Picture a yoga practitioner holding a posture. Though you may imagine a motionless body, in actuality, she or he is continually making small muscular adjustments to remain balanced. The word balance is both a verb and a noun, but when applied to yoga and life in general, it is an action rather than a state of being; to be “in balance” means to continually readjust. Like yoga, balancing an artistic studio practice in ceramics with all of life’s other demands (and joys), requires constant fine tuning, and, sometimes, larger modifications.
Myriad articles are available for women about work/life balance. These are largely written for businesswomen who are working for companies while raising families. These women are challenged with rigid and often demanding work hours, bosses’ expectations, company politics, and glass ceilings. In addition, and for better or worse, women are often responsible for most of the work of raising families and doing domestic chores. As artists, we share some of those challenges, but have different ones, too. Much like the owners of any small business, we are our own bosses, which means that we set our schedules, we set our expectations, and we must create our motivations. We establish our workplace, serve as the janitor, fix-it person, marketing and human resources directors, and more. Women (and men) in more rigid and stratified work situations often envy our more flexible schedule and choice of workplace, but these perceived luxuries pose their own challenges.
In preparation for this article, I interviewed ten female ceramicists to learn more about the challenges they face and what they do to balance the different parts of their lives. I chose a mix of artists, whose ages, lengths of careers in clay, and geographic locations vary. Their challenges are likely to be ones you share and their ways of addressing them might be applicable to your own lives and careers. These artists’ specific challenges are all interrelated, but I present them here in four key categories: How to assure time for studio work; how to determine the best workplace; how to maintain self-motivation; and, how to keep up the necessary energy for artistic work.
The following essay based on the interviews exemplifies the fact that life circumstances continually change: a relationship start or ends, a person moves to a new location, finances go up or down, children or elders need differing levels of care at different times. With any of these, re-balancing our creative lives is necessary, and we are well equipped to do this. As Naomi Dalglish said, “Artists are used to thinking creatively and improvising. These skills help deal with life’s challenges.” However, to learn about and adapt ideas from others can be useful.
Only Twenty-four Hours in a Day
Everyone I interviewed—single artists who are establishing themselves, artists who are raising families, those who have demanding teaching/administration responsibilities, and those whose children are now independent—faced the challenge of having enough time in a day to do all that needs to be done. No matter what stage of life or career we are in, having too little time to do all that we think we should do is an issue.
Women working in other fields face this same challenge. They have working hours established by others that are often quite rigid. As artists, we generally set our own working hours. The downside of this flexible situation is that it is easier for other demands to encroach on our studio time. The women with whom I spoke had several different strategies to make the best use of time in and outside of their studios.
Being efficient about non-creative tasks provided them with more studio time. A common strategy was giving up the idea that they have to do it all themselves. Delegating or paying others to do tasks tangential to art-making, whether it is stacking wood, cleaning the house, packing work for shipment, or updating a website, allows them to apply themselves to the creative work that only they can do. Those with families emphasized car-pooling and meal exchanges with other families as ways to minimize time on domestic activities.
Designating a specific and limited time for daily chores, taking one afternoon or evening to cook for the week, for example, is one way Katie Coughlin makes more time for her studio work. Having a specific hour to set foot in the studio each day is Jan McKeachie Johnston’s way of preventing other tasks from usurping her studio time.
Several artists advised, do whatever you can to avoid “time sucks.” (You will need to assess what your “time sucks” may be.) No one advocated for not using social media, but warned that a quick peek can easily get one lost down a virtual rabbit hole where time slips away. Other “sucks” identified were TV, Netflix, or even spending time with people that really are not that important to you. So, the prescription is, assess, then limit or eliminate those things that are not truly a priority.
The artists told me about their efforts to become ever-better organizers. Scheduling and using charts and lists are tools many of these artists use to get control of their time. Coughlin sometimes feels guilty when she is not in the studio. So, each week she hand-writes a schedule for herself that includes studio time, time for friends and family, and time for domestic chores. She feels that the hand-written schedule legitimizes the different activities and relieves her guilty feelings.
