On Gracious Living & Being The Best

Sometimes I fill my thoughts with regrets about the choices I have made.  Chafing under circumstances and stressors, I wish for paths I could have taken.  I spoke to a girl recently whom I discovered worked with someone I considered an icon.  My envy of her situation palpable, I gushed over her luck, only to be met with responses sadly akin to many of my own from times past.  There was the same hesitancy and careful wording in her speech.  The same fear of retribution underscored by frustration and resentment to be caught in the position where the illusions of success ran up against the realities a ruthless experience.  Not that much later, news in the ceramic community leaked of yet another apprentice breaking from and citing cruelty in their much more successful, and much more established mentor.  Illusions shattered.

I know people who truly believe that forcing someone to fight to prove themselves worthy is the best course.  That the misery they have experienced makes them stronger and the harsh do-or-die environments they create are the only ways to ensure someone will successfully claw their way to greatness.
I am not immune to the desire for greatness; a passion to prove myself, but there is a flipside to this ravenous hunger for success:  a relentless fear of weakness and failure.  The idea that someone else winning is the same as me losing.  The next person coming up the ladder will be the one to knock me off.  And that is true, when the ladder I am climbing is built on the bones of people I have trampled on my way up.
But why must I follow the rules that say I must be the best or I have lost?  What if I follow the footsteps of grace over the demands of nature?  What if instead of carving and hacking my way through, I planted and nurtured a system by investing in other people? I watched Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life recently: if you haven’t seen it, do so immediately.  The film gorgeously illustrates the struggle to emulate grace despite the cutthroat inclinations imbedded within.

think about the fears of establishing a practice based on kindness and grace: the fear that my work will not develop strongly.  That I will become too soft, unable to make tough calls or fight my way through in a thankless world. I think of the many models I have experienced in ceramics communities over the years: those designed to draw life out of the smallest seed and those calculated to weed out the unworthy and undesirable.  And then I think of the times I have been able to create my own small environments amidst these varied backdrops.
I’ve never regretted encouraging someone to better themselves- to try and to reach and to do what they love.  I’ve never regretted celebrating when another person does something spectacular that I could not or did not do.  I’ve never regretted opening myself up to people who are broken and struggling, just as I struggle every day.   What do I regret?  The times when I have chosen bitterness over joy.  When I let my resentment cause me to focus on another’s detriment rather than either of our betterment.
I do not want an empire built on the bones of those I’ve broken and reworked to suit my image.  I want to weave a living web of people connected and supporting each other.  I think this requires a refocusing- a relinquishing of the pursuit of the best in exchange for personal betterment.  Fighting it out alone is exhausting- so why would I bother, especially if there is a better way?

The Brand of You

So it seems terribly mercenary to sit there and break down a successful artistic practice into a formula for success with a click-baity title. Artists are supposed to be above the machinations of the soulless corporations: lofty and untainted and set apart from the rest of society and it's greedy ulterior motives. But training young artists to be cloudcuckooland-ers where the rules of marketing either don't apply or are some hazy unthought of notion is dangerous. The starving artist is romanticized in film, but sad in reality. As are the scores of 20-something BFA/MFA burnouts that finally give up art to pursue a real career. Because we don't treat art like an actual, viable career.  It's a passion, a following, a release, a calling with a class on the boring business stuff tacked on the side. But the art I create is only a small fraction of what people are investing in when they buy my piece. It's why an authentic Michelangelo is worth ten times that of a skilled forger. It's the brand: the cult of the personality.  

Everything I throw out into the world through letters, social media, images, websites, etc. is building my brand, whether I am intentional about it or not. The power to control how I am perceived is available through these tools- if I know how to be effective. To create a consistent package that people can invest in. That's not what I expected to have to do when I first got into art.  But what if there was a way to cut through all the crap and create a method that not only made it easier for people to grasp what I am trying to do, but also had the potential to make my approach to my artistic practice more efficient?  I'm on board to take a stab at it!  First:

 A line you can pitch as a unique, instantly recognizable look

I know a Martha Grover piece when I see it.  Or a Jeff Campana or Katharine Morling.  Once in an interview, I asked if my committee preferred my portfolio to display the full capabilities of my range or to demonstrate my ability to follow a consistent thread of development.  The answer, as I have heard many times since, was in favor of the latter.  Choosing a consistent style to be known by does not mean I cannot develop other lines concurrently or that I am pinned down forever without the ability to develop and mature.  But successful artists realize the importance of making deliberate choices about what work they put out and what they do not to pursue/emphasize.  


