Wednesday, February 07, 2007

what is an artist?

Back in California, home again. It was so cold the day I left New York City that my plane sat on the runway for almost an hour as they tried to defrost the water tank. In the end, we were told we could flush the toilets, but there wasn't enough water for everyone to wash their hands and we should use the soap that you don't need water for. OR they could cancel the flight. A minor riot started at that suggestion and everyone agreed that washing hands with water was not necessary. Six hours later, in Oakland, Drew drove me home from the airport with the windows rolled down at 10 pm. The flowers on the plum trees in our neighborhood are starting to bud, an event I look forward to every February. As much I love and adore New York City, three weeks is clearly too long to be away from the Bay Area.

As I unpack my bags, check on the studio, organize my orders, I've been asking myself some serious questions about the direction my career has taken in the last year. It's been a year since I started doing the Gift show, I've shown up three times, and I wonder if I belong there. While it's been an exciting challenge to be in a world marketplace and compete on that level, I don't feel like it's much of a creative challenge. It doesn't make me a better artist, and for the first time at this last show, I didn't feel like an artist. I took more orders on the first day than I did the whole week at the August show, and instead of feeling excited and happy, I just felt sort of doomed. I definitely noticed how crappy I felt because usually when I sell a lot of my work, I want to drink a bunch of wine, have a great dinner with friends, and I can't wait to get back to the studio and make new work. But all I felt was an overwhelming sense of dread.

I think the bottom line is that when I'm at the Gift show, I'm representing this line of product that is made under the label of "Whitney Smith Pottery". Most people passing by or stopping in my booth don't identify me as "Whitney Smith" or understand that what they are looking at is something I make with my hands. My pottery is nothing more than merchandise-- albeit beautiful merch, but nothing more than that. I don't have to let that bother me. In fact I can just laugh my way all the way to the bank. Problem is, I started making pottery so I would have an outlet to create something that would please me, and always challenge me to do better and be the most amazing artist I could possibly be.

So then the next question is, can I do both? I look back at the last year and I have to say that so far the answer is "no". 2006 was one of the most difficult years for me since I started working as a potter full-time in 2000, mostly because I've been under constant pressure to fill orders, and had very little time to explore and create new work. My sketch books are packed with unfulfilled ideas, dreams, and inspiration, and that does not make me feel happy or fulfilled as an artist. When I think of canceling my New York show in August, all I feel is an incredible sense of relief. No disappointment or regret.

The ideas I'm putting out there in this posting is an ongoing discussion that I have with all of my artist friends, balancing the money with the art. I would like it if every single person who is reading this post would take a minute to make a comment on what they think about what I've written.

sleepwalkers at the MOMA

Myself and a group of friends made a trip to the MOMA a couple of weeks ago to see Doug Aitkin's outdoor video installation, which is being projected onto the outer walls of the MOMA at night through Feb 7. It was nice going to see this without any preconceived notion of what the installation was about or even what it was called. The narrative was focused on 5 different people, and the videos were being projected simultaneously around the building, all at different points in the loop of the video.
As I watched it, trying to catch the narrative, I was making my own narrative. I thought how much we are all connected by despair. Other, happier emotions too, but despair, a sense of disconnection, loneliness, and a kind of boredom with the repetition of life. I never envy anybody's life because I know that no matter how successful, how rich, or seemingly perfect, most people are struggling to get through life and avoid as much pain as possible. Nobody has it easy.
The installation was called "Sleepwalkers", and as it turned out, focused on people who are working the night shift. I loved it.