Saturday, May 30, 2009

the art plan

If I were not a potter, my dream job would be advice columnist. It combines two of my favorite activities: writing and dispensing with advice. I loved Ann Landers when I was a kid, and nowadays I can't wait for Wednesday when Dan Savage publishes his column. I actually get a number of emails, mainly from art students, who want to know how I manage to make a living, and if they should even try. I love these letters, because I get a chance to brainwash them with MY point of view, and give them an alternative voice to listen to, maybe for the first time in their lives. I received this letter recently from a student:

I'm almost done with my degree in ceramics from University. You seem like you got your shit together, do you make your living off of your artwork? If so, how and how did you start? How did you decide that being a potter is what you were going to do knowing that most artists end up "starving artists?" Is it worth it or do you wish you would have chosen an easier more steady career? I've been getting so much slack lately (especially with graduation near) for choosing art as a major. What do you say to people that think what you do is all for nothing?

This letter hit on a number of issues that I addressed with the author, but I think one of the most important points that came up was dealing with people who think that getting a degree in art or pursuing art as a career is a waste of time. People who think this are some of the most annoying people on the face of the earth, and dealing with them is a challenge. It makes me grateful that I have always had people in my life, including my parents and my husband (who has been with me since my second semester of pottery class), who never questioned my ambition to pursue art. Also, I have never been very interested in what other people think I should do with my life.

But if you don't have it as easy as I do in that department, I'm about to give you the secret weapon and some heavy-duty armor: have a plan. Make a plan for yourself, and when people question what you're up to, have an answer ready. People who are vague about what they are going to do, or lack a plan, are usually not that successful, no matter what they are doing. With art, I think it's especially important to have a direction, because it's way too easy to float. In fact, people will expect you to drift until you finally give up the art thing. With a plan, you are going to seem more confident with where you are going, and that will usually make the underminers think twice before they try to knock you back. And making people think twice is always a good thing.

How do you pull a plan together is easier than you think. You have to start with the statement "I want to be an artist." Say it to yourself all the time. Do not end that sentence with a question mark. Make a list of all the things you think you need to do --and have-- to succeed. Memorize it, and when people ask, keep repeating it your plan. As you grown and learn, your plan will change. That's normal and right. Your initial plan may be total bullshit, but make it anyway, because you have to start somewhere.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I'm fascinated by the role artists play in our civilization, how we are perceived, and the function we serve in society. I majored in anthropology for a reason, and these are the things I think about when I'm not thinking about pottery. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you've already read me getting up on my soapbox about how the culture worships the artist as an almost supernatural being, yet is always looking for an excuse to knock us down. Also-- and this is a side note-- we are expected to work only for the love of our art, not for money. How many fucking letters do I get from organizations totally unknown to me, asking me to donate my work? Per ca pita dollars, more than Donald Trump gets, I promise you that. Artists are seen as especially gifted. Yet we are also generally seen as tortured, ego maniacal, and crazy, just to name a few things that actually apply to me.

I got going on these thoughts again today because I've been regularly checking in on this blog called The Happiness Project. It's a blog dedicated to test-driving every principle, tip, theory, and scientific study done on creating more happiness in our overindulged and spoiled western lifestyle, where stores dedicated to selling $78 scented candles abound, but happiness does not. I find this site appealing because what it really seems to be about is leading more balanced and thoughtful life. And I'm interested in how this gimmicky website can actually educate people about leading a more meaningful existence, if not necessarily a more happy one. There was a post the other day titled Are Artists Unhappier than Non-Artists? Of course I had to dive right into that one, because it feeds all of my angst about society's stupid ideas about artists. My observation has been that artists are no more happy or unhappy than the culture at large. I think there is a general desire to have a romantic vision of the artist as tortured and neurotic to balance out the fact that we are supremely gifted. I personally think this vision is ultimately undermining to the artist, and encourages a lot of unfortunate behavior at art schools. But it also helps maintain the artist status as an exalted outsider, which is maybe what we need to get people to leave us alone so we can do our work. "I can't do the dishes right now, I'm having a break down. Now get outta my studio!"

I know that I am there is not an unhappier person on the planet than an artist who is not-- or can't -- make work. But unhappy just because we're artists? I don't think so. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert touches on a lot of these points in the talk I posted below. Please watch.

