Tuesday, December 15, 2009

this weekend

Things are really starting to wind down for me at the studio. Last firing is tonight, and I'm done! Okay, I may sneak in another before the end of the week, but no promises. I will be at the Renegade Fair this weekend. I have not done a big holiday show in several years, so I am both parts excited, (that's my masochistic side) and a little wary, but I plan on having fun no matter what. Some of my Pottery Posse will be there, so if nothing else we will get to be in the same building at the same time, which always makes me feel better. And if you want to stop by my booth, buy a little something, that will make me feel better too.

Speaking of feeling better, I just have to share with everyone how totally non-stressful this holiday has been for me. I've been so chill, I actually took some time off to go to the East Coast last weekend to celebrate a special birthday with a special friend. When I couldn't get out of Philadelphia because of weather Sunday night, I didn't even cry, I just checked myself into a hotel. Why am I so Zen-like and amazing, you ask? Because of my awesome new assistant who pretty much has saved my sanity this winter. Get one for yourself.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

letting go, letting god

I ride my bike pretty much every where I go, so I look at a lot of bumper stickers on the back of cars. The other day I saw a sticker I've seen hundreds of times: Let go, let God. I felt a twinge of annoyance the way I do with platitudes involving god, and continued pedaling, quickly forgetting about it. Then, I found myself pondering the meaning of this saying the other night at 3 am. One would think I must love to be awake, thinking about stuff at 3 am, since I am often doing just that in the middle of the night. After years and years of training, I'm better at putting myself back to sleep within a few minutes. A warm bottle and my wubbie does me right.

But there are times when I can't go back to sleep, and it's usually because I'm obsessing about something, often related to my work. In this, I am no better than your typical high-strung corporate exec. For several nights in a row last week, I was completely absorbed all night long with these international packages I was shipping out. These boxes all had a lot of heavy, expensive items in them, and had already been packed them very carefully, but my subconscious was not satisfied. While I was sleeping, I was packing these boxes. Over an over: bubble wrap, styrofoam peanuts, corrugated cardboard. It was basically the opposite of a sex dream. While I was awake, I was re-thinking my packing strategy. In the end, I unpacked the boxes and re-packed them. During the day, not at 3 am. I'm not that crazy.

And a good thing too. Since these packages were international, they ship via US Post. This always makes me nervous, since the postal service does not feel the same obligations toward their customers the way FedEx or UPS does. Don't get me wrong, they suck too, but you can at least get your problem dealt with. Even if that means getting totally screwed in the end, they usually do it within 36 hours. I am not a customer of the US Post, I am a prisoner of the US Post, a belief I stated very loudly the other day when I was at my local office trying to pick up a package. You'd think they might hire two people to work the pickup window during the holiday instead of the usual one. But no. And that's another story anyway.

I nurture good relationships with all of my carriers-- UPS, FedEx, and even the Post. The people who pick up my shipments all know me, come into my studio, check out my work, and are nice humans to work with. My postal guy, who I really liked a lot, got fired last summer. I miss him. Since he's been gone, I've had a series of carriers whose charms are not as obvious. One carrier in particular is very bad, and unfortunately she's the one who shows up the most. I have to stay on top of her to pick up packages, she's always on her phone, and she's not friendly. I don't get unfriendly people; I can be a bitch with the best of them, but I don't move around in life with that attitude as my modus operandi. It's way more fun to be friendly, because it cheers people up, which in turn makes you a happier person. Mean people are just so boring. Even though this woman is pretty unpleasant, I'm still always kind and polite to her, and say "please" and "thank you", and always give her a smile.

Not that this gets me anywhere with her. She came by last week to pick up my re-packed international boxes -- 5 of them-- and I caught her throwing the last two into the back of her van like they were a sack of potatoes. I wasn't watching the first three she threw in. "Hey!" I yelled at her. I rarely yell, because it scares people and distracts from whatever point I want to make, but she was talking on her phone and I wanted her attention immediately. When she looked up at me I said, "Take it easy on those boxes, they're packed with pottery." I didn't say "please" "thank you", or smile. She says, "Okay" in kind of a nice way, which briefly made me think I intimidated her, and maybe now she'd start being a littler nicer. Then I realized she could afford to be nice since she was probably going to drive around the corner and see how well those boxes really were packed.

That night, at 3 am, I was awake and thinking about all the ways I could get back at the mail carrier. Unfortunately, there were none, except for psycho stuff, and I'm too lazy for that kind of thing. And then I started stressing about the pieces in the boxes, worried about them arriving broken. I soothed myself with the thought that all the pieces were double boxed and fine even if the boxes were tossed around. But my brain wouldn't accept soothing. That is when I started thinking about the letting go, letting god thing. Maybe that saying is not just an annoying phrase that is empty and meaningless. What a great thing it would be if I could let go of my struggles and worries, and accept whatever outcome is coming my way with equanimity. I'm thinking "letting god" just means "acceptance." I always pictured that saying as giving up, and then god would swoop in and deal with the mess, which is probably why I never really bought into this saying. But if I can picture it as gracefully giving up, letting go, and accepting reality without resisting, maybe I can start working this game a little better.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

potter's seventh circle of hell: redux

I know this is totally cheating, but I'm so busy my brain cannot focus on a blog post, so I'm doing rerun of one of my favorite holiday posts from last around this time. I think it bears repeating!

