Wednesday, February 07, 2007

what is an artist?

Back in California, home again. It was so cold the day I left New York City that my plane sat on the runway for almost an hour as they tried to defrost the water tank. In the end, we were told we could flush the toilets, but there wasn't enough water for everyone to wash their hands and we should use the soap that you don't need water for. OR they could cancel the flight. A minor riot started at that suggestion and everyone agreed that washing hands with water was not necessary. Six hours later, in Oakland, Drew drove me home from the airport with the windows rolled down at 10 pm. The flowers on the plum trees in our neighborhood are starting to bud, an event I look forward to every February. As much I love and adore New York City, three weeks is clearly too long to be away from the Bay Area.

As I unpack my bags, check on the studio, organize my orders, I've been asking myself some serious questions about the direction my career has taken in the last year. It's been a year since I started doing the Gift show, I've shown up three times, and I wonder if I belong there. While it's been an exciting challenge to be in a world marketplace and compete on that level, I don't feel like it's much of a creative challenge. It doesn't make me a better artist, and for the first time at this last show, I didn't feel like an artist. I took more orders on the first day than I did the whole week at the August show, and instead of feeling excited and happy, I just felt sort of doomed. I definitely noticed how crappy I felt because usually when I sell a lot of my work, I want to drink a bunch of wine, have a great dinner with friends, and I can't wait to get back to the studio and make new work. But all I felt was an overwhelming sense of dread.

I think the bottom line is that when I'm at the Gift show, I'm representing this line of product that is made under the label of "Whitney Smith Pottery". Most people passing by or stopping in my booth don't identify me as "Whitney Smith" or understand that what they are looking at is something I make with my hands. My pottery is nothing more than merchandise-- albeit beautiful merch, but nothing more than that. I don't have to let that bother me. In fact I can just laugh my way all the way to the bank. Problem is, I started making pottery so I would have an outlet to create something that would please me, and always challenge me to do better and be the most amazing artist I could possibly be.

So then the next question is, can I do both? I look back at the last year and I have to say that so far the answer is "no". 2006 was one of the most difficult years for me since I started working as a potter full-time in 2000, mostly because I've been under constant pressure to fill orders, and had very little time to explore and create new work. My sketch books are packed with unfulfilled ideas, dreams, and inspiration, and that does not make me feel happy or fulfilled as an artist. When I think of canceling my New York show in August, all I feel is an incredible sense of relief. No disappointment or regret.

The ideas I'm putting out there in this posting is an ongoing discussion that I have with all of my artist friends, balancing the money with the art. I would like it if every single person who is reading this post would take a minute to make a comment on what they think about what I've written.


  1. the desire to make a living, a good living, not just scraping by, often becomes the bigger carrot dangling on the end of the creative stick. it isn't till we reach out and grab that bigger carrot and take a bite (and realize the carrot may be larger but it has no flavor) that sometimes opting for the smaller, maybe more irregular carrot, is not only more tasty but also easier to fit into our mouths and chew.

    thanks whitney, for your thought provoking post and honesty.
    welcome home!!!

  2. Hi Whitney,
    There have been times in my career when I've felt just like this- I came to the conclusion that if I was just going to churn out work like a machine I might as well get a boring day job.
    Every year I try to incorporate a couple of not neccesarily for profit , high creativity events such as exhibitions or projects with other artists. This is really important to being a working, earning artists- you can't keep going without food for the soul.

  3. It isn't easy to support yourself as an artist, and if you've come this far only to not completely enjoy it, what's the point? Is there a happy medium -- maybe take fewer orders?

    My husband works as an artist for a large corporation, and even that company knows that the artist's mind needs some downtime. You can't just produce, produce, produce. Eventually you will run out of energy. You need brain food and time to do things that aren't necessarily money-making.

    I hope you find a balance that works for you!

  4. sharon virtue11:19 PM

    hi whitney,
    well this is the time of year to plant the seeds that you will manifest for the rest of your life.
    what makes you happy- start there, the rest will flow. really corney but true.
    as far as the money- which i try not to think about too much-
    simplify your life so that you dont need as much of it.
    and then brush away the cobwebs in those sketchbooks and
    make art.

  5. Alicia P.7:45 AM

    Mmmm. Yep. Been here, often, back and forth. Have always desperately needed whatever money was coming in, so couldn't really stop. But slowly I've gone further away from "quantity" and tried to focus on smaller collections/higher quality (or, just more intensely constructed or designed items)/higher prices to make what I need to and feel like I'm not pulling an assembly line. I can't say that's any kind of an answer, only that I commiserate with the condition of looking for one. For seven years. Still not sure.

  6. thank you for the comments so far. it makes me feel better to know I'm in such good company, and few of us have found the perfect answer.

