Every day I get to juggle the tasks of keeping all the different aspects of my creative life aloft. I am an educator, I am a gallery co-owner, and I am an artist. These three main parts of my life are challenging but rewarding, require time management skills I am still working on, and yet fulfill that inner-most desire to live an artful life.
Each semester I teach roughly fifteen college students how to throw on the wheel. Some come with experience and are excited to get to work, while others see the wheel as a torture device awaiting them. I often jokingly compare it to riding a unicycle while juggling knives on a road made of marshmallows. After they share a snicker at my dad jokes, some students are excited to meet the challenge, while others look at me with fear in their eyes. It is my job to be an ambassador to the materials and tools I love, but it is hard not to find a little humor early on in this process, knowing that by the end of 16 weeks, most of them will want to sign up for the next class. This experience teaching throwing relates to the way I feel in my own life. I have set myself the particularly challenging roles of simultaneously teaching, owning and running a gallery, and being an artist. In my career(s), I am the one juggling knives while riding a unicycle on streets made of gooey softness, but I would not have it any other way. I love what I do and I would not change any of it.
Catching a BB in a Thimble
When I was in graduate school at Georgia State University, I stated to my faculty rather emphatically that I was not going to teach, and so it followed that I did not want a teaching assistantship. I thought that by taking a job as a TA I would be taking an opportunity away from someone who wanted it. Arrogantly, I was convinced that my years herding cats as an elementary school art teacher were sufficient teaching experience. Now I am in my fourth year of teaching at the college level and I am still finding my stride as an educator. I am sure that my reluctance to have a teaching assistantship has contributed to my steep learning curve. During these past four years I have been slowly figuring out how to share my passion with my students, and how to translate that passion into relatable actions.
In my academic schedule I teach five classes over four days each week: a Ceramics 1 course, a stacked Ceramics 2 course, and a Foundations 3D Design course. I also teach two upper division classes for the graduating art students that are built around preparing for the realities of life as a working artist. As an educator and artist living the working artist life, my students and community get to see what it takes to establish, maintain, and grow a creative life. It is my hope that through seeing the layers and the juggling I do to create this life, I am demonstrating the possibilities for their own lives as artists. About two years into my current teaching job, my former professor Christina West stopped by my gallery. Ten minutes into my stories about my new job, she reminded me that I was the guy who told her I was never going to teach. On the other side of that awkward moment of acknowledgment, I was able to share that I love teaching and working where I do. For so many in the field, we go where the job is. Instead, I followed my heart first, and happened to find an opportunity perfect for me. I compare this to shooting a BB into the air and catching it in a thimble. It was pure luck.
Around the same time that I began my current teaching position, my partner Glenn and I decided to turn my studio into what is now my second full-time job, Plough Gallery. Our home and gallery are located in Tifton, Georgia, a small town about three hours south of Atlanta. Tifton used to host an arts festival that drew large crowds, and helped satiate the desire for culture in what could easily be described as a malnourished arts region. Once the festival stopped, many in the community missed the infusion of art and we felt we could do our part to provide a steady diet of culture.
Glenn chose the name Plough (pronounced plow) based on the agrarian history of the area. Since the beginning of the gallery, Glenn has been the force behind the scenes that has put us into the public eye by using his interest in graphic design coupled with his love of photography. Our logo, web design, and all marketing have come from him. He has a keen eye for creating the look and feel for the gallery. His influence carries from social and digital media to the displays and the overall presentation of Plough Gallery.
We do not have staff currently, though when we have an artist in residence, we do ask that they keep the gallery open fifteen hours a week in exchange for a free studio and utilities.
My role is to connect with the artists, set up exhibitions, and keep the gallery full of work. I manage the basic accounting but thought it more advantageous to hire an accountant to keep up with what can be a daunting task. Our central location puts the gallery in the role of educator often and that is something we focus on. Our strategy for educating our gallery visitors is to put the work in their hands, be knowledgeable about the processes used, and share the personal stories that establish connections between the objects and the makers. We create opportunities for our customers and visitors to see artists demonstrating at the gallery through such events as Potters on The Porch, our Annual Holiday Celebration, and others that bring artists to Tifton to share directly with the community. We believe strongly that when you can see the work being created, it directly connects the artists to their products in ways words cannot. This strategy also helps us explain the pricing as it showcases the skills and time these one-of-a-kind objects require.
How do I find time to make work? The truth is, I struggle most with this aspect of my juggling act. Between teaching and keeping up with the gallery, studio time is sporadic and precious. I steal time whenever I can, and it helps that I have a supportive partner who understands that being in the studio is the fuel for everything I do. It refocuses me and puts things in perspective. Clay is humbling and when I am in the studio, it is all I can think about. It forces me to be present—that is the part of ceramics that brings me back to it all the time. This multifaceted career is not without sacrifices and frustrations, but I focus on the fact that I have chosen this life and I love it. Having balance while juggling means that sometimes my creative development has taken longer than I would have liked. Recently I have been invited to teach more workshops and partake in short-term residencies like Pentaculum at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, that allow time and space for small but intensive amounts of personal development. This is when my creative work thrives, but there is no denying that teaching dominates my regular weekly schedule, which any educator and artist can relate to. Fridays and Saturdays are my gallery days. Sundays are used for house work, some rest and relaxation (which usually means photographing new work), and, if possible, studio time for us both. I squeeze in more studio time as other parts of my life allow or when deadlines loom.
Ask me on any given day and I will tell you that I cannot keep this up forever. I always want to be a better teacher, a better business owner, and give my work the time I want; however, in truth, I have never been one to sit still long. If one thing was to stop, I would fill the time with something else. I am passionate about what we do. Glenn and I are always looking ahead, but for now we are very thankful to be where we are—sharing the work of artists with our community, loving our jobs, and while of course I would welcome more studio time, we are just going to keep juggling this artful life.
the author Mark Errol is a lecturer at Valdosta State University in the department of art and design, co-owner of Plough Gallery in Tifton, Georgia, and a studio potter. To learn more, visit www.marksmud.com or www.ploughgallery.com.