Monday, May 10, 2010

note to self: there are no perfect answers

I had an interesting conversation the other day with my friend and fellow ceramic artist, Laura Zindel. I like talking to Laura because she's ahead of me on the learning curve when it comes to being a full-time, professional artist, and is very grounded about the realities of making a living as a ceramic artist. She's talked me off the ledge a couple of times over the years, and I take what she says to heart because... she knows. With every challenge that comes up in my work, she's already been there, like 10 times.

We were discussing the challenges of dealing with your ceramic work as a "product" versus dealing with it as "art". I think the idea that art can only be made as one, unique item dogs many of us who depend on production in order to make a living. For myself, I divide my work into two categories: the high production stuff that is definitely a "product," and my more one-of-a-kind pieces which I see as my "art". The trap, as I see it, is getting sucked into that deep ravine of demand that comes when you make that great item that everyone wants (ahem, bird cake stands) and forgetting that you are an artist. Strangely, you can even start looking down on your own work, totally forgetting that even your "products" were born from art to begin with.

For some reason the artist Sergei Isupov has been on both of our minds lately. Me, because I wish I could translate my painting and abstract ideas onto clay the way that guy does, and Laura because she thinks even someone as brilliant and genius-like as Sergei is deals with the exact same crap we do when it comes to the challenges of making art in a market where demand is high for his work, even at the fine art end where he is. As we discussed this issue, Laura said that there are no perfect answers to meeting high demand with pottery, not with the product, and not with yourself. I think an artist is always going to have personal issues with creating work in a production setting, because of the loss of the artist's energy through the replication of each piece. But what are the choices when you want to make a living making your stuff? Sergei, at the other end of things, still has to wake up every day and come up with a new idea, and deal with people who want the same thing that has already sold.

What I'm really starting to understand as my career advances, there are no perfect answers to many of the issues I face as an artist. There is only making, or giving up. And everyone, no matter what they do with their life, faces this issue of doing meaningful work in a world that demands major output. So I want to know from you: how do you keep the art in production? How do you find meaning in repetition? Most of all, how do any of us stay sane when we must wrestle with these issues on a daily basis?

In this vein, I highly recommend Kari Radasch's article, "Eyes Wide Open" where she discusses some of these issues.


  1. Ay yi yi, the fear of repetition, and of coming to dread my work, that's been keeping me out of artmaking. Thanks for the leads, and the encouragement.

  2. One compromise that I see as still giving your work an artful meaning is to make a limited quanity of something. Say you create a specific item in a specific colour, you can say there will only be 'x' amount made, and number each piece you create. It is still art, and not mass produced.

    I make glass beads, and although I can't exactly replicate the more decorative beads, I will offer to make them again and limit my reproduction pieces to about 6. My glass isn't cast, it is completely done by hand so I know no two pieces will ever be the same.

  3. Note to self noted! Thanks for this insightful post Whitney. I think separating your work into lines can help with some of that old production guilt. Knowing that some objects are made in order to financially support the making of other objects gives them a bit more of a noble status. They're like worker bees, working hard to support the entire group.

  4. Well said Michelle, and that's definitely how I deal with it. But I still have to watch myself to make sure I'm not spending all week pouring molds!

    And Bobbie, what you suggest naturally happens in my studio, though I don't number things. There are certain things that I just can't make over and over, and even if I did make a mold for it, it would never capture the magic of the original.

  5. I try to treat all of my production work as "practice". It's my throwing practice for the day. And I try to look at each piece and figure out what to adjust in the next one to make the form stronger. This helps me get lost in the process, rather than keep myself busy counting off how many mugs I have left to throw. But I am just now starting to figure out how to incorporate the 'art' aspect of things. I've been MAKING the time for myself to make the one of a kind pieces that I really want to make. I've always just said to myself that I'll make that really cool piece I want to when I get time, but the truth is, I NEVER get the time. So now I'm making that time. And in doing so, I find it very revitalizing. It's a nice change in the middle of throwing for a huge order, to take a time out and have some "me" time.
    Thanks for another great post!

  6. All well put. As we "advance" as career artists, I suppose we'd like to feel like we're starting to figure a few things out(?) Maybe I just wish I could figure a way out of not needing to still do "production pieces" after all these years!

  7. i think personal projects that are done with the intention of no commercial gain is important. i think Sharon Montrose says it best:

    by the way Whitney...
    i am relatively new to your work and blog. i admire your ability to articulate your goals as an artist, and how you strive to meet that balance. thank you for sharing your insight.

  8. Another great post Whitney.
    Well, this is all new to me so I don't have "production" pieces as yet. I have thought about it quite a lot though because I get bored easily and I wonder if I would have it in me to make the same thing again and again. I like to try new things. In saying that, I just remade a piece this week and I like it better than the original (so obviously they're not exactly the same). It must feel more like work to have to keep making the same thing, but it's still gotta be a great way to make a living! As long as there is still creative time.

  9. Professional artists of every kind struggle with the the "commercial" dilemma. How does a painter separate and ignore that which has made his work sought after? I submit that your problem is age old, and inherent in any form of professional art. We could decide to not give a whip who likes our art, and let the world discover us after we die, or...strive for the balance that will enable us to:

    1. Please ourselves--this is what caused others to like our work in the first place.

    2. Sell our work--customers will at first flock to a popular style, but novelty is essential in the human psyche.

    3. Grow and develop our personal ideas--trust yourself that when you become inspired, others will too.

    With the advent of the automobile, the buggy whip became obsolete. The buggy whip factory that did not develop new ideas, no longer had a product that anyone was interested in. You have to grow no matter what, even if it means refitting your factory with new parts every so often.

  10. I understand that. How do you balance the work that pays the bills with the work of your heart? As a full-time writer (who, incidentally, is fascinated by pottery and took my first class yesterday), it's a constant struggle. I need the short turn around business writing projects to pay the bills and fund the time for the longer, more unique plays and novels. Or,I land a series contract, and then I have to churn out the series, rather than letting it percolate and mature.

    When something is handmade, it retains a part of the maker's energy. When it has to be made quickly and replicated, it can lead to fatigue.

    It's not that you don't want a lot of pieces out there that make people happy and support you financially and creatively, it's that you don't want to lose the joy in the individual piece.

  11. I am new to your blog and I did enjoy reading it and the comments esp Michelle's.

  12. I know this is an old post, but I came across your amazing work and blog just recently...
    In Italian we have the right term to describe a person that create, but it's not exactly an artist: artigiano. There isn't a full correspondence between the Italian meaning of "artigianato" and the English 'crafts or handicraft'. We have a long tradition of artigianato in Italy and I'd like one day to be able to call myself an "artigiano".