Thursday, December 05, 2019

medical emergencies

I had a bit of a medical emergency last month. I was at my studio when I started to get a stomach ache. Over the next 90 minutes my entire stomach area started hurting so badly that I had to sit down. It was all I could do to get in my car and drive home.

I rolled around in pain for the next 18 hours before I decided something must really be wrong with me and went to the doctor, who sent me to the OR for an immediate appendix extraction. My appendix was so infected and swollen that it was already leaking gross stuff into my body, which doctors strafed with so much penicillin over the next 5 days that probably nothing will grow in my body ever again.

I have a very awesome kid in my life who came to visit me in the hospital, and said with all the dryness that comes naturally to a 14-year-old, "If you died, I would have been really mad at you, and I would have told everyone at your funeral that you died of stubbornness."

I laughed, because she is hilarious, but it's not exactly stubbornness that almost killed me. I'm not the only one in America who avoids doctors. Getting caught in the American medical system usually means one thing: you're about to spend more money than you have and bankruptcy may be the end result. And of course your own life is worth any amount of money-- of course-- but also, I do everything I can to just take care of myself.

I didn't have medical insurance my entire adult life until Obama came along, so it's a habit to avoid all doctors except for my gynecologist. When someone opened a door on me when I was riding my bike, they tried to cart me off in an ambulance, and I refused because I know how much that costs. I rode my stupid bike home like an idiot and was unable to walk for 3 days afterward. But hey, I was okay.

Even insurance doesn't keep you from having to spend horrifying amounts of money on your medical care. While I was in my hospital bed a very nice lady came into my room holding a laptop and informed me that my night as an inpatient would be a $2000 co-pay, and would I like to take care of that now? No, I would not. And I did not. Personally, I think it should be against the law to be asked to whip out a card while you are in a hospital gown.

We all know this is inhumane and unsustainable. Every time I hear a fucked-up story about a person's experience in the 9th Circle of Financial Medical Hell I feel a shiver in my soul, because I know there is really nothing that can protect me from that story becoming mine. It's bad enough that one is sick or hurt, worse that you have to hold a fundraiser to help pay your bills. By the way, that's a link to one of my dearest friend's GoFundMe page to help with his hospital bills after an accident. If you have some spare cash, send him some of it. Because this is the world we live in right now.

I also want to say that I feel incredibly fortunate that this appendix mishap is more of a financial inconvenience than a catastrophe. I'm lucky. But I may not always be lucky, and this is something that weighs on me every time I think I should maybe go to the doctor, and then don't.

Please feel free to share your medical hell story in the comments.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

identity change

Things are changing around here. For starters, this week I started my first teaching gig at Berkeley Potters Studio. It's just one night a week, an intermediate to advanced throwing class, but for me it's a big deal.

I've been asked on and off over the years to teach, and for the most part I have resisted. Many reasons, the most important one being that I spend all of my working hours making my own stuff, and I don't want anything getting in the way of that. One of my greatest pleasures in life is having complete control over my own schedule. The whole time I was a kid, I just could not wait to get out from under the tyranny of an imposed schedule. As an adult, I'm a bit protective over maintaining that control.

There are other reasons, and this one I'm a bit sheepish to admit, but here it is: the fact that I have been able to make a decent living as an artist for 20 straight years is a huge part of my identity. I'm proud that I can do this, and I have some ego wrapped up in it too. Let's say... a lot of ego.

Being attached to an idea of my own artist identity is something I've been breaking down, a process that probably started after my mom died. There are many scraps of enlightenment and self-knowledge that come from this, not all of them easy or pleasant.

One of the uneasy facts is that I am starting to get tired, and perhaps a little bored with this way of life. I still love making pottery and I am not at all tired of that, if anything I am more obsessed than ever. But depending on it for the sole source of my income is a cycle-- constantly renewing, always repeating, and never-ending. And almost all of my creativity is fire-hosed into this endeavor. And I wonder if there are other things I could do that wouldn't take up almost every ounce of my lifeblood.
And also, give me a different challenge.

