Saturday, March 20, 2010

get a mentor

I'm getting close to finishing up my series of postings on making pottery-- or any art-- your business. If you haven't read my five brilliant points yet, read them right here. Today I'm writing about point #1: get a mentor.

I put mentoring as #1 because in my case, having a mentor was vital toward establishing my pottery business. My whole life, I wanted to be an artist as a profession. No other profession remotely appealed to me as much as being an artist. But that goal always seemed very fuzzy and vague. After all, there is not a clear road toward becoming a professional artist. If you want to be a doctor, one knows exactly what to do. But to be an artist is in a completely different realm, and the path toward becoming an artist reflects the difficulty in being an artist. One must fashion it for oneself, which requires creativity, drive, vision, and desire.

Having a mentor is one of the things you can do to help yourself see that path wending through the woods. Your mentor should be somebody who has achieved a level of success in their field that you are trying to achieve. And remember, you will have lots of mentors over the years, so don't get stuck on trying to choose the perfect person. You may outgrown a mentor or even surpass them. Your goals may change. Your life may change.

So, how does one find a mentor? In my case, I worked for a woman for several years who was a successful ceramic artist. There was no formal agreement that she was my mentor, and I didn't think of her that way, she was simply my boss. But while I worked for her, I was absorbing all of her success and learning how she ran her little business, which taught me more in two years than I ever could have learned anywhere else.

Finding someone to work for is probably the easiest way to learn from a mentor. Look around your area, and find the people whose success you want to emulate. Work for them for free, if you can. I never told my boss this, but I would have totally worked for her for free even though I was a poor college student and needed money. If you can't work for someone else or can't find someone in your area, then get online. Look through your network and find someone through your connections. Make the connection if you don't have one.

Basically, if you want a mentor, you have to go out and get one. And yes, it means getting out there and pushing past your comfort boundaries. You may get rejected, not everyone is interested in guiding others. It may take you a little while to find the right person who can give you the help you need. Help yourself find the right person by making a list of what you would like to get out of a mentor relationship. Some things might be:
  • advice on applying to the right shows.
  • honest feedback on your work.
  • help in meeting the "right" people in your field.
Does anyone else have advice on finding a mentor, or are you interested in being a mentor? Post here so someone can find you!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

taking the leap: when to start selling your work

I'm continuing my series today on making pottery-- or any art-- a business. If you haven't read my five pieces of sage advice yet, you can read them right here. Today I'm going to write about point #2: Don't sell mediocre work just because you can. And I'm going to add an addendum to that statement: Don't wait until your work is perfect before you start selling.

I often think about what I would have done if things like Etsy were around when I first started making pottery. From the start, people liked my work. My first studio was an incredible selling venue: a garage studio situated right along the ocean in Santa Cruz where dozens of people walked by every day. I kept the garage door open while I worked so I could get some light and see the ocean. People always stopped by and wanted to buy things or place orders, but I wasn't interested in that, yet. I was still learning, and I was advancing so rapidly that when I looked at something I made a month before, I cringed, because what I was making 4 weeks later was so much better. I always gave my work away because frankly, I wanted to get rid of it so I could make more and better work. Trying to sell it would have meant I would quickly be buried under a mountain of my own mediocre pottery.

I think people have a right to sell whatever they want on Etsy or similar venues, and I see a fair amount of work being sold that I think looks like beginner work. But if your desire is to turn your art into a business, I think it's important to consider when is the appropriate time to launch your work into the marketplace. Artists need space to develop without the outside world piping in their opinion about what you are making. If your artwork is still in process of finding its voice, I really believe that turning it out for public consumption interrupts your personal artistic journey. Your art is your precious baby, protect it until it's ready to face the public.

At the same time, public feedback can be an incredible spur to making better and more sophisticated work. If your goal is to sell your work, you don't want to wait too long to begin selling or continually use your fear about getting feedback from the public-- not your mother-- to hold you back from getting out there in the marketplace. It takes an incredible amount of courage to set up that first table and start selling, and you will learn so much about your own work as you watch people pick it up and interact with it. Don't let your fear deprive yourself of that learning experience.

There is no magic formula to when your work is "good enough" for the marketplace, and it is true that most artists will continue to improve throughout much of their career. I still consider myself a student of pottery, I'm learning and -- I hope-- still improving my work. But I do think one needs to be out of that rapid growth and improvement stage, where from month to month your work looks markedly better, before you start selling. I laugh when I see pottery that I made in my beginner years in my friend's houses. I love that I can still see it, and they keep it as evidence of where I came from. I don't know if I would laugh if I saw images of it on the web, or if it were part of my "sold" items in my Etsy shop.

Being able to sell your work is definitely validation that your efforts can bear fruit in the form of money, but it does not make you a better artist than you were yesterday, nor does it make you less of an artist to not sell your work . It's a personal decision whether and when to sell your work, no one else beside yourself can tell you when you are ready.

This blog post is a great example of putting things out there before they are ready for the public. I heavily edited it after publishing, so you may want to hit that "refresh" button to make sure you are reading my final version!