.

Right now we live in a culture of "A year of making" or "daily drawing" where artists post every single day the thing they are working on, and I do think there is a lot of value in not only sharing work and ideas, but creating a visible example of commitment to your craft. Being an artist is about doing, making, creating, and social media is in many ways a natural  outlet for creative expression.

But there's the flip side to that. The outlet can become an end in itself, the seeking of approval, positive feedback and "likes" from strangers as a way to feel a sense of accomplishment. I would be a liar if I said I don't feel a bit buoyed when I post an image that gets a lot of attention, and conversely a sense of disappointment when I get little attention from another image. And I have to recognize and question those feelings, because in the end it is little more than distraction. The more I've been thinking about it, the more I have been questioning the whole enterprise and my own participation.

As much as there may be value in sharing work--even work that is not very good--there must be value in not sharing it, in holding it close, in forcing people to be seekers rather than passive observers. I can't help but wonder: what would Georgia O'Keefe do?

"It was all so far away - there was quiet and an untouched feel to the country and I could work as I pleased."

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

the cost, the price

I'm in recovery mode from the Palo Alto Clay and Glass Festival. It's always a good show for me and this year was no exception, though Sunday was one of the worst days ever. So it was way out of balance-- Saturday was excellent, Sunday was not-excellent. It is very strange, how the energy of a show is set and how it affects everything. The energy of Sunday was downright lethargic, and by noon I was limped out in my chair, wondering if anyone would notice if I just crawled under one of my tables and slept for a little while. People were nice enough, but few were in the mood to buy anything. Though they were still in the mood to come into my booth and touch everything, which believe it or not, sucks up a lot of energy.

Early on the first day, one of my fellow exhibitors came into my booth to check out my work. He's a glassblower, older than me and very experienced with the whole making-a-living-at-making-art thing. He picked up a few pieces, and then got blunt with me. "Your prices are too low."

I was blunt right back. "I hate it when people say that to me." And I do. I take it personally. I feel like what is being said is that I don't value myself enough, and that makes me feel defensive. I think I value myself but also, maybe I don't sometimes and that makes me embarrassed. Also, I hate it when people try to tell me what to do. That's my goddamn job.

"This bowl," he said, pointing to a giant bowl, "should be at least $475. It's way too cheap." (It was $250.)

"Okay, " I said. "It is my favorite bowl." (And it is. It's fucking amazing.)

"There you go," he said, "at least leave yourself some room to negotiate. How are you going to feel when that bowl walks out of here for $250?"

I changed the price to $475.

Later, we had a more in-depth conversation about pricing. It was good for me to have the conversation even though it was pushing some of my little buttons. I realized that I have been letting my prices stagnate or even drift down, much in line with the wage stagnation of low and middle income Americans. 

For example, 8-10 years ago it was very common for me to sell vases and other vessels for $400 and up. It wasn't a stretch, I did it all the time. Most of my work was well over $100, I made very few pieces for under $75. The work I was making at that time was very labor-intensive. I was always pushing the price as high as I could, and I had no problem with it.

But I also wanted to develop less expensive pieces to broaden my market reach, so I did. Then my etsy shop took off, and over time the only things I was making were the less-expensive pieces, cause that's what was selling like crazy. I literally did not have the time or focus to make more elaborate, more expensive work. And over time I basically painted myself into a corner with the $44 item.

Oh, and bored myself to death too.

And now I've gotten more cautious about pushing my prices higher. I did do a nominal price hike on most of my smaller items last year for the first time in ages, but I've been reluctant to take a hard look at the way I've been pricing my newer items. I think it's underpriced-- I know it is-- but I also want to get it out there. I'm still developing and learning a lot and quickly moving up the learning curve so I don't want to get overstocked on work. I want it to move. But then I have to think about setting the expectation. If I underprice too much for too long, it makes it harder to get the prices up to where they belong later.

Pricing is tricky for artists, it's one of the most common struggles we have. My glassblower friend made the point that when you get into a certain market-- the high-end market-- price is not the first thing that is considered, and usually doesn't represent a barrier at all. Even in the lower-end market a price differential of 20% will not stop the people who really want the thing you are making. And pricing too low has the unintended effect of making people value the work less. Even wondering what is wrong with it.

I walked away from the conversation realizing that I cannot continue to be passive about my prices, that I have to think about what the work is really worth and price more appropriately. What about you? If you are an artist I know pricing is something you have to contend with, what are your thoughts? And if you are a buyer of art and craft, what do you think about when you are considering the price of an item? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Palo Alto Clay and Glass Festival-- this weekend!

The Palo Alto show is this weekend. Usually, I go into a fever about 6 weeks before the show. I stop taking care of myself, I cancel all social engagements, and I start drinking even more wine so I can focus on making stuff. It sounds like a mental illness, doesn't it?

