Leigh Taylor Mickelson is a sculptor and the Exhibition Director at theClay Studio in Port Chester New York. She received her MFA from the School for American Crafts in 1995. She makes ceramic sculpture and has exhibited in the United States. Leigh maintains a family; while at the same time continues her own studio practice.
What advice would you give a young artist?
- Get connected with a community of artists or an art center. My connection with Baltimore Clayworks and now Clay Art Center has had a tremendous effect on my career as an artist.
- Try to get yourself in a studio situation right away, even if it is not convenient or even if you can’t be there very often.
- Surround yourself with good art. Clay or any. I am sure that working everyday at a clay arts organization has affected my ability to make good work; osmosis maybe. I paid attention and developed an eye for what is good art and what is bad and why. I am sure that this effected my own habits in the studio and maybe forced me to spend that extra half hour or day doing the tiresome finishing work on a piece.
- Realize what is right for you, job wise. I realized early on that teaching was not for me. It drained my creative energy to the point that when I was teaching a lot, I was not getting into the studio. A good teacher will get creative energy from her students. For me, the students sucked it away. Arts administration was a perfect fit for me, because I could work in the field without using up my creative energy.
- Create a strong body of work and keep at it. When I see someone’s images and the work is all over the place (pots, sculpture, vessels, low fire, high fire), I don’t think, “This person can do anything”, I think, “This person hasn’t figured out what they want to make yet”. So find your voice, or the thing you like to make, and stick with it.
- Once you have found your voice, get professional quality high-resolution digital images taken, and apply to national juried shows. Get your name out there. It also pushes you to make good work or get something done if a deadline is hanging over your head.
- Open eyes, open ears. Take every opportunity. Say “yes” to everything at first, even if it means you get some dud experiences in there. Everything teaches you something.
What advice would you give to a young artist pertaining to the dream of just being able to make, but the reality of having a job that pays the bills?
After finishing school, it was very difficult to get into a studio situation right away. I applied to residencies and didn’t get any, so I ended up moving back to my hometown, Baltimore. Luckily, I had been communicating with Baltimore Clayworks and had established a relationship. Right away they were happy to give me a couple of classes to teach (any art center is happy to hire an artist with an MFA), and opportunities arose from there.
After a little while without a studio, I shared a studio space in a horrible neighborhood in downtown Baltimore and didn’t make anything worth speaking of, but I felt it was really important to keep my hands in clay, even if I was in a situation that wasn’t really pushing me forward.
Meanwhile, I had various odd jobs outside the field – waiting tables, tutoring reading and writing, temping, etc. Soon enough, being connected with Clayworks landed me a few clay-related jobs besides teaching. I got a job tech-ing in the ceramics department of a local community college and also a couple of public projects working with clay and under-served kids in the community. The tech job was instrumental because it gave me a small studio space, kilns to fire in, etc. Also, after a semester of tech-ing, they offered me the opportunity to teach a drawing and a sculpture class! Not ceramics, but it ended up being a wonderful opportunity. I had to teach myself how to weld in order to teach the students, and this opened up a whole new world for my own work, and I am still using steel bases and other structures in my work because of that opportunity. Small jobs can lead to big things. Take every opportunity, even if it means mixing glazes for what seems like eons.
Could you comment on having a vision and what it means to be an artist?
I was never the kind of artist that had to be in my studio every single day. I am very project / goal oriented, so having something to work for was always important for me, or I wouldn’t push myself in the studio. For me working in clay was always and still is a slow steady thing. I get in the studio when I can, work really hard and then stop when I have to, because of work or kids or whatever. The key is persistence. I am not sure I have “a vision.” I just keep making my work. I know I am doing the right thing because it hasn’t gotten boring yet for me. Ideas keep coming and if I can find the time to bring them to fruition, I feel like I am doing ok as an artist. I never pressured myself to “make it” in the field, or for my art to pay my bills. Any recognition (or sales) I have received happened slowly. And the only reason I think the recognition is coming is because I have kept at it. I think having a job in the field (arts administration) gave me freedom to do what I wanted to do in my studio. I didn’t have to rely on what I made to live. This, I am sure, was important for my development. If I was forced to make money off my art, I may have gone down a different path out of necessity.
What have you done to help get where you are?
- I had to spend more money to get the best images possible. That helped a lot. Professional quality images make a huge difference
- A good friend who is a good writer offered to write an article on my work, which got published in Ceramics Monthly. This has had a huge effect on my career. Because of the article, 6 galleries in different states have asked to represent me for their area.
- Organizing a show of my work with some other [artists] during NCECA was great. Any time you can put your work in front of that many clay people is worth the effort. A good friend of mine and I asked some bigger name artists to exhibit with us – we hoped that their names would draw people to the show, and then they would see our work too. This is where marketing, who you know, networking, etc makes a difference.
- Applying to juried shows. I applied, applied and applied and got rejected. I made some new work, got better slides taken, and all of the sudden I started getting yeses.
Which do you feel exerts a stronger influence on your work, success or failure?
Failure, perhaps. Those rejection letters from juried shows tell you something. [They] tell you that you need to work harder, or you need better slides, or that something still isn’t worked out.
Success/sales are nice and reaffirm that you are doing something right. Success also gives you confidence to keep going. But failure will hopefully make you ask yourself the right questions. When you don’t have a professor there to critique you every month, you have to learn how to take the clues as they come, and ask yourself the tough questions.
What was most difficult for you when you finished school?
I knew when I left grad school that I was on a track, but I still had a lot of work to do, I felt. The hardest part was pushing myself to grow on my own. Still is. I think it has to do with trust. It took a while for me to trust myself. I felt like if it wasn’t big, it wasn’t important. Once I allowed myself to play, things started to happen. I took the pressure off. I let my instincts/intuition take over, and that’s when I really found my voice. I am still insecure about my work at times; I am sure that is probably good. And I still will make pieces that I end up hating and never showing again. That is how I grow, I guess.