Chutes and Ladders

Do you remember your favorite childhood board game? My guess would be that for most ceramic artists it was not Monopoly, but what about Chutes and Ladders? I hated playing Chutes and Ladders. It caused me constant anxiety—with each roll dreading that I would land on a chute and be forced halfway back down the board. Starting back at the bottom and having to climb to the top all over again seemed so unfair and overwhelming. It never failed though, I would get so incredibly close to the top, about to win, taunting my younger brother throughout the game, and inevitably I would hit that final chute, fall to the bottom, and feel as though I had lost the world.

This game is such a fitting analogy, not only to our field, but also to the daily struggles of life. We anxiously roll the dice to jump to the next level only to sometimes hit a chute and end up back down where we started, apprehensively pushing on to the next goal. All the while, we may not be enjoying and appreciating how far we’ve already come and what we’ve accomplished along the way.

1 Sara Truman’s whiskey sippers, wheel-thrown Highwater Clays’ Earthen Red clay, slip, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 5, 2018.

Advancing Up the Ladder

I completed my second round of graduate school applications ten years ago this fall. At the time, I was enrolled in a post-baccalaureate program at the University of Florida (UF). All I wanted was to receive an offer to start graduate school the following year. With my applications out, I impatiently waited for the results. I had spent that fall following the graduate students around at UF equally in awe and jealous that they were in the midst of an experience I wanted for myself. In the spring, I was accepted to the University of Mississippi. I left Florida right as my friend Dandee Pattee was entering into the UF graduate program. We often compared notes about graduate school, shared our various challenges, and were each others’ support system from afar.

During this time, Brian R. Jones’ podcast, the Jonescast, debuted in 2011. Brian was one of the first ceramic artists podcasting about the field. People in the clay community were starved and excited for actual clay content to tune into in the studio. In addition to the artist interviews, Jones began each podcast with a monologue openly expressing his experiences and frustrations about building his career. He often talked about the elusive ceramics career ladder, referencing an uneasy feeling that, although he had checked all the boxes and put in the work, he felt like he wasn’t advancing up that ladder.

Present Day Careers

I have experienced this same sentiment many times over the last 10 years, as I worked to complete graduate school, then build my career. I work tirelessly to achieve one goal only to realize that after achieving it, a new end goal is now far off in the distance. While catching up and comparing notes, as Pattee and I still do every couple of months, we revisited our decade-old conversation about the Jonescast and the career ladder. We agreed that this concept has followed us through each of our career highs and lows over the last 10 years. Pattee and I have moved into new phases in our lives and careers, settling on paths that neither one of us could have anticipated. I am back in Gainesville, Florida, teaching ceramics at a public high school and maintaining my personal studio, Studio T/M, where I teach weekly classes and rent space to local ceramic artists. After earning her MFA from UF and an MA from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in critical studies, Pattee is now living in her home state of Wyoming and works for her family’s sanitation business, helping with billing and bookkeeping in order to support her ceramics career. She maintains an active studio practice and is working to open a community ceramics studio where she plans to teach.

2 Sara Truman working in her studio, 2018.

After talking to Pattee, I wondered where Jones felt his career was now. He ended his podcast some years ago, but has continued to show work and build his résumé. Although I don’t know Jones personally, my curiosity was piqued, so I reached out to him via email to inquire about his thoughts on the ceramics career ladder and how he defines success in his present-day career. Jones remembered the exact episode I was referencing, sent it to me, and we scheduled a time to talk about different interpretations of career achievements and disappointments.

As anyone who has ever listened to the Jonescast knows, Jones is very open and honest about his career. He has what most artists who were trained in academia would view as a very outwardly successful career. Jones has been an NCECA emerging artist, was a presenter at Utilitarian Clay at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, is a founding member of Objective Clay, and has taught numerous workshops.

Transitional Periods

I started the conversation with Jones by asking him where he is in his career now. Jones was in Albany, New York, where he landed after a move from Oregon for his wife’s job a few years ago. He explained that they were on the cusp of another move for a new career opportunity for his wife, this time to Connecticut. Jones related that his studio practice has been in an ongoing transitional period since he and his wife expanded their family, adding two children over a six-year period. As Jones took on the role of stay-at-home dad, his studio practice drastically changed. He no longer had unlimited studio time and had to make necessary adjustments to how he approached his studio practice and goals, and then readjust with each move.

Instead of dreading this intermission, Jones views this transitional period as a good opportunity to take stock and make necessary changes for the next move. On the topic of starting and stopping, I asked Jones where he is with the Jonescast today. If you were a faithful listener to the podcast, you know that Jones restarted the show after a several year hiatus and, in its final season, he never posted the last episode, stopping partly due to burnout and partly due to a profound disillusionment with trying to balance multiple creative endeavors. He says it felt done. While he admits there were substantive benefits from making connections with other artists whom he had wanted to meet, he also made the candid point that podcasts are a lot of work and, in the small-scale way that he was running his, it afforded no monetary compensation. It was hard to build a regular group of sponsors or advertisers, and the thing about a free medium is that people want it to be free.

3 Brian R. Jones working in his studio in Albany, New York, 2018.

Listening back to his introductory monologues with the perspective of someone who had experienced piecing together my aspirations into a career right out of school, I understood the misgivings Jones voiced in these confession-like speeches. We all come out of school lacking in some area of our career-preparedness. It takes time to piece things together and find suitable opportunities.