This year, I did a 3-day getaway to the mountains with a friend LAST WEEK. I haven't skipped any meals, I'm drinking more water than wine, and I even went and got a pedicure yesterday. Shit is changing around here.

I'll still be unloading a hot kiln the morning before the show, but oh well.

I'm rubbing my hands together in anticipation for the show, and I'm also a little nervous. I'm bringing a bunch of my new work, and I have some of my old work too, and I have no idea how I'm going to make room for it all, or how it's even going to all go together. I decided a couple of days ago that I have to re-design my table coverings and curtains-- I have to inject some insanity  into the process or it's just not me-- because the old colors and textures just don't work. I'm not freaking out because it's just a show, but I'm feeling pretty amped up.

If you're in the Bay Area, for god's sake-- stop by! I'll be in booth #61 in a new dress that I sewed myself. (I also decided I need two new dresses that are sewn by me, I've recently sworn off shopping, but that's another blog post.) You can get all the details right here.

I hope to see you there!

Monday, June 08, 2015

is it time to leave oakland?

I recently returned from a trip to Spokane, Washington. My husband and I went there to do a preliminary assessment of Spokane's real estate market and potential as a possible future home for us.

It was not randomly chosen. It's beautiful, outdoorsy, with a river running through it and more city parks than I have ever seen. I was born 100 miles away from Spokane in Moses Lake, and lived in Spokane for a time as a child when my mom was in grad school. I liked Spokane when I was a kid, and I have two artist friends who live there now, so that provides a link back into the place.

My husband and I are finding ourselves in that horrible spot that you hear about all the time, but you hope to never experience yourself. Our beloved Oakland has hit the big time-- this article made me and everybody I know cringe with a bit of horror and outrage --and we are finding ourselves priced out of the city that we have lived in for 20 years.

We have felt the creep for years, so it's not a surprise. Oakland's hidden charms and diamonds in the rough have been coming to light more and more as people look for alternatives to San Francisco. It's the same reason we moved here; we couldn't compete for housing in San Francisco during the first dot-com boom of the 90's, but the stakes were different back then. We saw the potential of the city, and believed in its intrinsic strength and beauty despite what many saw as a blighted and crime-ridden area.  By chance we happened to settle into what has become one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city around Lake Merritt.

Right now we have a pretty decent 2-bedroom apartment with both of our studios located within 30 seconds down the street. Because we have rented all of these places for well over a decade and have fairly non-predatory landlords along with rent control protection, our overhead is manageable, less than half of what we would pay if we were just starting now. I really wonder how younger Bay Area artists today can manage, if they manage, and do they even try?

But it hangs by a thread. All it takes is one landlord deciding to sell their building, or some other unpredictable event for us to be in an untenable situation. One-room studio apartments that used to sit empty for months for lack of renters a few years ago are now going for $2000 in our neighborhood. And people are lining up to rent them.

For us, buying a home here is not an option.  Houses with no heat, rotting window frames, foundation problems and leaking roofs can easily be bid up to over $500,000. We could move to the fringes of the Bay Area for perhaps a few hundred thousand dollars less, but why? We like the Bay Area, but we love Oakland. And part of what makes Oakland so livable for us is the easy access to our friends and cultural life we enjoy. We don't have to get in the car to do most of what we need to do, we can often walk or ride our bikes. That makes our lifestyle buffered against many of the things that make city living kind of stressful. Do I want to give that up so I can hang on, keep my feet planted in the Bay Area?

It's very painful. I moved myself to California when I was 18 because I always wanted to live here and I felt instinctively that I would find my place here, that I would find a sense of belonging. And I did. But it's almost 30 years later now, and the lifestyle that we love so much continues to be eroded not only by overpopulation, gentrification, and the real estate boom, but by the catastrophe of our current drought and continued environmental degradation. I have to ask myself if staying with my Oakland tribe is the smart move. If staying in California at all is a wise choice. Or if it's time to create something new, somewhere else.

Also, as an artist who contributed to Oakland becoming a mecca for creative types, I feel the sadness bitterness of being kicked out because I don't have enough money to stake a real estate claim. People say they want the cultural life and diversity that artists create, but what is being delivered to us are new and better restaurants-- sorry, not restaurants, but "kitchens"-- and bars. What was revolutionary, offbeat, edgy, and different has mutated into high-end retail with a strangely conformist feel. And it attracts residents who mistake gentrification for culture, which in turn propagates more of the same. How long it will be before downtown Oakland turns into a clone of Los Gatos?

I know my complaint is an old one and not even the most poignant or compelling. My own move to this city in 1996 was an early signal of the incoming wave of gentrification, and my choices and tastes have helped to shape it. There is no denying or getting away from that truth. People who have lived here for generations and should be benefitting the most from an improved city and public life are getting thrown out of the Bay Area as if none of their contributions matter, and that is far more painful than our dilemma. And many don't have the same choices that I'm privileged enough to have.

Meanwhile, who out there lives in Spokane? I'm going to need more than two friends.

