Saturday, March 20, 2010

get a mentor

I'm getting close to finishing up my series of postings on making pottery-- or any art-- your business. If you haven't read my five brilliant points yet, read them right here. Today I'm writing about point #1: get a mentor.

I put mentoring as #1 because in my case, having a mentor was vital toward establishing my pottery business. My whole life, I wanted to be an artist as a profession. No other profession remotely appealed to me as much as being an artist. But that goal always seemed very fuzzy and vague. After all, there is not a clear road toward becoming a professional artist. If you want to be a doctor, one knows exactly what to do. But to be an artist is in a completely different realm, and the path toward becoming an artist reflects the difficulty in being an artist. One must fashion it for oneself, which requires creativity, drive, vision, and desire.

Having a mentor is one of the things you can do to help yourself see that path wending through the woods. Your mentor should be somebody who has achieved a level of success in their field that you are trying to achieve. And remember, you will have lots of mentors over the years, so don't get stuck on trying to choose the perfect person. You may outgrown a mentor or even surpass them. Your goals may change. Your life may change.

So, how does one find a mentor? In my case, I worked for a woman for several years who was a successful ceramic artist. There was no formal agreement that she was my mentor, and I didn't think of her that way, she was simply my boss. But while I worked for her, I was absorbing all of her success and learning how she ran her little business, which taught me more in two years than I ever could have learned anywhere else.

Finding someone to work for is probably the easiest way to learn from a mentor. Look around your area, and find the people whose success you want to emulate. Work for them for free, if you can. I never told my boss this, but I would have totally worked for her for free even though I was a poor college student and needed money. If you can't work for someone else or can't find someone in your area, then get online. Look through your network and find someone through your connections. Make the connection if you don't have one.

Basically, if you want a mentor, you have to go out and get one. And yes, it means getting out there and pushing past your comfort boundaries. You may get rejected, not everyone is interested in guiding others. It may take you a little while to find the right person who can give you the help you need. Help yourself find the right person by making a list of what you would like to get out of a mentor relationship. Some things might be:
  • advice on applying to the right shows.
  • honest feedback on your work.
  • help in meeting the "right" people in your field.
Does anyone else have advice on finding a mentor, or are you interested in being a mentor? Post here so someone can find you!


  1. When I first got interested in pots I made a trip to Seagrove NC. I found my way into a potters shop and really loved the work. I went back a month later and met the potter. Long story short, he became my mentor. We lived 2.5 hours apart but I went there often and he came here to help me fire my first gas kiln. That was in 1993. We remain very good, close friends and he even calls me now sometimes for information or to hash out a new idea. He told me once that someday I'd be in the position he was, a position where I could help aspiring potters. I've tried to do that as best I can over the past several years. That potter was Tom Gray. Thanks Tom. Good post Whitney. It's great that we work in a field with so many generous people.

  2. Great post! I'm new to metalsmithing and have had amazing assistance from someone I would consider a mentor in this field. She has a local shop and does workshops. I was hesitant to meet her (that comfort zone thing) but so glad I did. I've been able to assist her with her production work and always benefit just hanging around the shop. She been a huge help and support to me from getting my etsy shop open to technique to getting my work out there. I've really enjoyed your series on articles. Thanks!

  3. I think the closest thing I have to a mentor is reading potters blogs! I have learnt so much from you and others. Not just about the actual process but about expectations. For example, when you posted that some of your pots come out badly, it helped me to see that I can't expect perfection all the time, especially as I am such a beginner. Thank you for your blog and for this series!

  4. I love all of these stories about how people have figured out how to get the mentoring they need, I hope it is useful to other people too.

    And Ron, I totally agree that potters are some of the most generous people around. I have had my ass saved many times by other potters willing to help me out in all kinds of pinches. I remember my second "clay boss", Bob Pool, loaning me his very fancy, top-of-the-line booth set up for my first show. I couldn't believe he was willing to do that, but he totally shrugged it off as no big deal.

