Retirement, Meaning, and Generativity

1 Dick Lehman’s teabowl, 5 in. (13 cm) in diameter, reduction-fired crystalline glaze, part of my collection of my own works. I consider this to be one of the top ten pieces of my career.

Another generation of American clay artists is approaching age-out—the end of their careers. Because it’s our first time to retire, we may not know how to do it. We could benefit from a few more positive models for a productive approach to retirement, meaning, and generativity as we near a conclusion to our life’s work.

I think it was from Bill Hunt that I first heard the unspoken assumption that most of us who work in clay studios carry: that we are planning never really to retire; that we both carry and forward this mantra, “Never stop working. Never retire.” We expect on some fateful day to quite triumphantly—and in a self-satisfied way—fall face-forward into a not-quite-yet-centered ball of clay, exhaling our final breath on the way down, soft-splatting our face-plant onto the slowly moving wheel to generate, barring an interruption in the electrical current, a near-permanent “potter’s nod.” And if not into a potter’s wheel, then perhaps into a new fresh thick slab, now inadvertently turned into a contemporary death mask. “Going all the way” for the older generation? I suppose so.

Complicating things, those of us who plan to work until the end are often revered in a special way. It’s almost like we have agreed to an unspoken clause when we first tie on the apron—the Potter’s Clause—an obligation we may never walk away from. Adhering to the Clause can bring admiration, respect, and sometimes a bit
of awe and envy: “You are your own boss, you can follow your passion as long as you like, as long as it brings satisfaction—as long as you are able—nobody telling you what to do or when to retire.” (Yes, but all without much clarity or permission should you want to slow down or retire.)

Now don’t get me wrong. Working for oneself, working outside of institutional demands, loving one’s work, finding meaning in one’s work—these are all terrific. But one of the things missing is any metric by which one knows that one has completed and accomplished a career. No institutional voice to say “well done” or “you may stop now if you wish;” no voice but one’s own. What’s the sound of that voice, should one want to slow down or retire from a life’s work as a studio artist?

Redefining Value

For most of our lives as producing artists, a portion of our value, relevance, and meaning has been determined and imparted by material arriving at our studios, being transformed by us, and then disappearing into galleries, shops, and homes. We bring beauty into being; we make objects of integrity and well-thought-out design; we get positive feedback—often through direct communication of intimate thanks, appreciation, awe, and gratitude. And if not directly, at least through a tangible monetary exchange of these goods-as-commodities, which create for us choices, freedom, and some perception of power and control over our lives and fates.

The artist’s experience of moving into retirement overlaps, no doubt, with the general retirement experience of the wider population: loss of routine can be disorienting; change and decreased frequency of contact with our primary support groups can foster loneliness; mere terminology can negatively impact our perceived social standing (not working, unproductive, unemployed, finished).

But the experience of self-employed art-producers may generate some unique challenges for the retirement experience. In some respects, our greatest value and strengths translate into our most serious liabilities if we cut-back or retire: the extent to which we invest our true selves into our work, invest it with personal narrative, identity, and uniqueness—to that extent our work both defines us, and differentiates itself, excels, and sets itself apart from all other work. If/when we slow or stop working, it may seem that both our story and our very selves begin to disappear, be diminished, become disenfranchised.

No wonder we artists find it so difficult to contemplate retiring. To the extent that our sense of value and legitimacy are accrued primarily through investing ourselves in what we make or do, the prospect of retirement may well be experienced more as threat than as good news.

When our tangible accomplishments are the primary definer of our value, we may find ourselves repeatedly promising ourselves, “OK. I’ll think about retirement after just one more, one final, notable, exhibition/article/purchase award/gallery representation/museum placement.”

2 Dick Lehman’s wood-fired plate, 10 in. (25 cm) in diameter, all natural ash glaze, gold kintsugi repair, fired upside-down for 7 days.

Dick Lehman’s saggar-fired bottle, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, Grolleg porcelain, fired to cone 06.

And if we are unfortunate enough to define ourselves, our value, our worth by measuring ourselves against others in our field—by seeking to have more blog posts/social media followers/exhibitions/sales/articles/awards than others, by perceiving ourselves as not having been surpassed—life will be difficult. There may seem no other option for maintaining relevance, value, and meaning, except to try to amp-it-up by doubling-down on the ambition, where ambition (read: constantly seeking more reputation, recognition, and renown) grows exponentially in inverse proportion to the diminishing time left in one’s career. It’s a guarantee for becoming sad caricatures of our earlier selves: our writing, louder and perhaps more outrageous; our speaking, strained and more insistent; our work, demanding more novelty and less honest intimacy; our efforts more defensive, exclusionary and inward-facing, less inclusive, less generous toward the next generation.

