Nan Smith is a figurative Ceramic Sculptor and installation artist who is a Professor of Art in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Florida. Nan Smith was the 2000 University of Florida Research Foundation Professor for the College of Fine Arts. Smith has been awarded a Southern Arts Federation/NEA Fellowship, and four Individual Artist Fellowships from the Florida Arts Council. She is featured in publications such as “World Famous Artist Ceramic Studios” and The Figure in Clay: Contemporary Sculpting Techniques by Master Artists.
What was most difficult for you when you finished school?
I finished graduate school when I was 24 years old and got a job teaching at the University of Illinois upon graduation. The most difficult thing for me when I left graduate school was not having the financial means to do the large installations I envisioned. I was making large scale work in graduate school which I wanted to continue but it took 3 years to find the funding support necessary. In the 1980’s, the field was very different; you either got an academic job or you didn’t. Now there are a lot more transitional opportunities for recent graduates: residencies, workshops, cooperatives etc. Art departments were established in the 60’s and 70’s and graduates at that time were needed to teach; jobs were readily accessible. The job market became very competitive in the 80’s and the requirements for those teaching in academia became further defined. My generation of artist/educator has evolved curricula and established programs. I have always felt that I am perfectly suited for academia in that anyone who is doing research and making large scale sculpture or installations finds support for work that is conceptually based in a university setting. It is interesting to me that a good proportion of current MFA students are not interested in working in academia. Many are following graduate school with residencies, moving around the country and building a network while focusing on developing their studio practice. I feel that the younger artists realize the high level of commitment it takes to teach well and to maintain creativity within the studio. Education has changed a lot since the 70’s and 80’s with accountability issues and the evolution of teaching portfolios. Younger artists seem to be aware, that college and university professors must work as educators, as well as within their own studio practice and must do both well to succeed in the academic realm! Many are electing to work part-time teaching and building an art studio business where they compose a menu for ways to earn a living based on their skill set. For instance, many do direct sales and marketing via the internet, teach monthly workshops, and/or hold a part-time position in a college or university teaching one class a semester. Some teach part-time at a few universities and have gallery representation through which they sell work.
Large-scale work is hard to sell and commercial galleries do not usually show this type of work because of space limitations and the need for sales. Alternative spaces, small art museums and university galleries are more likely venues. I have supported my large scale work through grants, my paycheck and by sharing shipping expenses with venues. I have enjoyed making the work I feel “called to create” without being concerned about marketability, scale limitations, trends etc. I tell my students that it is important to recognize ceramics as an art form that is very diverse. People who are making sculpture have to deal with sales and exhibitions differently than potters and vessel makers. Potters have always been able to directly market their work. Potters and vessel makers have created a strong and interactive network where artists set up shows and include those whose work they respect. It is not the same for sculptors and as a result of going solo with exhibitions, PR etc. it is a different road and recognition takes a long time to build. I believe that you always do your studio first, then you can plan for funding sources and appropriate exhibitions, venues and publications. Consider doing national juried shows where you can send one piece out and circulate the work nationally. After building this foundation you would do well to seek feature and solo exhibitions. There are some really great books I use in teaching Professional Practice to students. The Artists Guide by Jackie Battenfield in my current favorite for it aids the individual artist in coming to terms with how they wish to make a living through studio art.
Which do you find exerts a stronger influence on your work success or failure?
I truly believe that each person creates their own success through attitude, action and hard work. Some of it may be luck, but persistence and hard work over a long period of time will allow you to sustain a successful career long-term.
What advice would you give a young artist?
I would advise a young artist to have an optimistic outlook and to do all you can do to maintain a positive attitude. Believe in yourself enough to write an annual goals statement. Yes, a studio plan and a business plan are invaluable. If you do not achieve a goal that is important to you, do not get depressed about it, just re-set the goal. The best things usually happen in their own right time. Be willing to put yourself into situations where you can help an artist who may be further along in their career. Artists need and appreciate the help. As a result you will learn the ropes, create a friendship and perhaps find a mentor. Good “people skills” are invaluable. The studio takes you out of the social arena. People have to be ready for the hard work but also need to realize that consideration and helpfulness go a long way. Talented artists who work hard, who know how to treat others and who have a professional support network are the most successful early on. It’s not an ivory tower; find a mentor, read books on professional art practice, business, and psychology, do your research and stay connected!
What are some of the things you did that have helped you get where you are?
Look for opportunities. I strongly believe that young sculptors need to help each; a group can do so much, so think more communally. For instance, I set up an installation show for NCECA, did all the fundraising, grants, selected the artists and sculpture, installed, and supervised the cataloge creation. I also set up AIA groups where sculptors could meet and work side by side at Watershed. You should be aware and contribute to the larger art/ceramics community. Sculptors would do well to network. Ceramic artists have many opportunities to meet and work together, so take advantage of residencies, workshops, summer programs. Younger artists would do well to think along these lines, to cultivate relationships and contribute to the field.