Monday, May 11, 2009

distractions, distractions

The single most distracting thing that keeps me from getting work done, beside my own reflection in the mirror, is the internet. I've been paying more attention lately to the amount of time I spend on the web each day, and I'm not shocked, but deeply bothered at how the minutes slip away and turn into big chunks of time. I spend a certain amount of time each day taking care of essential computer tasks, which include : uploading new listings to etsy, communicating with my customers, and printing out ship tags and invoices. Those are the essentials. Then there are the little add-ons: reading blog comments, writing blog posts, monitoring traffic on my web and etsy site, updating my website, and then twittering about everything I just did.

But it doesn't stop there. While I'm uploading etsy listings, I'm sneaking over to the front page to see what fantastic stuff is on there. If I see something cool, I'm off into someone's shop, rooting around in the goods. Twitter has started sucking me off onto all kinds of websites and blogs. Every Wednesday I must read the new horoscopes and Savage Love. And the emails and communications with customers, potential customers, stores, etc, is absolutely endless. If I added up all the time I spend on the web and compared it to the amount of time I spend actually making stuff in the studio, I think I would see I'm losing a day a week just to the interwebs, and a large portion of that to non-essential tasks.

And I don't even LIKE working on the computer very much. It stresses out my neck and makes me feel all starey-eyed.

I'm going to start instituting some severe discipline on myself. I only have a couple of ideas to keep myself on track: Make a list of what HAS to get done on the computer, give myself a time frame to do it in, and don't stop ticking down the list until it's done. No gallivanting off into cute little shops or reading blogs. But I need some more ideas, and I know everyone reading this is guilty of the same type of behavior. So I'm going to do my part in keeping you distracted from what you actually should be doing right now and ask what YOU do to keep yourself on track.

Monday, May 04, 2009

the double-edged sword of etsy

I had another upsetting incident this week with someone copying my work. I was tooling around on etsy late one night when on the front page I spotted a set of nesting lotus bowls, carved in the exact same shape the way I carve mine. Not only was the design the same, it was photographed in the same way I photograph mine, which is a close-up half shot. I've been developing this style of photographing some of my work in the past 8 months, and I really love the look of it for some items, especially the lotus bowls.

The fact that the bowls were photographed in the same way really blew me away . With that, there was no question that someone was making a deliberate attempt to imitate my work. Not only imitate me, but selling the imitation on the same site as I sell mine, at a much much lower price. A quick look at their shop showed that the lotus bowls were an anomaly, clearly not fitting in with the body of work that was in their shop already. But they had sold several sets, all photographed in the same way.

I had to figure out how to cope with this situation. I didn't think of this person as a threat to my business. They are just making pottery as a hobby, and to acknowledge them at all might make me look crazy. But, I was so pissed I could not sleep. My husband, who happens to be the more levelheaded of the two of us, took one look and said I should have Escobar, my aptly named lawyer, send a cease and desist. I thought that was overkill, but fired off a late-night letter to the lawyer anyway, which enabled me to sleep. The next day I sent the maker of these bowls a strongly worded email detailing exactly how I thought she was copying me, how much I did not like it, and insisted she take the listings down immediately. Which she did.

It brought front and center--again-- the double-edged sword of etsy. At my studio, the retail money that flows in from etsy keeps the wheels greased. Ain't nothin squeakin' there. I ship out every week to new customers from all over the world, and have made incredible press and wholesale connections. But there is no free lunch, right? Etsy has become well known for the copycats it inspires, not only in ceramics but in other categories, jewelry probably being the most problematic. But I see the copying in the ceramic category every day, and it frankly makes me sick. Thankfully, I see very little that gets my radar up around my own work. Part of the problem with etsy is that many of the artists and makers are not professional, and they may not have an artistic sense of integrity that comes from years of making your own things. They may just like making stuff, and when they see something they like on etsy, have no problem trying to make the same thing. And then selling it.

I've made the commitment to myself that I will not tolerate people copying my work, whether it's from a big company or an etsy seller. Anyone who attempts to copy my work, and then try to pass it off as their own, is going to get the email I sent this other person. And then they will hear from Escobar. The response I received back from this person was very humble, and I think they weren't at all considering the implications of what they were doing when they posted the bowls. But that's no excuse. And I think all the artists on etsy, and otherwise, need to stop being so fucking mellow or limiting their complaining to their friends when they have their designs infringed upon. Defend yourself. I'm happy to supply a copy of the letter I sent to this person to anyone who wants it via email. I think it's a highly effective letter with no threats, implied or otherwise. But if I received it from an artist, I would probably throw up immediately from anxiety. And I have no problem with that.