Wednesday, October 12, 2016

doing the new work

I've been making some porcelain jewelry in the last month. It's something I have been thinking about for about 5 years. I was talking with a friend of mine about the difficulty of breaking out of our normal habits of making and trying something new. In fact, sometimes as artists it feels like the hardest thing in the world that we can do is try something new, even though that is the very thing we have to do to even make good work.

I think following the impulse of a new idea is so important, yet I often bat away that impulse because it can frequently feel inconvenient and uncomfortable to try something new. I feel a little bit ashamed even saying that. It's like not wanting to go to bat when you're a baseball player.  I almost feel like I am trying to contain my own creativity, keep it enclosed, safe, in a place of knowing exactly what I am doing. I guess it's just the comfort zone, but ultimately it makes me feel muffled. As I get older I am starting to think that my life's work isn't so much about the work itself, but trying to open myself up enough to even get it out there.

A grandma bracelet.
Getting back to the jewelry, I had to fight some negative feelings I have about clay-based jewelry,
even while I was making it. Like jewelry in general is frivolous and fashion-driven, which is not even something that I really believe, yet my brain conjured it up as an excuse not to get involved. 
And clay is for bowls, and sculpture, and things like that-- not jewelry. That ceramic jewelry is silly because it is breakable; my grandmother was a silversmith and made gorgeous silver and turquoise jewelry, and that formed an early imprint in my brain that "real" jewelry is metal and mineral.  And jewelry is a universe I don't know well, and who do I think I am even trying to break into that world. Go back to your wheel, potter.

All of that is just garden-variety resistance, trying to find excuses for not doing something new that I basically know nothing about yet. The state of not-knowing can be fun, but it can take me some work to get there, feel the excitement. My friend and I challenged each other to take one of the many things on our list that we have wanted to try, and hold each other accountable for showing some work on it within a month.

One thing that really helped-- and this was her idea-- was to break down the process into as many small steps as possible. This was good because I could start the first step easily, and then just the process of starting that one step carried me along to the next step. And without resistance or fear I was able to move through all of the steps, and before I knew it I had a small collection of work that I could start refining.

If you are having trouble trying something new that you have been thinking about for a while, I recommend that you break the process down to as many small steps as possible. I hate it when people tell me to break things down into steps, because that sounds very thoughtful and sane and I like to just fling myself at things and use blind will to carry me through. But the 10 minutes of pre-planning I put into it paid off.  It made things easier for me. We all know by now that I prefer to do things the hard way so I can suffer a little bit-- or a lot-- but I think I will try it again with my next project. Maybe I can become a more thoughtful and sane person.

And now you must be dying to see my new jewelry, I'm dying to show it to you. Here is a selection of some favorites:

Monday, September 19, 2016

more, better, faster

Potters are generally people who like to get things done. When you're on the wheel, you can whip off cup after cup, bowl after bowl in a matter of minutes. When you get good at making pottery, it's easy to be productive, and we like to be productive. To be a successful potter, it's all about production, which comes down to this: more, better, faster.

When I first started creating the new body of work I'm into now, it forced me to slow down because I didn't know what I was doing. The technique and approach meant that making one piece could take a half day or more, which short-circuited my production-oriented mind. But I did what I always do, what all potters do, which is problem solve and figure out better ways of doing things so I could move faster through the process and make more work. This is all well and good, since getting bogged down in a slow, labor intensive and repetitve process is torture. Unless you like that kind of thing. And if you do, you are likely not a potter.

I've come up with two different collections that I can make relatively easily and don't have a lot of things that can go wrong, which makes it ideal for wholesale. I haven't done a push for wholesale accounts in years, because I've managed to sell my work on my own without having to mark it down to wholesale prices. But sales are still slow, so I feel like I need to get more work out there through wholesale.

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know I do not like wholesale. I have to come up with a price that's low enough for retailers to be able to double the price and still be able to sell the piece, which just puts any maker into kind of a bad spot. Because then I have to sell the piece for that same price, I can't undercut my retailers. It's a very uncomfortable balancing act. And I wonder is it's even worth it-- it's not like the retailers are banging the door down anyway. Would it be better to just give a lower price to my own customers and forget wholesale completely, once and for all? I would rather have one good customer of my own over any single wholesale account any day.