A quick perusal around some of my favorite pottery blogs confirmed what I suspected: few are writing, including myself. If I know ceramic types—and I do-- I suspect everyone is holed up in their studios, and going through something like this:

1)“I don’t have enough work, I don’t have enough work!” (repeat 500 times a day)
2)“I need to make more work, I need to make more work!” (Repeat in head at least once every 60 seconds and yell this phrase at spouse/significant other at least once a day, especially when they try to get you to relax.)
3) Feverishly make work while repeating above mantras, first one, then the other.
4) Have repeated breakdowns and self-loathing sessions as work you so feverishly made cracks, sticks to the kiln shelf, or just kind of sucks.
5) Repeat.

I’ll call this the potter’s Seventh Circle of Hell. I know it well. I’ve slept by the Lake of Fire for weeks on end trying to keep ahead of Christmas orders. I’ve been fielding a few panicked phone calls from my potter friends as they feel the flames licking at their little heels. I’m really a good person to call when a potter is ready to jump because I have been there so many times, I can talk anybody off the ledge.

I’m going to give a tiny little lecture here that I’ve given to more than one artist this season: Hire some goddamn help. If you can’t sleep at night as you consider all you have to make the next day, you need some help. If your stomach or spine is burning as you contemplate your order sheet, you need some help. If you are at the studio, missing dinner, ignoring your boyfriend’s cell phone calls, you need some help. Don’t tell me that you can’t afford it. A half-decent assistant pays for themselves. Don’t tell me you don’t have time to train somebody. You’ll get all that time back and then some when you send that assistant on their own. Don’t tell me you are a lone wolf who creates alone. Hire someone who doesn’t talk too much. There are so many people out there dying to work for you, in your dusty little studio. Go and find them!

Friday, November 20, 2009

the cost

I have been following the saga fellow ceramic artist Heather Knight has been enduring with a nightmare customer. Nightmare customers usually do us the favor of throwing out red flags that they are a total pain in the ass, but they often come bearing lots of money too, so we ignore the red flags. Reading her latest post, it made me think about how we, as artists working to fill orders for customers, are affected by money, and how it influences our decision making process.

I have already been contemplating this question. Right now, I have an international customer who received a cake stand from me that they are not 100% happy with. Normally, it would not be a big deal to make a new one to replace it, but the international shipping cost on this baby is almost a 1/3 of the value, which changes up the dynamic a bit. But should it? Fortunately, my customer is not being a nightmare, and is open to my suggestions on how they may learn to appreciate the quirks of this particular cake stand. I thought the cake stand was perfect, and it's hard for me to imagine a harder critic than my own self, but I guess that is another issue. I've been thinking about this problem, and wondering what is the right thing to do here. How much money should I be willing to lose to make a customer happy? Should the specific amount make a difference? Should my international customers get screwed because I don't want to spend another $40 from my own pocket shipping out to them?

Within this last year, I made the decision for myself that I was no longer going to allow myself to get stressed out by orders. (Yes, I fail at this all the time, but I keep practicing.) Whatever amount of money I was getting for an order was not worth my body getting stressed out and the negative affects it leaves behind. I gave myself permission to simply return the money to any customer when an order wasn't working out, and not feel bad or even more stressed out if I chose to do so. Knowing that I can and I will do this really helps me deal with problem orders and the stress they bring. Also, to run a successful business, I believe that you have to lose money sometimes. One cannot get maximum return in everything one does, that is not realistic. Attempting to stay in the positive column all the time is simply going to lead to more stress. Losing money sometimes is actually just spending money, and we all know you have to spend money to keep a business running.

Breaking it down like this really helps me in making the right decisions: for myself, for my business, and for my customers. And now that I've reiterated my beliefs & practices about money and dealing with orders & customers to myself, it is clear to me that I know what I need to do with my international customer, if they decide they cannot fall in love with my perhaps slightly imperfect cake stand.

Friday, November 13, 2009

training day

My new assistant, Ruth, started this week. Her first day was Tuesday, and I walked into the studio that morning feeling short-tempered and slightly angry. I had insomnia the night before, and if I'm missing more than an hour of sleep, I'm emotionally unbalanced. Unfortunately, I miss a lot of sleep in general because I have hard time staying asleep. Though I now recognize when I'm feeling snappy and weepy for no reason, it's because I'm short on sleep, and I need to be very patient with myself and the people around me. It doesn't mean my life is totally doomed, which is how I usually feel when I'm tired.

I've been really excited to have Ruth start, so I was disappointed in myself that her on first day I was not at my best. Then, I realized that as excited as I am to finally have a new and experienced person in the studio, it is still stressful. Training is a huge investment of time and resources, no matter how well-trained the person already is.

Training assistants and having other people handle my work has been a huge learning experience. With my first few assistants, I learned how to trust people to handle my work without standing two inches away from them. That was a very long learning curve. With Sara, I learned to trust someone to go beyond my own comfort level and to be better than I am at certain things. With the assistant I fired earlier this year, I learned the importance of trusting your instinct about people's abilities and personality, and to not think you can train them into being a different person. With my other current assistant, Hanna, I'm learning the benefits of steady feedback and consistent management. With the exception of the fired person, I've learned from all the people that have worked from me that they will almost always exceed my expectations, that their ability to learn is boundless. But that requires a lot of my time and attention, it doesn't happen by itself.

