A few weeks ago, I attended “Making through Living, Living through Making“, a pre-NCECA conference outside of Philadelphia. There were some great subjects that came up during the two days of demos and panels. While I will be sharing many of those as time goes on, having just read Judy Tavill’s latest post about slow sales, I realized it was time to bring out the biggest question for me from the conference.
What does it mean to be successful in the field of ceramics art?*
How is that for big? Got your own ideas? Read on and then share them.
I used to be a lawyer where defining success is easy. Making partner at a law firm is the pinnacle. Winning a case in front of the Supreme Court is another. Putting away a serial killer, yet another. There are numerous and quantifiable measures of success in the legal field. But pottery success is not so easy to define or quantifiable.
I was a success driven person for a long time (yeah, I did the whole partner thing). But when I decided to become a potter and make that transition from hobby to living (not that I am there yet), I was stymied about what success would mean as a potter. There are no easy ways to define a successful potter, like there are lawyers. So I put that question aside for a long time to focus on improving my pots. But then my work started to get recognized. And the question arose again. Again, I put the question aside not wanting to get distracted by the pursuit of success (I had learned my lessons while a lawyer). However, as I hear potters complain about low sales (I’ve been one of them) and I hear discussions at a conference, I am compelled to explore this subject. This time with some perspective.
So what does a successful potter look like? Some think that success is getting your work published. Or winning awards. Or being influential like Bernard Leach. Or getting your work into museums. Or having lots of sales. While all of these things are nice, I posit that success is broader than any one of these things and is more qualitative.
Paraphrasing Mary Barringer, people don’t become potters because their parents want them to. People become potters because they love the medium. So why measure the success of a potter by the quantifiable standards of the legal or other professions? While potters are business people by necessity, being a potter is not as much about business as it is about a lifestyle. Hence, I believe the a potter’s success is a qualitative measure.
I propose that a successful potter is someone who can make a living by making good pots, even if that also means teaching, or making and selling tools, or any of the other numerous side endeavors potters engage in to make enough money to pay the bills and continue to make good pots. Why is this my measure of success? Because that person is doing what they love and any person who can do that is a success in my mind.
I know few lawyers that love what they do. But potters – I rarely find a potter that doesn’t love making pots. Oh there are tasks they might hate. But they love making. And in the big scheme of today’s world, doing what you love, as opposed to loving the rewards of what you do is what it is all about.
I know there are some who have left the field because it was too difficult to make a living or they got burned out while doing so. But making a living is not an easy thing, no matter how you try. My father made a living in heavy construction. It wasn’t easy and it was fraught with dangers. But most days, he loved what he did. But deep down, he didn’t like how hard he had to work and the sacrifices to family and his own body he had to made. So he unwittingly encouraged me use my head not my body to make a living. Yes, I made 4 times what he did in his best year and I was a success in my field, but I rarely liked going to work.
At the end of the day, we all struggle and make sacrifices to make a living – that’s why they call it work. Both lawyers and welders sacrifice family time and/or health. Potters, (artists, activists, etc.) often sacrifice health insurance and a steady income. Even those of us who still have day jobs as we try to forge a ceramics career make sacrifices as we strive to make a living through pottery. For those that are able to make it work, you are a success in my mind.
What do you think it means to be a successful potter?
*Note: I know this is not the question Judi is asking. However, I could relate to the frustration of slow sales juxtaposed with loving your work. What am I missing, I wonder? It was this juxtaposition that made me think about success and the standards we place on ourselves.