But then the question is, how much can you lower your price before you start undermining the value of your own work? I think having a lot of wholesale accounts can erode a pottery business' finances because you're doing all of the work for half the pay, but there is the fact that they are marketing your work at a certain price point, creating an expectation of what your work will cost. Does that balance out the cost to the business?

A lot of questions today, and not a lot of answers. I'd love to know what you think. Go ahead, tell me what to do!

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

more thoughts on burnout

I have mentioned before my serious love for podcasts. I have a long list of favorite podcasts and shows that I listen to regularly. One of them is called Millennial, a show about getting through life as a 20-something millennial. That probably sounds awful to a lot of you, especially for us cranky Gen-Xer's who are so disgusted by the Millennial cultivation of nostalgia for the artifacts of our 80's and 90's youth, which has effectively delivered the message that we are old. And that sentence right there shows exactly how old I am. I'm sure I annoyed Boomers in the exact same way with my love for the Doors, hippy skirts from India, and acid trips.

Anyway, I like Millennial quite a bit because the host, Megan Tan, is delightful, and smart, and shares the experience of being a 20-something in a way that is interesting and engaging, and reminds me to not judge Millennials too harshly. They are just trying to figure it out, like we all are. Millennials just happen to be younger and more energetic, which they totally take for granted, and that is the most galling thing of all.

One of the latest episodes resonated with me because it was about burnout. Everyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I have been in a back-and-forth battle with creative burnout. Right now I am in a good place, and have been for at least 2 1/2 years, but I also had to take a yearlong break away from pottery to get there.

Many of my friends are creatives in different fields. These are people who have worked for themselves for going on two decades blowing glass, making films, composing music, throwing pottery, making paintings, teaching and writing.  And almost all of them have experienced the same kinds of creative burnout I did, and some of them are in the thick of it right now.

Burnout in mid-life is especially difficult, because it comes with two questions: Do I want to do this thing anymore? And if the answer is "no", then what the hell do I do instead? Changing what you do for a living in your 40's and 50's is fucking scary. And it can also be the first real acknowledgement that you are no longer young, and just dropping one thing to try something else comes with real consequences that you may not be able to ride out easily.

I used to view burnout as an inevitable result of making a living as an artist. To be even marginally successful, you have to be obsessed, and work much harder than the average person is willing to work. That's the deal. Obsession brings imbalance, and with that comes the boredom, the indifference, the fatigue and irritability that are all hallmarks of burnout. Now that I've been to the dark side of burnout and back, I wonder if burnout is avoidable?

One of the things I like about Megan Tan is that she asks for help. Basically her entire podcast is about how to leap frog from lily pad to lily pad, and asking for help along the way. I didn't ask for help when I was in my 20's. I thought it showed strength to figure to out for myself, and as we all know, I like to learn things the hard way. If I can't learn it the hard way, then I don't want to learn it. Now that I know better, part of the reason that I still write this blog is so I can share what I've learned and make it easier for other people.

So here is my current list of things creatives should do to avoid or manage their burnout:

  1. Take a break. Obvious, right? But how do you take breaks when you are busy and really really into whatever it is that you are doing? I've started a practice of stopping work for the day while I am still in that space of wanting to do more. I leave the studio with desire in my heart, not with exhaustion because I worked for too long. Also, I take a walk around the block after lunch even though what I want to do is get back to work. I'm trying to cultivate a constant tension of slight hunger for my work. No more bingeing. Also, vacations. Go away and do whatever it takes to get your mind off work.
  2. Try new things, in your work, in other mediums. Go out of the zone we all set up for
    ourselves. Right now I am making some porcelain jewelry. It's something I've thought about for years, but I never made time for it. It is such a pain in the ass to switch gears and try new things, but it is so good for your brain and your work. Once I can get over the hump of pulling out different tools and ideas for a new thing, it's totally absorbing and fun. 
  3. Speaking of fun-- have some. Are you having fun in your work? If you are a creative not having fun in your work it's as painful as having a knife in your heart 24 hours a day. Even if you think you can't make any money off some harebrained idea you have, do it anyway just for the fun of it.
  4. Don't look at what other people are doing: We all know social media brings with it an urge to judge and compare. If you are dealing with feelings of burnout that urge can harden into bitterness and resentment at all the people in your field who are doing so great and live totally fulfilling lives. In reality, they struggle just like you but also take really nice pictures. Take a month or more off of social media. You won't miss anyone or anything, plus you will be welcomed back with open arms and almost no one will notice that you were even gone.  
  5. Take care of your body: This is what I do to take care of my body-- I go to bed early and try to get 8 hours of sleep every night. I exercise for an hour every day first thing in the morning. I meditate for 15 minutes 5 days a week. I drink too much beer every once in a while but I generally avoid hard alcohol and daily drinking. I eat good food. It's taken me years to put all of that together, and it's not perfect every day, but if I stop taking care of myself it has a cascade effect that eventually crashes into my work. I have to stay strong physically and mentally.
That's my current prescription for managing and avoiding burnout. Does this sound familiar? It's because I keep writing about these things over and over again. I can't hear it enough, and hopefully you can't either. Are you suffering from burnout? What are you doing of what have you done to manage it? Post your thoughts below.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016