Despite the fact I was not my usual perky and delightful self with Ruth on her first day, she totally rolled with me, which bodes well for her. I slept way better that night. By her second day, she was already handling many things without my complete supervision, which totally exceeded my expectations.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

hiring the help

I had a new intern start yesterday, a high school student obsessed with clay. Next week, I have another person starting as an assistant who I've been wooing since the summertime. She's coming from another studio so she has experience, a quality that is difficult to find. I don't want to get too far ahead of myself, but it seems that the under staffing problem I've been having since the beginning of the year since losing Sara to grad school may be coming to an end. And not a moment too soon.

You've may have heard me talk before about the importance of having help in the studio when you are always under the gun meeting orders. I've had people helping me in the studio since about 2004, and my life is better and more sane because of it. Some people, who shall go unnamed, and who really really need the help, have yet to take this step. There are several reasons for this: 1) some artists don't want to take the time away from their work to train new assistants. 2) some artists don't want other people messing with their work and changing its character, or worse, damaging it. 3) some artists think they can't afford the help. 4) some artists just don't want other bodies in the studio, making noise while they breathe, and changing up the dynamic.

I get all of these reasons. A lot if these fears can be overcome by finding the right person to work for you in the first place. I have always been extremely lucky in having really talented people work for me, individuals who can fit into my flow smoothly and pick up the work quickly. Each assistant I've hired has been better than the last. This year I had my first exception. I made a really bad hire. All of my instincts told me this person would not be a good fit, and I hired them anyway because the first person I hired totally flaked, and I was desperate. My studio can actually no longer function without extra hands, and the flaker put me right up against my deadlines, so I went ahead and hired someone who promptly drove me crazy. Not only because they simply could not handle the fast pace of a production environment and do the work in the way I wanted it done, but because of personal habits, like walking really really slowly. And dragging their feet while they did it. After about 8 weeks, I fired them. And vowed to never again hire anyone I had doubts about.

Finding the right person is more difficult than any of the reasons for not hiring someone in the first place. Unfortunately, suddenly putting the word out that you are hiring does not usually bring a flock of qualified applicants. My technique over the years has been to keep my eye out for people constantly, even if I'm currently all set. All of my friends know I hire help, so sometimes people will send me their nieces or random people they meet in workshops. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't, but staying open to the possibilities of new hires keeps a fairly steady flow. And I can't wait for my new person to start!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

tokyo or bust

This morning at 10 am, a freight truck came to my studio and took the Japan order. The driver was a young eastern European gentleman who obviously thought I was insane as I took pictures of the pallet and slapped a bunch of "fragile" stickers on the wrap. He was gone 10 minutes later. I went back into my studio and cried. My studio felt very empty with this crazy, colorful order gone, leaving a big, empty space. My babies were going to Tokyo! Then I got over it about 15 seconds later when I remembered that I already got paid. I could go to Tokyo.

The order left about 10 days earlier than I planned. Almost 2 weeks ago, I was working with the clients to get the order down to Los Angeles where it would be put into a container and literally shipped to Japan. It quickly became apparent the logistics were not working out in my favor. The order needed to get finished and shipped out now to meet the ship's sail date. There was really no time to panic or get upset. I just did it. And, I was kind of glad. I had a good, strong, consistent pace going for almost 5 weeks. I was ready to sprint and cross the finish line.

I'd like everyone to take note that I have not been writing about about crazy emotional meltdowns or a growing shard pile. That's because there is nothing to say in that department. I had a few semi-sleepless nights, especially right around when I took a vacation 3 weeks ago. Thank god I didn't know about the ship date then, because I would have never gone; or, I would have gone and been a basket case the whole time. And I lost very few pieces. I fired 132 pieces, and out of that, I smashed about 4 of them. None of them cake stands either, and there were 28 cake stands in this order. I had a few that didn't make the cut, but are still totally sell-able. Right here, as a matter-o-fact.

I'm not sure why everything came out so good, but here are some theories. One, I took this order right after taking a month away from the studio. So I was kinda relaxed and ready. Two, I was very aware of keeping a good attitude, which you may or may not know, I have problems with sometimes. Especially when "good" stuff happens. Three, I was very careful. This order took some extra time because of all the layered colors that I usually don't put together, and I gave it all my full attention and never took short cuts. What can I say, it paid off. Here are the lessons, all nice, for those of us who need it simple:
  • take a break from work to make better work.
  • be aware of your attitude and work on adjusting it when necessary.
  • take your time.

And P.S.: here is a photo album of more pieces and the pack-up. It's on my facebook fan page, so while you're there, you may as well become a fan.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

random bits

This week I've been completely wrapped up in finishing the Japan order. I will do a complete post-game analysis, with pictures, next week when the order ships, a full 10 days before my original ship date. More on that later. I've been glazing, day after day, which leaves me a lot if time to think. This is a sampling of things that have happened and stuff I'm thinking about.

Today, I had a client pop in. I donated a piece of pottery to him for a fund raiser, and he was returning a display prop. Naturally, I was very busy, and not in the mood to chat. Of course, this guy loves to chat, and he especially loves chatting with artists and supporting them by passing on his acquired wisdom and thoughts about art and creating. He said to me, "Don't go too commercial Whitney. It's your unique ideas and vision that keeps you viable in this market." "Yeah yeah yeah." was basically my response as I hustled him out the door. I gritted my teeth a bit with annoyance as I got back to work, then realized that this guy is an angel, delivering me a very important message, and I best heed it. My annoyance evaporated.

