I took my first pottery classes in middle school, and really fell in love with it as a dyslexic, uncoordinated kid who was asked to mouth the words in chorus. I’d never been good at anything in school before, but this felt instinctive, almost innate! I was in a well-equipped school that took good care of its art department and valued its teachers, giving them creative space to make the curriculum exciting and engaging for kids. I left that school at age twelve and I didn’t have access to clay again until university—but a seed had been planted. I was at Parsons School of Design’s product design program in New York and elected to do a minor in ceramics for industrial production. When I graduated I couldn’t see a way to remain in New York City and also eat, pay my bills, and work in clay. Something had to go—and for the time being it was clay. But, when I started a career in advertising, I made myself a promise that one day I’d have my own studio. I made good on that promise to myself a dozen years later.
I move a lot, and had always moved internationally to cosmopolitan cities, and so it had always been easy to relocate within my old professional field. That was until 2012, when we agreed my husband was going to take a job in the tech-heavy city of Seattle, Washington. I knew it was the end of my life in advertising as the market there was too small for my global clients. It took me about six months to find my way into a residency at Pottery Northwest, where Wally Bivins welcomed my aesthetic differences as one of the artists in his eight-person residency program. His encouragement and the enthusiastic support from the board helped me trust my instinct and make work that started to draw the attention of various coffee brands around Seattle, starting with Starbucks. By the time my two-year residency was complete, I had done two large commissions and proved to myself that I could be financially solvent, even profitable (!) in my own space, and so I made good on my promise from back in the day. I moved into my own 300-square-foot space at Equinox Studios in Seattle’s industrial Georgetown neighborhood in October 2015 and it has been a whirlwind since then.
Developing an Aesthetic
I feel my experience in advertising has led me to gravitate towards a specific aesthetic. I think it all applies and cross-pollinates my work—product design, advertising, ceramics, and even my time in recruitment and special events impacts what I do. I studied product design at Parsons and the same research, product development, market mapping and ergonomics goes into the pieces I make—as I would have done with the development of a product in the classroom.
Advertising and working in special events sat me among the tastemakers, as did the cities I’ve lived in. (London, Paris, Tokyo, New York, Melbourne). This made my aesthetic eye (well, mine) and also aligned with other people who like that sort of clean, modem, quietly playful design thing.
Lessons Learned and Business Chops
I’m not even sure where to begin a list of lessons or skills learned from my first career! My background in advertising has been a huge strength for owning my own business, and I cannot speak strongly enough for the benefit of good business skills. I’ve met too many artists who excuse themselves from every day business tasks (“How can this gallery expect me to know how to burn a CD? I’m an artist!”) and it pains me. Creative talent is a strength and a gift, and there is no indication it comes with a corresponding dis/inability to do things like use technology or respond to emails in a timely manner. Simple business and administrative skills are something that just aren’t optional. Learning to use current technologies to communicate with galleries and customers is crucial. Just like anything else you do, look it up if you don’t know how (LMGTFY). It’s key that you recognize these skills are as important as those used when working in clay.
Having good business skills also means being accountable to others, communicating clearly and on time, adhering to deadlines, conducting yourself with professionalism, and getting things done. Another help is presentation skills; which could be designing your own business cards, a website, or a shelf display. This all matters, when it comes to selling your work, almost as much as the work itself. If there is something that’s beyond your skill or time capacity—find someone who is good at it. For accounting, graphic design, web development, photography, etc., there’s freelance help available at all price points. Don’t let a gap in your skill set be a road block.
With all that being said, I think the most critical benefit is less evident in my ceramics, but more so in how I work with others, and that’s client and supplier engagement. How to create with others, how to listen to and provide feedback, how to push back when needed and adapt your design, how to find common ground that feels good to both of you—this is the key to getting contracts. It’s a running joke among my friends that I need a dog to close a contract agreement, but for as long as I remember I’ve had a dog (mine or borrowed) in the room for my meetings—and there is something to it. I like to think I’m an easy-going creative, but having a meeting with a (well behaved) dog goes a long way to setting the tone.
Reaching Out and Embracing Difference
I think it is really important to share ideas and observations for ways that artists can reach out to people in other fields. Since re-entering the field I was surprised and sometimes uncomfortable with how insular it could be. There’s a term for this in social media, living in an “echo chamber,” a world in which it seems everyone is just like you. For me it’s also very reminiscent of the early 1990s in advertising. In those days, digital agencies were looked down upon—thought nowadays they often command the majority of a client’s budgets, and the traditional agencies are struggling to catch up. If we continue to elevate process over the result, and exclude people whose work and ways of working are different, we are missing out on the opportunity to grow and improve ourselves. With politics being what they are these days—don’t we instinctively know that we need to embrace and educate ourselves about different ideas?
Openness can start at home, and collaboration and learning from a variety of ceramic artists is a good place to start. I met Nancy Froehlich (www.graysignal.com/ceramics) during our overlapping residencies at Pottery Northwest, and she continues to be a wonderful role model for this. Froehlich would collaborate with sculptors and potters as well as graphic designers and photographers—across various levels from students to professionals. She just said yes! They were creative exercises in space and design for her, and you see the benefit in her own work. You can see the consideration there. In some of our work together, Nancy has applied decals to my forms and really elevated them to a different place (see 8).
I actually ran into Froehlich while working on this article and she put it like this: “I consider myself a designer not an artist so I come to this question with a very different perspective. As a designer you never do a project on your own, every project is always a collaboration on some level. When you work with others, you have to embrace the chaos of the decision making process—nothing will unfold as you expect and you have to let go of trying to control the final solution/project. But this is the part I love—that something comes out on the other side that you yourself could have never done alone. To me the most challenging part of collaboration is embracing the chaos and letting go of control. Not an easy task, but always worth it in the end.” Isn’t that brilliant? I love working with her.
Designers always think their work can be improved upon, and so more input in the form of collaboration is a logical step; more designers, better work! In contrast, artists are on a solo endeavor expressing something personal, so no further input is needed. This really helped me clarify my space—I’m a designer.
I am also currently working on a wood and clay collaboration with another artist at Equinox Studios (www.andrearamsay.com). We sit down once a week and play with ideas, asking ourselves, “What would you buy?” Then we find where our material worlds meet (How would we attached wood to that? Is if food safe?). We haven’t cracked the idea yet, but it’s exciting to work together.
When embarking on a collaboration, pick someone you respect, someone you admire and someone with whom you know you’ll enjoy spending the time together. Be brave; pick someone just a little out of your league and then do what you can to make up for the difference in other ways. Be a good partner and make up for the skill difference: arrive with coffee, say thank you, and bring loads of ideas to the meeting. Most of all—don’t be scared of losing control, embrace the chaos and see what you make together—this isn’t accounting after all, it’s meant to be fun!
the author Sarah Kaye lives and works in Seattle, Washington. To see more of her work, visit http://sarahkaye.net. More of her collaborative work with Nancy Froehlich can be seen here: http://matteandgloss.tumblr.com.