Wednesday, November 12, 2014

make it mighty ugly

I've been noticing lately that I've been falling back into workaholic habits: long hours at the studio, sneaking over there on the weekends to finish pieces, cutting lunch short so I can get back to work, and feeling agitated when things come up that take me out of the studio. Like last week, I woke up Tuesday morning to an eye that was swollen almost shut. I was diagnosed with preseptal cellulitis and given an antibiotic. The next day I woke up with both eyes swollen and an ugly rash on my face, neck, arms, and legs. Allergic reaction to the antibiotic. My left eye was so swollen I could barely see out of it, so I slapped a bandage over it and went to work. With no depth perception. I realized at the time that was not the right thing to do for myself, and I should be home resting. But really, I am so into what I am making these days that I am indulging the workaholic for now. Frankly, I'm just happy to know that I can still be this excited about clay again.

Something broke open for me about 6 weeks ago or so. I listened to an interview with Kim Werker, who wrote a book called Make It Mighty Ugly. Apparently, it's a book she wrote just for me, all aimed toward my personal demons: perfectionism, fear of failure, stopping before I start because of the voices in my head, blah blah blah. I've had several people tell me that I need to make something ugly, to get past that shit, and I resist that idea so much. But the way Kim talked about it made me realize that it's not about making something ugly on purpose, it's about making something and not being afraid that it will be ugly.

I've been drawing and making designs on pots for a while, and I know I can make something really beautiful and nice to look at. But there is something about these designs that bore me to death. It started when I was working on my grandma's urn last year: I made the urn with a perfectly designed trillium flower all around, and I hated how it looked. So perfectly boring. My hand, almost on its own, scratched it up. I liked it much better, and left it at that.

This year, I've been working on mishima concepts, and I really love the process. It's insanely labor-intensive, but the results are lovely and I'm having fun re-interpreting my work through this new design process. But, I'm running into that same wall of things looking perfectly boring. The work, though enjoyable and beautiful, feels like a dead end design-wise.

I had a couple of pieces in the studio that I had reserved for "fun". Meaning I could do whatever I wanted with them and they didn't need to fit into any category of work that I've made before. I kept pulling the pieces out, and just staring at them. Nothing was happening. Weeks went by. It wasn't until I listened to Kim that I was able to pull those pieces out and do the work. I still struggled with the voice telling me to not screw it up, but I worked through the first wall and made some work that was kinda ugly, and it helped push me to a different level.

The main thing I got out of it was to not judge the process or the work-- not before, during, or after. Judging is a preclude to letting the voices take over and shutting down the creative process. A couple of weeks ago I had an idea to make some small dishes carved out like Art Deco roses. Immediately the voices started in on how the concept was too simple, too obvious. Judge judge judge. I was able to override the voices and make the pieces anyway, and it is their very simplicity that makes them so awesome. I finished some other pieces last night and I was having that anxiety around feeling like they were not the way they "should" be. I caught myself judging, and stopped. The work is just what it is. It has no intrinsic value one way or the other other than to teach me about what I want to do next.

And fuck it anyway. I have Open Studio this weekend and the work is going to be finished and shown no matter what. Come see me if you can!


Monday, November 03, 2014

caterpillar wrangler

I have not posted the past couple of weeks because I have a new obsession, and I think you all are going to be as fascinated by it as I am. My new obsession is caterpillars. Specifically, monarch butterfly caterpillars.

I've been into the Monarch migration for a long time, and I'm extra immersed in the Monarchs this year. The Monarch migration is on right now, and if you follow me at all, you know I did a paper cut Monarch butterfly installation in the window of Marion and Rose's Workshop a month ago.  I've been fixated on translating the peculiar overwintering habits of Monarchs into art for years. The overwintering habitat is an art installation in itself, and trying to express it in art has been an ongoing challenge for me. Butterflies have a certain quality that can be read superficially as merely decorative, the most extreme feminine side of nature. When I see butterflies used in art or craft, it often comes off as cute, pretty. It's rare to fine interesting art created with butterflies. It's a problem that I perhaps created in my own mind, and have been trying to puzzle out for years.

Recently, I was visiting a popular destination for overwintering West Coast Monarchs at Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz. I've visited many times, especially back when I actually lived about 5 minutes away. For the first time, I went into the educational center there, and as I was looking at different breeds of milkweed flower (the ONLY food Monarch caterpillars eat), shitty t-shirts and baseball caps with Monarchs on them (I get that people buy this stuff and the money goes to supporting Monarch habitat and education, but could someone please create something that is actually wearable?) and little books and pamphlets on Monarchs, I was drawn to a live milkweed plant that was in the Center, and to my surprise, I saw a live Monarch chrysalis hanging on branch, along with a live caterpillar.


The feeling I had in that moment was both a feeling of recognition-- I knew immediately what I was looking at-- along with shock at how beautiful it was. The Monarch chrysalis looks like plastic. It's smooth, with a sheen that you don't often see in nature. And the most amazing part is that it HAS GOLD ON IT. A line of golden beads, and then flecks of gold around the base, just to totally blow your mind.

After that visit, it took a couple of days to sink in, but one day as I was walking to my studio, I realized that the milkweed plants that are scattered all over my neighborhood-- thanks to one neighbor on our street who planted a butterfly friendly native habitat in their front yard-- may have some Monarch caterpillars on them.

Let's just say that my morning was hijacked by caterpillar collecting, and I now have a full indoor habitat for Monarch caterpillars. I am currently hosting 15 caterpillars in various stages of development, from just hatched babies to big fatties ready to pupate to chrysalis pods that will be hatching butterflies in a few days. I hunt them everyday on my block and it's rare that I don't find at least one.

You may ask why I have this going on in my house. Because I can. It's safe and easy to raise butterflies indoors. Going from a caterpillar to a butterfly is a dangerous and tenuous business, and in an urban environment like mine with lots of predators raising them inside can help with their survival rate. I'm doing my part to make sure the butterflies survive. Mind you, I can't be bothered with a human baby or anything. But the butterflies, I can get behind that.

Watching the caterpillars go about their daily business is better than any TV or facebook feed. I find myself standing around in the kitchen, just watching them for 20 straight minutes. There are times when they all seem to be sleeping, and other times when they are all eating. Keeping them supplied with fresh milkweed leaves is a twice a day chore, it's like trying to supply a Roman banquet.

If you want to keep up with my 'pillars, I've been posting images on Twitter with the hash tag #MonarchCircus. If you live in coastal California,  you may want to think about looking around your own neighborhood for caterpillars and hosting a few of your own. Just don't go on vacation without hiring someone to bring them daily batches of fresh milkweed.


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.