My timely and much needed lesson in aspirations…..

So, as you may have gathered from the previous post I have been fending off a bout of hysteria that the lesser of my main two selling opportunities of the year was about to seriously tank due to a kiln breakdown and probable emotional meltdown. Just maybe I will be lucky enough to avoid the calamity of either of those dire consequences. The kiln has been ‘fixed’, if temporary solutions and band-aids can be said to solve problems, and the kiln is firing either the last or second to last bisque as we speak. Until I have a chance to really fix things I am being forced to operate on a reduced level, firing only three of the four rings that I normally operate with. We’ll see how that goes, if this firing today gets pulled off and the subsequent glaze firings reach temp safely…..

In the meantime I have had a lot of soul searching and self evaluation to contemplate as I waited for help from my electrician friends and the further improbable miracle of a cure from the gods. One of the lessons I seem to need to absorb is that my typical crushing anxiety in preparing for these sales is usually overblown and almost always self defeating. I usually get so worked up in trying to do every conceivable item on my check list, far more than I need to, that I spend more time chasing frivolous pursuits and following giddy ambitions than battening down the hatches and weathering the storm in simplicity and security. With my head in the clouds of wishful thinking and untethered inspiration I sometimes lack the grounding necessary to just hunker down. I spend far more effort and resources on exotic vanity exercises than on humble bread and butter sustenance. Why else would I have cranked out nearly 200 new mugs when I may only sell half that in the best case scenario? Why else would I overproduce pots that have a history of selling far slower than the inventory I already have in stock?

These are the questions I am being asked right now, and I can see that the partial answer is that I simply do what I enjoy doing, and on one level there can be nothing wrong with that. Making close to 200 mugs in a short time was exhilarating, especially as it gave me the opportunity to flex some experimental muscles in working out the kinks of my new favorite style of handles. But as with any choice or decision we make it often comes down to a balance between desire and other measures of appropriateness. Desire may not always square up with expedience (which can sometimes be important), practicality (which seems only ignored at a cost), and even the effects on one’s health. Its like eating cake for dinner when you know that butter, sugar, and refined flour won’t offer proper long term nutritional value, that too much will give you indigestion, and that all that sweetness is rotting your teeth. Its like buying another carton of ciggies after the doctor has warned you of the imminent risk of lung cancer….. Sometimes we simply can’t stop ourselves. And things which might be okay in moderation become dangerous when they blossom into a way of life. The issue, it seems, is knowing where to draw the line.

And so it also becomes a question for me that there are two distinct demands on my life that may not always be compatible. As an artist I am absolutely free to pursue what things interest me. 200 mugs? Why not 400! I can do as I want, make what appeals to me, and my curiosity is only strengthened, my talents and techniques only fine-tuned and honed. But as a business person, someone who has to make a living at this shtick, it is a different question of what gets made. And there are only so many slices of the pie of my efforts and resources to go around. I need to make mugs because they are always good sellers, and at the moment my stock is particularly low. But making 400 mugs for a sale where I might sell 100 would mean that I didn’t have the chance to make as many bowls or plates or cups or jars. 200 isn’t that crazy. Right….?

And so I can see that I sometimes get myself into trouble cramming for a deadline. I like what I like, but I also like to be over-prepared. Its the philosophy that more of a good thing is always better. Even though it might not be the wisest course of action, and even though it inevitably results in anxiety and sleepless nights. Its that last slice of cake I can’t set down, that keeps me up at night, that causes me to raid the kitchen in the wee hours of the morning. The temptation is too great. I don’t have a proper handle on my restraint…..

So maybe I need to recalibrate. Maybe this is a wake-up call to my rampant excesses of delusion and cloud chasing. Maybe its the refutation of simple solutions. Its the lesson of the ‘Golden rule’, ultimately. Even ‘good things’ have their limits. Caution is often a good thing, but you can be too cautious and freeze up by not taking chances. Practicality is often a worthy consideration, but it often comes at the cost of one’s imagination. Dreaming and hope and wishful aspirations are vital to a human life, but taken too far or out of reasonable context and they implode on one’s life.

In a sense, perhaps it is like a person’s diet. An unvaried and unrelieved consumption of even things that are necessary for survival can kill you. We require a breadth. We need variety and challenges. Simplicity and satisfying basic cravings only gets us so far. Comfort is a double edged sword of seductive temptation and worthy aspiration. Its never as simple as it sometimes appears to me…..

And perhaps because I don’t have a firm grasp on the business side of my art I get too easily carried away by extraneous things or blow minor details out of proportion. In ignorance I hammer out the natural complexity of the problems facing me into simple inadequate solutions. And its no wonder I find myself at this impasse….

