The long and winding road of how I became a potter

The alternate title I was thinking of was “If they didn’t fire me I probably should have been”…..

So I’m on a bit of a theme lately. How one becomes a potter or an artist is a road that each of us must travel on our own and in our own way. But the journeys of others can occasionally put things in perspective. They can be tales that are inspirational and tales that are cautionary. But the point is we don’t always have to totally reinvent the wheel ourselves. We can learn from the path that others trod. We can aim as they did, or sidestep the pitfalls that they were caught by. The great thing about being an artist is that we are members of a community. We help invent the world with our creativity and are swept away by the powers of our imagination and the call of beauty, humanity, and the virtues of a creative life. That makes us kindred spirits, to lesser or greater extent. But all of us none the less. We are moved by making things different.

So how did I end up as an artist? Well, as the title implied, it was a long and circuitous journey.

My first advice on career matters was given to me and my best friend as we were about to embark on our college adventures. His mom sat us both down and explained that on average folks change their careers around seven times during their lives. Not merely jobs, mind you, but careers. So that was what I needed to hear to take some of the pressure off. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but there was no need to get it right the first time, or to necessarily stick with something beyond the point of its desirability. And what became clear as time went on was that life is mostly about trying things, not simply to see what you like doing, but to also discover what you don’t like so much. Its alright to make mistakes. Not every job is a good fit.

So my first job experience was actually in high school, where a friend helped get me a position in an ice cream store. That didn’t last long. I kept giving customers more than the specified ‘scoop’ size. Not by much, but consistently, and if truth be told, on purpose. So they canned me. And perhaps there is a bit of a theme there for the things to come…..

The summer before college I got a job working in an old Victorian hotel on the Jersey shore. I was a dishwasher in the kitchen, but had plenty of time off to work on my tan and to train for soccer (That was my real passion at the time. I had played high school and club soccer throughout the previous years as well as a brief stint in a semi-pro league. I think if I could have chosen a career at that time it would have been to play for money. Not that I was good enough or knew what that might entail, but that might have been my dream if the question was put to me).

In college part of my scholarship was work study, so it was more schlepping dishes in the dorm kitchens. Not bad work, and it helped me go to a pricey private school in New England that I otherwise could not have afforded. There is no shame in menial work, and I never got any stick from the well to do kids who mostly went to that school. It would have reflected on them more than on me if anyone had been so crass. And I guess it taught me that you can get a job to make certain things in your life possible. A job is a means to an end, not always an end in itself. Could there be such a thing as a job that would be an end in itself?

The next summer I was back at the hotel in New Jersey, but switched to maintenance. Pretty cushy gig, again, and I think I only slipped up once and forgot to stoke the boiler for the customers’ hot showers. That was not intentional. I didn’t get fired, though I almost quit when a friend actually did get fired later on. Instead I busted my hand punching a wall in utter immature outrage. How I used to seethe at the injustices! Ah, the follies of youth, when the world is painted quite clearly in black and white….

So I graduate college with pretty high honors, distinction in my field (Anthropology), but with absolutely zero plan of what to do with myself thereafter. I had started as an English major as a freshman, but through a series of unfortunate incidents the passion for creative writing I had nurtured in high school was torn from me: I had brought all my written works with me that first year, every draft, stored them all in a locker over the holiday break, only to return and find that the locker had been stolen….. I simply couldn’t face that part of me for years. The creative part of me. The aspiring author. It was as if something essential had been ripped from my soul. It was probably the worst feeling I had experienced up to that point….

Anyway, I soon found myself congenially in the Anthropology department. But Anthropology fieldwork was not such an attraction for me, and I eventually discovered that the theoretical side was even better addressed in the field of Philosophy. So Anthropology wasn’t really it, but I stuck out the major and I also graduated with a Philosophy minor. Still no career plans, but only vague hopes that I could go back to school in some alchemical combination of those two disciplines.

So, out of the academic womb and I hit the soft landing back at my parents home in Philadelphia. My first job out of college was as a canvasser for SANE, a nuclear policy outfit where I went door to door giving my spiel and collecting donations. Unfortunately it was an issue I cared about, and my door to door efforts (while extremely educational) never really met the quota for money raised. I was more interested in what I could give than in what I was supposed to be taking. And so I was canned again. But the experience probably also told me an important lesson about who I was, what the outside world was like, and how little of the real me the paying jobs seemed to want. I guess I learned a bit about integrity and about the external demand for selling something just to make a buck. Even for a good cause…..

So here I was, fresh out of college, my bona fides dangling uselessly in my hands, and I discover that when it comes down to it I really am not qualified to do much of anything. Four years of expensive education and I can’t get a job. So, after months of searching the help wanted adds, I land in a department store in down town Philly. In quick succession I go from serving coffee and pastries, to managing the shop, and baking the breads.

