After putting my nursing career on hold to study ceramics, moving to various places across the country first for school and then for short-term teaching positions, I decided I needed to change the pace of my life, and chose to settle in San Diego, California. There were two reasons—the sunny, blue sky (which I missed and envied terribly while I was moving about in the Midwest) and teaching opportunities I imagined possible through many universities and colleges in San Diego. After a year break, I managed to teach as an adjunct professor at two community colleges. However, San Diego was also where I was able to pause and reevaluate my life, personally and professionally. The truth was that all of that moving around and working at various teaching situations took a toll. More importantly, I missed making pots.
Settled in San Diego for 10 years now, I now have the luxury of working at my home studio and tending my garden, my two infatuations at this moment. My studio is in the basement of our house. Fortunately, the house is situated on a slope such that the studio faces the lower level of the backyard, allowing an abundance of light to pass through the windows and door. It is a generous enough space to house a Lockerbie kick wheel, a large work table made with a recycled door, some shelving units, and a Skutt kiln. The most exciting part of the studio is my new sink, beautifully decorated with Mexican tiles. I used to fetch water from the backyard for everything.
When I switch from dark clay to white clay, I usually take the opportunity to clean the wheel and work surfaces and mop the floor really well. I am not so concerned about the contamination because the white clay I use gets glazed and I don’t mind a few specks of iron. I recycle my clays by slaking and aging scraps in buckets and pouring the slurry out on plaster to dry in the sun. This process has proven itself to be painless and effortless and is possible to do for most of the year.
I have recently claimed a small section of our garage to store dry materials and mix glazes. This has been a large endeavor as I move toward mixing and testing glazes more diligently in an effort to expand my palette. Although my Skutt Kiln 1027 will easily achieve temperatures up to cone 10, I have settled on firing to cone 5–6 for my work. This temperature range allows me to achieve a broader palette of colors, as well as density and durability in my functional work. My kiln is small enough so that I can fire as often as every month to get results, but also large enough so I can challenge myself with scale.
Our living room is my full-time gallery space. This way of showing my pieces has been working well since it is always set up for viewing. It is also a great way to bring work up from the dusty studio and see it in a new light, not to mention making room for new work in the studio. The living room is also where I photograph and package my work for shipping.
Nursing Versus Potting (Paying Bills)
Since I returned to working as a nurse two days per week, my studio time has been punctuated by my shifts at the hospital. I spend the rest of the week working in the studio. Lately I have come to really appreciate this arrangement. I enjoy the freedom to make what I am inspired to make and not feel pressured to make work to sell. I feel that this kind of psychological and financial freedom is important in allowing me to explore and experiment in my work at my own pace, and grow as a potter.
Practical issues aside, I am asked very often how my nursing career influences or informs my artwork. I pause every time I am asked that question. For one I start asking myself, “Should it?” The answer has become “not really.” Not in what I do now. I used to have many ideas that originated or were inspired by what I do at the hospital. They were mainly sculptural ideas: I would collect test tube racks that the lab would recycle and odd objects such as sterile suction bulbs, graduating cylinders and basins that were unused from surgery. Some are still in my studio.
Ironically, many potters I have met have a background in the science or medical fields. Whether they find clay as an outlet as I did, or the scientific mind is attracted to the scientific side of ceramics, or it is a sheer attraction to something that is entirely different from how they think and see the world, I do not know. I know that my nursing friends are pleasantly surprised with my ceramic career. Some have watched me grow and have thoroughly supported me over the years.
When handbuilding became a primary way of working, I started experiencing tendonitis in my right thumb. Sitting continuously and endlessly in one spot versus throwing (which makes me get up every so many minutes due to the inherent nature of the process) would leave me quite stiff at the end of the day. These changes have been somewhat disturbing to me as I had been fortunate enough to never have to modify my studio practice thus far. Now I purposefully switch between handbuilding and wheel throwing. I also considered yoga but instead dove into the world of CrossFit. I am gaining strength and endurance even if I feel sore after every workout. Alas, it is a fine balancing act!
For stimulating the mind, I read, although I do so in spurts. The last book I read was The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. It was a beautiful read. The chapters are structured in such a way that each seems like a snap shot. This was done, I thought, as if to ease the impact of the tragedy of the heroine.
One of my favorite things to do while I work in the studio is turning on NPR. I especially love tuning in to Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I have learned so much about what is going on around me and globally that I am indebted to her program. I also enjoy listening to artists, actors, and musicians talk about their work and creative processes, as well as their challenges and struggles. There is so much in common in doing creative work.
I also try to see works of other artists, past and contemporary, as much as I can. I particularly look at fiber works as a source of inspiration. I study how color, texture, and pattern are used to embellish the body. After all, this is what I think I do with my pots when I am decorating them. I dress them.
Traveling is another wonderful way for me to learn about history, and experience food and people of different cultures. Being in the midst of exquisite porcelain pots during a residency in Jingdezhen, China, witnessing the terra-cotta soldiers of Xi’an, China, and seeing the mosaic works in Spanish and Thai temples were all breathtaking experiences I cherish. These experiences, although not directly evident in my work, enrich my mind. It is definitely the spirit and the humility in which these works of art are created that I take away from these unique experiences. It was in Jingdezhen that I again saw John Neely, my professor from Utah State University, years after graduating from USU. Through his example he taught me to travel, see, learn, and grow and never become complacent.
Much like many academically trained potters, promoting and marketing my work was initially an afterthought. I always believed that if I made good work then everything would take care of itself. Well, I am beginning to question that belief, and I have consciously looked for new ways to promote my work and get it out there to a wider public. Beyond gallery shows, I have started an annual studio sale as part of the San Diego Pottery Tour, and this has been successful in selling my work. I also do art fairs, although I am desperately trying to find a balance between preparing for and working these sales events and making sure I can block out a good chunk of time for producing and developing my work.
Besides creating a website and a Facebook page to have an online presence, I have dabbled with opening an online store on Etsy. But I have to say that it has not been entirely worth my effort (or I have not put enough effort into my Etsy store to keep it vibrant). In either case, I am not so sure how active I want to remain with Etsy. MailChimp is a free, convenient tool I have used to build my mailing list and to create and send newsletters. Because MailChimp allowed me to import contacts directly from my address book, the setup was quick and easy.
My annual studio sale, which is part of the San Diego Pottery Tour, happens in early December each year. The tour, initially started by three potters—Richard Burkett, Nan Coffin, and Eric Rempe—has grown steadily, and celebrated its 7th year in 2014. This past December’s event highlighted handmade pottery by over 30 potters at 9 studios locations.
Allied Craftsmen of San Diego is another artists’ group to which I belong. Unlike the San Diego Pottery Tour, Allied Craftsmen is made up of artists and educators from diverse areas in visual art. This group has provided a platform where artists can mingle, network, and exchange ideas, as well as exhibit together. Recent notable exhibitions organized by the group were “Material Matters” at the Museum at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido in 2010 and “Allied Craftsmen Today” at the Mingei International Museum in 2013.
Most Important Lesson
I revisit why I do what I do, especially during the difficult times. I truly love the creative process of making pots. Isn’t it every artist’s dream to have a creative, productive life? I appreciate all of our endeavors to keep the art of ceramics alive as a tradition and as a means of expression. When I am making my own work, I feel that I am making a small contribution to these larger endeavors. Pottery saturates our world. Yet thoughtfully made functional pottery has the potential to enrich and elevate our daily domestic experience. Remember the world has space for great pottery!