A technique that can be associated with that look

The workshop circuit is a great part of the artistic experience: providing opportunities to network, share skills, earn a living, build experience and generate ideas.  Being open to a workshop may not necessarily mean you do something that no one else or a very few people do, though it certainly can.  It could also mean you do a technique incredibly well- as  with Julia Galloway and mishima.  As her bodies of work develop and evolve, the mishima technique crops up over and over again to the point where some approaches have become synonymous with her name.  Developing a consistent approach to formation or construction or surface opens doors to opportunities to share your knowledge with other people and for them to associate those techniques with your name.

A personal narrative people can see in your work

When I work with another ceramic artist, I try to get a mug from them.  This object embodies our relationship- when I use it, I am reminded of that person.  I want my pots to take some of the essence of my personality and convey it to the user.  Whether it is the brilliant madness brimming from the work of George Ohr, the repressed sensuality of Kristen Kieffer, or the nostalgic playfulness of Brett Kern- you can feel their personalities bubbling through.  

A theme that translates to the academic and the everyman

In the vein of number 3, this aspect focuses more on the concept behind the piece.  If the personal narrative connects the maker to the pot, then the theme connects the pot to the audience.  What makes the work matter?  Using Kristen Kieffer again- her themes center on how function and beauty are married together in utilitarian forms.  In the more academic sense, this speaks to the complications when the nostalgia for the beauty of the past mixes with an appreciation for modern demands for utility.  More straightforwardly: It also reflects on the act of using beauty to transform everyday life.  The kernel of the theme remains intact, but can be expanded upon to suit different audiences and applications.

Inspiration for others.  Your give-back to the community.

We may not all have Roberto Lugo's story, but we can all have his passion.  We each have our own unique struggles and talents- our own opportunities to impact and change the world around us.  When someone is investing in your work or teaching or residency, they are also investing in you. What is it that you are offering? Is it a mere exchange of money for goods or services? Or can they see in you the seed of a better tomorrow? How will this world be better because you are in it making your art?

Many of these questions I asked myself during the writing of numerous statements and bios.  Some I had not considered before. But the kicker, I think, is to reverse the cycle of dragging and expanding.  To condense the answers upon answers we drag out to the essence. That is why I want to shoot to answer these with one sentence and/or image.  Because I can easily expand when someone asks me to. But what a challenge to know myself and my work so well I could point you in the right direction in a sentence.  And, as twitter knows, sometimes a sentence is all we get.

5 Things Emerging Artists Need to Know

So, I was talking to a friend of mind about the inevitable post-grad school grapplings with success or lack thereof.  The struggle to define a path in the infinite array of possibilities and to even be distinguished amongst the backdrop of millions just like us.  I've long since lost track of the hoards of chipper, yet carefully grounded letters I have sent off for grants, scholarships, positions, residencies, etc. attached to exactingly cultivated resumes designed to present my most impressive version of myself.  You can see it here (shameless plug and all).  There are classes that teach artists professional practice: I've taken them.  But artists know we trade heavily on emotion and personality in a way that doesn't translate through times new roman 1.5 spaced on while letter paper.  And my friend asked me, "How do we get to be the person everyone wants to have involved?"  So I started listing things every successful contemporary ceramic artist that I can immediately identify does:

1. A line you can pitch as a unique, instantly recognizable look.
2. A technique that can be associated with that look.  Something accessible enough to build workshops on, but impressive enough to spark interest.
3. A personal narrative that people can see in the work based on a quirk: humor, sensuality, modesty, etc.
4. A theme that translates to the academic and the everyman.
5. Inspiration for others.  Your give-back to the community.

And to really cut to the heart: each should be able to be summed up in one uncomplicated (read: 2 clause max) sentence.

It seems so simple.  5 points. 5 sentences. Can it build the total package?  That's the hard thing about academia.  We dump out everything, the crap included, hoping there is at least one thing worth holding onto amongst a sea of turds.  We write and write and write (and write), trying desperately to put words to things that we have made specifically because words have failed us.  And there are hands paid to hold ours as we flail around in our turd ocean and pluck the right words as they stream forth.  But that lovely, smelly, cocoon is an illusion.  And those masses of text and images we use to pin down exactly what it is we are doing are not only never going to be seen, they are fatal in the swipe-left world. 


ello, and welcome to my blog!  Feel free to explore the site, pin the images, or contact me!  I have a link to a form in the contact page, and am active on social media through @lindseyelsey.  Bonus: check out this new video edited by the amazing Kathy Elrick (who does her own thing through @writerelrick) that explores my creative process and the themes in my work.  Enjoy!