I discovered that I did enjoy doing things well, being responsible for a certain craft (baking), but also that I don’t thrive when I am responsible for other people doing their jobs. I was not a good manager in that respect. And so, after a bit more than a year of doing this I get to a point where my body is telling me that I need a change. There I was, 23ish, eating an immaculate Macrobiotic vegetarian diet, running 50 miles a week, and my cholesterol level was 240! And I had gastritis verging on an ulcer! I was about to have a heart attack! I was simply under so much stress that my body was breaking down, defying me to continue this insane ordeal. Who did I think I was? A manager? Obviously not….

So I picked up and moved out to Seattle where I lived on some friends’ couch for a few weeks too long living off the money I had saved. I totally overstayed that welcome and eventually came to my senses enough to find my own room in a house and get a job in a used record shop. This was the late 80’s, living and working in the ultra hip U district in Seattle in my mid twenties. What more could a young man ask for?

Of course I still didn’t know what I wanted to do long term. And after another year I learned that it definitely wasn’t working in a used record shop. So a friend got me a job helping to deliver and install hot tubs up and down the scenic coast of Washington state. Unbelievable! If you could afford one of these Cadillac hot tubs it usually meant you had a beautiful home and some scenic vista to look out on. I got to see some incredible sights on that job. No, I won’t regret my life in Seattle….

But all this time I realized that the only thing that I was truly good at, better than most of my peers at least, was academics. If I had to name what was special about me it would have been that. School work was my strong suit. But by that time I had lost the feel for Anthropology and found much more interest in Philosophy. It was time to switch fields and apply to grad school.

So I picked up and moved to Athens Georgia in August of ’89 to go to school in the Philosophy department. To a certain extent it agreed with me. I was good at it. But about a year and a half into my PhD course work I was at a point where my friends thought I needed a distraction. I didn’t have an artistic bone in my body (that I was aware of), but they were all artists, musicians, or folks in the clay department. When you look for advice from artists you can bet what form it will take. So, predictably, I got wrangled into taking a non credit pottery night class that one of them was teaching……

And my life was immediately changed. I had been pulling my hair out with all the conceptual mind boggling of Philosophy, feeling like I wasn’t making an actual difference, that no matter how hard I thought it didn’t matter, that nothing of significance had changed. The world would still go on the same. Maybe I’d have a few less hairs, but that was really it. But touch clay just once and something about the world had changed! You push it this way, and the world now includes something really different. You get good enough at pushing it around and you get to decide what this one part of the world was going to be like. You could make it more beautiful if you wanted. Did I want to?

There it was! I had discovered what I wanted to do. I wasn’t just changing the material world by making new and beautiful objects for people to enjoy, I myself had changed. I had found something that gave my life meaning and purpose. I now knew that whatever else I did with my life I would always hope that making pots, making some kind of art, was some part of that.

So I stuck with the Philosophy gig another year and a half (I was on an assistantship with a stipend that paid more than I make now as a potter! And that’s 20 years later, folks) until I realized that it didn’t matter how good I was at doing something if my heart wasn’t in it. I realized that just because I had invested three years of my life, three years of arduous course work, that all that momentum counts for zip if its not in a direction that I want to pursue. My head was all behind doing Philosophy, but I discovered it was for the wrong reasons. I needed to learn to listen to my heart.

And push come to shove, I wasn’t going to get a teaching job outside the South with a degree from this department (if I even wanted to teach Philosophy!). And, truthfully, I wasn’t really all that excited with what Philosophy was all about any more. Rather than a pure search for truth (how naive must I have been to have thought that!) I came to see the modern project of Philosophy as just the efforts of some really smart people twisting words for their own amusement and mostly to make themselves appear clever to themselves. It was a weird sort of vanity, since it takes place almost entirely within these people’s own minds. No one else seems to care. Nor should they…. Philosophy could teach you to think well, but it didn’t offer much to think well about….. But enough of that! I had found clay and I knew what I was supposed to be doing.

The story doesn’t end there, but I’ll leave the rest for later. There were a few other brushes with employment, some more getting fired and a close call/probably shoulda been, grad school for clay, and a rather uneventful time as an impoverished self employed potter. Stay tuned for THAT story another time!

So the parting words of wisdom I would share is that you need to find what you enjoy doing and make it work somehow, some way, whatever it takes. And if that doesn’t get you where you want to be, try something else. Make it work, or make something else work. You can only settle for something you don’t desire, that goes against your grain, for so long before it changes you for the worse. Sometimes you need to try it before you find that out. But if you can learn to follow your dreams, then all those other sacrifices and missteps will have proved worthwhile. They will have paid their way if they bring you to the thing you love doing and the person you love being.

Go out and change the world! Be the person you want to be.

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The long and winding road of how I became a potter

  1. Dinah Snipes Steveni says:

    Nice essay on Follow Your Bliss. When one walks through that clay door, all sorts of wonderful things happen. Well, as Simon Leach says: keep on practicing.

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