What is success?

First publication - Potter's Council Wood-Fired Calendar 2010

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.

Bernard Leach

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.

Second publication - Pottery Production Practices

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.


About Claytastic

Health coach. Writer. Teacher. Artist. Living an amazing life with MS. Interested in bringing peace and beauty into people's lives.
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20 Responses to What is success?

  1. Terry says:

    Laurie – Not sure I have an answer to your question. But I have another question that is related. If you choose not to make your living from pottery – that is, you pursue another activity that you like doing to make a living – but you are serious about your pottery, so that although you classify it as a hobby, it is much more than that, can you still be a successful potter?

  2. claytastic says:

    Terry, that is an excellent question. I thought about that a lot as I was writing this post and thought about tackling that. But then I realized that (a) it would be the world’s longest blog post and (b) it might be a tad self serving. I know many think I am a successful potter because I have been published and my work has been accepted to juried shows. So by the quantitative factors, I am a successful potter. But I feel a bit sheepish about that idea since I don’t make my living from pots – heck, I have yet to break even. But I am willing to be convinced that I am a successful potter even though I have chosen to stay with an engaging day job. 🙂

  3. Jill Taylor says:

    I am an unsuccessful potter. But this is partly by choice. I have many reasons to make things out of clay but fame and fortune has never been one of them. My sales this year have been a bonus and a surprise. I admit it is addicting getting love, attention and money but always want to keep in mind that I don’t want to get seduced. I must also remain humble knowing if not for my husband’s pension, we would starve. What I do want to do is connect at a deep level with those who love and feel what I’m trying to say through my work. If I make a person smile, I have done my job. That is how I measure my success.

  4. Diana Morrow says:

    Success is a tricky subject, and money a fickle mistress. Does money give you the same fulfillment of seeing your work shining as you un-brick the kiln door? To me, seeing my work finally finished is like Christmas morning every time. Now, I admit that having a trust fund and making pots would be pretty sweet and I can’t hate anyone that happens to be so lucky, but if I have to be poor to enjoy what I do every day, then I choose to be poor. I just have to remind myself that life isn’t so bad and apparently I like being covered in dirt, so why would I want nice, expensive things that would take me working my buns off at some other job to afford them?

    One thing that helps me is visiting (or even googling) other countries that by our first world standards are terribly poor. Some of the happiest people I know have dirt floors and no air-conditioning. They make about one US dollar a week yet have such rich and fulfilling lives. Instead of asking how you define success, I would ask how you define fulfillment.

    • claytastic says:

      Thanks Diana. In many ways, I think we are saying the same thing. Happiness and doing what you love (i.e. fulfillment) is how I define success. I wasn’t lucky enough to find clay early on. If I had, my life would be very different. Yet, while I dream of making pottery my 24-7 avocation, I also don’t wish for a trust fund. I’ve never met anyone who has been given something without working for it be truly happy. As frustrating as it can be on a day to day basis to juggle work, pottery and maintaining my health (with never enough time for the latter two), I love that I have to work at it and am grateful for the opportunities I have, while I still have them.

  5. Jud Tavill says:

    Oh boy…
    Well… what to say…
    Honestly, I definitely didn’t mean my rant of a post to define success… I enjoy working and evolving… Making glazes which I have blown off ALL DAY now(retagging my Etsy site instead)is definitely my least favorite task…not a fan of the respirator.
    I have a much more “Buddhist” approach internally. I was hoping for some direction in terms of how my work is perceived, more because I am not in a group studio… I spend A LOT of time alone… I feel like I see the growth and wonder if my perception is different than others (like: am I crazy hear or is this evolution actually happening).
    I had a lot of wonderful responses to my work…. I would have(and still would) welcomed criticism: artistic, functional, and business.
    The tips that I received I immediately followed up on(it helped that I was avoiding glaze making…) and i believe it was an improvement to my web presence. I love doing the work…I just feel that one thing I LOVE about making functional art is knowing it will enter someone’s life and they will enjoy it when I have moved on to the next piece and for THIS…I want to sell my work…
    Money is great but that is a success in my mission… you might say… just give the stuff away… Frankly sometimes I do….literally and figuratively when you think calculate the amount of time that goes into each piece… If wanted to make money I would have stuck with designing clothing and mass manufactured it in China…That isn’t what I’m after here.
    We potters love what we love and (although I regularly try to love it) I don’t LOVE making glazes…
    Now I have no more excuses…So here I go!

