Monday, October 23, 2006

working art

One of the most frequent questions I get asked is how I got into doing what I do, what art school I went to, and how I manage to make a living at being an artist. I get emails from art students all over the country who ask me this. In our culture and many others, artists hold a special place in society and are worshipped as almost supernatural beings. As an artist, I am constantly admired for what I do. At the same time, the idea that you have to be someone really special to be an artist has the effect of discouraging many people from making art a career. Creating art is generally looked upon as a hobby, or something one does on the side when not working at a "real" job. People are fascinated and intrigued when they meet someone who is a full-time artist, and always want to know what my secret is.

I don't have a secret, but I really wish I had supernatural powers. I always wanted to be an artist when I grew up, and I thought I would be a painter. I started painting when I was still in diapers, and that seemed to be where my talent lay. I went to a high school on the east coast that had an excellent art program for students who were planning on going to art school. At the time, I thought art school was the only place that could show me the way to an artist's life. As I approached my senior year though, it was becoming clear that I had little motivation to apply to any schools-- I was barely attending high school by this point-- much less do the work to get the scholarships and grants I would need to pay for the expensive art schools I was interested in.

In the end, after moving myself to California and spending a few years hanging out on the beaches of Santa Cruz, I skipped art school in favor of a degree in another subject that fascinates me, Anthropology. I went to UCSC where I learned to think critically, sharpen my writing skills, and acquire knowledge in many different fields I don't think I would have had the opportunity to delve into had I been ensconced in an art school. I took my first clay throwing classes at Cabrillo, a junior college (where I also met my husband, Andrew; that was a fabulous semester), and got my first job with ceramicist Sandi Dihl as a clay assistant within the year. That was my version of art school, and that's where I learned how to be an artist for a living. I can say without reservation that working for Sandi was the single most valuable experience I had in learning how to make art a business. Eeeew! Two words that should not go together? That will be a subject for another day...

Okay, I do have a secret, and this is it: If you want to be an artist for a living, work for another artist who is doing what you want to do. There is not an artist that I know that doesn't need some kind of help in their studio. If you know how to work and show up when you say you're going to show up, call up a professional artist right now and get yourself hired. You might not get paid very much, or anything at all, but to my mind, it's better than paying that $35,000 a year tuition at art school!

Friday, October 20, 2006

good days, bad days

There are good days in the studio, and there are bad days in the studio. A lot of people think that because I get to play with clay all day, every day must be a good day, and that is generally true. There are even some days that are amazing. Today was an amazing day, and it was doubly amazing because I was rebounding from a very bad yesterday.

The bad yesterday started out normally: a big dose of coffee and an early start in the studio to finish glazing a big round of orders. The studio was toasty warm because of a firing the day before. When the kiln was cool enough to start cracking, I peeked in as I always do. I'm usually so excited to see what comes out of the kiln, but today my heart started thumping hard and I felt sick to my stomache. On the top shelf I had 5 of my cake stands with the little sculpted birds perched on them. From what I could see the little birds were... missing. They had fallen off during the firing. Insert your choice of expletives here as I paced around my studio, taking this in. The kiln was full of these cake stands, and I had made them all at the same time, probably making the same mistake in attaching the birds over and over. It was a fair assumption that all of them had fallen off. And these were for orders that were already a few days behind!

The rest of the afternoon was spent stressing out, calling accounts to let them know their orders would be late, and stressing out some more. I finally left the studio around 7, dreading the next day; I would have to ditch my plans to make new work in preparation for a show and re-make all the cake stands. When I woke up this morning though, I felt fine. I knew I had a full day of work ahead of me and probably no time to go to the gym or enjoy the beautiful sunny day outside, but I still felt good. I went to the studio and threw all day long, 75 pounds of clay total. The clay was at the ideal firmness that I like to work with, the texture perfect. The clay and I were one: all I had to do was think about what I wanted it to do and it did it. I amazed myself by throwing all the cake plates in under an hour, they just flew off my fingers. I didn't want to stop-- I threw cake stands, lidded vessels, vases, bowls. Finally, around 4:30, the clay started wobbling. The magic was over. I've learned that when the magic is over, don't push it. I turned off the wheel and went for a walk, thanking the clay gods-- or whoever it was-- for an amazing day in the studio.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

the joys of trade

I spent the weekend working in Los Angeles, and had a chance to go visit my clothing designer friend, Carol Young, at her newly relocated boutique in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles. Her boutique carries her own seasonal clothing line as well as other unusual handcrafted personal and home accessories. It was a mostly pleasure and partly business visit, since I got to hang with Carol at her cool boutique and also stock up her store with some pottery.

