Linda Arbuckle

Linda’s work in majolica-glazed earthenware has been recognized through an Artists’ Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a Florida Individual Artists’ Fellowship. Artist-in-residence positions in Wales and the People’s Republic of China have provided further balance of Eastern and Western resources in her works. Lectures and workshops presented include summer faculty sessions at Penland School, Arrowmont School, Haystack Mountain School, Appalachian Center, Santa Fe Clay, The Odyssey Center, and the Archie Bray Foundation, as well as visiting artist workshops at many art centers and universities across the U.S. She also maintains an amazing website full of exceptional information.

What was most difficult for you when you finished school?

I think the most difficult thing was still being in that niche between being in school where people arrange things for you and you are sort of the recipient of what they expected you to do, and then being able to chart your own course. I sat down and thought about it for awhile because my first inclination was to move back to the city I originated from. I didn’t know what else to do, so I thought I would go back to Cleveland but my sister said “you know what’s there, you should really go somewhere else.” I thought ‘well, she’s probably right, this is my big chance.’ I was in Providence, and New York was on the way west between Cleveland and Providence but it was way too big and way too expensive. So I figured Philadelphia was sort of the next big city. I thought about where I wanted to be in five years. I thought that I didn’t go to graduate school to learn to teach, but I had TA’s and I liked them. It was really surprising to me that I liked them. It wasn’t about being in charge, it was about being in the community of people who wanted to learn things, and people who were interested in the same things I was interested in. So my five year goal was to be teaching someplace. At that point, I thought it would be okay living in a city and teaching in a community arts program. So I needed a city, and I needed a community that had an arts center that included clay, and I needed a day job for awhile. So I needed to be in a city where I could have a variety of job opportunities. I also wanted to be someplace where I could see art. I felt that I wasn’t really done learning and I needed to be someplace that had a museum and a gallery scene so I could see contemporary art and historic art. Philly seemed to fit the bill, though I only knew one person in Philadelphia. I made the decision that if I didn’t get a teaching job, I would do that. And I didn’t get a job, so that’s what I did. That transition was one of the hardest things after school.

What helped you make that leap?

I think desperation. But it didn’t feel like I was desperate. I’m a big fan of fan of the Game of Thrones series, and Daenerys Targaryen says “if I look back I am lost.” I sort of felt like there wasn’t anything behind me, so I I had to go forward. If I were planning this for someone else, this is what I’d tell them to do: find out when you need, figure out where that is, and go there.

What were some of your professional goals out of school and how have you achieved these goals?

Well, my goals were to find some way to make a living and to keep making work. Those were my two big goals. I didn’t necessarily think they were the same goal. I do make functional work and I’m very interested in making work that people use, but I have always been very reluctant to put time into that nexus. I have friends who are production potters and I admire what they do greatly. They’re solving a slightly different problem. I was indulgent enough that I wanted to make work that looked the way I wanted it to look regardless amount of the amount of time it took, which was not a good thing from which to make a living. Some days, I would work for a very long time on one piece and didn’t think I could get that amount of money out of that one piece necessarily. Especially since the work looks kind of happy and carefree and it’s useful, which means it’s in peril of breakage. I could make bigger pieces – larger, fancier works that are more visual than useful and then they wouldn’t be in danger. It might be easier to ask a higher price for that, but I really am in love with things in everyday life, like the mug I’m using right now. It’s a Sunshine Cobb mug and it makes me happy. I love the green coloring, and her handling makes me so happy. That’s where the rainbow ends for me.

That leads into your decisions to keep a balanced life. It sounds like some of the choices you’ve made were based on how you can stay happy and keep a balanced life. Could you talk about how you maintain balance as an instructor and your studio practice?

I have to say that balance is a condition that you strive for, I don’t think it’s a plateau that you achieve. It’s like the weather in Florida, for instance. I don’t know what the annual rainfall is, but it’s some large number of inches, which makes it sound like we have this measured rainfall all year round and we really only have two conditions: too much water, and not enough. So we might not have rain for two months and everything is dying and there are forest fires and then we get rain and there’s 6 inches of rain in two days and everything soggy and the trees are falling over. I think it’s like that in life, where your pendulum goes back and forth and you’re trying not to drop the same ball twice in a row. And there are seasonal swings with things. The school year certainly bops at different speeds as things go through their cycles, and studio work bops at different speeds, too. You try to get those things to work in a synergistic way, and it’s not always possible. I think that I do majolica because, for me, the ability to use color on surfaces is what interests me and that’s a very good in medium for me to do that. But it also happens to be very convenient for me because I can make a lot of ware over the summer and then just bring it to my decorating table when I have less time during the school year. The process is convenient for somebody with limited time. I’ve done slipware and I love doing slipware, but I like slip on leather-hard clay and you really have to pay attention to how soft or how hard something is. If it’s too soft when you slip it, the slip makes it softer and things fall apart. And if you it’s too hard, you can wind up with things splitting or you just miss the time when the brush flows well because the work is too dry and your brush sticks if you slow down.