    • claytastic says:

      Oh Judi, I hope you weren’t offended. I hope you know I am a huge fan of your work and I think your new glaze palette is amazing (it doesn’t show that you don’t like making glazes). But there was something about your post that reminded me about the conference discussion about success and what that means. Obviously it is different for different people. Most people in our society think success is measured by how much they make. But not us potters – the why of that is just an interesting thing to explore.

      As I said in my footnote, I know you weren’t complaining about money. However, sales can be an objective way we measure how good our pots are. (Your solicitation of critique is much more useful I think). And then I think of Warren Mackenzie. Many think he gives his pots away. But I think we can agree that he is successful because he clearly loves what he does and he has been hugely influential in American ceramics. Clearly he is not doing it for the money. None of us are. Thanks for sharing with us.

      Good luck with the glazes.

  6. Why do I do it? I like doing it. Am I successful? By conventional measures, no.

    I am not looking for complete happiness because I think it is an illusion. There’s a huge industry built on attaining happiness when what I believe is, you should treasure happiness when you have it – like the first blush of love, it will fade. Imagine if you were happy all the time – what reason would there be to explore or create or anything else? I find it is my drive to improve, improvise and create that keeps things interesting – and some of that drive comes out of dissatisfaction.

    I think fulfillment can be in part wealth and the security it brings, but beyond that it is for each person to decide what fulfills them. I can honestly say that seeing a completed piece after weeks of waiting is among one of the things that fills me with that glow, it feeds me in a way that no physical food can. I am also fulfilled in good feedback for my efforts, I enjoy hearing the stories of where my pieces go, since alas, I cannot keep all of them at home – and they have interesting lives as they travel.

    I think of the times I moan about a particular pottery task – like glazing for example. It isn’t the same moan I had when I worked for a corporation. My moans about glazing are saying something like “Oh I wish I could create anew all the time, but I know this is part of the process, oh well getting on with it over here.” When I used to moan about my corporate job, there wasn’t any equivocation – I felt the psyche destroying stress of the situation – when I complained it was because I hurt inside.

    Of course, I love getting paid for my work, I’d love recognition and yes I would very much like the media fairy to alight upon me and publish some little article. However, I am not even looking for that now. By that measure I am not successful, I came just lately to ceramics and there are brighter stars in the ceramicist heavens than I, and they are the ones deserving of the ink and spotlight.

  7. Teresa says:

    So multi-facetted…success in pots; successful potter. When I create a work, it is a success if it elicits a certain feeling (in me? others?), or if I accomplished what I set out to do.

    My work is spiritual. Some people love my work. Others don’t like it as well. Often, perceptions of my work’s value is influenced by geography.

    I go to many places. I sell stuff.

    I want time to create new things, but need to sell more stuff in order to make that possible. Could use crafts grants, but then up against a wall. In a funder’s eye, am I not successful enough to get a grant? In a bind.

    I make stuff. I sell stuff. Go to more places. Try to understand what I need to make, in order to sell more stuff.

    I WANT to make stuff, but not have to think of selling it. I still am traapped in making stuff to sell stuff. Therefore, I am not a success. Plus I’m not making much of a living–just squeaking by…following my calling, sort of.

  8. carter says:

    I think everyone commenting so far is mostly on the same page. No one became a potter to get rich, much less from their parents’ prompting. Everyone mostly agreed that there is an internal satisfaction/fulfillment that counts as success in a very real way. Being able to express ourselves creatively and add things of beauty to a world that is suffering from an overload of crass and soulless mass produced trinkets is a natural way that potters can feel good about themselves and what they do. This personal measure is certainly a component of how most of us would measure ‘success’. The main conflict with this standard is when there are pressures on our practice that make it irrelevant. If your cost of living exceeds what your pottery making contributes, and you depend on this income to make do, well, it might be hard to derive the same satisfaction from your art. The practice simply has more pressure on it to make ends meet.