Carol and I met years ago when we both had our work in ACCI Gallery in Berkeley. Carol made the best purses and shoulder bags, beautiful things that I could not afford back then. I really needed one of her shoulder bags to honeymoon in Italy with. I could see this bag with every outfit I was planning to bring with me, and I knew if I had this bag I would blend right in with the chic Italian women. I called her up to see if she wanted to trade some of my pottery for that bag, and a beautiful relationship based on trading our work was born. I still have the bag, and a few others from her collection. After almost 5 years, I continue to use them all the time, and people always ask me where they can get one too.

Carol is one of those people where you wonder if she has an extra twelve hours in the day that you don't have. Not only does she run her boutique by herself, she does all the design, cutting, and sewing of her work, with only sporadic help. Not to mention a patient & loving husband, a dog, and a house! Carol is a member of my tribe: still young, driven, ambitious, and talented. We always talk about how to continue to follow our artistic visions, yet still make money and be organized in our business. This is a never-ending conversation with all of my artist friends who make a living off their art. Here she is on a Sunday in her production area located in the back of the boutique, talking to a customer and laying out patterns.

Carol's hard work pays off though. I whirled around her boutique, trying on every item, while she went through bins of my pottery to sell at her store. Since Carol moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles back in 2003, I don't get to see her very often, and it's been a while since I've had an opportunity to see her clothes in person and put them on. Her clothing is so wearable, so comfortable and stylish. Carol also makes it a priority to work with sustainable and recycled fabrics, very satisfying to my tree hugging self. I walked away with two new pairs of pants and three tops to add to my collection of Carol Young wear. If you live in the L.A. area, stop by to see Carol, and buy some of my pottery from her so I can get more clothes!
Store: Carol Young
Address:1953 1/2 Hillhurst Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027

Friday, October 13, 2006

art takes time

Fall is always the busiest time of year for me. The year is divided into three seasons: "busy", "really busy", and "busiest". This year I am especially occupied with creating pottery because I’m filling the wholesale orders I took at the New York Gift Show in August, and everyone wants their pottery order in the store before the end of October. I also have retail shows for the holiday season to prepare for, not to mention putting together a fresh new collection for New York Gift in January.

I used to spend this time of year in a constant state of low-level panic, always trying to catch up, always feeling like I didn’t have enough work made, never satisfied with what I did accomplish. Actually, it wasn't just this time of year, but all year 'round. A typical work week was 10 hour days Monday through Friday, then sneaking in to my studio over the weekend to make more pots. "Vacations" were my own private hell where I would obsess over what I should be doing in the studio, what I wasn't doing, and precisely what I was going to do the second I stepped foot back in my dusty little chamber. My husband, Andrew, still refers to my studio as the "clay mines". Lovingly, of course. Everything else in life was sacrificed—relaxing evenings with Andrew, weekend outings with friends, my personal health and well-being--so I could see to my goals at the studio.

After years of reflecting on this problem, and gentle yet persistent prodding from Andrew to stop being an insane obsessive person about my pottery, I now understand that no matter what level of success I achieve, I’ll always be striving to be better than yesterday. I do not claim to have found “balance” between my work and my life outside my work. Yet, I’ve learned that stressing out trying to make pottery contradicts my basic values and keeps me from enjoying the things that are most important to me, including the very process of creating pottery. I now know that I will never have the perfect collection of work all at one time. There are always going to be weak spots that only I can see. Perfection isn’t even the point anyway.