It sounds like you’ve made choices with your process that cater to your academic endeavors.

I don’t think I made the choices overtly, I think it just happens to be convenient for me. I think the color in majolica is of interest to me more than the color of slipware. It’s convenient that I can separate the making from the finishing, but that’s not always an advantage aesthetically. Sometimes it’s great to have two thoughts in the row. When you make a piece and you have a certain thought when you were making the form and then you actually are able to hold onto that and go ahead and do the surface in a short turnaround, that’s a good thing. It doesn’t always happen. I think everyone has this balance issue, no matter what they do. I have friends who are studio potters and they balance making production with the creation of new work. It’s very hard for them, because they have deadlines and their economic well-being depends on having work for a show and having work at that show that the audience expects. Whether they think that’s what they want to make today or not. I think whether you’re a studio artist or an educator, you have issues of balance. For me, I think the other part of the balance is when I do get to my studio I’m really full of all the things I’ve seen, and I so appreciate all of the struggles and questions and solutions that people come up with at school and in the studio. I find all levels of endeavor in ceramics to be really exciting and educational – people who care about their work and put themselves into it. That’s part of the balance. I’m very inspired by that, and I want to go to my studio have my version of that because they did so well with theirs.

What, in your opinion, are the greatest challenges facing students about to enter the field professionally?

Well, that balance thing is certainly a big problem. I think that you still have all these issues about your time, your money, your studio practice and so forth. I’m in a position where I’m much later in my life and my home life is very settled in a way that I like. I think that when you’re younger, you’re still trying to figure out those things and you have to invest a certain amount of time and energy in relationships. Not that I don’t, but not in the same way. There’s a lot that you have to work on and a lot of balls you have to keep juggling in the air. I think that there are also, for some people, issues of confidence and feeling like they have a contribution that they can make. I think we’re all pretty quick to play ‘what’s wrong with this picture’ in our work. We have to figure out what’s not working so we can make better work. Sometimes it’s better to look back and look at the flipside of the coin and look at the things you do know and the things you have done well and the things you do have to contribute. I think that if you’re sitting in your studio and you’re looking at whoever the widely publicized artist of the moment is, you think ‘oh, I have so far to go to get to that.’ But at the same time if you look back, we are what every hobby potter or sculptor wants to be: someone who’s made a certain amount of progress in his/her work and has a direction and has the technical skills to follow that, and a network of fellow workers. I think it’s hard to have the confidence that it’s going to work out because you have to go through long periods where it’s like being underwater and not being able to breathe. You worry about money and your studio and where you’re going to be. And that’s draining.

What other advice would you offer to emerging artists?

Believe in yourself and keep working. I don’t mean have unweaning pride, but believe in the ability of work to make things grow on all fronts. I think that one of the hardest things to do is getting started from a stop. Regardless of what else is going on, you need to keep making something. If you can’t make what you want to make, than you make what you’re able to make. Like, if you’re out of the studio, then draw. I think it’s important to keep making things and keep your hand in play. When I taught with Joe Bova, he had a saying that ‘some work makes more work.’ If you just get going, you’ll think of other things you want to do. I think that also works in terms of network connections and social connections. Be curious; be interested in other people. Be nosy, even. Ask people questions and involve yourself. All those things. It doesn’t pay back in a tit-for-tat kind of way, but it pays back in ways that are sometimes unexpected. Go have lunch with that museum director, not because you think he’s going to show your work but because you want to know how the museum works and you can learn things that are interesting about his life and his job.

How do you personally stay connected with your peers and the larger community of ceramic artists?

I think going to NCECA has always been really important for me. I get to talk to people and meet people I didn’t know. Email has been wonderful. I remember back to the early days of email and meeting Richard Burkett and Joe Molinaro online and then going to NCECA and meeting them in person, and it was so much fun. I think it’s important to make connections to people. This goes back to that being curious part. Everybody has something to offer, and it’s really interesting to ask people about what they’re up to and what they’re doing and to volunteer your help. Days when I feel like I don’t know what to do or I feel a little down about something, one the best things to do is do something for somebody else. Go volunteer somewhere or ask somebody at NCECA if you can help on a committee. Go do something parallel to your interests that is a volunteer thing. It leads to other things, and you don’t know what those are necessarily. Sometimes it leads to a friendship with somebody that’s really valuable in your life.. Somebody who’s inspirational.

