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.


  1. I want to be an artist. My short term plan is to build a collection of pieces so that when I start exhibiting I won't have to show the same few pieces everytime, and when something sells I'll have other pieces of equal quality in reserve. I have other plans too, but first things first. Thank you so much for this post Whitney.
    (From my mobile phone)

  2. My mother wanted me to go to hairdressing school instead of studying ceramics. I got my degree and developed my style and I have been living off my pottery 10 of the 13 years since college. I started with wheel thrown, highly decorated cat food dishes and lived off those for half a decade. Who'd have thunk it. Having the confidence in your work is so important.

  3. Simply great advice. Practical, to the point, short-and-sweet.
    Well done!

  4. great advice. I just did a small post on a great book to aid visual artitsts with that exact thing PLAN!

    yup yup great post you did here!
    from Vancouver Island

  5. Great advice - and - that vase is stunning!

  6. Good post. I'd also like to add that it's important for us professional, working artists who ARE DOING IT, to mentor our young people. Mentor and share HOW YOU ARE DOING IT. Give the gift of knowledge and straight-up talk. It's not easy, money is tight and there are way more ups and downs than the corporate elevator takes in a morning -BUT if you visualize it you can live it.

    Please share your time art people.

  7. Excellent advice. I needed to hear that.

    michele d.

  8. Hi Whitney, thanks so much for taking the time for all your recent posts, they are spot on and I really do appreciate your time, efforts, thoughts and writing about them here. Having a plan is so important, I have one in my head, but as you say it is easy to float - yes it is easy for me to float. I need to write my plan down and follow it and add to it. And this post has prompted me to do just that. Thanks again.

  9. cinday said
    it's important for us professional, working artists who ARE DOING IT, to mentor our young people. Mentor and share HOW YOU ARE DOING IT.

    I could not agree MORE. I would not be where I am to day if I didn't work for another full-time artist at the very beginning of my career. Emerging artists need to find that mentor, and working artists need to BE that mentor!

  10. Hi, here's a different viewpoint. In the country I live in, Italy, art is basically either something Italians were very good at in the past centuries, or something that has to do with design. You cannot study Ceramic art at college because it is not taught there. If you want to be a potter you go to one of the few professional schools they still have in places like Faenza, Montelupo Fiorentino or Nove, i.e. the famous majolica capitals of the past. Then you can only aspire to become a craftsperson, because there's a strong prejudice against beautiful objects that actually have a purpose: if it is functional it cannot be called art. There's hardly any respect for people who go through the trouble of learning how to master such a vast matter as ceramics. People they call ceramic artists here either make clay installations or raku objects, so they can be sure what they create cannot be called functional in any way. This is very frustrating for people like me, who like to make and use beautiful things and not just look at them.
    Even though becoming an artist in this country is out of the question for me, becoming a craftsperson still brings about the same questions you pose, and having a plan here is definitely important. But I'll have to change the mantra to "I want to be a craftsperson" instead!!!!!

  11. Okay, wow. I can't thank you enough for that very blunt and straight forward post. I never wanted to do what I'm doing now. I didn't know what I wanted when I got out of highschool. All I did was music. But I became a nanny and that led to taking pictures of them for their mom to see their day. That led to a photography class that I loved. Then that led to a ceramics class, which is where I'm at now. I'm in love. and ceramics is leading to wanting to be a graphic designer and do letterpress. I'm all over the place, but I'm in love with all of it and want to get somewhere. My mom has been so discouraging. Saying shouldnt I get a real job. Be a teacher, yada yada. I keep telling her no, I want to do what I LOVE. But it does get tough sometimes. And especially when I see how many people are doing what I want to do, And I think how will I stick out. But I needed your post. I reallu did. I plan to print it, save it, and read it when I need an extra push of encouragement. You're the best. I love what you make. I hope someday that I'll be more like you but in my own way. Thanks. :)

  12. Thank you for this post, and such succinct advice.

  13. Fantastic advice and so well put!

  14. Great advice! That will show them!
    A plan is the thing! Thanks for the advice.

  15. I followed the link over from Jesse's blog and I wanted to say thank you so much for this post. I've written lists, wish lists - my plans for short term and long term goals. You have hit the nail right on the head. If we as artists are clear about our plans, then we can make them happen. I've often occupied that roll of do-nothing wall flower, thinking that I'll be discovered, a la Lana Turner. You're an inspiration.

  16. Whitney, I've just started following your blog and I'm enjoying it very much. I was an English major in college, and never for a moment thought -- as some do -- that it was a useless degree. I've had three successful, interesting and varied careers over the course of the last 30 years, and if I had to do it all again, I'd still get an English degree. As a site not, I'm now taking courses leading to a BFA.

    So much of succeeding at what you want to do is, as you suggest, being clear about your mission and your direction, applying yourself, and working hard -- whatever your degree or path.

    Oh, and I do so appreciate reading a well-written blog post, which is another of the reasons why your blog is becoming one of my favorites. Thanks.