Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Necessary Serendipity, or an Un-Chance Encounter

When my gym closed for good locally, I found another one I liked about 20 minutes’ drive from home. Many friends from the old gym relocated there, but there were also plenty of faces new to me. One of them seemed kind of familiar. It was only when I heard her speak that her Midwest accent jogged my memory hard, and I remembered.

I think I was supposed to meet Patricia again. She was a terrific teacher. I took one 10-week course with her. I was at a temporary stopping point in my clay career. Call it potter's block. But much has happened since I studied drawing in her class at the Visual Arts Center. In the 9 years since then, I went back to work in the studio, and grew quite a lot as a potter. My work made the transition to professional. My website became reality. I am only lacking some marketing know-how to make my cottage industry into a better business.

Patricia is a passionate artist. She has lots to say, both with spoken words and with materials like paper, metal, wood, charcoal, paint, ink and more. When she taught, she rarely stopped talking, teaching every moment as her students drew. She is as focused as a laser. It is Patricia’s passion for her art that struck me afresh as I stood in the new gym chatting with her.

We gave one another our business cards, the ones with our website URL’s.

Patricia began telling me that her work is now in museums, galleries, private collections, and public outdoor installations. It is traveling around the United States, with its theme of endangered regional birds.

I've been selling nice pieces here and there, enough to keep me motivated. But I haven't been, shall we say, buying steak on my earnings.

She launched into advice about finding your target audience and focusing on bringing your work to it however you can. She doesn’t make art that goes over somebody’s couch, she said. She has to find and bring her work to serious art collectors.

I made as if to snatch my card back from Patricia, because I really have my work cut out for me at the moment, learning how to improve my marketing skills. But the card-grab was pretend. I was glad to send her to my site. I welcome her genuine interest in clay and the techniques of pottery-making, and something further: what is art when we talk about clay? I know I will have lots to talk about and plenty to learn from Patricia. There may be some thoughts I can offer her in return. She was, in fact, excited to run into a fellow artist. I was excited to re-meet an artist I once knew, one with great drive, who has thought hard and worked hard to find a niche in the art world.

Recently, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. This is a book about what makes one person succeed while another does not, though they might have equal abilities. He writes about times, places, special opportunities and birth dates, and how they play a part in a person’s success or lack of it. He posits that having the right factors in place gives even a less qualified person an edge over a technically better-qualified one.

I read Patricia’s bio on her website today and pondered whether the premise of Outliers applies. I made inevitable comparisons. Patricia was encouraged at home to choose art above other professions. I was actively discouraged. (Artists cut off their ears, I was told.) Patricia traveled with her parents around the country and parts of Europe in her youth. I stayed in our little neighborhood and played in the woods near our house, a small world, though admittedly interesting. She was an only child, with choices made possible by an economic and educational boost. I was one of many children, with extremely few economic advantages and less than optimal cultural access. Patricia read extensively, with parental advice and encouragement. I read whatever I could get my hands on, whenever there was space and quiet (limited commodities then).

I focused on positives as I mused about Patricia’s path and mine.

This is my conclusion: in the absence of money or culturally rich education, I did not flourish in my profession till quite late. I read, took courses, learned my craft, and began putting my own personality into what I created. I began to recognize that my situation had changed. There's moral support from friends and siblings, who have seen me grow and concluded that I really mean it, and who want me to make great pots, and sell them. My husband and kids want that, too. Friends are willing to listen to me when I think over what to do next, and I've got associates in the clay world to mull technical and artistic subjects over with. I’ve learned to ignore those snobs who sneer at the “little woman painting pots,” who are totally clueless about what I do. (They had a fun time at a paint-your-own place once.) And last week, I had the fine fortune to bump into Patricia, and to start some good straight talk about the business of art.


  1. That's a really cool story (and a nice one after the last ordeal.) It's wonderful, albeit humbling to meet someone who has achieved a very high level of success in an area you are pursuing.

    I've found that there are two kinds of such people. Those who inspire you to work harder and push farther, and those that make you feel like you want to lay down your craft and never bother again. It sounds like this was a case of the former, which is great.

    I read Outliers as well, and while there is definitely truth to the idea that external factors play a major role in success, there is a world of discussion that could be had regarding the proper set of situations to breed success (as well as others on how to define success.)

    In profiling leader's, Abraham Zelznik (former professor at Harvard Business School) discusses the profile of a leader, and one common theme and some of the traits that come up frequently include introversion and a tough childhood, not really the traits one might expect, especially when people like to talk about those who are "born leaders."

    I like to think that we are all given the tools to be successful in our own lives. (Hope it's true...)

  2. This is my favorite post of yours.