Several women with young children found that engaging them in clay or even in the project on which they are working enables them to work and have quality time with their children simultaneously.
A final strategy with regard to time management is not so much an action as it is an attitude: Let go of some of the “rules” about what it means to be a good woman, good housekeeper, good wife, or good mother that women are subliminally socialized to follow without question. Trust yourself and your instincts and don’t get sucked into society’s expectations. There is only one Martha Stewart, and she has filled that niche. Luckily, many of these women who are mothers have partners who are engaged parents, too, who do their part, even if they do it differently. So, we must quiet the voices in our heads about what we “should do” in our domestic lives and define and do what we each see as important. As Brittany Faye Helms stated, “Good enough is good enough . . . save perfection for the studio.”
Location, Location, Location
Interestingly, interwoven into our discussions of making time for the studio was the issue of where to locate one’s studio. Location can influence how much time an artist can apply to her creative work. As a working artist, I prefer a studio away from home, so that the laundry, the lawn, the dishes, and other household tasks cannot call to me, distracting me from my creative work. Janis Mars Wunderlich, who raised five children while continuing her career, located her studio in a corner of her dining room so she had immediate access to it—a ten-step commute. She worked there before the children awoke, while they napped, and after they went to bed. She says that even short blocks of time, such as when the pasta water is heating, can accumulate, allowing a significant amount of creative work to be done. Jill Foote-Hutton, an early bird, rises at four in the morning, brews coffee, works in her pj’s in her home studio for several hours, and then goes to her day job.
Thanks to technology, Dalglish, whose studio is on her property in a separate building, uses Facetime to see and hear her children should they awaken while she works in the studio in the evening. Seana Higgins, who was new to her city and living in an artsy, but lower-income neighborhood, found that safety concerns often keep her from traveling across her neighborhood to her studio in the evening.
The artists described time, money, and space as a trifecta, especially those just starting careers and working outside academia. To earn enough money for a studio space, some have to put more hours into another job, which, of course, takes away from time in the studio. Overall, the consensus is that working in or close to one’s living space is both convenient and cost-effective.
Keeping the Fire in Your Belly Burning
In the typical corporate environment, goals and motivation are prompted in part by standardized, monetary compensation or job titles and the possibility of layoffs. Thankfully, as artists, we set our own goals and are our own motivators. However, self-motivation is not all that easy for many. Several of the artists I interviewed had some valuable ideas of ways to keep motivated.
External demands (aka deadlines) can keep their energy levels high. Pattie Chalmers, Foote-Hutton, and Tammy Marinuzzi all seek out or agree to several shows each year to create deadlines for themselves. Deadlines add stress, but they also provide inspiration for creating new work and spending extra time in the studio. Even when these women “don’t feel like it,” they value that extra push.
Marinuzzi, a teacher who lives far from a community of other ceramicists, is able to invite different artists to come to her school as part of a residency program. Being exposed to fresh ideas and having a colleague nearby benefits her students and her community and motivates her. Marinuzzi finds that her physical, psychological, and emotional energy are drawn upon so heavily by teaching that she has little left for art-making. She has only eight hours a week for studio work, so her artistic production and growth are slow during the school year. But in the summer she works as a resident artist near where her extended family lives, so she, her husband, and children stay with relatives. She is motivated by working intensively alongside other artists, knowing her children are enjoying their days at a nearby camp.
Reaching out to fellow artists through social media, face-to-face visits, and phone conversations is a common tactic among my interviewees for staying invigorated, especially for those located far from fellow ceramicists. Many said that devoting time to reaching out feels like a luxury, given so many other demands, but felt that it inspired and energized them.
Relationships have a strong influence on these artists’ motivation and confidence, providing mutual support and inspiration. But, finding time to nurture those relationships is difficult. Some have a group of family members or friends with whom they can discuss frustrations and successes, and others purposely seek out other kinds of friendships outside the field of ceramics. Chalmers says “Family and friends feed my happiness in the studio. Conversations and experiences with them fuel my creative process.” Family, whether nuclear or broader, is very high on most women’s list. As Johnston noted, “If a child or elder needs help or attention, that comes first.” While relationships require time, everyone agreed that they are critical to creating balance in life.