  5. Do you think that our prevalent DIY culture renders emerging artists less likely to seek mentors out? I benefit most from my mentors' legacy when I really mess up. I just think "what would so and so ( usually Gideon Flitt) do" and recall those hard won lessons.

  6. Great series Whitney! I'm with Undaunted -Clay bloggers are some of the most sharing and giving of artists! I also like her comment about honesty being shared -it really helps us new to clay, let ourselves up a bit with our "learning mistakes!"

    I have found no other medium that shares as much as potters do! Thank goodness for the internet for emerging artists to be able to seek current information so much easier. Having been an art mentor for over 20 years, unfortunately I'm a dying breed -professionals I try to recruit complain of little available time to have students shadow them.

  7. Thank you! Your work is beautiful...looks like mentoring paid off!

  8. For me, finding my mentor meant heading over to a local and successful potter's studio one afternoon, choking down all those butterflies in my stomach and begging for a job, any job, one day, two days, a half a day, anything that she was willing to let me do. She relented and my one day a week quickly turned into two. I learned SO MUCH from her, and made sure to let her know all the time how much I appreciated her help. In the end, she was thanking me too for helping her to grow in ways she hadn't expected. After that experience, I'll certainly open my arms to someone in the same position I had been in.

  9. That is such a good idea. I am quite new to the business aspect of art and could really use the help and insight who is making their living off of it.

  10. Design Technologies:
    "Do you think that our prevalent DIY culture renders emerging artists less likely to seek mentors out?"

    My first response was that there is nothing more DIY than getting a mentor. But as Cindy Shake pointed out, many pros are too busy to dedicate time to mentoring.

    I think that is a shame, and kind of lame too. I know I am very "busy" as well, but I always make time for things that I think are important. As my good pal and clay artist Christa Assad always says, "Busyness is a state of mind." I think pros have an obligation to the up and comers, especially those who have benefitted from mentors themselves.

  11. thanks for this post and this series! I would also like to point out that mentors can be in a different field than yours and still teach you a lot, especially if they are great at, say business, and that's what challenges you in your endeavors. The same would hold true for lots of those little or not-so-little aspects from those who have mastered the assembly line bulk mailing, photoshop, or craft fair set up.

  12. I am into recycling paper and fabrics as well as nature crafts but would try most anything... while taking in freelance writing I can handle that freaks me most of the time, I feel lost and always turn to crafts... I have seen one in our are but seems to appropriate. I hope my mentor will find me here waiting!

    Thanks for the encouraging article.

  13. I agree that mentors don't have to be in the same field, especially when it comes to business stuff. It helps to be in a related field though, because there are so many issues particular to the arts.

  14. Greatly appreciate this post!
    do not know how to go about
    finding a mentor(I'm extremely shy),but thanks for the positive encouragement.Wishing you
    Beautiful Spring days!

  15. This is a wonderful article! Mentors, if they are good at what they do, inspire you to your own perfect creativity.
    My sister is an expert knitter, and I would go sit in the room with her stash and just ABSORB the colors and textures while she worked. She is also an expert chooser of textures and colors. She is my encouragement to experiment with vibrant colors and wild wooly fiber bead looks. I still need her all the time.

  16. Awesome post!
    There's not much in the way of a mentor my neck of the woods. However a year ago I did get an offer from a successful local potter.. I would be a part-time studio assistant in trade for instruction. I declined, as I discovered there was not enough room in his studio for me and his ego :)

  17. I just discovered your blog and am so happy I did!

    This is an awesome series. Like Undaunted, I am relying on clay bloggers for "mentoring" at this point.

    When I was younger I had the opportunity to work with another potter and it totally changed my life. The person to person contact is invaluable. Blogging, though helpful, does not provide the same intensity of experience.

    At this point I am a 'weekend warrior' or part time potter because I have a full time time is a huge issue. Thank Goodness for generous blogging and the ability to subscribe to will have to tide me over until I can ditch the full time job and become a full time potter (a life long dream!!).

    Thanks again~

  18. I have been reading your blog for over a month now and before I found your blog I watched your Etsy store.
    Great work! After reading "get a mentor" I realized that you are my mentor.

    Thank You.