The thought of being something other than a solely self-supporting artist has brought up feelings of diminishment and a loss of self-worth, and I'm asking myself: why? It's all about how I want to see myself, and how I want other people to see me. Being an artist means being something of an outsider to the rest of society, and I like that. I have a lot of identity wrapped up in it.

But all of that is also just a story, and the ego loves telling us a good story about who we are. Because as much as I would like to see myself as someone living on the edge, I could also be seen as a servant to capitalism and a slave to social media in my daily hustle to get the pots out of my studio and into people's homes. Was that the dream? And that too is just a story.

I'm moving through all of these feelings toward something different for my life. There is going to be more teaching, there may be a thing called "paychecks", and a new business may be coming out of all of this. I'll keep everyone who is interested in the loop, right here.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

big pots

I've been hitting the limits of my abilities on a few things lately. Hitting the edges of my skills can cause me unnecessary distress. I forget that it's okay that I don't know how to do every last thing with clay, and I can still learn new things. Or, maybe it's an impatience with learning new things, I just want to get by on what I already know. I don't have time! I'm a very busy person! It's an uncomfortable place of not-knowing before I can get excited about pushing myself into expanding my capacities.

I took an order for a big pot. A GIANT pot. When I took it I understood the measurements of the thing, and that it was going to be much bigger than what I usually make, but somehow spatially in my mind, it didn't compute. I was thinking, "no problem". Thrown, it needed to measure at least 19 inches high and almost 14 inches wide. That is a huge pot for me, most of my bigger vases are about 10 to 12 inches high.

I spent hours trying to throw this thing in one go, wedging bigger and bigger chunks of clay, straining my arms, shoulders, and back trying to conquer this pot.  I made some pretty big pots, but not even close to what I needed. I had way underestimated how the width of the pot was going to challenge my ability to get the pot as tall as I needed it to get. By the end of the day I had gone through well over 100 pounds of clay and was in a really, really bad mood. I figured I totally screwed up taking this order in the first place.

I stormed the studio the next morning, determined to try something different, the only thing I figured would work, which was to throw the pot in sections. I did not want to do this, so much so that I wasted hours trying to avoid it. If you throw in sections, you must be incredibly precise to make sure all the edges line up, not just the width but the direction of the piece. A few years ago, I made some extra tall vases where I threw them in two sections, and while the width matched-- I was able to piece them together-- the direction of the top section did not flow with the bottom. It actually made for a couple of interesting vases, and I sold both of them right away, but I wasn't that into it and I never did it again.

This one was going to be even more challenging because having hit my limit the day before, I already knew I was going to have to make this piece not in two sections, but three. UGH!!! Trying to match three sections from  top to bottom was going to take lots of time and precision, which is challenging to my snappy and impatient nature.

The way I did it was to throw each section extra thick and chunky. That way they would be strong and I could  stack the sections while they were on the bat and wet to see how it looked. If I needed to make any changes, I could do it and not have to start over. It was a long process, it pretty much took my whole work day to make two of these.

I went on vacation for 5 days after this, letting the sections firm up very slowly. At night, I would think about these sections, and wonder how well they were going to match up. How I was going to get these huge parts on top of each other without warping them? Did I make the bottom strong enough to hold the top sections? I wasn't sure. Each section was about 10 pounds, and I could easily imagine the bottom one slumping during the firing. These thoughts made for some awesome middle-of-the-night tossing and turning.

When I got back to the studio I was nervous but ready. And it only took a few minutes to stack everything up-- everything matched, the pots lined up. The sections were firm and felt light enough to lift without warping. I almost couldn't believe it:

It was good that I was forced into doing this. I have been wanting to make bigger pots but have been too entrenched in my regular work to actually make the move to do it. It opens up new possibilities, which is always an exciting place to be. Yeah, I can't wait to make some really big ass pots!

