Friday, October 17, 2014

life near the epicenter

Today is the 25 year anniversary of the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake that was centered near Santa Cruz where I was living back in 1989. It's an event that was a major turning point in my life, and this week as the anniversary was approaching, I felt the need to write about it again. It's on site called Medium, and you can check it out here.

Monday, October 13, 2014

turn it off

I grew up with public radio, and nothing soothes me like a calm and uninflected public radio voice. When I moved from Santa Cruz to the Bay Area, one of the perks in my mind was access to KQED, which is talk 24 hours a day, my favorite. Early on, I developed a studio habit of always having the radio on, always listening.

After 9/11 happened and the wars that went with it, I started recognizing that having tragedy pour into my ears all day was visibly eroding my mental health and ability to concentrate while I worked. For the first time, I started listening to music stations in my studio instead of talk all day. Then I discovered podcasts.

I'm addicted to podcasts, especially story telling and interview ones. Don't worry, fellow junkies, I'll list all my favorites below in the comment section, and I expect you to do the same. I will download 6 or 7 hours of podcasts to listen to while I work. Nothing soothes me like the opening music of my favorite podcasts.

But I've been noticing something about listening to podcasts all day while I work. My brain is constantly tuned in to listening, and when I'm tuned into listening, I can't do much of any other kind of thinking, like creative thinking, which is a problem. Then, a flood of thinking starts happening at inconvenient times, like when I'm trying to fall asleep or at my other favorite time, at 3 in the morning. I've noticed this problem while I'm gardening as well, and I stopped putting in earbuds while I garden over a year ago.

So I did something crazy last week, which was to turn off all my podcasts while I work. Also, since this is a cold-turkey kind of thing, all music too. Why music? Because even music tends to sweep me away, and I want to train myself to be present again. Complete and meditative silence in the studio while I am working.

I was afraid I would be bored somehow, but I wasn't. And isn't it a weird thing to be afraid of boredom anyway? Our whole culture is afraid of being bored. No, I wasn't bored and after I got over the initial discomfort of not feeding my podcast addiction, I liked the silence, didn't need the voices. And I was able to concentrate on problem solving some business-related things, and even come up with creative ideas as I was moving along. I've actually had to start keeping a notebook at hand to write down all the little things I was thinking about.

I think those of us who have a studio practice are prone to constant radio or podcast listening, even if we use it as a "background" thing. We generally work alone, so having that voice presence can make us feel comforted. I'm pretty convinced that for me, having an auditory distraction always going on is undermining my creative thinking, and I've been doing it for years. What do you think? Do you listen to anything while you work, or even watch things? Let me know if you think it affects you creatively.

Monday, October 06, 2014

okay with okay

It's not a secret that I am prone to anxiety. This is how my anxiety works, and maybe yours too: 
  • Take something that is causing me discomfort or uneasiness, like slow sales or the California drought. 
  • Use that shred of doubt or uncertainty and spin out a scenario, usually a worst-case scenario, into the future. 
  • Spend time thinking about how that is going to feel and what is going to happen. I'm going to lose my business and all my friends and colleagues will pity me; I'll witness the desertification of California and be one of millions of evacuees that are forced to leave the state due to lack of water. 
  • Take those feelings of fear, dread, and panic, stuff them right into my chest, and bring them back to the present moment. 

All of you fellow anxiety sufferers know precisely what I'm talking about. And I know exactly what I'm supposed to do: stay in the present moment at all times, because the present moment is all we have. When you find yourself living in some dark corner of the future, very gently and without judgement lead yourself back to the present moment. Over and over again, that is what one does to overcome the pulsation of anxiety.

I've been getting a little better at this, here and there. My trick is to just say to myself, "what if it's just going to be okay?" Like, all of this worry energy is just a waste of time. Things are probably not going to be horrible, they are definitely not going to be perfect, they are just going to be normal, totally acceptable, and okay. I mean, obviously we are doomed, but things are okay right now in this moment.

I was having a instance last week while I was installing my paper butterfly sculpture into the window of a store, and it was taking me about 4 times longer than I thought it would. It didn't really matter because the opening wasn't until the next day, but my natural reaction when things don't go as planned is to start the anxiety drum. This can make me a really annoying person to the people who love me best, by the way.

I was stringing each butterfly, one by one onto this fishing line, but my mind was somewhere else, working out a play-by-play of a future disaster regarding the balance in my bank account, because I obviously don't know how to manage time or paper installations. All of the sudden I noticed that I really loved the process of stringing each butterfly. It was labor-intensive, but I was enjoying it. I liked stepping back after every few minutes and seeing how the thing was shaping up. It gave me a moment of freedom where I was able to say to myself, "what if it's just going to be okay?" I'm okay right now,  I'm doing something totally enjoyable that will bring others delight, I'm not hungry or thirsty, I'm able to just stand here and do this thing. At some point I'm gonna die and it will all be over, but for now I'm finding the pleasure in living, and it's okay.