Speaking of annoyed, here's another note to self: do not press "send" button on email to customers when heart is beating at a faster rate than normal and your brow is screwed up in impatience and anger. I know this already, yet there are still times I do the exact opposite of what I know is the right thing to do. This is especially true when I am under pressure from other orders-- ahem--, or am lacking sleep. Last week, I had a customer ask for free shipping because their order was accidentally undercharged by about $50. I screwed up the coding on a "buy now" button on my website. A mistake, by the way, that the customer did not feel compelled to point out themselves, I just happened to catch it when I noticed a weird product code when the order came in. Yes, I do all of my own coding and website design. Yes, I am amazing, which I felt this customer was not fully appreciating as they tried to jab me for the $12 ship charge. I denied their request, huffily, from my phone, when I was in the middle of throwing pieces for the Japan order. Why am I checking email while I am throwing? Because my phone is encased in a clay-defying plastic case, so I can. Customer insists, while asserting they like to support independent artists over pottery barn and crate & barrel, but I really need to act like them when I "make an error" by giving free shipping. I raged all afternoon and into the evening, composing scathing and drop dead emails, which I fortunately did not take the time to actually compose and send. I didn't care about the money, it was the fucking principle. By morning, I was normal again, having had a full 9 hours sleep, which also meant I didn't care about the $12 or the fact customer felt compelled to point out my errors. I wrote a very nice email, patched the whole mess back up, and remembered to deal with annoying customer requests when I'm relaxed and fully awake.

I mentioned in a recent post that I do not have time to hedge orders at the moment. This means making a bunch of extra pieces to get one perfect one. I usually make at least one extra on special orders, or on orders that make me feel insecure. Often, this one extra insures that I get the perfect set of four, or whatever perfect thing I'm trying to make. It suddenly hit me the other day that the one extra I'm making may actually be the screwed up one, that the original set may have been perfect to begin with. Hmmmmmm. Something to think about. Hope everyone has a great weekend as I pack up my Japan order! If you live in the Bay Area, feel free to stop by with pork sandwiches, beer, and apples. That's what I like. Just don't stick around to chat, or you may find yourself hustled out the door as I eat your lunch.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

earthquake dreams

20 years ago today, I was a few months past turning 19, and had been living in Santa Cruz, California for just over a year. I had moved myself to Santa Cruz from the east coast because I wanted to live in California since I was a kid, and Santa Cruz sounded like just the place that would fulfill my fantasy of living next to the ocean, in year-round temperate climate, with the added bonus of being surrounded by cute surfer boys, cute boys being the biggest weakness in my life at that time. Like most childhood fantasies, the reality of my still-new California life was proving to be more difficult and not as exhilarating as I hoped. I moved without any relationship ties or connections to my new hometown, and many of my new relationships seemed tenuous, some were even troubled.  I was struggling with loneliness, depression, and post-adolescent angst at how complicated life was on my own. Also, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, other than this vague hope to be an artist. And, I was totally broke, living in one of the most expensive places in California. I was not attending college yet, but working full-time at a popular flower shop one block off the Santa Cruz Mall, the downtown strip that was the center and hub of Santa Cruz, and was within walking distance from my teeny-tiny studio apartment where I lived alone.

When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit on October 17, 1989, I was working at the flower shop and happened to be on the phone with a friend when the building I was in jumped with the first roll of the earthquake, along with all the glass shelving inside the shop. It was like an explosion as glass shattered and the sound of the earth shifting and moving beneath my feet-- a sound I would become very familiar with over the next months—filled my ears. I screamed-- always my first fear response-- and dropped the phone. I rocketed out of the front door of the shop. I heard that one was supposed to stand in the safety of a doorway during a quake, but there was no way I was doing that. I am a former gymnast and I remember stretching my legs beneath the skirt I was wearing, leaping and bounding across the sidewalk to the parking lot across the street to put as much distance as possible between me and the building that I was in. I was certain it was about to collapse. It was like trying to run while drunk, the ground was shifting so intensely under my feet.

Once I cleared the street my next concern was to stay away from power poles that may be falling over. Also, I was alert to the ground just opening up and swallowing me whole. While I was working on keeping myself alive and unharmed, I was also taking in visuals that were making no sense to me. Like, the brick building that housed Ford's Department Store across the street from the flower shop was rolling and shaking as if it were made of jell-o. It collapsed in front of my eyes. The large picture window for the Spokesman bike shop next door to the flower shop also seemed to be made of liquid, I never knew glass could be so... flexible. The parking meter next to me was shaking and vibrating so hard I thought it may pop out of the cement of the sidewalk. For some reason, this parking meter scared the hell out of me, it seemed alive and dangerous.

All of this happened in the course of 15 seconds. You never really know how long a second is until you go through those seconds thinking you are about to die. Or, if not die, get really, really hurt. When the quake stopped, my initial reaction was to start screaming
and running around in a circle. Really, to me, that seemed like a reasonable reaction and totally appropriate for the moment. Thankfully, the people on the street around me remained utterly calm, which made me calm. I didn’t start screaming, but locked up the flower shop and walked the half-block to the corner of Pacific Avenue with my co-worker, at the very top of the Mall. I couldn’t see beyond a half block, there was so much dust in the air from disintegrating and damaged buildings. Down here, people were screaming, and injured. The sight of people digging through the collapsed Ford's store for humans buried in the rubble directly to my left was one of the grimmest sights I have ever witnessed, and made me instantly realize I had no business walking around, that I needed to go home immediately. That is, if I had a home anymore.