Here is the final product: a garden pot with a Germanic family crest:

Monday, July 08, 2019

hitting the wall

The clock is on countdown to the Clay and Glass Festival. Last week I finished more work than I thought was realistically possible, and somehow managed to get it all into the bisque kiln. Usually, a few pots won't make it in. Like, that kiln was packed. Right now, it's all coming down to pushing everything through the glaze firings. Pulling out the pieces of my booth. Getting packed.

I kind of hit the wall about mid-week last week. For me, hitting the wall happens when I'm getting bored, which can be instigated by overwork. Pottery was flying through my hands, I was getting a little bored with the repetition of it. Boredom, as I have mentioned before, is my kryptonite. My mind starts wandering onto topics like, "Why am I doing this?" "Is this is truly sustainable way to live?" "Are these designs any good at all?" Blah blah blah. So boring. I know exactly what's happening and why I am thinking these thoughts, and yet. And yet. It still gets me down.

Then, a friend stopped by to check in on me and yelled, "Oh my god, everything is so beautiful!" She doesn't know what the hell she is talking about, but it still made me feel a little bit better. No one really knows what they are talking about, even me.

By the way, if you want to come see me at the Clay and Glass Festival, here is the info:

Clay and Glass Festival in Palo Alto
Palo Alto Art Center
1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto
Booth 71
Note: It's always hot, bring water, sunscreen, and a hat. There is food but bring snacks anyway. Parking is crazy but there is valet parking, it's worth it. If you see something you like, buy it right away, you will never make it back to that particular booth.

This will be my 20th year doing this show and I really love it. The best thing about it is, I'm always down about my work going in because I've been working so hard and it never feels good enough. But by the time I leave I feel so inspired and ready to work again because of  the feedback I get. I take lots of notes while I'm there so I have a plan when I get back into the studio. I wish I had 3 or 4 more shows like this one.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

dreamy fun time

Things are suddenly very stacked up at the studio. Literally. Pots are stacked on top of each other because I ran out of shelf space. I have enough time to do one more round of work for the Clay and Glass Festival. And when I say "enough time" I mean I will be unloading a hot kiln load of work into a bin and throwing it into my car and driving directly to the show. That's how we do it around here.

I've been kind of amazing myself with how much work I have finished in the past few weeks. I always work better under pressure, which is good, because that's where I usually find myself with pottery deadlines.

 And there is a very good reason for that. When I have time, and I'm feeling all expansive, I usually use it to fuck around. I'll stare at pieces for 20 minutes, thinking about what to do with it. I'll gather some underglaze colors, then put them away and grab some different ones. I'll make some sketches. I'll gaze at my inspiration board for some... inspiration (almost never works, I don't know why I bother). I'll make some tea. Then lunch. Then more tea.

This is the dreamy artist life I've always wanted, but not a lot gets done during these periods and that doesn't always feel good. More work = more money. Dreamy fun time = no money. But I have to do dreamy fun time to be able to pull off the more work time. All the ideas I've been playing with this year, the new motifs, markings, styles, colors, is now getting fire hosed onto my newest work in a highly efficient way. I don't have time for thinking, for considering, for wondering what this particular bowl really wants to have for decoration and what is its highest expression. It's all stored up in my brain and I'm just doing the work. No blah blah blah, what should I do next.

It doesn't last though. I filled up my well and now I'm draining it, that's how it works. The hard part is not filling it up again, it's remembering to fill it up again. I'll tap it out and then wonder why nothing is coming when I turn on the tap. I start getting frustrated, and then depressed: it's all over for me, I'm all washed up. You have no idea how many times I've had that thought and imagined it was for real. I'll keep riding my little horsey until we both fall into a ditch, and it's only then that I' realize I forgot to feed it.

Dreamy fun time seems like an indulgence, but it's actually a necessity when you make a living off of ideas. This is why my trips to museums are written off as business expenses. Also, acrylic paint and canvas.  And coastal hikes. Dreamy fun time is actually a necessity for anyone who works, period. But we don't live in a culture that supports that idea at all.  It's seen as a privilege for privileged people only, and we buy that crap, which is why I "forget" and tap myself out. This time, I'm making a plan. What's yours?