Measuring Success

When discussing what success in contemporary ceramics is right now on an individual level, Jones explained, “I see success as fulfillment and happiness in the work that one does. A joy in realizing what one is comfortable and able to do, that feeds the self and engages the mind. Success is where an artist can be ambitious, fail, learn, and start again. It is a sense of one’s interior and something that should be honored, protected, nurtured, shared. Outside forces will probably play a role, but perhaps only if they support what’s inside.” He’s taking the time to pause, look around, and when it comes time, put things back together in a way that feels right for him, his family, and his career. He’s looking to start making some two-dimensional work to translate ideas that he feels he can’t communicate through clay. Jones tries not to use others to measure his own success. For him, this also means he avoids thinking of social media metrics (like reach, followers, notoriety, branding), as well as comparisons to other artists’ metrics as a means to measure his success.

Encountering this approach was refreshing, especially since it echoed my recently identified position on social media. I, too, am striving to measure success based on my own definition and goals, rather than in comparison to others, or based on my social media reach and connections.

4 Brian R. Jones’ mug, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, earthenware, slip, glaze, luster, 2017.

Social media is a wonderful platform for sharing images and ideas. I think it is beneficial to feel the validation of posting work and people enjoying it, but would caution that you just can’t use it as a measure for success or self worth. At the end of the day, I want to be a better maker than I was yesterday. I want to measure what I make based on what I am capable of making, and not what other artists are making. That’s when I feel successful. People mistake large numbers of likes and followers on social media for success and that just isn’t reality. Although some people have figured out how to leverage these platforms better than others for marketing and for selling work directly to customers, I don’t think that’s definitive of what the platform does for users, and for most people, it does not help pay the bills.

As I define the way I measure success, part of the equation is evaluating and striving to make the best work possible. Another equally (if not more) important part is taking my own happiness and success in my personal life into consideration. My wife and I are expecting our first child, we have been remodeling our house, and we have the studio business—these are all weighted more heavily in the equation.

I have always been a scheduler. I am very task oriented, constantly focused on the next goal. Once I had settled on clay as a medium in undergraduate school, I made plans to go to graduate school, followed by a residency. I then planned to start my career at the university level as a professor. What I didn’t anticipate was that after climbing to the top of each stage’s ladder, instead of feeling accomplished, I felt like I was hitting an unexpected chute and finding myself on the bottom rung of a ladder leading to another far-off goal. It took me a long time to recognize this pattern and understand what kind of toll this emotional turmoil was unleashing on my career and sense of personal self esteem.

5 Dandee Pattee in her studio in Casper, Wyoming, 2016.

I wasn’t taking the time to celebrate my achievements and felt a constant pressure to compare my own situation with others. I felt like there was such a rush to make sure I applied to the next thing or submitted the next application. If I wasn’t rushing toward that next goal I wasn’t doing enough.

These stresses are not specific to our field; however, they seem to manifest dramatically in clay. It has been my experience that many ceramic artists feel as though they are being left out of some part of the clay community. It’s hard not to judge your career against what others have accomplished within a specific time frame. There’s a perceived hierarchy based on your degree level, where you went to school, residency, or who you worked with and know. I’d love to see that dissipate. I’d like to see us become truly inclusive and accepting to people in our field who are putting in the work and time.

Taking on a job as a high-school ceramics teacher was initially supposed to be a placeholder until another opportunity that fit into my projected career path came along. When I moved past the unspoken stigma of teaching at the K–12 level with an MFA, I realized that what I have today is pretty close to my ideal situation. I have expanded what was initially a part-time commitment with 2 classes and 33 students to a bustling full-time position with 160+ students. I am the department head for visual and performing arts and have helped several students earn scholarships to study ceramics in college. I have also maintained my studio practice and built an environment in which I can successfully make and show work locally and nationally.

6 Dandee Pattee’s pitcher, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, porcelain, fired to cone 10, 2016.

I initially had a very narrow view of acceptable careers after school. My educators were artists who followed a specific career path that led them into academia, making functional and sculptural work as research rather than as a main source of income. In hindsight, I know there are many other paths. In my experience, these other paths are not the focus within the world of academic ceramics because there isn’t a clear-cut way to reach a certain end goal. I have made a conscious effort to broaden the conversation with students coming to me for mentorship. When I discuss the idea of graduate school, I encourage students to look at their end goal and explore the “whys” of going to school. I went to graduate school because I wanted to make better work, ask myself tough questions, and have the guidance and time to solve them. I’m not sure that was the only solution; however, no one ever suggested otherwise to me in my undergraduate or post-baccalaureate studies.

Pattee has come to a similar resolution where she is in her career right now, eschewing the defined path for success and choosing to forge one that fits her own vision. After managing a paint-your-own-pottery place for the last year and building it into a member-run studio, she and 14 of the members have rented two classrooms in a historic high school in Casper, Wyoming. They are in the process of setting up the space and are working with their local Veterans Affairs to establish classes for the veterans, as well as classes for community members. Pattee says, “This situation is exactly what I have always wanted. When I left Wyoming to pursue my formal education in clay, I longed to return home. I am close to my family in a community that I deeply cherish, and I am still making a life in clay. I would never trade this life for the security and prestige of a tenured professorship.”

I hope this piece is a conversation starter about defining and assessing success for people in various stages of their careers: the eager student who just embarked on their first introductory or intermediate ceramics course, the post-graduate school artist researching a sea of residencies all over the country, the early-career clay nomad bouncing around between one-year job appointments, and even the mid/late career artist who may be looking for a change. Maybe hitting that chute after reaching the top of the ladder for one goal and looking for the next isn’t all doom and gloom, but an opportunity to start something new.

the author Sara Truman is an artist and educator living in Gainesville, Florida, where she is currently the department chair of visual and performing arts and the ceramics instructor at Gainesville High School. She also co-owns Studio T/M Pottery and Clay (www.studiotmceramics.com) along with her wife, Naomi Mostkoff. To learn more, visit www.saratruman.com.

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