My home was marvelously intact, as was the rest of my life. This was suddenly a miracle, as I measured my survival against those who did not live through the quake, several of whom lost their lives on the Mall that day. There are many other things I will never be able to forget about that day. The neighbor who woke me up screaming bloody murder in the middle of the night because she was having a painful heart attack brought on by the stress and excitement of the quake. Trying to call an ambulance when the phone lines are not fully operational is the very definition of panic, and another deeply grim memory. The weirdness of the street lights not coming on when the sun went down. The heavy smell of gas in the air and the blocks of houses on fire. The party-like atmosphere around water trucks, and frankly, the liquor store.

What had the most impact on me was a complete shift in my perspective on life. We all know that the only thing that truly matters is having your health, family and friends, alive and safe. But to know that mantra, and then to have an experience which really makes you understand what it means are two different things, and up until that point I did not understand what the concept meant. This sudden knowledge freed me from many of my everyday worries and concerns as I experienced the intense rush of appreciating being alive and focused on being a support to others. The community of Santa Cruz bonded in the days after the quake, and I felt the love and concern of my friends and neighbors in a way that I never had before. The experience cemented many of my new relationships, including the one with my neighbor, JT, still one of my closest friends. JT and I became roomies for about 6 years after the quake because his house fell apart and we both hated our rent-gouging landlord. Probably the hardest thing for me about the Loma Prieta quake, aside from having to wrestle with my own terror of realizing what it meant to live in earthquake country, was the disappointment and feeling of loss as my community gradually went back to normal with the passing weeks and months.

I don't have a neat ending to this story. It's just a part of my life that I consider one of the most important things that ever happened to me, and I like to share the story with anyone who will listen. I kept a detailed diary during this time, that is where these images are from. You can click on them to read them more closely. The last thing I wrote was dated 12/7/89:

I'm having flashbacks constantly. Wherever I'm at, and the earth moves with aftershocks, I can see in my head the vases of flowers falling down, the glass cases crashing, a terrible noise with the earth roaring. However, my terror has subsided immensely, leaving only anticipation.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

my real job

I've written before about how many hours I have to spend on the computer with work-related stuff, and how it makes me feel like I'm wasting time, and I get resentful. Not only do I sometimes resent computer time, I also resent lots of other tasks, like packing and shipping, glazing, popping and cleaning molds, and sweeping the floor. A lot of the time I find myself gritting my teeth and mumbling, "Where is my dang intern/assistant/slave when I need them? Why am I doing this job?"

Since interns come and go, my assistants are usually busy with a million other tasks I assign them, and I have yet to source any clay slaves, I've realized that my resentful attitude about daily tasks is not helpful to me. In my quest to improve my attitude around my work, I've started thinking of all of these mundane duties as not annoying little things that get in between me and my real job--making pottery-- but as an integral and important part of my work. Everything I do that is related to my work is my job, my real job.

Since I usually only count making pottery as working, and the rest of it is just stuff that I do, I always think I'm not working enough. This is a self-defeating mind set because I always attempt to do more than I possibly can, then I blame myself for being a slacker when I get behind "schedule," which is pretty much every day. Really, what is happening is that I think I can walk into the studio and just make stuff, not taking into consideration that I have to perform a bunch of other tasks to get there. It's like the bee who gets mad that he can't deliver the honey before he gathers the nectar. That's a dumb bee. For me, and probably for you too, it's time to start thinking like a smart bee.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

your move

When my husband and I first met fifteen years ago, we moved almost immediately to Hawaii for the summer to work and live together. Obviously, we didn’t know each other very well, so it was like trial by fire. There were a lot of challenges those months as we negotiated the terms of our relationship while (mostly) residing in a tent and dealing with the realities of living and working on Maui. That summer, Andrew and I got addicted to chess. We were so addicted, that sometimes we would play a match before even getting out of bed. We had a little travel board, so whenever there was some downtime, we would pull the board out for a game. Andrew often won, because I was basically a reactionary player. Whenever he would threaten one of my pieces, I’d panic while trying to plot an escape, and often end up losing a piece. And then eventually the game.

I remember suddenly figuring out that when I was cornered, rather than escape being my first move, I needed to go on the offense. Threaten Andrew to keep him busy for a few moves so I could maneuver myself back to safety. Manipulative, yes, and highly effective tactic to start winning chess games against my brilliant then-boyfriend. It was a complete turnaround in my mindset. This is a great lesson when dealing with the problems of a production studio, or probably any problem in life. I’ve learned that my game plan for the week is basically like my plan at the beginning of a chess game to take Andrew’s king —it’s just a hope for a particular outcome. Attacks will come from all sides: stock will run short, things you were counting on to come out right won't, or you will get food poisoning and be in bed for 24 hours and lose a whole day of work, like what happened to me last Tuesday. You can squirm and howl as you try to stay on course, or you can just start walking in a new direction.