Any artist will tell you that their best work seemingly comes out of nowhere. It actually comes from many hours or error, many days of thinking, months and years of imagining. Art takes time. True beauty--aesthetic, spiritual and beyond-- is born of trial and error. I believe this is true for all things that we encounter as human beings. It is the effort in achieving what is in my imagination and the experiments that are born from that process that make up the work that I do. As an artist that's all I can do, and I'm damn lucky to get paid for it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

sailing the bay

When Frank called me at my studio Friday afternoon and asked me to go sailing with him on Saturday, I had to say "yes". Frank bought this junky sailboat, the "Del Corazon", two years ago for $1800, docked it at the Berkeley Marina, and went to work restoring it. When a man buys a junky boat and says he's going to restore it, buys any junky thing and says he's going to restore it, the women around him will always doubt him. Women generally don't spend a lot of time restoring things. I know I love the idea of restoration, but the reality is I'd rather spend Saturday afternoons having tea parties with my girlfriends. Men, on the other hand, don't want to have tea parties on Saturday afternoon. In fact, they need somewhere to get away from the tea party. And so there you will find Frank working on his boat week after week, Andrew working on his VW's or bicycles, et cetera. When the men finally produce a restored product after a week, many months, or a couple of years, the women are delighted. So when Frank called me up to go sailing on his newly restored boat, I could only say yes.

Andrew was out of town that weekend, and Sidney was teaching a Saturday course, so it turned out to be just me and Frank and Florabelle the dog. The day was pristine, a real California fall day. Clear blue skies, a little searing edge on the temperature, and a breeze. Frank picked me up in his blue-smoke belching work van and very sweetly put a mat down over the layers of Peet's paper coffee cups and other effluvia of the past months. We laughed hysterically on the drive to the Marina as Frank menaced society in his usual fashion; buzzing joggers who have the nerve to jog in the road when there is a perfectly serviceable jogging path off the road, threatening a little kick dog and its cell-phone-talking-mercedes-driving-owner in the parking lot, nearly clipping another mercedes when the owner threw open his door without checking the rearview. I know I'm a bad influence on Frank because I find these things hilarious, which only encourages this behavior.

As Frank and I were readying the Del Corazon for sailing I asked him casually how many times he'd taken the boat out. Since I knew its maiden voyage was back in July, I figured it hadn't been out much. "Well..." said Frank, eyeing me out if the corner of his eye, "I've only taken it out twice so far".
"Okay", I said.
"Are you scared?" he asked.
"Of course not!" I said. We continued getting the boat ready as Frank gave me a rundown on terms and things I would be doing. I have sailed many times but usually in boats where I'm not expected to do much. This time was going to be very different since we were two on a 31-foot boat. I tried to absorb the information he was throwing at me and then asked, "Where did you learn how to sail?"
"Where?" Frank asked.
"Yeah, like did you grow up sailing or what?" I asked.
"Ummmm..." Frank said, choosing his words, "I'm just learning how to sail... on this boat".
"Oh", I said. Pause. "So you've really only sailed twice?" I asked.
"Yeah!" said Frank in this really positive way, like, "it's so much fun and here we are about to do it again!"
I sat with that for another minute. I really wasn't concerned about Frank's ability; Andrew is quite large and would happily kill anyone who brought harm to me, and my friends know it. Not to mention my sister who would scratch the perpetrator's eyes out. And my mom who would wail horribly at my funeral and make everyone wish they had never been born. I was actually way more concerned about my own ability. I know on a sailboat you have to move fast, and when I don't know exactly what I'm doing I have a hard time understanding English and following directions. The next question I asked him, "What inspired you to buy a sailboat when you don't know how to sail?"
"Well," said Frank, unwrapping the last of the jib sail (I think that's what he said it was called anyway), "I thought there would be a lot to learn", and if you know Frank, then that is the perfect answer.

We headed out into the Bay. It's Fleet Week in the Bay Area and the Blue Angels were going to be doing their thing over the water near the San Francisco marina. It was a big party on the water, tons of sailboats and raceboats and yachts. And sailboat races. And probably some race boat races too.

When the Blue Angels came out, I was so excited. I love air technology--jets, space shuttles, rockets--and the Blue Angels are so fast, they are completely silent. 10 seconds after they go by..."BOOOOOM!" I'm not into military stuff at all, and I think about the people around the world who have bombs dropped on them by these planes and whose homes are already on fire by the time they hear the jets go by. That said, human ingenuity never ceases to amaze me. It fucks with my head that it is used to hurt, maim, and kill, but I am impressed and thrilled to witness it nevertheless.