  7. well sweetheart....i need to comment on this one. you know the path i took is making money teaching the pilates and then doing the art for me. i have to say its great all for but one thing. i have no extra time!!!! i didn't even get a chance to see you again before you left. i am teaching all of the time and then in the studio the rest. i really shouldn't complain, and i think i am still finding the delicate balance between everything. which i think is my advice for you. maybe do one craft show a year...or every other year. or make yourself submit applications for juried shows so you have to make new work. or set time within your schedule to only work on new stuff. if you can't create that time then finding it becomes your issue. unfortunately our society is greedy, the more the better. but not with art. continue your line, sell it, you are so fabulous at doing that. and try to do only what you need of it. with the teaching pilates i am doing the same for myself. no more new clients...if anything i need to scale down. more time for myself to have the space to make more of the art work that fills the pages of my sketchbook. money fills the wallet but not the heart...and i feel like you are missing your time with the clay and no expectations or client to make happy. you are amazing and the shows are intense and dry and they are about the object....but you did it!!! so now you can find the space for you...the ceramic support system is there, the money is there....create the schedule you need for you and the rest will follow.

    glad to have a cup of soup with you and a little conversation....hopefully we will do it again soon:)

    love ya girl!

  8. Anonymous8:17 AM

    I strongly think that you should abandon the Gift Shows. It always depresses me to go to them - too much materialism, too much production, little creativity. Of course, I only go to SF, not NY, but I really don't think that it's the place for you. You're right - too much repetition and not leaving you enuf time for creativity. If you won't starve without it.....F*** it!

  9. Anonymous8:20 AM

    Wholesale is a whole different animal and a strange place for people like us in a lot of ways. No one really calls my work art anymore--it is product. I have been doing the Rosen show and the ACC, at least these are craft markets and the buyers have some interest in the hand made-ness of our work. We have not done the gift show, mostly because it scares me on many levels; the difference in the buyers, and just getting too many orders. We are trying to stay small and handmade but it becoming very hard. We started out happy to have a good stable of reliable clients, we could stay home more (we stopped doing retail) and could rely on the income more. Now it has a life of it's own. The clients that we have are ordering more and we always have new people and it is getting harder to keep up. We keep buying more kilns and have employees and it is really hard to find the time to design new work. So we are in that be careful of what you wish for thing.

    There really is no template to work with and we are trying to make it up as we go. I guess everyone has to make choices that keep you happy and support your work and yourself in the best way.

  10. Anonymous12:59 PM

    It's such a delicate balance. I think you're on the right track...if you feel like the artists life you've created doesn't have the space for the joy of new creations, then what's the point? The challenge of course is figuring out how to support yourself with your art without making it into a commodity. You have so many passionate collectors and supporters - maybe you should focus on cultivating that market more. No more wholesale shows! More high end retail shows where you sell just what's in the booth. In any case, just reaching this realization is a BIG step and now that you've refocused your priorities, I'm sure the rest will fall into place.

  11. i used to make greeting cards by hand
    & i had reps & was in about 100 stores
    & i finally had to stop
    because i wasn't an artist any more
    i was a manufacturer
    & that was not & is not something i want to be...
    i realized that the only creative part was the first card i made of each design
    but after making 200 i was not feeling creative
    i was feeling like one of santa's elves
    (& not one of the happy ones)
    i think what you are going through is so normal
    deciding if you want to just stay small
    & do everything yourself
    or get bigger
    & start hiring other people to do the manufacturing for you
    so you can be creative
    but still make money
    oh dear!
    it is a hard choice...
    i started hiring friends to help me
    it was fun
    but then i finally just decided to stop altogether

    now i do other creative things
    & sometimes people say
    you should sell those
    & i just smile to myself
    & think
    'maybe someday'

  12. ps
    i'm absolutely not saying that you should stop doing anything
    that was just the right thing for me
    but i do understand
    balance is always a search...

  13. oh my....the age old question of which there really is no (correct) answer to. maybe pick a creative artist who has done it in a way that you find palatable and then follow their formula ?....raise your prices DRAMATICALLY and that way you can make/sell less for the same (or hopefully more) amount of money ?.....hire people to make/sell your work and you can direct them from afar while you are making one-of-a-kind fabulous pots which will sell for thousands. (hopefully making these pieces of "art" on a tropical island which you have afforded to buy from your mass produced line that the above said people have made and sold for you) ?....there are endless possibilities. visualize how you want your life to be and then act on it and it will come to you. just stay positive. your work is in demand and that should be a BLESSING, not a problem !!!! you, of all people, have the ability to make it happen....whatever it is that you want !!!!! hang in there !!!

  14. Hi!
    I know, I`m way behind the date, but your article moved me in the right way and after all, it does n`t matter if you read it or not.. :) in a good way.
    I think your dilemma is exactly what makes you an artist and in your case especially - a good one. This is something that never bothers manufacturer and therefore, you are not one of them. Yes, it is a burden - being your own merchandiser and a creator/artist at the same time. Maybe there will never be a balance? Maybe you will be either at one side or another, depending on your time, mood or need. Who knows.
    Your creative flow will never cease, so you just follow it as good as you can and make compromises, measured by your heart.
    I really think you are an amazing artist and person and at the end, you will see that everything falls into right place.
    Thank You!