(Forgive my maudlin poetic sentimentality in what follows. I just had my worst ever studio sale where I shattered all my previous records for mediocrity. And honestly, if I wasn’t already so used to being beaten down I might… I don’t think I can go there now….. So my apologies for the timorous voice. This is an injured and humiliated artist talking. Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you’ve been there too….)
Potters trying to make a living selling their work are caught between two worlds. We have this duality whether we like it or not, whether we are good at it or not. We are no longer kids playing in the mud, merely indulging our creative impulses. And we are not unique. All selling artists are in this position. Its the difference between the lightness of following our dreams and desires, an untethered promiscuity, and the heaviness of outside commitments, responsibilities, external pressures, and the sacrifices we make to fit in.
Sometimes the fit between these two worlds is smooth and uncomplicated. Our mojo and what we are trying to do with it finds an audience that is receptive and supportive. When everything is going well, we mostly don’t even notice the duality. We don’t need to stray too far outside the dreamlike state of our lightness. We can make what we want, and the universe enfolds us in its nurturing embrace. There is a customer for every pot. Every pot has a home. The work virtually sells itself. People come to us to get our wares, to invite us to do shows, to do workshops, to give lectures. The outside pressures on us can be as soft and soothing as gentle caresses, sometimes maybe only as mildly offending as pleasantly cajoling nudges.
I have yet to experience that potter’s utopia. Sometimes I can almost sense it in the distance. Sometimes I think that just maybe I’m on the right track, that I have enough breathing room to finally smell the roses. Sometimes I think that I’ve got at least a part of this business figured out. I think that just possibly the plan I’ve got will keep me pointed in the right direction. But it usually comes crashing down. I never seem to get very far without needing to stop where I’m headed and reassess. Just when I think I’ve got a handle on things the world outside my control reminds me how small my grip really was….
Maybe that creative utopia only describes a handful of potters. Maybe none. Perhaps it sort of describes only the ones who have already worked their socks off to get in that position. Or maybe it kind of describes the ones who started off with a sizable bankroll, a primo studio set-up, the right education, the right connections, the right people willing to support them, to shepherd them into the limelight. Looking around I see potters that may not even need to sell their work to live comfortably. They may not be aware of the heaviness that ordinary potters carry with them. For some, making pots can almost be like a professional hobby, stress free safety net included…. Or maybe they were once like us and its a past better left unremembered. Or they know it, and count their blessings every day. Or maybe they have already forgotten, and have expunged all traces of a potter’s heaviness….
We tend to notice things more when the wheels aren’t turning, when there is a pain we can’t get rid of, when we are scrapping for our crusts at every turn. We tend not to notice our health until its not there.
But I get the feeling that most professional potters following their dream spend almost as much time chasing down opportunities as they do making actual work. I get the feeling that most full time potters are so weighed down with the heaviness of external pressures that the dream of a creative future hangs by the slightest thread. As if one careless misstep will plunge us over the edge.
Being a potter is a marginal activity for most of us. The weight of our predicament surrounds us and we can’t seem to break free. Its a cocoon of brambles. A good show sprinkled in amongst the other ones is like a gift from the art gods. We have a moment of respite. We pick that thorn from our flesh. But it never lasts. We can’t afford to get too comfy or complacent. We can’t get lulled by one good showing. We can’t slip up too many more times. A cat only has 9 lives. How many does an artist have? The executioner’s axe continues to hover above our necks, waiting to sever us from our dreams of creativity….
And the path is littered with talented potters who just couldn’t stick with it, with potters who were forced to give up their dream and get a ‘real’ job….. What was it Tinkerbell said? “Every time someone says they don’t believe in fairies somewhere there’s a fairy that falls down dead”? The dream of being an artist is almost as brittle, a gossamer miracle in the eye of a storm….
No one becomes a potter simply to make money. Its not like most other professions where it is a choice between other jobs of how to make a living. For most potters our time could be more profitably spent working the counter at a burger joint. Its not about the money. At least not primarily. Rather, we do pottery because this is who we are. This is what we care about. This is the light that illuminates and animates our souls. We are Romantics. Potters believe the dream. They believe that fairies are real….
The lightness of being a potter is that we create. We cast off the dross and dust of the daily grind to reach for the stars. We use our imagination to add things of value to the universe. Beauty. It is a dance of our passions made manifest in the world. It is a follow through on the joy we knew as children, an innocence, where our imaginations told the story of what things were important.
And the unbearable part, the unbearable lightness of being a potter, is that it is a dream that too often and too easily can be crushed. It is a fragile flower. It is a poignant reverie, an exquisite moment of grace that the universe offers up. It is an improbable instance of magical opportunity. That we can create, and make our way in the world as vibrant caring beings. That we can resist the call of more ‘sensible’ paths. That our duty is to this fragile flower and not obedience to some anonymously soul crushing outside authority.
Just how incredible is that? That we can keep our creative dreams alive despite a lack of appreciation for what we do? Isn’t it sometimes almost unbearable? Isn’t it sometimes enough to make you want to cry….?