From where we were we saw the Blue Angels make an incredibly dramatic entrance over the Richmond hills, and then head over to the Marina area to do their stunts. I pointed and said to Frank, "I want to be over there". I wanted to be in the middle of the action. We sailed over and spent an hour or so dodging through boats as we watched the planes. A huge C-130 flew so low and so silently over the water, just yards above the tops of boats. The Blue Angels flew amazingly tight formations, peeling off, flying upside-down, and coming together again. Other jets flew straight up into the air, seemed to stall, and then twisted back down toward the bay, pulling out at the last second before hitting the water. I was actually steering the boat while Frank manned the sails and I finally had to say to him, "Tell me if I'm going to hit something because I can't take my eyes off these jets". I took a hundred pictures but the planes were so fast it was hard to get anything good.

Finally, the show was over. We set our course for Berkeley and I immediately became seasick. Frank gave me instructions on where not to puke, where I should puke if I were to puke, and then asked several times if I still felt like puking. I finally had to tell him to stop saying the word "puke" or I really would. He fed me some ginger candy and I fell asleep. When I woke up I felt well enough to pretend to puke on Frank's computer, eat the cupcake he'd been saving, and help steer the boat into harbor. On the map to the right you can see most of our course for the day as mapped by Frank's GPS, which is always strapped to his person. We are the green line. Can't wait to go again!


My life as a full-time artist is, in many ways, an ideal one and the life I imagined for myself when I was still a kid. I'm one of those people you see lounging around cafes in the middle of the day. I listen to music or the radio station of my choice all day. I take long breaks to go to the farmer's market or walk around Lake Merritt, and I definitely take more than the standard 3 weeks of vacation a year. It's a life of freedom. But when I'm engaged in the business of actually making pottery, it's all about getting the most amount of work done in the smallest amount of time. It's all about efficiency.

I'm always looking for ways to do things faster. It's a constant challenge and it sometimes takes years to work out a complete solution. Once a problem of efficiency presents itself, it stays on my mind and I work it over until I find a answer. Since I tend to be an obsessive sort of person, the examining of a problem over and over is totally satisfying to me.

One problem that I worked over recently is how to deal with the sculpted dogwood flowers I attach to some of my work. There are two problems of efficiency here. One is the process of attaching the flowers to the work in the first place. Each dogwood flower is made up of four individually made petals that are attached to the pottery one by one. To make it look "natural" the flowers need to overlap in a seemingly random way. It doesn't always look right and I can end up dismantling work and re-doing it, a huge waste of time. The second problem is glazing the piece. The dogwood flowers are always a different color than the pottery underneath it--what it is attached to-- and the time it takes to glaze around the flowers adds up. On bigger pieces it can take an hour or more just to glaze.

I've been thinking about this problem off and on for weeks. On a drive home to Oakland from southern California the other day I started seeing a solution. I could stamp out a tiny pad, less than 1 centimeter across, and attach the dogwood flowers to it. I can then attach these "flowers pads" to my work, and since the flowers are already assembled, I can tell ahead of time how they will overlap, thus eliminating the need to pull apart the work I've already done. On some pieces I will be able to attach the flowers to already glazed-- but still unfired pieces-- using Magic Mender (a type of clay glue), reducing some of the time I spend glazing pottery. I won't be able to use this last solution on everything, but I can use it on a lot of things. Maybe. I hope.

The flowers have been made and are waiting to be tested. I can't wait to see if it works!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

open studio

I do love an Open Studio. When I have visitors to my studio I like to make sure everything is totally neat and organized, and nothing makes me happy like walking into a beautifully clean studio. I'm always striving to make the time and practice the discipline to keep it looking neat every day, but like many things in life, the effort is sporadic. I also like meeting people while I'm completely in my element. Being crammed into a 10' x 10' booth at a show can be awkward and it's hard not to feel like I'm on display along with my work. Not to mention the hours of small talk you have to make with anyone who wanders in. And the occasional feeling that I'm just a salesgirl.

People who make the effort to visit my studio almost always walk out with something, which is gratifying. They can also get a sense of how the work is made-- there is the wheel, there is the kiln, there is the half-done work, all of it done right here with my hands... and my assistant's hands.

I have been in this studio since 1998. It is a 30-second walk from my front door so I have an ideal situation-- close enough to monitor late-night firings but I don't have to actually live in my work space as many artists do. The studio is part of a row of old commercial storefronts that used to actually serve our residential community back in a different era. I'm told that my space used to be a hair salon. The only trace of the old salon I can find now is an inordinate number of electrical plugs about every 7 feet lining the left side of my studio.

The best thing about and Open Studio? No booth fees!