Today I’m introducing a new series called the Artist Study. As I recently passed the five year mark in my wedding & portrait photography business, I have been craving some fresh inspiration from outside of my industry. So, a few months ago, when I stepped inside the studio of today’s artist, I immediately felt the project coming together in my mind. I would interview and photograph artists that inspire me, as a way to grow as a photographer and push my own creative boundaries. And in sharing these interviews here, my hope is that these artists inspire you as well.
Today’s feature is with Carla Pillsbury, a potter and owner of lifeware. She makes beautifully clean and neutral ceramics for every day use in the kitchen & home – coffee cups, bowls, vases, etc. The morning I spent with Carla was therapeutic. Hearing her story and her process, jolted me forward in a way I hadn’t expected. She is 100% down to earth and speaks straight from her heart.
I am drawn to Carla’s pieces because they connect with my soul. They feel full of something I can’t quite put my finger on, and I really identify with them without totally knowing why. So I was surprised to hear this isn’t Carla’s direct intention. She actually tells me she doesn’t consider herself an artist (which I quickly disagreed with). Yet she gets happy tears in her eyes a couple of times while we talk about her husband and her son, and I know that emotion is translating into her pieces somehow.
Over coffee and spanakopitas, here was our conversation.
How did you get started in ceramics?
I worked as an architect for 10 years. Then when Drew (Carla’s son) was born, I couldn’t go from a 60 hour week to all the time baby. So when he would take a nap, I’d go upstairs and work slowly at creating a studio space. Drawing when I could. Any little bit when I could. Then thinking, I have a wheel, I’ll get a kiln, then building from there. It was a momentum from working super hard for awhile. Also, I wanted it to work. It was hard to see it as a career because it was a crazy dream to be a potter for a living. In a way, the stakes were higher because I don’t want to go back to someone else’s 60 hours. I want it to be my 60 hours. I will do whatever I need to do to keep myself out of that. But at the same time I am casual about it. It’s a weird mixture of both.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
While doing. Waiting for inspiration is not something I have found productive. I just have to be doing it and then something clicks. While I’m making one piece, that piece may not be the one, but it might lead to something that is. Each piece is a progression. It’s sort of trial by fire.
It also comes from a need. I love cooking and it adds a lot of joy to eat off of nice things. Right now I am in the middle of this momentum I’ve been building for the past few years, but in the very beginning it was this idea of a coffee cup. So you start with this little idea and it might be terrible but you keep working and keep going and keep going. It starts with something small.
Coffee is every morning, every day. There are so many rituals that are attached to food that are such a part of your life. It starts with that little thing and I celebrate it. How does it feel to drink something out of something someone made. And how does it make it better. It starts with the little things and it’s all pretty much food related. It’s not coming from art, I don’t feel like an artist. I feel like an anthropologist. The thing that is interesting to me is how you use it and all the other decisions come from there – around color and texture and size. It’s incredibly personal. Everyone has to try out the handle and pick their size and decide this is the one.
Where do the decisions about color and texture come in?
Part of it is me wanting to fit in as many different kitchens as possible in a way, and part of it is focusing on the function of it and not the appearance entirely. I’m not HEY IT’S A MUG! Part of it is me backing away from art in a way and focusing on the function and seeing if it can fit in as many different environments as possible. Something that is a little more subtle and a little less flamboyant.
The thing I like to do more than anything is the throwing. Glazing is not my thing. So the less time I spend glazing, the better. I try to keep things as simple as possible. Some variation and some control but for the most part the thing I like to do is the throwing so that is where I spend most of my time. The form is the thing that is interesting to me.
How do you deal with setbacks small and large? Do you ever hit ruts?
I am in a rut right now because my schedule has been super unpredictable so I don’t have the time to work on the things I need to – that I feel like I need to – and I set these deadlines for myself that do and do not exist. And so I end up disappointing myself over and over again. But I am trying to work on that. My kiln is broken right now which is really crippling. In a way it’s forcing me to make a decision to move away from electricity or find an alternative way of firing.
As far as failures go in clay it is inevitable but it is all a lesson. And sometimes things turn out really interesting because of these failures. And so there is a percentage, maybe 5%, that I am not going to be able to use because these things happen and you have minimal control and there are so many factors. Like these guys (she shows me four beautiful bowls on her counter). There are just subtle things that I get irritated by and feel like I can’t put these in front of somebody. But that is one of the things that is nice. If I am not comfortable with something, it is up to me – no one is forcing me to put out stuff that I’m not happy with.
If they don’t want it, I don’t care. I feel really lucky that I get to do this. And I can back away and realize, it’s just mugs. I have that perspective. I try to put the most amount of pressure that’s productive, and I try to solve the problems as quickly as I can. But a way to cope with it and not freak out is to remind myself how small I am.
How do you handle pricing?
Pricing is a tough one, it’s something I have trouble with because I want this to be something that people use because if something is too expensive it becomes too precious and maybe you don’t use it as much. Or you get really upset if it breaks. But I still want to be able to charge something fair enough for my time and not undercut my pals, the other ceramic artists. But I still feel really weird about charging a lot for a mug. That is part of why my glazing is kept really simple because I don’t want to spend a ton of time on it. Because I’m not going to charge that much and it’s also trying to not see it as art, to remove a little bit more of that preciousness from it. So that is a tough one. I do charge less than a lot of folks but I feel like I do less.
Do you ever compare yourself with others and get yourself down?
Sometimes yeah. It’s definitely easy to compare yourself and think ‘I am a fraud’. That is something I have all the time. But I don’t stop. I think that is something that everyone feels in a way. There’s always going to be ‘that is way better than what I’m doing’, or ‘that is real art’. But then at the same time I get a lot of inspiration from people doing amazing things.
Another thing that is awesome about clay is you can keep doing it until you’re 80 and you’ll always be changing and progressing. And being inspired by people is part of that. And looking around you I think is important.
How do you market yourself?
I have been lucky in a way because a lot of the things have been more organic. Like someone buys a piece from the bizarre market and liked it and got in touch with me about putting stuff in a shop. Applying to shows, you have to have your pictures and I try to approach them less like traditional art and put things in more of a life context, or something different than how I’ve seen pottery photographed most of my life. So marketing has been pretty organic which I like because it’s not my favorite thing to think about. And I do it all myself and I don’t have a lot of time.
As an artist and small business owner, how do you manage your time?
I have work time I can do with Drew and work time I have to do without Drew. So I might be able to snap out an email on my phone while playing Leggos, but more intense website things might be a night time activity. It’s hard to give up the day time to do something like that. Drew-less daytime is throwing or glazing, something physical. You really have to zero in and focus. Do the work. There really is no other thing you can do.
You can follow Carla at @wareforlife and find her pieces in her online shop or locally in Richmond at Quirk Gallery, Little House Green Grocery, NA NIN, and Ellwood Thompson’s.