St. Earth Pottery

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Killing The Dream

This essay was published in the January 2013 issue of Ceramics Monthly.

I picked up the dream of being a full-time potter almost as soon as I'd learned to throw, then carried it around with me for almost a decade before trying it.

During that time, I acquired additional training from two summers at Clary Illian's pottery, solo work in various co-op studios, a brief stint in graduate school and then several years in my own studio. I stumbled into a job making and managing web sites, which turned a into provisional career. Over the next six years, it helped lay the foundation for my dream: paying down debt, buying a house in the country with space for a studio and showroom, and building my first kiln.

While working full-time at that job, I kept the pulse going in the studio -- evenings, weekends and vacations. I gradually built up a local customer base, got my pots into some shows and galleries, and taught some ceramics classes at the local college.

Then, in early 2006, I made the leap.

Things didn't go as planned. Almost immediately, I hurt my back, strained by overwork. Distractions and side projects crept in, stealing precious studio time and limiting my output. An attempt at renovating our old barn into expanded studio and showroom space was foiled by a tornado. Teaching opportunities, which I'd hoped would ease the transition away from paid employment, dried up. So I took a few freelance web jobs -- the guaranteed income was good, but further slowed my progress in the studio.

Sales improved, but not enough, and I started worrying about money in ways I never had before. My anxiety about how to pay the next month's bills became constant, and was more paralyzing than motivating. All in all, the _x_ factor I'd been hoping for when I quit -- some sort of multiplier that would make the numbers add up to something sustainable -- never materialized.

Here's what I didn't know about being a full-time potter before I tried it: it's much harder than it looks.

I also hadn't planned on an offer to return to an improved version of my old job. Although it came just 18 months after the start of my experiment, I took it. It's hard to say exactly why. I gradually realized I'd been too impatient to get started. I should have saved more money, built a bigger kiln, made sure I was physically and mentally prepared to give it every waking moment. And perhaps those 18 months revealed what was really required to succeed: further sacrifices to my health and relationships; a tightened budget; compromising my love of making pots for the dull demands of the marketplace. The tradeoffs of a day job, as harsh as they can be, seemed preferable.

I clung to The Dream, as I'd come to think of it, for a few more years, hoping for another shot at it. But as my circumstances changed -- transitioning to a part-time job, parenthood, oncoming middle age -- I gradually realized that it wasn't doing me any good. In fact, it was weighing me down. Unfulfilled dreams fester into regrets. So on my 40th birthday, I decided to kill The Dream; to focus instead on what I can do with the life I've actually earned.

Here's what I didn't know about The Dream before I gave up on it: life without it isn't so bad.

In fact, it's pretty good. I only get to spend half my working life in the studio, but that time is much freer to be what I want. I get to make the pots I really want to make, in the ways I want to make them. I can slow down when I need to, and can take more chances while worrying less about their outcome. The money I earn from pots is still important, of course, but not desperately important. And there's a whole range of unpleasant things I don't have to do: wholesale, unappealing commissions, hauling pots across the state to weekends spent sitting at a booth, compulsively re-listing items on Etsy.

Having two jobs is complicated, but they reinforce one another, balancing out the competing demands of time and money, security and risk. I spend the first part of each week in a climate-controlled office at a computer; the rest in my studio, mostly at the treadle wheel.

In retrospect, my version of The Dream was more fantasy than plan, flawed by unrealistic ambition. Perhaps it was a youthful attempt to escape hard truths of time and money, labor and stamina, art and commerce. Some things can only be learned by running into them head first.

But I'm glad I did.


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