Saturday, June 22, 2019

how high is too high?

I've been in the zone with pottery making lately. I'm getting ready for the Clay and Glass Festival in July, and every year it's a big push in May and June to get enough work made for the show. Every year I have the same goal: sell $10,000 worth of work. And every year I sell about $5,000.

There seems to be a ceiling, and part of that is because I don't even bring enough work to sell $10,000. By Sunday morning, my booth still has plenty of work, but the discerning eye can see the holes. I'm a master merchandiser, if I do say so myself, but even I can't hide the fact that every small and medium bowl is gone or there are only giant vases left.  This year, I'm not fucking around. I'm cranking out work. There will be enough to sell $10,000 worth. I think.

Or, maybe I don't make my magical $10,000 goal because my prices are not high enough. This thought has been an annoying buzz in my brain lately.

I had a very uncomfortable moment with pricing a couple of weeks ago. A request came in for a custom item, an item I don't normally make, with a specific design on it. I wrote the person back, telling them I can make this thing, but giving them a heads up that it's going to be expensive. They came to the studio and we worked out what they wanted, and even though I had told myself ahead of time that I would not give them a quote at the studio, but give myself time to think about it so I could come up with the appropriately outrageous number, I ended up dropping a number right then and there. I don't know why, which is a question I will be exploring with my internal therapist.

The customer was fine with that number, and then said that they thought it would be twice that. And they had been prepared for twice that. What I would like to know is why I was not prepared for twice that.

That incident coupled with the upcoming show and the question of my prices has me pondering a couple of things. First, what is the ceiling on pottery pricing for me personally and is influencing that cap? I wonder if I were a man, and asking for 15% more, would I get it? The answer to that question is "yes".  Then I start wondering if I need to present myself in a slightly different way to get higher prices. Because it's not just about the work. It never is.

And I have never been one to under price my work. From the start I've always asked for more, and part of that came from working for Sandi Dihl, and seeing how she priced her work. She always pushed prices higher. But I have been doing this for 20 years now--whaaaaat?!-- and I feel like I have plateaued on price. There are a host of reasons for that, including competition, the global economy, patriarchy, capitalism, blah blah blah, but I wonder about minute personal factors that are influencing my prices, and what I can do to change that up. These are not questions I enjoy pondering. But I think I would be a fool not to.

Back to the customer in my studio who is feeling relieved and surprised that they just saved $500. We talked about the price more, and we came to a price that would split the difference between what I just quoted and what they expected. I was transparent and honest in telling them that I don't always value my own work, which I hate admitting. It makes me mad at myself. But I realized in that moment that if we didn't balance the price between us, I was going to resent the hell out of that order, which would mean I would end up having to make it several times because the first one cracked in half, and the second one exploded in the kiln. That's how pottery works. It often expresses my internal conflicts, which forces me to reckon with myself. And that's why I'm an ARTIST! *confetti falls from the heavens, god smiles*

Here is a picture of some of what I made last week. I had to move work-in-progress onto my studio display shelves, because my ware carts were all filled up.

Monday, April 29, 2019

money freakout thoughts

Lately, I've been waking up at 2 in the morning, completely freaked out, almost panicked. A little piece of reality has recently lodged itself in my brain, and it's this: I'm going to turn 50 in the summer of 2020, and I have no idea how I'm going to pay for my own retirement.

The idea of retirement does not hold a lot of draw for me. I don't know if I will ever "retire" in the conventional sense. But the reality is, getting older usually  means losing some of your capacities, whether that's mental, or physical, or both. And even if you are that rare bird who continues to be strong and work at a high level of mental functioning after middle age, your capacity to earn money will be greatly diminished. People get forced into retirement all the time, and there is no guarantee that I will be able to continue working as long as I want to.

I would really like to know how I've gone from a normal person who thinks about retirement as something that definitely only happens to other people, to someone who is suddenly in the grip of recognizing that the future is coming for me and I better figure out how to get ready.