Wunderlich, who became a mother while she was a grad student, developed a unique strategy for keeping motivated. She had to pay a babysitter while she was in the studio, so she had to make each hour in the studio worth at least the fee she was paying the sitter. Although she is now beyond needing babysitters, ensuring that her time in the studio is highly productive has carried on. I did the same thing while earning an advanced degree and raising young children: I calculated the daily cost of my tuition and pasted it on my computer. Each day, I tried to make sure I got my money’s worth, and this self-imposed pressure kept me working nights when I would rather have gone to bed.
Dalglish, both a potter and a musician, says that participating in a different art form feeds her creativity in the ceramics studio. Other interviewees mentioned that they take classes or workshops or teach in a different medium, and find it energizes their studio work. Marinuzzi deliberately gives herself assignments that get her out of her comfort zone. And yet Johnston and Dalglish counsel that to make good work in the studio, a person needs to follow inspiration rather than make work they feel they should make. Making what feeds your soul must be not be forgotten as you balance the pressures from sales, shows, and patrons.
Move Yourself Up on the “To Do” List
Many of the women talked about having to learn to make taking care of themselves a priority, particularly after falling ill. As Dalglish put it, “It’s a cliché but hard to internalize. A person can’t be effective without first tending to one’s needs. I learned this when my youngest child was ill and not sleeping. I got exhausted and anxious. At that time, I was able to make only tried-and-true work in the studio, nothing new or risky. Tending to myself is not only about the physical and mental, but also about tending to my creative side.” Having enough energy to do the balancing act requires sleep, healthy eating, and some sort of exercise.
Many of us may already know about those last three requirements, but giving ourselves permission to invest the time to do them is key. Several interviewees told me stories about getting run down and being exhausted, and how their creativity waned as a result. It seems women are socialized to put themselves last on their “to do” list, and unlearning that is hard work. Yet several of these women have ways to self-care that work for them.
Marinuzzi’s current arts project to raise money for a pottery village in India requires her to walk four to five miles a day. She sometimes includes her children in her walk, which is good for their health, too. Her walks serve as time to think and reflect. Cary Esser’s reading time is her source of solitude and re-energizing; often a mental light bulb goes on regarding a problem unrelated to the storyline. Helms has taken to heart her mom’s advice that “taking time to rest is productive time.” She walks or bikes to her other jobs to get exercise. Wunderlich took up running at age forty. Running first thing in the morning gives her energy until around ten o’clock in the evening. Dalglish, mother of two young girls, sets aside “personally focused time,” which may be simply a few minutes of restorative peace and quiet in meditation or a short walk. Here’s Johnston’s routine for staying healthy and centered: “When I awaken, I stretch and move my body while in bed to get everything working, then I give gratitude for my life and those I love, and take a moment to meditate. Out of bed, I make my lists for our home life and the studio, brew coffee, make my toast, and am ready to go. I get into the studio by 9 a.m.; a good day is one in which I get in six to eight hours of good work.”
Summary of Wisdom
As several of the more established artists noted, perseverance and confidence are important, particularly during the times when other parts of life demand time way from the studio.
Take the long view and remember that circumstances keep changing. There will be times when other activities must take precedence over studio work: caregiving the young or old or attending to your health. Other times, you will have more studio time. So don’t stress about when you have less. Keep doing what you can, even in small bits. Knowing your biological clock is important to staying healthy and maintaining your practice. Among the ten women, there were both “larks” and “owls.” Determine which you are, and reserve the appropriate times for your studio work. Assess your needs and desires, then use your creativity and innovation to craft your definitions and standards for the roles of woman, artist, mother, wife, or homemaker. Surround yourself with others who believe in you and support you. Make sure that self-care is high on your list to ensure your physical, mental, and creative stamina for doing quality work. Check your perfectionism inside your studio (or corner).
Janis Mars Wunderlich has been working as both a full-time artist and mother of five for over twenty-five years. She recently experienced a significant life transition and currently lives in Columbus, Ohio. She is in her forties, commutes ninety minutes to teach at a university and yet, still finds time to run marathons.