I was thinking about the chess thing a lot this past Wednesday as I tried to recover from losing a day in the studio when I really can’t afford it. One, the big Japan order sitting in my studio like a silent lumbering Tortoro. Two, I was about to take 5 days off to go to New York City. For fun. How can I take off like that when I have this big order looming? That’s just how I roll. Not really, but I love that expression and I never get to use it. Generally I don't roll; I wobble around, fall over, then spontaneously burst into flame. And Wednesday, I was combining that with convulsive jerky movements and shallow breathing. Then, I realized I was trying to do double the work in half the time, and even under the best of circumstances, that just never happens. I needed to change my mindset, re-strategize what I was trying to accomplish, go on the offense, and stop fucking scrambling. Turns out it was easy—I just needed to pay one of my helpers in for an extra day of work. As soon as I realized that I really didn't have to do it all by myself, the jerky movements stopped and I started breathing again. And then on Friday, I hopped on a plane to New York City.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

pace yourself

I've been learning a lot about my making process as I work my way through the very large Japan order. It's interesting that no matter how long you've been doing something, there's always more to discover. I learned so many hard lessons with the five-figure order and I've been determined not to make those same mistakes. The biggest mistake I made was not being organized and plotting out my production schedule. I procrastinated, and then backed myself into a very uncomfortable corner when there were glaze issues at the very end.

With the Japan order, I've been totally organized. I made a production schedule. I inventoried my glaze and ordered the extra I would need. I made a list of all the parts I would need: 180 individual cherry blossoms, 60 birds, 80 small cake stands, etc. I called my man Hector at the factory and gave him a heads up that I would need extra attention and pieces right now. I hired some extra hands and put them to work. No procrastinating.

What I've learned in the past month is the importance of pacing yourself. When the order rolled in, I got anxious and busted out almost half of the bell jars I would need for the order in one afternoon. The problem was, with all the other stuff that needed attention-- including other orders not related to the Japan order-- there wasn't time to trim and decorate all the bell jars I made. We only manged to deal with the ones I would need for the first round of glazing and firing, the rest have been wrapped up tightly in plastic and have been waiting their turn for over two weeks. So really, that afternoon I spent making all of that stuff was not really time well spent, all it did was temporarily assuage my anxiety. Which was maybe worth it for that day, just so I could prove to myself that I could throw the entire order in three days, if I wanted to. Which I don't, really.

Pacing yourself is totally related to organization too. Knowing what I need, as well as when I need it is part of the whole picture; not getting too far ahead in one area, only to fall behind in another. It's been challenging to stay on course, because I generally set my stride from instinct, rather than going by a tightly paced list of needed items. I think most artists are probably the same. But it's working for me; by Thursday I should have 50% of the order glazed up, which gives me four more weeks for the rest!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

writer's block

Every once in a while when I'm writing for my blog, I get writer's block. Usually, it's because I'm writing when I'm tired, or I don't have a point, or the subject I'm tackling is just to fucking big for a blog post. Blogs have limitations, and I think the biggest limitation of blog writing is keeping it short-- no longer than three paragraphs, if possible, unless you are writing something incredibly compelling. This last week when I've been writing for my blog, I keep writing, and rambling, and going on and on about... all kinds of things. I can't seem to wrap it up into a tidy little blog post. There are too many things on my mind right now. And not in a bad way at all, I just can't seem to get my compass pointed in any one direction. Which makes for some really boring blog writing.

I could just let it ride, and not publish for a couple of weeks, but I don't want to do that right now. I'm all about September being back-to-school mode, a time to build momentum and get some shit done. I've had my vacation, and I want to write. But I need some help. I need some homework, an assignment! If you have a question, or a subject you want me to write about, right about now is a good time to tell me what that is. Post here in the comments or send me an email.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

open studio...

... is happening, again. On Saturday! I'm hoping to clean the studio tomorrow, because it's a disaster right now, clay and dust all over everything. There will be all kinds of good stuff, some beautiful one-of-a-kinds and some of the standards as well. And of course, the ever-present seconds...

I also signed myself up for a show at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art on Sunday in San Francisco. So if you can't catch me in Oakland, swing by the Museum show in Fort Mason that will be featuring some other great artists as well. Hope to see you there!

Friday, September 11, 2009

attitude adjustment

This past week I've been working really hard, trying to get ahead of the overwhelming order, while also catching up with my orders from August. I haven't worked hours like this in a long time: yesterday I was in the studio at 7 am and stayed there until 4:30. I had to immediately go and drink a martini afterward, but after a long day I think the reward system should be in full effect. I almost forgot it was possible for me to work a straight 8-hour day.

I've broken the overwhelming order down into its smallest parts, and I keep looking at it, looking at it, and looking at it again. The more I look at it, the more I feel like I may actually pull it off. As I've been spending hours and hours with myself in the studio, I've started working on my attitude. Part of the reason why I took a month off from the making work was to get some perspective. My stress levels have been getting cranked all year from studio issues: not having enough assistance, nagging glaze issues, misbehaving cake stands and the relentless orders for them... all of it has made me feel like failure is the default setting, while success is something always just out of my grasp. Talk about lack of perspective... for every failure out of the kiln, there are probably 20 successes, but when you start losing your mind, all you see is the failure.

The failure mind set is completely debilitating and also totally self-fulfilling. As I deal with the overwhelming order and a few others that came in on its heels, I've been asking myself how I can think about my situation in a more positive light, starting by just appreciating that people actually want to buy my stuff at all. I also try to see all the pieces finished on time, perfectly fired. And normally I would hedge a big order by making a bunch of extra pieces. I recently read a brilliant article by Sequoia Miller in the current issue of Studio Potter magazine about this very practice, and what a waste of time it can be. I really don't have time for hedging right now, I want to count on things coming out right the first time.

