Talking Heads sang in their lyrics “And you may ask yourself… well how did I get here*” back in the 80’s, now clay artist Trayci Tompkins asks … and discovers, “this must be the place.”
Having studied Drama, Theatre and Marketing, it took a bit of courage when I first wrote ‘Artist’ on an official form as my occupation. But 25 years on, I am secure in the knowledge that this is what I am…. an artist, an entrepreneur, a curator, a designer, a lateral thinker, a creative soul, an occasional loner, a deep thinker and most importantly, an addict to the lessons of creating in clay.
They say ceramics is not for sissies… I’d agree. Take my last productive month as an example. I worked my butt off creating statement one-off clay pieces, only to show ‘nothing of substance’ for my efforts. Except a fist-full of advice on overcoming disappointment. My clay is not behaving well and the glazing looks drab. Which, for a commercial artist – who produces time-intensive work – means having nothing to sell; no potential income. Which is a whole other kind of setback!
For those not familiar with the workings of a ceramic studio, typically one has to first mix the clay. This usually happens quite routinely in an unhealthy cloud dust of turning dry raw materials into magical malleable mud.
The bearing on my trusty clay mixer has recently seized, so I spent the week outdoors with a not so efficient makeshift concrete mixer, and spent hours of exhausting wedging-by-hand to mix the materials thoroughly.
Clay prepared, the creating begins. Some potters throw their work on a wheel, while others hand-build their pots or sculptural pieces. A process that is considerably slower but equally skilful. Clay, being the technical entity it is, requires skill in construction, control in the drying and scientific know-how in the glazing.
Formulating glaze recipes is a science and typically a potter will have an array of test tiles alongside rows of buckets of experimental glazes… and in the end, only use one of two of their trusty favourites.
From experience I have come to know that nothing ever fires exactly the same. Especially when you plan it to and notably when you apply multiple glaze coats, change clay bodies or make use of alternate methods of firing. With so much that can go wrong, I’m surprised that clay artists aren’t all secretly on Prozac! There is one particular book titled “Ceramic Faults and their Remedies” … that became my bible in the early days of starting out in my studio. There ought to be a sequel… “Ceramic Disappointments and your Survival!” It’s heart-wrenching when the pieces you’ve literally ‘loved into life’ emerge from the final kiln firing with an un-sellable fine hairline crack or an unavoidable denouement.
It’s not the best result for a commercial artist. From personal experience, I can tell you it’s not the pathway to happiness. But what it is, is a massive curve in life’s great school of learning to find prosperity simply in the journey (income earning issues aside that is!).
Quite often it’s a journey that’s laced with many challenges too. Take failure for example. Yes there’s a good dose of that alongside the disappointment. But still, we enduring, robust potters take great courage in the fact that we’re willing to face that fear of failure with each pot/bowl/sculpture we subject to the heat and flames of the kiln.
To us, failure has become a good friend of success. And I wouldn’t achieve either had I not tried. As Churchill once said.. “We will never surrender!”
I think the addictive nature of creating something wonderful is what drives us out of the doldrums after a cracked, slumped or not-so-lovely potential masterpiece. In my case, Churchill’s voice usually echoes soon after I threaten to pack it all in and get a ‘proper’ job that pays at the end of each month.
But Clay maker artist is what I choose to be … How else would I have learnt the valuable art of overcoming; found the stamina to face failure and experienced the absolute freedom and joy of creating every day? I’m not sure how… but I got here. ‘This must be the place’.