Clay as a Second Career: An Artist Shares How She Found Her Way to Pottery

From the FDA to Clay

Despite the fact that our passion for clay runs deep, we were probably not born knowing we wanted to be ceramic artists. Many of us, stumbled upon clay (and our lives were forever changed!).

In today’s post, I am sharing an excerpt from the April 2015 Ceramics Monthly, which focuses on artists who took on ceramics after established careers in very different fields. Carolanne Currier explains how she came to clay from a career as an investigator for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and how her previous career informs her work.- Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

Two years before I retired from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), I started thinking about what I was going to do with my time and energy when I no longer had a full-time job. I knew that I wanted to get involved in some artistic activity and to be connected with the natural world. I have a BA in Art from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, and an MA in Environmental Biology from Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, but aside from some volunteer work with environmental organizations, and dabbling in watercolor painting and black-and-white photography, I had put most of my environmental and artistic interests aside while I pursued my career in public health.

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One evening, a friend invited me to help glaze some bisqueware at a local pottery school. While glazing the work was fun, I was really intrigued by the people throwing forms on the wheel. Before the night was over, I had enrolled in an evening class. My initial goal was simply to become good enough to make myself a set of serviceable, handmade dishes; however, I quickly found that working with clay provided me with a good creative outlet. The real hook came when I was introduced to wood firing. I loved the tactile earthiness of the whole process. It felt primeval; working with mud, wood, and fire. I felt connected to the natural world. And I loved how the pots from the kiln told the story of the firing; the ash-and-flash surfaces recording the flame’s path, the pots’ location in the kiln, and the varying atmospheric conditions. The pots were solid, tangible records of the firing process. Working with clay and wood firing was the total opposite of my job of almost 30 years; a job where both the process and product were almost entirely intellectual. When I finally retired, I jumped into clay head first, and didn’t look back. I never really decided to make clay a second career. It simply became what I wanted to do with my life.

Transferrable Skills

I am naturally curious about what goes on around me, and I enjoy challenges. Being an investigator for the FDA was a good fit for that curiosity. My job required that I review and determine the reliability of clinical data submitted to the agency in support of new drug marketing applications. The job was complex and demanded dealing with specialized technical knowledge as well as creative problem-solving. I have found those same demands in developing glaze and clay body formulations, and I admit I have thoroughly enjoyed conducting extensive tests to figure out what surfaces and color palette I like best.

In addition to the scientific research and problem-solving skills mentioned above, I think two other important skills I developed during my career in the FDA are patience and persistence. The FDA is part of one of the biggest bureaucracies in the world. One has to learn to persevere when faced with problems and also to be flexible and find alternative ways to obtain answers. I have certainly used those skills in developing my clays and testing different firing regimens. As far as my understanding of the materials in the ceramic studio, I have learned most of what I know about them in the last couple of years. There was very little overlap between the human-based science knowledge I needed for the FDA and that which I need for ceramics. However, when, mid-career, I decided to go back to school and get a master’s degree in environmental biology, the courses required for that degree intensified both my love of science in general, and my love of the natural world.

To learn more about Carolanne Currier, her artwork, her soda-firing and studio processes, and for a few glaze and slip recipes, check out the April 2015 issue of Ceramics Monthly to read the complete article.

**First published in 2015.
  • Carol Koemeter-cox C.

    Beautiful work. After retirement I, too, have been able to spend more time with clay.
    Right now I feel I am looking for my “style”. We are hoping at the studio I am working at
    to acquire a salt kiln and I am looking forward to this.

  • Carolanne C.

    Thanks for the compliments! It’s never too late for clay! Yes, Irena, the shells leave an impression and decompose into calcium oxide and carbon dioxide. The calcium oxide has a super high melting point so it remains in powder form and can be brushed off. The while sprinkles are from the sand that I include in my clay body.

  • Irene C.

    I was a Federal civil servant in the Departments of Taxation, then Defence, then Social Security… creativity completely burst out of the box when I went to art school at 42 and discovered clay…10 years later, a bit poorer but no looking back!

  • Peggy H.

    I too have come to clay as a second career at age 47 after being a paramedic. I’ve been doing it for almost 4 years. I’ve had classes at the local 2 year college and went on to a 4 year college seeking a BFA in ceramic arts. I LOVE IT!!!

  • Heidi G.

    I didn’t find ceramics until my late 40s. After 5 years I am just starting to feel some authenticity come through in my work. Brava, Carolanne!

  • Jola K.

    Just wonderful. My life has been similar in a way. I decided to retire, have lots of energy, and very artistic feeling about many forms. I always wanted to dig into clay, but while working in Toronto for many years, I simply did not have time or money to do it. I came to Elliot Lake, Ontario, and immediately found out about the Arts Club. Of course, I have become a part of it, still learning everyday, and having lots of fun. We have a very specific kiln in the art studio, electric and firing to cone 6, but my dream is to have a wood firing kiln in my lake place, where I moved full time. Any suggestions. And by the way, your work is just wonderful in my eyes, perfectly imperfect – as I say – and very unique and artistic. Just love it.

  • Irena K.

    Stunning colors! What happens to the seashells at this high temperature? Do they just leave an impression and then disintegrate? Where did the white sprinkles come from? They look like coarse salt.
    Fantastically beautiful!
    Thanks for sharing.

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