We live in a culture where it's very hard to ask for help. Maybe that's just a hard thing for people in general. I often wonder about why that is, since I personally like to be asked for help, and I also like to have the opportunity to help other people. Sometimes I wonder if I give off a helpy vibe because no matter where I am in the world, people ask me for directions.  But asking for help is a different thing, it makes you vulnerable. And I'm like most people in that regard-- I don't like asking for help. I don't like making myself vulnerable to strangers, and sometimes not even to the people and friends in my life by asking for help.

All of these thoughts have been coming up because I signed myself up for an expensive workshop in Alaska with one of my favorite papercut artists, Nikki McClure. I signed up knowing that it was a lot of money for me, especially when sales are still pretty slow. It's not like I don't have the money, but it undermines my cushion, the cushion that makes me feel safe in the world. I signed up anyway. I thought it was an opportunity for me to expand artistically and put myself in a learning environment, which I don't do very often. I also want to connect with artists outside of my field, just see what happens. I want a bigger world for myself.

I also went into thinking I could have a kickstarter-style fundraiser. It seemed like a good idea in the abstract, but once I started putting serious thought into it, every part of me started coming up with excuses on why I should not do that:

  • It was your own decision to spend a lot of money on a workshop, why should others help you pay for it?
  • You're not going to raise the money and you are going to look sad and ridiculous.
  • People are going to think you are a beggar.
  • Why should anyone help you do anything? You should work harder.
  • Everyone is going to think that you are poor. And you are.
Up until the very second I added a (free) fundraising app to my website I was on the verge of calling it off. I would think, "I'm not doing this" I would feel a little rush of relief. But then I would think about the credit card bill with the workshop and plane ticket on it, the lessons I learned from the "Art of Asking" by Amanda Palmer, the many times I've sent money to a fundraiser and felt good about contributing, and I kept plowing ahead. But I'm still uncomfortable.

I'm working my way through the discomfort because I think that just like going to the workshop, the uneasiness is helping me learn something and possibly expanding me in an unexpected way. I don't want to be that person who shrinks away from asking for help, because there is something sad about that too. Also, annoying. People should ask for help when they need it and not scramble in silence and obscurity. So this blog post, which I thought about not writing, is now directing you to my website where I'm having my fundraiser, and I'm asking you to help send me to Alaska. You will get some good stuff back from me for your contribution, and every little bit helps.

Thank you.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

nuance and variation

A couple of months ago, I was really struggling with process.  The issue was what I think of as copying myself. That probably sounds strange but the basic problem was re-making motifs that I like. I re-make them because I like them, but I was afraid that this approach will work me into a creative rut... again.  I've been very wary of anything that resembles production pottery. As a potter who makes a lot of stuff, this fear was making me a little crazy and jamming things up at the studio.

The very idea of "copying myself" brings with it a lot of judgement and that voice in my head, telling what's good, what's bad, what works, what doesn't. That voice stops me, I hold back. I don't want to make something that's bad or doesn't work. This is the crux of the main problem I have in the studio-- stopping myself.

The reason for stopping myself from doing anything is I don't want to "waste" materials or my time.  I also don't want to get stuck with "bad" work. When I break down this thought I have to reckon with the fact that the very idea of "wasting" time or materials in in itself a harsh judgement, and not really connected to anything real. The only wasted art material is the one not used. Wasted time is time spent on Facebook or other time I use up procrastinating. Making art that is not one's best work is not wasted time, it's just time used while you get better. It's unavoidable.

