Sunday, February 07, 2010

making ceramics your j-o-b

I promised to write more about each of the five points I made about making pottery a business. I'm going to write today about #3- Realize that when you make pottery for a living, you are sacrificing a part of yourself for money. Because of the nature of my job-- making pottery--A lot of people think I spend all day just having fun. That is the fantasy of a working artist's life, and sometimes I like to make fun of that idea. I do have a "dream job," and the reason why I chose this path in life is because I really hate imposed routine, which is what a regular job working for somebody else usually entails. I like showing up at the studio when it suits my routine. I like to take long lunches with friends on a regular basis. I like being the only one to tell me what to do. I like to take 4 weeks off at a time. I spent the first part of my life being tortured by public school, and I couldn't wait to get out and live a life according to the way I wanted to live it.

Despite the perks, taking an art that I am good at and using it as a means to make a living means sacrifice. Part of that sacrifice means that I do not go into my studio on my days off and make pottery for fun. I've tried that, and all it does is burn me out and crowd my studio with more pottery I have to sell, or with pottery I can't sell because it is too expensive or doesn't fit with my current collection and therefore only interests a few people. It is very important to understand that when you make ceramics-- or any other art-- your regular day job, you are going to lose a segment of your passion for that art. That doesn't mean you are no longer passionate about your art, it just means that you are married to it. Being married means that you no longer get weak-kneed every time you see your beloved. It means a deep love that requires attention and persistence to keep the interest alive.

When I was first really starting to make maybe a half-time living, I remember chatting with Nancy Adams and Ross Spangler, both nationally recognized and established ceramic artists. I was gushing about how I liked to get up at 6 in the morning and work before going to my job and then heading straight back to the studio when I got home. Both Nancy and Ross said, "Aaaah, remember when we cared that much? The good old days!" I thought they were being condescending and crusty old buggers. But now I understand that it's not that you lose the passion or motivation to make work, but it still is a job. A job you may have to do even when the inspiration is not there.

And that's the rub right there. It's taken me 10 years to figure out that putting all of my creativity into one thing-- pottery-- has drained me. Pouring all of my creative juice into pottery has made me a less creative person, because cognitively my brain thinks that all creative ideas need to go to clay. Yes, I'm a brain researcher and I figured that out all by myself. Now, I'm working on fixing that: less time in the studio, more time pursuing my other artistic dreams. I'm taking a memoir writing class with an author and expect to be working regularly on my writing. I'm going to take a paper cut class, I looooooove paper cut. I want to teach workshops to help people figure out how to run with Etsy. While my head is being turned by other hot creative pursuits, pottery is popping up with new ideas, making itself more attractive to keep me interested and coming back.

So this is the bottom line advice: know what you are sacrificing when your hobby becomes your job. To establish yourself takes years of dedicated pursuit and a certain self-imposed insanity. Hedge your internal stability by making time for the other things that fire up your juices, whatever that is. Your relationship with your art is a long-term commitment, so don't going ruining it by spending every single second with it.


  1. Many words of wisdom written that we could all benefit from. Thank you, thank you! ~Lili

  2. I understand this. My love is sewing, and over the years I have occasionally succumbed to the urge to sew things to sell. It takes me WAY less than 10 years, in about a month the joy is mostly gone out of sewing for me. I just can't do it any other way except for my own fun. I have been lucky in that I haven't needed to support myself with it.

    I will say that your pottery doesn't betray the slightest lack of passion. It's stupendous.

  3. Oh, and the other thing. The money. My particular love is making handbags. To make them the way I want to, with the materials and the time it takes, means that the price is more than just about anyone wants to pay, given that you can buy handbags for so little.

    Your pottery is the same--there are lots of cheaper options--it takes someone who appreciates the best to want yours (which I do!). Too many people, especially on Etsy, underprice themselves so severely that it takes a toll on everyone there.

  4. Your post is spot on... everytime someone comes into the studio and says...oh it must be so fun to play all day... I smile and cringe. I must say I love living the dream but I have NEVER worked so hard in my life!! But I do love it and I still have the passion to put in the long days it takes. You are right, really enjoy the post. Basically it all comes down to one word...Balance.
    Thanks, Laura at

  5. That's exactly it Whitney. The big question is should I quit my day job to be a potter? Or should I stick with a job that provides the means - money and time - to still be weak-kneed about clay?? Whatever way you look at it, it's all about compromising.
    ciao! silvia

  6. Thank-You so much for this post; I feel the same way and it makes me sad. But at the same time, I've found that if I take time away to practice a totally different creative skill, I come back to my job more inspired and invigorated. And just so you know, I feel weak kneed EVERY TIME I see your work. For whatever that's worth.

  7. Kathi D, my mom is a MASTER seamstress, she can make anything, and she loves sewing more than anything in the world, except for her children of course. But the second someone pays her to do stuff, all the fun is gone from it, and she hates it. She would never want to make a living at it, even though with her talent she easily could.

    I am happy I can make people weak-kneed with my pottery. I don't want anyone to think I don't have passion for clay-- I totally do. It just ebbs and flows like everything else.

  8. Whitney,

    I am married to your Mom's best friend, Sherri, who is another master seamstress. Sherri has pointed me toward your blog as I have begun the journey toward making art full time and she thought your words would be supportive, which turns out to be true. I look forward to reading more and looking at your clay work.


  9. There is no question in my mind about your passion for pottery. And your passion for excellence. It shows.

  10. Great post Whitney. I couldn't agree more. I became a full-time potter a year ago and have felt myself becoming disconnected to clay. Sometimes the road to being a successful potter just seems way too long and hard. And that makes me want to quit.

    But then I force myself to take a day or two away from the studio. And the ideas re-emerge and the joy of throwing pots returns. And I look forward to going back to the studio.

    And whenever I look at the works of my favorite potters (you included) I get weak-kneed again and want to get back at it and continue to improve. So thank you for that!

  11. Whitney....such an eloquent and truthful post...thank you for constantly unpeeling some of the mystique of it is so true...creative work definitely shifts when you are supplying a market.And many who dream of making that leap from art to livelihood are unaware that the focus, by very nature, changes.

    best to you!

  12. Thanks everybody for all of your comments. This particular struggle has so many facets but I think it helps to know that we all share it, even if we are not full-time makers.

    And good to hear from you Richard, I hope to hear more from you in the future!