Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Marcee Stiltner 1948-2017

My mom died two months ago. She suddenly got very sick in mid-January, and was quickly re-diagnosed with the cancer she had managed to fight off for a couple of good years. Only it had spread to all the places you don't want cancer to spread to. The plane ticket she bought for me to fly to DC so I could go the Women's March was changed into a last minute ticket up to Olympia, where I spent almost two weeks by her side with my younger sister. She died at home in hospice care, which is where I hear most people want to die, but very few actually do.

My mom refused further treatment for her cancer, a decision she was completely clear on and my sister and I had both been prepared for long before. My mom believed in quality of life. She was a mental health advocate her entire professional life which informed her choices about a lot of things and shaped her character. For her, getting treatment that may extend her life by a few months while at the same time making her so sick that she would not be able to work and enjoy her family wasn't even a choice. It was amazing how long it took her oncologist to understand that. He had all kinds of life-extending plans for her. She wasn't having any of it. And she didn't. She died quickly, which many have told me is a mercy, but I can tell you is just a total shock to the system.

My sister and I took several weeks to clean out my mom's house, with help from friends and family. Our mom's actual living quarters were pretty easy to deal with-- aside from that peculiarly American habit of buying paper goods in extreme bulk and her obsession with office supplies, my mom was not a collector or hoarder of things. She was very neat and organized by habit, with contained areas of chaos, mostly isolated in a junk drawer or a laundry room cabinet. While I was growing up we moved so many times to follow her career that I think it gave everyone in my family an allergy to tchotchkes. She did have a lot of jewelry which I was moved to meticulously collect in 3-inch plastic baggies, one baggie for each item and pair, and store in a bin. The jewelry is not valuable nor to my taste, but I can't give it away. Not yet.

It was my mom's sewing studio that tripped us up. My mom was a self-taught master seamstress. She has sewn since she was a teenager and she has always sewn, no matter what, no matter how busy or overwhelmed with work or raising kids on her own. I remember a period of time when I was in elementary school and she was briefly unemployed, and I often came home in the afternoon to find her sewing.  Next to reading, it was her main hobby in life and she never got bored with it.

The home she has owned for the last 15 years has a large basement where she finally had the dream sewing studio she always wanted. She had four sewing machines: a regular machine that most seamstresses have, a serger machine, a quilting machine, and an embroidery machine. She had a professional iron that I barely knew how to turn on, and a custom made ironing board that was longer and wider than a regular board. She had a cutting table that dominated the space, with a huge cutting mat so you could line up your fabric perfectly. One wall was lined with racks that held thread of every color. The opposite wall was lined with shelving that held over a dozen bins of fabric, ordered by type, color, and print. Other bins that held scores of zippers of every length and color. More bins that held sewing notions. Even more bins that held stuff for fun sewing projects. One giant bin of just patterns. My mom was an early adopter of the internet (she was the first person I knew to install Prodigy and start surfing the web) and was always trolling online looking for the latest sewing gadgets and tools, and those gadgets and tools were everywhere in her studio. I can't even begin to list them all.

My mom made everything, all the clothes she wore, down to her own tailored slips, for most of her adult life. Women and men always asked where she got her clothes, and she loved telling people that she made them herself. She was a professional woman through most of her career and made the most beautiful suits: tailored jackets, skirts, pants, blouses.  She copied the first designer jeans in the 80's, making her own Calvin Klein's that looked exactly like the real thing, missing only the Calvin Klein label.  She made her own t-shirts and shorts. She sewed her own bathing suits. When jogging became a thing she sewed up her own jogging outfit and actually jogged 3 or 4 times. She made a floor length fur coat made from fake fur and took shit from people on street who thought it was real.  In my closet I have an exact copy of a Chanel jacket she made, down to the quilted lining and gold chain that runs around the inside hem. It is a work of art, yet my mom never thought she was an artist or even particularly creative. She just like to sew. A lot.

My mom once rented a RV with one of her friends and they drove to a national park where they sewed all day in beautiful surroundings. She was a little bit crazy when it came to sewing.

Later, she started making other things: quilts, wall hangings, curtains, toiletry bags, throw pillows, oven mitts, purses, wallets. Slippers. Cell phone covers. Laptop bags. When she got her embroidery machine she would sew something up and then embroider it. When she got her quilting machine she would sew, quilt, and embroider. When she was diagnosed with cancer the first time she made bunch of cute hats in anticipation of losing her hair during chemo, and then she didn't lose any hair and gave them all away.  She made ridiculous things too: she created an item she called a "charger cozy"-- a colorful sleeve that slipped over a cell phone cord so it would be more difficult to leave behind when you were traveling. She had little interest in buying anything that could be made. Sewing was more fun than shopping.

My mom mostly liked to sew for herself, and for me and my sister, and she liked making gifts for friends. She had no enthusiasm in doing it for money. She tried a couple of times but she said it took the fun right out of it. She made me a dress for Pioneer Day when I was 7 with a matching bonnet that I continued to wear for everyday attire. I loved that outfit, especially the bonnet, and refused to take off even for a formal portrait with my sister, which led to a huge throw down in the portrait studio (I won). She made the dresses that we wore to dances in high school. She made the dresses that we wore to our college graduations. She made my wedding dress and my sister's bridesmaid dress and of course, her own mother-of-the-bride dress. She made the aprons I wear to work every day. She sent me sheets embroidered with mine and my husband's name along the top. She made me a silk "sleep sack" so I would not have to be tortured by low thread count sheets when I travel, a personality quirk of mine she thought showed a specific weakness of character, but made me a sleep sack nonetheless. (It's not that I have such refined taste, I just have very sensitive skin.)