So right now it's all about long solid days in the studio, deep breathing, positive visions, 8 hours of sleep, and not toooooo many martinis!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

overwhelming order

I was back to work on Monday for exactly three hours when a gigantic order from a new Japanese customer rolled in. An order big enough that it caused me consternation and concern, rather than a sense of joy and elation. I immediately had this feeling of, "I will never be able to fill this order." It's a monster: sprawling, huge, covering all my weak spots (cake stands), and demanding to be fed with an endless supply of birds, cherry blossoms, and bell jars. As I typed in the order and watched the number at the bottom of the invoice grow and grow, my dread deepened. Part of my reaction stems from my experience with the five-figure order two years ago. I really think that I am scarred from that experience and I now I have a post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms when I get a big order.

But I also have to acknowledge that I really messed up that order myself. Mistake number one: procrastination. I have a leftover habit from college of putting off important things because I like to work under pressure. I was one of those students spitting out big papers hours before they were due, and I liked it like that. Unfortunately working under pressure in ceramics does not yield the same brilliant results. After I wrote up the overwhelming order, I immediately broke it down into its smaller parts, assessing all the pieces I would have to make and assemble. Then I got on the phone with Hector, my man at the factory, and laid it all out to him. He called me back within hours with a delivery schedule, and then I broke down the order further into a production schedule for myself.

I feel a bit sad for myself that success has started making me nervous, instead of happy. Maybe everyone feels this way when faced with a mountain to climb. But I've also decided that there is to be no whining. I've gotten myself organized, I'm assembling my troops. I'm determined to make this order a better experience, and someday-- maybe soon-- when I get an overwhelming order again I'll be able to jump up and down and clap my hands with joy.

Monday, August 31, 2009

back to work

I didn't want to go back to work until September 1, but the combination of August 31 landing on a Monday, and the scary pile of orders that have built up over the past 3 weeks have motivated me out of bed before 8 am for the first time in weeks. Time to hit the gym-- jeans have been getting a little tight-- then spending the afternoon in the studio. Making stuff. That's what I do!

First, some business. I've been neglecting acknowledging a blog award named the "Lovely Blog Award". Usually these awards involve awarding other people who write blogs. I'm a wet blanket when it comes to playing these tagging and award games. In fact, I play dead. What can I say, it's just not my thing. But I'll play, albeit by my own rules.

First, I was awarded by Donna Rosser, who writes a lovely blog herself called "The Barefoot Photographer." I'm supposed to award 15 blogs, but since there is no way I'm doing that, I'm going to mention a couple of interesting blogs I've stumbled onto recently that are not already posted onto my blog roll.

Color Me Katie A lighthearted little blog from a person who appears to be the opposite of me. I wish I knew how to be that... effervescent.

All About Cities A fascinating take on the social, cultural, and economic aspects of cities. If I'm ever bedridden for a long period of time, I'd probably read this whole thing.

Get Rich Slowly When I'm freaking out about money, this blog can help me get perspective.

Writing Hannah A funny and sometimes snarky blog from a writer about... writing. And annoying blog comments. And purses. And a bunch of other stuff. It's funny.

Homestead Momma Not my usual blog fare, but I found a recipe for spicy canned beans here and I'm always interested in people who are trying to live more efficiently and frugally. I especially love that she keeps a running list of food produced and preserved on the side of her blog.

It feels good to be back on my usual schedule, and I do feel calm and centered at the moment, ready to tackle everything that is coming up. I realized while I was on vacation how I have an extreme stress response every time there is something going wrong at the studio. Like, while I was in Washington, I got an email from someone whose order got broken in transit. Not a big deal really, and she was not upset. But I noticed my heart started pounding immediately, and I had a surge of adrenaline. The same response happened a few days later when I got an email from another customer about another problem. I know that this is the response I always have, and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe having an extreme physical reaction to stress is something I need to work on. Immediately following this thought was the echo of my husband's voice: "You need to relax." A request I promptly ignore. Hmmmm, maybe that's an order I should listen to.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

vacation mode

I received a call the morning of my birthday from an assistant at Bride's Magazine. She wanted 6 bird cake stands for a shoot that coming Friday. After I got done laughing, (inside my own mind, or course) I said sure, I'd glaze up the cake stands they wanted and send them out Thursday via overnight UPS so they could have them for their shoot. Remember when I talked about birthday un-presents? This was like another one straight to the kisser. I found it all highly ironic, even amusing, considering all the issues and angst around my cake stands, especially the bird stands.

I had other things to work on, so I just threw the Bride's order on top of my other stuff. I was under the gun from a customer in Australia who also wanted a full stacking set of bird cake stands for her friend's birthday--like yesterday-- and part of another stacking bird set that needed to be finished for a client's wedding. And that's not even including another extra large stand (14 inch) that I've been fucking with since Spring-- another wedding order-- and the customer is so annoyed with me she doesn't even acknowledge my updates anymore. When I went into the studio on Tuesday to glaze all these things, I already decided I didn't care about anything anymore: it could all blow up in the kiln, I'd tell all my customers that no one gets anything because I suck, and life would go on. Of course the firing was pristine and perfect. Which made me think that I need to work more on not caring. But then I would be hardened and blase, like a Parisian whore maybe, and that's not the outlook I want to have. But it's still something to think about.