If the worst comes to pass and my kiln is inoperable over the next several weeks I still have pots I can put out for the sale. I can scrounge pots from my cupboards at home and the coffee shop in town. There are other solutions to cranking 400 pots through a dinky little electric kiln in two and a half weeks. It won’t be the best, but it should be ‘good enough’.

I always seem to aim for beyond the best and come up so far short of that that it really makes no sense to get so carried away. What do they say? “Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst”? It would be a miracle to sell even half the pots I have waiting for the kiln. So why would I prepare for the best possible outcome that there is absolutely no evidence supporting? I could get lucky, and being lucky is often a matter of being in position to take advantage of opportunities, but I can’t pretend that getting ‘lucky’ is the only thing I need to account for…..

So what should I be aiming for? What should my expectations for these upcoming sales be? What do I need from my pottery selling venture for me to be happy?

Let me take Scott Cooper’s words from a post he wrote following the holiday sale last Winter. He’s waaay smarter than me, and I often count on him to get me out of a jam. Here’s what he had to say last December:

“Obviously, the money is important….. At the very least, I need the pots to pay for themselves. There’s an astonishing amount of infrastructure and related commitments and compromises required to make them; even at its most streamlined and efficient, it’s an expensive endeavor, and I am rarely all that streamlined or efficient.

I’d like them to return enough profit that I’m not constantly second-guessing my choice to devote more than half my working life to them. While I’ve accepted that my labor pays well below the hourly minimum wage, and likely always will, writing off those hundreds of hours each year as a donation to some nebulous cause won’t work. For all the intangibles… it still matters to me that the world values what I’m doing in economic terms, too.

But on a hypothetical list of Reasons Why I Make Pots, making money isn’t in the top three, and it might not even crack the top five. It’s one motivation among many, but certainly not the most important one. So why then, at the end of a sale, should I base the labels of “good” or “bad”, “success” or “failure” on just that one factor?


[I]t doesn’t really matter all that much how the numbers for this sale compare to last spring, or last year, or any year. It’s certainly not the only thing that matters.

People matter. Relationships matter. Making a small but personal “dent in the universe” matters. Quality and beauty; the satisfaction of a job well done; trying to constantly refine my ideas and improve my skills — those things matter. And, most of all, knowing that I put everything I had into this cycle of work matters. My intent was sincere, my heart full and my efforts genuine. Everything that happens after that is beyond my control.”

That sounds good and reasonable to me….. What do you all think?

Peace all!

Happy Potting!

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, Creative industry, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to My timely and much needed lesson in aspirations…..

  1. Liz Crain says:

    Hi Carter,
    A few buttons of mine you pushed here:
    * I do that same sort of existential melt down regardless of outer circumstances two weeks before every event. I don’t love it, but it’s a “devil I know” and I try to dance with instead of be frightened of it.

    *My uber-perfectionist and over-achiever standards are here to stay, even if they get me in trouble sometimes.

    *As I told a newbie participant in with NO Saturday sales a few weekends ago: “This is called a SHOW and a Sale. You are 100% successful with the SHOW part, which has so many rewards.”

    *While I haven’t made a list of why I make ceramic art, I’m pretty sure making money is on it only because I decided to try selling stuff, so it’s a secondary goal at best. (And yes, I am profitable!)

    * The lovely and talented Lana Wilson said, “We don’t make much money at this, so we might as well have fun.” and i posted that on my studio wall.

    Thanks for sharing this part of your process as well!

    • Thanks Liz! Those were all points that made sense to me as well! Unfortunately, the over-achiever part may face its comeuppance this time around, as my kiln still seems to be firing weirdly. May need to shut it down before it fires off to bisque temp…. Dang it all!

      If I only have a choice between being overprepared and stressed out and underprepared and stressed out I usually choose the former. Since the preparation now seems like it may be out of my hands I need to discover if this still leads to me being stressed out necessarily. I hope not!

      • Liz Crain says:

        For your sake, Carter, I hope not as well…Find the Zen! If I were closer I would toss Zen Fairy Dust. A kiln running on three out of four elements is like an old car running on three out of four cylinders: It goes, but not too good!

  2. adobbratz says:

    Hi Carter,

    Thanks for this post. This pattern of dreaming, scheming, (sometimes) disappointment, and evaluation is something I think a lot of people can relate to. I’m not sure that we’d ever become better makers if we didn’t push up against our limits and rethink them.

    Good luck with your kiln fixing and the show!

    • Thanks Amanda! Fingers are crossed!

      And I absolutely agree that the challenge is especially necessary in creative pursuits. Some challenges just make more sense and lead to more obvious gains than others….. Sometimes it feels like the challenges I set myself are the kind where I refuse to learn from past mistakes, get the message right, or willfully sabotage myself….. Its like I sometimes need to stub my toe just to remind myself that I’m alive…… I should be smarter than this!

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    I demand at least three more a’s in “waaay”.

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