My mom taught me how to sew in a two week marathon of sewing at her house when I was about 21.  Up until that time I had no interest in sewing. My sister and I grew up trying to entertain ourselves in fabric shops, and I can tell you there is very little that is entertaining in a fabric shop unless you want to buy fabric. My mom and I did sewing marathons almost every time we got together for a visit, and she did the same thing with my sister. It was a great way to spend time together: my mom would fix all of my mistakes and I had new clothes at the end of it.

There was a period of time where I was making all of my clothes too, but I lacked the meticulous skill my mom brought to sewing. I liked to take shortcuts, skip reading the directions, fudge on steps. I didn't have patience. I started sewing again in the past couple of years, and finally my mom's lessons came through: take your time, do it right. I will never be as obsessed as she was with sewing, I have my own obsessions to tend to, but I enjoy the process now in a way I didn't before.

In recent years as rhuemetoid arthritis started causing pain in her hands she slowed down with sewing and started wearing store bought clothes more often, which always profoundly disturbed me. It was a small sign that she had to give up something she loved. And it was just a slight loss of dignity, of being forced to flip through racks for mass-produced clothing like the rest of us. As I've watched people age, I've realized that everything you love becomes everything you eventually lose, sometimes slowly, sometimes more quickly. Trying to hold on to your dignity through this process  is one of the most difficult things of all.

Cleaning out her sewing space seemed like an insurmountable task. There were days where I couldn't even go down there because it was so overwhelming. It was like a fabric bomb had gone off. My mom gave us permission to throw away every item in her home, except for the poetry she wrote (she's written poetry since she was a child), which she wanted my sister and I to keep. While I had little problem boxing up most of her home for Goodwill, her sewing stuff was another thing. My sister and I divided up the machines and some gadgets, her best friend hauled off a lion's share of fabric and supplies, and that still left a ton of stuff. We felt it all needed to go to people who would appreciate it, not a scrap would go to Goodwill. And we did it, down to the last box filled with cotton quilting fabric and quilting books which went to a quilter friend. We probably could have headed home two weeks earlier if not for the sewing studio.

I can write about my mother for a very long time. I was a terrible, terrible teenager, to the point where my mom kicked me out for a while because I refused to go to a drug rehab (I didn't need it, not really), but even during those times I always loved her, always felt loved by her, and always knew I could count on her. I know many people are not as lucky as I was with my mom. I have always been able to take her unconditional love and support for granted. She has helped me through every difficult period in my life, never telling me what to do, but helping me figure it out. She knew everything about me, I stopped keeping secrets from her once I moved out of the house at 17. She never judged me. Or if she did she kept it absolutely to herself.

My mom had many stellar qualities, but her ability to help me and my sister prepare for her death and talk about it openly was one of the last amazing things she did for us. My sister and I wondered if we were too open with her about our anxiety about taking care of her at the end of her life; my sister could get paid family leave for 3 months but I would have to improvise. We were semi-panicked at the idea that she would be in hospice beyond our ability to personally care for her, dreaded the idea of draining her account or having to sell her house to continue her care. But she kept telling us she wouldn't last more than a week, even though she was talking and laughing with her friends and making jokes, so we didn't take her totally seriously. But she was right. We brought her home for hospice on a Wednesday, and she died on the following Sunday.

My mom did a lot for me, but unfortunately she could not prepare me for what life now feels like without her. There is no wrapping your head around that until it actually happens. People who have been through it tell me it gets better, but I don't know what that looks or feels like, I just try to hold on to the idea that I might one day feel better. I try to be grateful that I had two weeks with her before she died, but she was only 69 and I wish I could have had another 20 years.

You can read her obituary here.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

the darkest days

Yesterday I was recalling the first time I participated in a presidential election. It was November of 1988, four months after I turned 18. One of the first things I did as an 18-year-old was register to vote.

I remember my first polling place, a little church just a block off the beach in Santa Cruz. I was excited to vote for my candidate, Michael Dukakis, even though he was not favored to win against George H.W. Bush. But as a citizen, and someone who cared about politics and representation, I felt that it was my duty and obligation to vote, and I did it with pride and enthusiasm.

I was raised to care about what's going on in the world, to pay attention, and to engage. I have not missed an election in 28 years. Despite the convenience of mail-in ballots, I like to go to the polls on election day because I like the feeling of communal participation.

My preferred candidates usually do not win, the issues I care about often do not pass, and I carry on and vote anyway. I'm a part of the system, and as broken and backwards as I've come to know it is, I refuse to be sidelined by it.

I spent most of yesterday trying to find comfort, and solace, and words of wisdom. I talked on the phone with people, I went to see friends, and they came to see me, and I realized there is no comfort, there is no solace.  The intense sadness and discomfort millions of us feel cannot be escaped, or glossed over with hope. That doesn't mean there is no hope, but we have to do the work to create it. It's not going to be handed over.

We have to acknowledge what has happened, and sit with it. Our natural impulse to try and make the best of it and look for silver linings might give us some temporary relief, but I think we must resist the urge to do that. And not just in the current political reality, but in life I think we could all try a little more to feel our feelings and not try to numb ourselves to them. Go through the pain and not around it. I believe that's where we find the path and the strength to evolve and change.

I did find some words of wisdom, which were this: The stars are still in the sky, the world is still here, and so are we.

Also, this.

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.