    The more ‘success’ becomes measured by something external (making a living), the more the standards relate to something objective. One measure of ‘success’ would be the market place, but it is important to recognize that our audience is composed of individuals that like what they like, not because they understand what makes one pot ‘better’ than another (beginner vs 30 year practicing professional), but because it is simply what they like. No one else is an authority on what fits into their lives, and sometimes that beginner pot is just perfect, while something more sophisticated is just wrong. Funny, isn’t it? So I would suggest that just because things sell might bring a certain level of satisfaction/fulfillment there are other measures of ‘success’.

    Art students that are trained in academic institutions are educated in standards that are mostly irrelevant to or ignored by the larger public. And yet, these are sometimes the standards that are applied by our peers and by the community of gallery owners, museum curators, exhibition jurors, and serious collectors. These are the folks that would recognize a beginning pot for what it is, and appreciate the training and sophistication required by someone whose standards push them to a continual personal challenge.

    When we learn to make pots, when do we decide that what we are making is good enough? That it sells? That the walls are no longer lopsided? That we can center the clay most times? There is no one right answer. It should be obvious that the world needs pots of every kind. And it should be obvious that if you are enjoying what you do you are doing something fundamentally right. That is, perhaps, the most important thing. But I would also suggest that we be clear on just which things we are measuring our success by. The fact that pots sell SHOULD make the artist feel appreciated. The fact that someone wanted it in their home does not necessarily mean a gallery owner feels the same way, a museum will want to purchase it, or that it will get you into grad school. And that is as it should be. Not everyone needs to go to grad school, and that wouldn’t make most of us happy either. Make what you like making. Make it as well as you can. Add some serious beauty to the world while you are at it. Get it to the appropriate audience. Enjoy what you are doing. Make a living if you need to. And be at peace with yourself.

  9. Jud Tavill says:

    I hope my tone didn’t sound angry…NOT AT ALL!!!
    Love you guys… only love from me to all potters!

  10. ellisonbaypottery says:

    I loved reading all the comments and found I had much in common with the speakers. But our perspective is different. We make a living making functional and decorative pottery. We love what we do and we ARE in it for the money. It’s our business. We pay the mortgage with our labors. We love the compliments but we love it more when people are willing to exchange their money for our work. We have no employees. We do everything ourselves. We have a small studio and gallery. It is hard. I have part-time jobs to fill in the slow times. We couldn’t do it any other way. It must be hard to think of giving up the security of the day job. There are days when a ‘job’ job would be safer for us. But those are infrequent. We are lucky to have been where we are doing what we want: making pottery for the past 36 years.

    • claytastic says:

      Thank you EBP. And congratulations on your success 🙂

      Making a living as a potter may not be the only definition of success, but it is up there. I admire the hard work you put in and am thrilled that you enjoy it so.

  11. Katerina says:

    I think that making money from what you do is required, if not then very important. It is a means to keep going. What pots would I speak of if cannot pay the bills?

    So with that out of the way, Success is constantly having the courage to change things to make “better” pottery and stay on top of self-development in practice. Setting the bar higher and higher. That is success to me.

  12. Heidi says:

    Great blog Laurie!

    For me success has been an evolution. I used to get so excited to get a commission check from a gallery, then it was being asked to teach, and then getting into certain art fairs. I felt successful, but with more accomplishments also came more failures. It isn’t a 90:10 ratio it’s more like 50/50.

    Now I determine my success as a pottery, as being kind. Even when someone walks into my booth at an art fair asks me (for the 100 time) if I made all this. I don’t snarl and say of course. I say “Yes, and ask them if they are familiar with ceramics.” And I’m sure we’ve all met potters who are arrogant, but I hope to not become that way.

    Success to me is explaining the importance of ceramics/art to our culture at large and being a kind person. 🙂

    Money, what’s money?

    • claytastic says:

      Heidi, Well said. And you bring up a good point. Our definition of success changes over time. I still do a happy dance with every online sale, but maybe not as perky as when I started out.

      Tonight I just got the sweetest note from a customer about yunomi that I thought just rocked this world. He said it was “spectacular” and “exceeded all expectations.” Wow. This must be what success feels like.

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