Retirement might be easier for those of us who are educators, where the mantra is more likely to be, “The measure of our success is determined by the students who surpass us.” The expectation is that we should be and will be surpassed, that we retire—of course, we hope, with emeritus status, and a retirement income, and perhaps a studio or small office on campus, if it’s not too much to ask. Working for institutions has its downsides. But one notable benefit may be the institutionalized expectation of retirement, “You did it. Well done. We celebrate you.”

Funding Retirement

If you are self-employed and decide to retire, you’ll have to plan, fund, and organize your own retirement party. And as for retirement income, any sense of emeritus, and your own small office or studio: you’ll not be able to look to anyone else for these.

Often for the self-employed, more than for the institutionally-employed, retirement money is the unspoken and insidious elephant-in-the-room. Many of us have exchanged financial security for freedom. The implications of this trade-off may be less clear until a certain age and by then it may be too late.

Gratefully, there are clay artists whose approach to retirement offer positive alternatives to the face-plant variety. Some have realized that there is no genuine special-merit in working in clay until they die. They have realized that they reached the top of their craft, and have already done their finest work. They know they have made their contribution, have planned for their futures, and are content to simply stop, or slow; grateful for the accomplishments, the opportunities, and the relationships that came to them as a result of their work.

Others have averted serious medical issues or have otherwise been given a window of clarity through which to view life, and have decided that they will slow down or retire from the studio; that there are other things to which they would like to give their remaining life’s attention; daring to dream about new commitments they’d enjoy making. A fresh start. The matrix of meaning and value now expanding to incorporate more.

And some—how brazen of them—have simply said, “Hey, almost every other modern profession has retirement expectations and benefits. Why not ours? I want and deserve it. I’m going to have it! Why shouldn’t I? I’ve done my part.”

Finding Meaning in Generativity

If we want to happily retire or even slow the pace of our work, we obviously need to be able to financially afford it. But perhaps most importantly, we need to be able to find meaning in bringing something to completion. We need to learn to rest well in past accomplishments, behaviors, works, and endeavors, and understand the benefit of taking stock and openly acknowledging what has been our very best work. Retirement experts suggest that a very important part of retirement is realizing that our greatest accomplishments are probably past, and at the very least don’t have to be repeated or exceeded. We need to focus and take pleasure in our part of having helped another generation surpass us: to take pleasure in what psychologist Erik Erikson called generativity.

Still, there will always be those face-planters among us—those of us who for reasons of temperament, personal satisfaction, and vision, choose to continue working. But the best final-face-plant will have had some terrific advance planning: sound fiscal planning from the early days of one’s career; relational and inclusive mid-careers that limited competition to “competing only with one’s self” (as David Shaner so nicely put it); a clear acknowledgment of the kind of professional recognition you are seeking and receiving at each stage in one’s career; a brutally honest evaluation of just how much professional recognition you really need, and for how long you think you will need it; and finally a purposeful, career-long trajectory of your plans to help and enable the next generation(s) of clay artists to outperform you.

Those of us best-suited for studio-self-employment have likely been ambitious—in its most positive definition. We’ve been self-motivated, curious, inclusive, expansive, relational, hard-working, positive, patient, tenacious, and at least in part self-validating—where the determination of meaning and sense of value comes from within oneself.

But being a successful studio artist requires other validation as well. Our work requires other people’s responses to it; being a successful (or at minimum, a self-supporting) maker inherently requires appreciation, attribution-of-value, and validation-of-meaning from outside of oneself.

For makers, slowing down or no-longer-making will cause the loss of one significant outside source of meaning and value. This may cause at least a temporary imbalance in our sense of place in our families, communities, and our work worlds. Fortunately we can find part of our meaning in our generativity, our contribution to the ongoing success of others; realizing that our true and ultimate success is having been an extension of those who have gone before us, and a part of those who follow.

But it’s one thing to give verbal or rational assent to this truth and quite another to embody it so fully that our inner voice breathes this big-picture-view with a full, contented sigh of self-actualized authenticity.

What’s your inner voice saying?

the author Dick Lehman, lives and works in Goshen, Indiana, and is a regular contributor to Ceramics Monthly.

  • Marcia S.

    you have been an inspiration for many years. Great article. I am enjoying my studio/retirement in red lodge Montana. Your words ring very true. Thank you for your continuing inspiration.

  • Natalia K.

    Dick you have captured so many timely insights as to my own personal situation. Thank you for this article. It is affirming. Having made a major change in my working clay routine by leaving a full time pottery teaching position after 40 years, I have been contemplating my next phase in the studio work. As expressed so well in your article, I feel I passed on accumulated knowledge to the next generation. After taking some time to think on the next stage and concluding that I need to evaluate that which has taken place, the work accomplished and what it looks like from my current place before moving on, I was affirmed by the concept you described as generativity. The second point that hit home was the point of being honest about finding meaning and value.
    Thank you.

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