Rather than trying to not waste time or materials, I could be trying to use up as much time and materials in getting better. That's the only way. I can't think my way into being a better artist, I have to do it.

Getting back to the idea of copying myself and not generating new ideas. I mentioned it to my friend, Kathleen, who took in what I was saying and said very simply, "I don't think there is anything wrong with the idea of nuance and variation."  She said, "I like the idea of editions. You can work with the same concept but you try a slightly different approach each time."

One of  the reasons I like Kathleen is because she doesn't think like me at all, so I learn things. This was my little "ah-ha" moment. This concept  suddenly gave me permission to continue to explore these motifs that I like, but not have the fear that I would get stuck in them. Rather, look at them as ideas that will keep developing rather than as some arrival point. And suddenly, I was off and running again.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

spring open studio

My friends, I'll be opening my studio this Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm. I'll be clearing my studio, so up to 70% off seconds, samples, randoms, orphans, and experiments. Plenty of first-rate work and one-of-a-kinds. Hope to see you this weekend!

Here is more info on Facebook, and on my website. Mention you are a blog reader for 15% off full-priced work.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

playing catch up

I got up at 5 am today so I would have time to write a post. The lack of blog writing has been jabbing at me. I haven't been writing not because I don't want to or have nothing to say. In fact it's been the opposite which is what makes that jabbing so painful. I haven't picked up a pen to write anything for myself in months.

Almost all of the time I have in the morning for writing has gone to re-designing the ACGA website. It's a project I started in January. I've been a part of this association for over 15 years and our website was so out-of-date that it was becoming embarrassing to send people there to get information. My good friend offered me some golden life advice that he said has been a guiding principle for him: never volunteer. Also, since he is a criminal defense attorney: volunteer nothing. I have no regrets in doing the work, but it cost me many hours of writing time. The website is officially launched, and I am managing all of the content until we can get more people to help. It's overwhelming, and while the hardest part is over, it's still taking all of my writing time.

By the way, if you are a clay or glass artist living in California, please go join the ACGA. I would make a pitch on why you should, but it's 5 in the morning and just go look at the damn website.

Then there are other things. I was putting a lot of energy into getting ready for a solo show at Roscoe Gallery in Oakland. Yeah, that already happened. I didn't even put anything on this blog about it. Here is the card for it though, I think it's beautiful:

And yes, the show was successful and I was pleased as I can allow myself to be.

About 3 weeks before the show, I got a call from Magenta, the company I've done design and licensing work for. They manufacture pottery in China, and I've been working on and off with them since about 2006, which is crazy. I don't think I realized until this moment that I've been working with them for 10 years. 

It's been an up and down relationship. They've been successfully selling a version of my eight nesting lotus bowls for that long, which I get a check for every 3 months. Other items have not been as  successful, and it's been an ongoing struggle for me to figure out how to license work that will be compatible for manufacture. My friend Rae Dunn has also been working with them for almost as long, and her designs have been incredibly successful. Mostly because of the natural charm of her work, but also because of the simplicity of her work, which is easy to-- for lack of a better word-- copy. 

The creative director at Magenta has always been a fan of my work, and she wanted me to design a collection based on my new stuff. Even though the new work is the opposite of "simple" in a lot of ways, I liked the challenge and frankly, I need more sources of income. While the new work is extremely gratifying to make, it's been hard to sell it. And if creating a collection based on my current designs can get my look more out there and in the zeitgeist, then maybe I can sell more work and not be concerned that I'm going to die from exposure on a dirty mattress under a bridge. Not that I am concerned, it's just something I think about.

So when I was trying to get ready for my show,  I'm was also designing a new collection of about 15 different pieces. I was working 10 hour days, day after day. Which I'm not really good at anymore. I really noticed that I wold often go home in such a bad mood after working like that. While I miss all the money I used to make when I regularly worked like that, I don't miss that Extreme Bitch Mode at all.

So that's where I have been, and that's what I have been doing. And I have a lot of other things I want to talk about, and I will keep getting up at 5 in the morning so I can do that. I hope you are still there.