The second part of this exercise is being okay with things being okay. Anxiety sufferers are always waiting for the other shoe to drop so it can be difficult to be okay with okay, because it's not comfortable. We'd rather be chasing thoughts down a rabbit hole because at least that gives us a sense of doing something, of being in control. Being in the moment challenges us to let go, and anxiety types hate that shit. If we let go, who will keep the world spinning?

Little by little, every day, I'm working at being okay with okay.

Monday, September 29, 2014

papercut installation

This Friday, October 3. I'm doing my first paper cut installation in the window of Marion and Roses's Workshop, a store in downtown Oakland that I've been working with for several years now, selling the pottery. I've become pals with the owner, Keri, and I was idling around in her store one day when she said, "I need to do something new with this window next month," and I said, "I should do a paper cut display in your window!" 

It took about 6 weeks longer than I thought it would to come up with the concept and actually do the work, but the Oakland Art Murmur is this Friday, so it seemed like a good deadline to actually stick to. Here is my statement about the installation:

I became aware of the annual Monarch butterfly migration when I was living in Santa Cruz, blocks away from a Monarch wintering site in the eucalyptus groves of Natural Bridges State Park. As millions of the butterflies passed overhead, single Monarch wings and dead butterflies could be found throughout my neighborhood, a phenomena  I found mysterious, intriguing, and disturbing. This did not begin to prepare me for the site of the living butterflies in the groves, colorful insects completely covering the trees and hanging off branches in giant teeming clusters. The beauty and strangeness of it has stayed with me for over two decades.

This papercut installation represents my ongoing fascination with the Monarch migration and my awareness of the severe decline in the Monarch population, which has been reduced by over 90% in the past 20 years. This decline is unseen by most people. It is an invisible waning, a silent dissolution that takes with it the transcendent beauty of a natural wonder. With each butterfly papercut I make, the death of the Monarchs becomes seen, if only for a second, and creates its own transcendent and fleeting beauty.

There will be a reception from 5-7 at the store, and we will be giving away free milkweed, the food that Monarch caterpillars survive on, to the first 30 people who want it. Hope to see you there!

Friday, September 26, 2014

what it takes

I'm going to graduate from college next year have been making pottery since I was in high school. I really love it and it is my passion. I read your post about quitting your day job and it made me think about whether or not I should try to make pottery my living. I think I am talented and I can work hard, but I'm not sure I can be successful. Do you think I should pursue my dream or should I do something more practical and keep pottery on the side? I'm sending you some pictures of my work, do you think I have what it takes?

I get this email or some variation on it a few times a year. I assume people contact me with this question because they want permission to pursue their dream, which to my mind is fundamentally at odds with having what it takes to pursue the dream. Never ask anyone, especially a stranger, if you should pursue your dream. You can ask for support, solicit advice, you can even listen to opinions, but never ask anyone for permission.

Running a pottery studio-- or any kind of art studio-- and selling work is an entrepreneurial endeavor. And this is what it takes: have some talent, work really hard, and hustle.

A lot of artists don't want to hear this because they don't want to hustle, they want to make art.

When I quit the last remnants of my day job back in 2000, I hustled by doing every single show and street fair I could while getting the name and address of every person that bought something from me so I could invite them to the next show.  That helped me build my name and a small local following. It wasn't easy because I am an introvert and it took 2 days to recover from these shows, but I knew I needed to hustle and I was willing to do it.

The hustle has changed a bit these days. The time I used to spend at shows I now spend in front of my computer, analyzing traffic and tweaking my various websites, managing sites that sell my work, posting my work to Etsy, twitter, instagram, facebook, and now (god help me) pinterest. I'm very new at pinterest so I'm reading articles about using it effectively, and I read lots of articles and even books about marketing and branding generally. I also write this blog, and a monthly newsletter, and spend days photographing my work. That's just the marketing side. The business side involves tracking all my expenses and income and analyzing what is going on there, paying all my bills, ordering supplies on a regular basis, and about 10 other things that are too boring write down here. You get the point; a Business 101 class won't kill you either.

Some people think this kind of activity is beneath an artist, and great art should sell itself somehow, or that an artist's only job should be to make work. Sorry, but only art stars get to do that. I am not an art star and the chances of any one of us becoming an art star are minuscule. Art school kids, listen up: the chances of you becoming an art star are infinitesimally tiny no matter how much you are paying for that art degree.

We have been handed a thousand mostly free tools to get ourselves and our work out into the world in the past 15 years. If artists can't see what an amazing gift this is, how more than ever we are being called to use our creativity in all of these areas that used to be left to the experts to manage for us, then I really have no words of encouragement.

The truth is, many artists don't want to put themselves out there because they fear judgement and failure. To that I say: both are absolutely going to happen. Get used to it. It will build your character and resilience, and maybe even your sense of humor.

