I recently spoke to a group of materials science students and materials engineers (who use the same materials that we do, albeit in very different applications) at The Ohio State University as part of a meeting of the American Ceramic Society’s Central Ohio Section. Part of my presentation and our conversation addressed why artists in industrialized societies are still making functional work in clay today. I thought that it may seem anachronistic to people who are used to working with ceramic materials in medical, environmental, aerospace, and industrial applications. I explained one contributing factor was a reaction against the urbanization and mass production ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, artists, philosophers, architects, and designers in various parts of the world (from the Arts and Crafts and Mingei movements to the Bauhaus School, among others) formulated and adopted principles aimed at countering the negative effects of industrialization on craftspeople making utilitarian objects. These ideas spread widely through a number of prominent artists and teachers, influencing the development of studio crafts, including ceramics, in many places. Much has changed through the intervening 100–140 years; however, that advocacy for valuing handwork, the acquisition and use of diverse skills, individual creativity, and the societal and individual importance of handmade items is still strong today.
In addition to talking about the value of working directly with materials to make an object from start to finish, combined with a conceptual belief in the importance of an artistic voice and pursuit of self expression, I shared how using handmade objects infuses my everyday routines with meaning. I described how using a mug made by a fellow artist can make me feel like I’m having a cup of tea and a chat with them as I contemplate the decisions they made when creating the mug. Talking with these students and professionals led me to think about how remarkable it is that despite economic and societal obstacles, artists are still compelled to make utilitarian and sculptural pieces that function to convey ideas and emotions as well as connect us to each other.
The pull to create, to build a life and a career as a maker is central to this issue’s focus on working potters—folks who derive most of their annual income from selling their pots. We reached out to five artists, including people who are at the earlier stages of their careers as well as those who have been working in ceramics for decades. Their stories and experiences show the importance of tailoring a career path to fit personal strengths, being flexible, building a support network of friends and colleagues, and being active in the local community.
If you’ve contemplated making a career out of your art practice and are wondering what it takes to be successful, read on to hear from Beth Bolgla, Ian Connors, Dan Finnegan, Rhian Malin, and Mizuyo Yamashita, as well as Studio Visit artist Patrick Coughlin and Spotlight artist Adam Frew. They share how they chose where they work; how they responded to economic obstacles; how a career can evolve over the course of decades; what skillsets they’ve needed beyond the studio to build a business; and how they found or cultivated their audience, support network, and community.