For a long time, the question of sustainability for me was largely a question of how to sustain myself as an artist. After securing the basics like food, water, and shelter, there was always the matter of how to secure the space, the time, and the means to maintain a studio practice. Like many artists, the answer I settled on was to build my life around residencies, which – at its best – was a wonderful way to live. Residencies provided me with what I thought I needed to makes ends meet artistically: access to the means – tools and equipment – to keep on making and to the ceramics community at large.
Finally in 2011, after nearly a decade of residencies, I went in search of a permanent home. In retrospect, this was not as much a conscious move toward sustainability as it was an act of surrender. Although I could not have articulated what was going on with me at the time, the years I had spent moving around had left me feeling uncentered as an artist and as an individual. I desperately needed to find firmer ground. I needed a place where I could put down roots.
So one day I decided to stop moving. And, to my surprise, I found myself back in the neighborhood that many of my family members called home for generations: a small, quiet, very unhip, as-yet-undiscovered neighborhood in south Brooklyn. It is a place where 1940s row houses share the street with new condominiums, old Victorians, and low-income housing developments. It is a place I never imagined myself living, yet there was space for me to live and to work in my own studio. There was space for a garden and a kiln and to build a life worth sustaining.
When I decided to make a different choice with respect to my immediate environment, all of my choices began to change, not only my choices as an artist, but also the choices made with respect to my role as a member of greater society, and to the environment we all share. Although the shift did not happen overnight, it was undeniable and directly related to my decision to plant myself in one, fixed place and to begin investing time and care in it.
At first, the shift was subtle and was related directly to my work practices. Because my studio space is in an old rowhouse with old pipes, I knew that letting any clay make its way down the drain could be disastrous. So I decided to forgo slip traps and decant all my wastewater in a five-gallon bucket instead. Now, I collect all of my wastewater during the day, and the next morning I pour off the clear water, which passes down the drain just fine. Once I have a five-gallon bucket full of slurry, I dry it on a plaster slab. In the beginning, I took it to the curb with the rest of the trash. It took a few buckets of slurry before I decided to start sieving it and then using it to press tiles.
I quickly saw that just this one small shift in my practice had an impact not only on my new home (in the form of lots of tile for renovating the kitchen), but on the environment as well. I had previously thought I had a good grasp on just how much material I was flushing down the drain, so I was shocked to realize just how much I had dumped into the water system over the years. This type of waste adds up, but it was easy to overlook when I was always moving.
My method of firing work has also changed. About fifteen years ago, I switched to firing in an electric kiln because results from electric kilns are more consistent from place to place than those from atmospheric kilns. At that time, I knew that a significant portion of our country’s electricity was generated from coal, but at that point, I didn’t really care. The problems associated with global warming were not all that clear to me then, and ocean acidification wasn’t even a theory.
Had I not moved to a place where I am rubbing elbows with 8.5 million people, I would probably still be getting my electricity from those sources. But here I see very clearly how one person’s actions contribute to the incredible, collective impact humans have on the world. For that reason, I signed up through my local utility provider to purchase renewable sources of power; now my studio runs on wind energy. It costs slightly more, but it is a small price to pay for supporting the kinds of change I would like to see our society make. Someday I hope to install solar panels for the same reason.
Long-term planning comes much more easily now that I’ve put down roots – quite literally, too: I planted a garden shortly after I moved in. Since then, I have installed rainwater collection barrels, which supply the garden with fresh water and syphon off some of the storm runoff during downpours. My neighbors’ yard waste, waste that used to end up in landfills, now goes into my compost bin. It’s transformed into amazing soil for the garden, which in turn yields more food for me and my family.
Although water collection systems, gardening, and composting may seem tangential to the work an artist does, they are part of the same narrative, part of a whole. The garden provides much-needed time away from the studio, so I can think and work in a different way and come back to my work refreshed. Had I not chosen to rethink how I care for my immediate environment and to establish a consistent space for my artistic practice, I would not have developed the perspective necessary to reevaluate my relationship to the world and my place in it and to make environmentally conscious choices.
As ceramists, we all know that a very small change in conditions can create large-scale effects. “Think globally, act locally” has become something of a cliché, but its underlying principle is still true: we must understand the impact our actions have on the world around us. By applying this principle and focusing on small changes, I have created a way of life that I hope will sustain me and my community long term. By taking responsibility for my space I have begun to see the incredible importance we all must place on taking responsibility for our individual actions, for our environment and, ultimately, for one another.