Unfortunately, no matter how much I thought I didn't care, my fate had already been sealed in a way I could have never seen coming. I called up Bride's to get their shipping account number so I can send out the goods on their dime, and end up on the phone/computer for a good two hours because their account with UPS can't be validated. This is an unfortunate way to spend time. As I became increasingly angry with this turn of events, it was becoming ever more clear that Bride's could not give me the information I needed, and this ship was not going to sail. In the end, the stylist for the shoot wished me well--a coded expression I truly despise, and not just because she said it-- but unless I could pay for the shipping and then bill them, they were moving on. I was already in the midst of a full-scale nuclear meltdown, and there was no fucking way I was giving them anything, so we basically gave each other the finger, and that was that.

So many lessons to be learned here, so little time to absorb them all at once. The whole situation so enraged me, I could feel it in my body for the rest of the day. It felt... bad. As a friend succinctly put it to me, "You'll give yourself cancer with that anger." More than once I thought, "Give it up. Go outside. Enjoy your day." But I had this order between my jaws and I was going to shake it until it was dead. Which I did. And then I felt completely toxic, and wrote mean things about them on my facebook fan page, which gave me temporary relief. The next day, when my brain wasn't flowing with hate horomones, I was able to see the situation more clearly, and learn a few things. But what was most clear to me, a serious vacation is no longer an option, it's a mandate. Sanity waits for me on the other side. See ya there!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

little guy wins

Remember last spring when I stumbled across a major rip-off of my sprout vase in a little gift store in San Luis Obispo, California? Well my man, Mr. Escobar --my hot shit lawyer--pursued the case on my behalf. After a few months of back and forth, Escobar informed me yesterday that the company pulled their copied version of my work from their website and product line. What I really loved is that they actually said in their letter to Escobar "we pulled your client's work from our product line," basically admitting that the work is mine, not theirs. Score one for the little guy! Or in my case, the hot potter chick! Yeah!

Though the case seemed clearly in my favor-- they did such an obvious rip-off of my work-- I have to admit, I'm surprised. I expected them to go to the wall to defend their copyright, and force me to drop out of the game before I drained my own resources. I'm always pushing my own friends to step up and defend their copyright and ideas. I once offered to picket Pottery Barn on behalf of one of my artist friends, who was blatantly copying some of her signature work, as others continue to do today. I'm a major stickler when it comes to fairness, and nothing enrages me more than watching people get walked on. Well that, and bad firings. And dirty floors. And, if I'm honest, silverware sliding off the plate and clattering onto the floor also totally pisses me off. But when I had this happen to me, in a larger venue than I'm used to dealing with I have to say that I wanted to ignore it. It seemed like a major hassle, expensive, and a battle I would not win anyway. I put it off for at least a month before an attack of insomnia made me realize that it may be all those things, but it still had to be done. If I think what this company did is wrong, then it's wrong for me to ignore it.

Now, this is the funny thing: during this whole event, and a similar episode that was happening around the same time, I heard over and over from certain people, "Being copied is the highest form of flattery," and "Coco Chanel said she would shed tears the day no one copied her," and "If you're being copied it means you are great and you should be happy." I shot back my own arguments against these comments and felt pretty secure in my stance. But... when Escobar said they were pulling out, the second or third thought that ran through my head was, "What, it's not selling well enough to pay for their lawyer? They don't think my Sprout vase is worth fighting for?" And with these thoughts came a feeling of insult and injury. I think I understand now what those people were saying, even though I still think it's crappy. Anyway, I'm over all that. I feel vindicated, and that it was worth the fight.

And just in case you were wondering how cute I looked on my birthday, I looked this cute:

Monday, July 27, 2009


Did I mention it's my birthday today? It's my birthday. I'm 39 now, and I started this new year with unloading a glaze kiln, which is sort of like an birthday un-present. Some good stuff, more small disasters. If you follow this blog, you may have noticed that the breaking point seems to be around the corner, or maybe you think I'm on the verge of losing it all the time. Well, to a certain extent, I am always on the edge because of my work. I think I have a pretty good sense of humor about it as a general principle, and I have my coping strategies, but I'm usually about one bad firing away from being locked up in jail or the nuthouse.

Last night, bad dreams. I dreamed I was at a show and my booth was filled with ugly work; pots I was trying to pack for clients were breaking in my hands; kilns were splitting open in the middle of firings. That's just a normal night for me. And I'm thinking: here I am, almost 40-- a certifiable adult, not a kid anymore--and I'm totally sick of the stress, of losing sleep because I can't get a cake stand to fire out, and of the dread I feel before I open the kiln. Is this a sane way to live?

I was having a discussion with an old friend who asked the question, "How did my life get so complicated?" My response is that it is always about the choices we make. I think part of being a fully realized adult is recognizing that our choices have consequences. And then figuring out a way to live with it, or change it, and having the courage to do either.

Last week one of the show managers for the wholesale show I do in Philadelphia called to see what was up with my application for next year-- am I in? I told her I was having serious thoughts about dropping wholesale, adding that I thought I was at a point in my career that I didn't see why I should be doing anything that I hated, and I really hate wholesale. My dilemma about whether or not to continue with wholesale has been my concern about a loss of income, but then I suddenly realized that dropping wholesale represents only a choice about the direction of my career, not the direction of my income. Quickly following that thought was that my choice about making pottery for a career is just that-- a choice. I'm free to make another one. No one is holding a gun to my head, except me. And it should surprise no one that my trigger finger is itchy.