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.
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.
I'm looking for a ceramic artist that might be able to make me some christmas gifts. I recently discovered *well-known potter's goddess ware* and I'm looking for something similar (I'd buy directly from her but they sell out sooo fast). I love how body-positive and woman-positive her pieces are and I love the simplicity of the design. Would you consider making a sketch of a couple pieces inspired by her work? I really like your work too, I'm pretty interested to see what you might come up with. Thanks for considering!
I immediately put this email in the trash so I would not be tempted to answer it, but then was thinking about it in the middle of the night. The way you think about all the things that are bothering you in the middle of the night. I pulled it out of the trash the next morning and tried to compose the perfect email. One that was devoid of snark and drained of hostility while declining the opportunity, and perhaps giving a little education on how this thing of ordering custom pieces from artists is supposed to work. 30 minutes went by before I realized there are no words in the English language that I can string together in the right order that would say what I needed to say without being snarky and hostile. Into the trash it went again. Thankfully, I have you people to rant to.
There are so many things wrong with this email. For starters, do I look like a fucking clay elf, sitting around my workshop, making sketches of work to see if I can tempt a customer to order something? I will turn cartwheels and somersaults while I wait to see if you are interested in what I come up with! I immediately looked at the other artist's work of course, and literally the only thing we have in common is that we both make functional things out of clay.
This is the thing, and the educational bit I was trying to get across, but couldn't: Every artist out there who has been able to work long enough to have a recognizable style has had to work for years to get there, refining their processes to get a consistent result that satisfies them. This artist's "simplicity of design" has been achieved not because it is simple, it's that she is so skilled at what she doesand makes it look simple. Simple design is not simple work.
I get that this person did not have bad intentions or wanted to insult me, which is why I did not unload on them... I'm unloading here. They are just supremely ignorant about how artists work and what moves us to make things. Or, more precisely, what moves me to make things.
I love that moment when I am inspired by what other artists have made, it's like a light going on inside me. I live for that moment. It cannot be forced or manufactured. And when I try to force or manufacture it, I'm never happy with the result. It's not me, but a poor derivative of what someone else made way better than I did. I can't work like that, especially on purpose. Almost no artist can.
Lastly, if you are in love with what an artist makes but they are always selling out, then write to them directly and ask them to make something for you. This artist who makes the goddess ware has a contact page with an email address! Any artist who is trying to make a living recognizes that the people who hold up their hands and ask for your work are the people who really support and grow your business, and most are happy to oblige these people. Don't ask another artist to do it.
It's been over a year and a half since my mom died, and lately I've been feeling like my body is coming back down to earth. I've been feeling a little more grounded and ready to take on some things that seemed way too overwhelming even six months ago. I'm looking around, sort of the way I do when I wake up, and realizing there are many costs to the grieving process. You can't do anything about that, by the way. There is no way to grieve and not lose some shit along the way. I'm not saying you don't get some shit too, you do get something, just not the things you wanted.
The main cost to me, outside of losing my mom, has been losing my sense of direction in my work. For almost two years now I've been making stuff, it comes out of the kiln and often I have no idea why I made that thing. For example, I decided to make some whiskey cups. I spent some time coming up with a design, made them, and when they came out of the kiln I was like, "Why the fuck did I make these?" They are in no way an expression of anything I am interested in right now. I don't even LIKE whiskey. Why whiskey cups? I don't know, and I don't remember what I was thinking when I landed on the idea. I went and bought a bunch of mini succulents and planted them in the whiskey cups, which is a better use of these pieces as far as I'm concerned.
And yes, I know, they don't have to be WHISKEY cups, they can be any kind of small cup. No matter what you call them, I'm really not into making little cups.
My studio feels like a jumble of random thoughts and ideas, manifested in pottery. I spent a very long time the other day re-arranging my work on the shelf so it looked like one person worked there and not 7 different people. I was visually trying to link of the concepts and colors, which actually did make the display look better but does not solve the underlying problem. Or maybe it's a question: what next?
I know for starters, I do not want to make small work anymore. And I mean that in the physical sense, like whiskey cups and little condiment plates. And perhaps I also mean it in the metaphorical sense: I want to break out of the box I've put myself in. My comfortable, cozy, familiar little box. I want to make bigger work-- big giant bowls, big vases-- but I also want to make wall pieces and lighting and maybe weird ceramic furniture too. Also, I want to take my drawings and turn them into cards and other paper stuff. I've been saying this for a while, and now I'm saying it to you all because getting out of your box means being opening the flap enough to stick your head out and admit that it's time. It's accountability.
All of this makes me very uncomfortable, of course. And excited for what may be next, if I can ever get my shit together enough to make something new happen. Not having a cohesive collection of work makes me feel like I have not accomplished much in the past 18 months, which equals discomfort. While I don't think "accomplishing" was the most important thing I could be doing while I was in the depths of grieving my mother, I'll just say again that it was a cost. It's the price I had to pay. And the process is not over, but it is shifting into new territory. And it leaves me wanting a little more for my life.
The studio has been ready to go for about two weeks. I still need to get a mailbox, for some reason there is not a mailbox or even a slot big enough to shove mail through my door. Weird? But the big long list of Stuff To Do has been knocked down, including getting privacy film up on my fishbowl windows, a task that really needs two sets of hands. But I did it myself because as we all know, I can't wait till my husband gets off work to help me. Best of all, the banks of fluorescent lights are gone, replaced by some very cute and colorful pendants.
So, I'm all raring to get back to work, right? Not exactly. Yes, dying to work. But, don't know what I want to make. What I know for sure is that I am ready for a shift in my work. But I'm not sure what that looks like yet.
Right before my mom died, I was starting to think about new work and a whole new approach to my business. Months later, when I was back in my studio, I literally could not remember what that plan was, and I did not have the creative spirit to try and figure it out anyway. And I decided not to ride myself about that because clearly, it was not the time to develop new work. But now I'm in my new studio, in a new town, and I feel ready, but I'm also slightly overwhelmed by all of the new things. I love my new life, I'm just not quite used to it yet.
I'm preparing my first firing for next week with some stuff that I made, and of course it's just been torture hour day after day, trying to figure out how to find some satisfaction in making these pieces, trying to find some new expression, and questioning my ability to do so. My ego has been pounding me, which is just making my creativity want to go take a nap until that guy shuts up. WHO CAN WORK WITH ALL OF THIS YAKKING GOING ON?!
It was a hard weekend, lost in these thoughts during the day, then trying to work it out in uncomfortable dreams at night. Have you ever tried to fire in a kiln that is loaded into the back of a truck that is traveling over bumpy, windy, hilly roads? I have. In my bad dreams.
Then I decided that this is a terrible way to live. The only way to make new work is to keep making work, any kind of work, and not thinking about it. And I can't make new work if I'm staring at a piece for 30 minutes, trying to get the nerve to make a move on it. Trying to be fresh. Trying to be a genius. Just trying too hard. The only goal is this: put aside all doubt, and make some shitty work.