Monday, May 25, 2015

beautiful mistakes

I was working on one of my new pieces a couple of weeks ago. It was a large platter-type thing. Wide and flat with 90 degree sides that were just over an inch high. I sketched in a lotus and lily pad motif on both sides over layers of green and blue underglaze, and I liked how it looked. I put well over an hour into the piece when I totally cracked off one side. I got carried away with the detail work and did not realize that I had all the weight of the piece leaning on one edge.

Whenever I fuck something up, my reaction is always the same. First I yell in complete dismay, "Ooooooh NO!" Followed by a series of swear words. Depending on the severity of the fuck up, I contemplate crying and I often put out a couple of experimental sobs to see if it's going to take. Usually is doesn't, because my method for dealing with pottery fuck-ups, honed over almost 20 years of dealing with them, is to immediately throw them in the trash and move on. I can't get stuck on pieces getting broken, it's just part of the process and there's no point in ruminating on it. I'm kind of harsh that way.

But this piece was so nice. I really liked how it was shaping up. Yeah, I could make another, but there is nothing like the magic of the first. And then I just decided to repair the broken pieces, stick them back in their broken spot and secure it with slip, and not even try to hide the fact that it had been cracked, but emphasize it with some black glaze and really show it off. I felt like I was on to something.

Then, last night I was watching the first in a series on Netflix called "Chef's Table", a set of documentaries about some of the top chefs in the world. The Italian chef Massimo Bottura was talking about how one of his chefs dropped a lemon tart, breaking apart the crust and splatting the filling. Rather than freaking out, he was inspired by the idea of this, of presenting the lemon tart broken on the plate to the customer, because he thought it was beautiful, not destroyed. He says that to make mistakes is human, and therefore mistakes can be beautiful. The art comes from being able to see that, and then making the invisible visible for others to appreciate. His broken lemon tart is now a signature dish on his restaurant menu, and it is called, "Oops! I dropped the lemon tart!" Who would have ever thought to do something so whimsical with food presentation?

I just loved this whole concept of the broken lemon tart, and how the drive toward achieving perfection just misses the point of creating something beautiful. And now, my personal homage to the broken lemon tart dessert:

Oops! I cracked the edge of the platter!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

is this thing on?

Life has been strange, and strangely wonderful lately. First, I'm just gonna put something kinda uncomfortable out there. It may wreck your image of me as a highly successful potter. This year --so far--has been the very worst year for sales... ever, I think. I mean, in the 15 year history of my business. This month especially, April, has been the deadest month I've had in years.

I don't really want to go into it, I'm just mentioning this as a way to communicate my state of affairs. In a weird way I am grateful that things are slow, because it's giving me the freedom and the time to work on my new pieces, make some custom orders, and put time into other creative projects that I have going. I also think when my assistant left last year to move to Hawaii and I did not replace her, I was signaling to the Universe that I desire a change of pace. I feel like it's a transition time, for me, for my career-- if that's what it's called-- and that transitions are by nature temporary, challenging, uncomfortable, and what I'm feeling -- like I'm walking on a very high tightrope in a stiff breeze-- is normal and natural.

But goddammit, every once in a while I fucking freak out. I mean what the fuck?! Am I here? Am I alive? Is the internet working?! Is this thing on?!!!

I've been working out all kinds of strategies to deal with the anxiety. I'm doing yoga and meditating every single day, trying to overlay the chaos with a sheen of sanity. Ultimately I know that even if it's not temporary, this is somehow the new normal, being a wreck is not going to make it better. Being a wreck will make it harder and also make my husband miserable. He hates dealing with me when I'm a wreck.

I was having a small moment last week where I was feeling alone and adrift. Very quickly I wrote down some goals for the week, something to focus on and stay engaged rather than feel sorry for myself. I wanted to share them with you because I think these are all good goals to keep in mind if you are circling the drain:

  • Connect: with a stranger and with a friend. Write an email to someone you admire and tell them they are amazing. Even better, send them a postcard. I did both last week and it made me feel good. I also took the time to connect with a couple of friends who I've been out of touch with for too long.
  • Promote: something easy and something hard. The goal here was to get myself out of my comfort zone a bit when it comes to promoting. I can do my usual thing, but what about reaching out to a store, or to another artist and suggesting a collaboration, or submitting a story to a blog/website? This is hard for me, because I prefer to have people chase after me, but it gave me something to work on and feel like I was planting a seed or two. 
  • Finish: the thing you've dreaded and the thing you haven't made time for. We all know what that is in our lives. Get it done. You'll feel better.
  • Do: something for yourself and something for someone else. Taking care of oneself is the kindest thing any of us can do, and doing something for someone else is the next kindest. Make someone else's day while making sure you are taking care of yourself too.
And here, for your enjoyment, are some pictures of my some work that came out of the kiln last week. Yes, it's for sale, you can buy it.