Being able to make a living as an artist has been one of the greatest privileges of my life, yet this privilege has cost me a lot of money. I don't have an employer who is giving me matching funds into a 401k plan. I pay self-employment tax, which theoretically helps to pay for my social security and contributes to medicare in the future, but after I'm done writing off every business expense that I possibly can, I'm not giving a whole lot to my own social security fund.  I received an estimate a few years back on what my monthly social security check will look like when I'm 65, and the sum was enough for me to buy a few rounds of cocktails for my bridge biddies at the old folk's home.

And when I say "old folk's home" I mean a cardboard box under a bridge.

So all of this has suddenly got me... a little bit panicked.

And I know that I am in a better position than most of my self-employed artist colleagues. I'm good at saving money, and I've always had a savings account that I usually put more into than I ever take out. I've been that way since I was a little kid. So I'm good at piling up money, and for some reason I thought that would be how I survived in the future, not that I liked to think about that very much. But what I'm coming to grips with is unless I hit some kind of jackpot, I'm actually never going to be able to save enough to take care of myself in the future. I have to figure out ways to make this money grow. The investing I've done is so limited that it's a bit embarrassing.

Also, I just have to make more money. Problem is, I now understand the limits of making money at pottery better than I ever did before.  I've had those years where I've grossed 6 figures in sales, and it is fucking stressful. Talk about waking up at 2 in the morning. I'm not interested in running a factory or having a bunch of employees. Been there, done that, no thank you.

I can raise my prices, make bigger and fancier work, and I think there is an income stream there... but that runs me into a wall I've been hitting lately, which is my need to diversify. I'm not sure that making money off of just making pottery is even that smart. Yes, it's taken me 20 years to creep up to this realization. Believe me, I don't like it either.

There is so much to say here, and this post is pretty long already, so I'm going to break it up. While I think about what to write next,  please post all questions, ideas, and 2 AM money freakout thoughts in the comment section. Thanks.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

not so sweet perfection

I have been working on a lot of new things in the studio. Probably too many new things, I have some serious backup in the brain and now it's all gushing out. I feel like after being in my new studio for a year -- A YEAR PEOPLE-- I'm finally getting into a groove.

 I'm missing the days when I used to have assistants to do all the little things that take so much time, like prepping items for shipment, mopping floors, or wedging clay. But, I also like the freedom and lack of obligation that comes with just working on my own. My only obligation is to the work, not to keeping someone employed. It's a huge responsibility to be a boss and I do not miss it. I just miss the bossing around part.

I have been working in a new clay body, a red clay called Navajo Wheel. Yes, it is insane to try and maintain a white porcelain studio while playing around with red clay, which stains everything it comes into contact with.  It's like making chocolate sauce in a marshmallow factory. But there is something delicious about this clay, its rustic feel.

I've been considering the meaning of "rustic" in my work. One of my challenges as an artist-maker person is I love to perfect an idea or concept. I will work that shit until it glows. And shines. And sparkles. And is perfect. So, so... so perfect. I can get carried away and not know that the horse I am relentlessly riding has lost its legs and doesn't want to go anymore.

What do I mean by that? I'm thinking of some ceramic artists, including myself, who have so perfected their processes, their style, and overall approach to making that the work has actually lost its energy, the static that makes it interesting. I will not name names because this is my own subjective opinion that has nothing to do with how other people feel about the work, it's something that I have noticed and have started considering as part of my own journey.

As a recovering perfectionist-- you are never fully recovered but always recovering-- it's important for me to always reckon with the costs of perfection and my internal desire for ultimate mastery over whatever I am doing. I have to consciously make the effort to kick a bucket of slop on my work in order to disrupt my drive for  sweet sweet  P E R F E C T I O N. It's a drug, straight to my brain. Kicking a bucket of sloppy red clay on my work forces me to try to tunnel my way out with a different approach. I creates energy in my work-- I think, I hope-- and keeps things always subtly changing.