Now get out there and hustle.

Friday, September 19, 2014

back to school

I've been trying to maintain a back-to-school vibe in the studio for the last couple of weeks. I went roaring in on September 2, with the idea of throwing off the remnants of summer vacation mode and kicking some ass. I threw a bunch of stuff, and got down to the work of it. Then I had this horrible, dark realization: I want to make new work and grow as an artist, and here I am working on a cake stand... again.

I think this thought sent out some weird energy out into my studio, because for the rest of the week I managed to "accidentally" crack, break, chip and snap every single piece I had thrown. By the end of the week, with virtually nothing left that was salvageable, I just had to laugh at myself. When it comes to monkey wrenching, my subconscious knows exactly when and how to bring everything to a grinding halt. Talk about back to school.

I spent a couple of days walking in circles, and then just decided to face it: I've gotten lazy, I like my comfort zone, and everything I think I've learned about being a perfectionist nutcase doesn't mean that much unless I apply it to my work and duke it out with my demons.

I started again this week, with the idea of trying for a balance: some safety zone work so I can feel like I'm actually accomplishing something, and pushing on some new things so I can hold myself accountable to being an actual artist and not just a producer.

It's uncomfortable, like stepping into a slightly too-steamy hot tub. I know it's going to be good at some point, but right now it's just really freaking hot. As I was having these uncomfortable moments, I kept reminding myself that this is what learning is like sometimes: you feel like everything is a mistake, but if you keep trying you eventually get some finesse, or find your way to a better path.

All new work eventually becomes a safety zone.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

quit your day job? maybe not.

A couple of months ago I was asked for advice on quitting a day job as a teacher to become a full-time potter. I've been screwing around with a response, trying to couch my answer in such a way that I don't squash anyone's dream, or offer stupid pat answers that you can get anywhere. In my draft queue, I have 3 posts al lined up and ready to publish that answer this question, and I can't quit put my finger on the button because I think all the posts basically soft-pedal the answer and make for a sucky read.

I can't base the answer on my own experience because I think my experience is not the norm, and there are a lot of reasons for that. For starters, I have never had a job that gave me health insurance, paid days off, a retirement plan, or hope for career advancement. For me to quit and pursue pottery was not a sacrifice of any kind of security.

Also, I am very talented at what I do. It was clear almost immediately when I started working with clay that I had a gift, and I advanced far more quickly than any of my classmates through the basics and up the learning curve. I had a job as an assistant within 18 months, because I was good enough to assist a professional potter that quickly. I have four close friends who make a living at pottery, so one may be fooled into thinking that anyone who is good at pottery can make a living at it. The thing is, these four friends are also supernaturally talented. Their work is copied and emulated by ceramic artists all over the country, if not the world. They are outliers.  I am an outlier.

I also know a few people who make a living at pottery who are maybe not the most talented or have the most artistic vision, but they work harder than anyone else. They endlessly promote themselves through social media, maintain multiple websites for selling, are constantly researching to figure out what to make next, go to every show they can get into, take every opportunity to show their work whether it pays or not, are expert production potters, and are in their studios 50-60 hours a week.

And by the way, the people I know who are supernaturally talented work this hard too.

To start your own art-based business takes a certain type of person to succeed, and you need to have a hard and honest look at yourself to know if you are that person. For someone considering quitting a teaching job, you have to ask yourself, "Did I become a teacher to answer a calling to teach, or did I become a teacher because it's a safe gig with lots of time off?" It's one or the other. Teaching is challenging, and people only do it because they love it, or because the few known perks outweigh the difficulties. If you have a calling to teach, it would be a shame to quit, because you will likely never be as good or bring as much to the world as a potter that you will as a teacher. If you teach because it was a safe gig and you couldn't figure out what else to commit to, then I would say you are likely not going to enjoy the pressure, insecurity, uncertainty, lack of time off, and hard physical labor of a full-time pottery studio.

There are a lot of self-promoting people out there with a book or program to sell you who will tell you that the best thing you could ever do for yourself is quit that day job, follow your passion, and that anyone can do it.  I will even admit to buying into this type of thinking in the past, and there may be some blog posts to prove it. But it's not true. Not everyone can do it, and it's not necessarily the best way to live either. I'm not even going to go into the pitfalls turning your passion into profit.  I've written about that plenty of times before. But there is nothing wrong with being an artist, and having a day job. In fact, thinking you are not an artist because you have a day job is a cop-out and buying into someone else's definition of an artist. Maybe the culture says that you are not a real artist unless you are killing yourself pursuing it full-time, but the culture is full of shit and doesn't know what it's talking about when it comes to your life.

And I don't know what I'm talking about when it comes to your life either. So if you really want to become a full-time potter or artist of any kind, bank as much money as you can, make a plan, build up your resilience to failure, and fucking do it already.