Are your connections limited to the ceramics field?
I would say the majority of them are in the ceramics field because that’s where I spend most my time, not that I’m a snob about it. I would love to know more people in other fields. I have friends in town who do other things. I have a friend who is a volleyball coach and a personal trainer and I have a friend who’s a secretary, but a lot of my friends are in clay because that’s where I spend all my time and no one else really wants to talk clay shop talk except us.

Do you believe there are privileges or disadvantages that today’s artists have that didn’t exist several years ago?

I think they do have some advantages. I think that the Internet has changed the playing field dramatically. Back in the ’70s you might see something in a magazine, but there weren’t that many magazines. So if it wasn’t happening in a magazine, you had to wait for it come out in a book and hope that there was some publisher who would put the money behind a book. Even then, it might be one to five years old by the time you actually saw it in a book. That was back when color printing was very expensive, so sometimes you saw it in black-and-white. Nowadays, I can tell students to go to Red Lodge Clay Center website or Schaller Gallery or AKAR and go look at current work. We have Art Axis, which is a great juried group, and we have Access Ceramics from Lewis & Clark University that Ted Vogel put together. There are all these great resources online, so if you want to look at people who are entertaining the same problem that you’re entertaining and find other solutions, it’s much faster and it’s all in color. That’s pretty cool. It’s also possible to reach a lot of these people. I think on Art Axis, there’s email contacts published somewhere for most of the people, or you can find them on Facebook and ask them a question. Some people are really busy and maybe things slip through the cracks for them, but a lot of people manage to make time to answer those questions. It’s a very giving field, so if I have some quandary about rare earth colorants, I’ve emailed David Pier, and he’s sent me copies of his article. It’s so cool to be able to reach out and do that. Email makes it a lot easier.

How important is your location in Gainesville (Florida)?

When you’re getting started, I think it’s very important to be someplace with a lot of resources for you.. For instance, Helena (where this interview took place) is a really unusual small city because the awareness of clay there is much higher than the average small city. The people who come through the Bray in the summer are a remarkably savvy and accomplished group of people. If you go someplace like Helena, that would be a great place to be inspired for making. Marketing your work from Helena is going to be more challenging because if you’re sending to large cities, Helena is farther away than maybe being in the middle of the East Coast, for instance. So you’re going to have to pay more in shipping, but you can get there. Being in Gainesville is important for me personally, but career-wise it’s sort of a neutral thing since I do have email (to keep in touch), and I am the queen of email. I have lots of time spent on email trying to keep up my connections with people.. The market for art in Gainesville is not all that rich, but there’s a nice museum. In terms of the gallery scene, it’s pretty limited. I have to go someplace else to see current work in person.

When you exhibit your work, how do you know what venues are right for you and how do you find them?

Some of that is experimentation. I think that you could look for people selling work like you’re making and that’s not a bad place to start. But sometimes if the galleries are really busy, they have stocked up on people doing that kind of work, so I wouldn’t say that that’s the only thing. Sometimes being a potter in a sculpture-oriented gallery might work if they’re willing to go in that direction. Or being the only person doing bright color in a more subdued palette of artists’ work might be an advantage to you instead of a disadvantage. I think entering juried shows helps. That gets you peer validation and gets your work out at different venues around the United States, and it helps you see response to your work. Hopefully work will get purchased from some places. And there are places where they have a taste for a certain kind of work. When I lived in Philadelphia I noticed that people who live in Center City, who are very often working professionals, have a limited amount of space. The exterior of where they live might not be very beautiful but they’re very interested in their interior life being rich and speaking to them, so they’re probably not going to buy a huge sculpture. They might buy modest-sized sculpture, but they aren’t going to have the space buy a gigantic sculpture because they’re apartment and condo dwellers. You might think about how those things factor in – where people might live and who might appreciate what you do.

What do you find is a stronger influence on your work, success or failure?

I think we all like success, and having a little bit of success is necessary to keep you motivated. Getting that one piece you really like out of the kiln every six months is important so you think ‘I can do this!’ before you go back to the usual ‘I’m not happy with this part or that part.’ But I think that if you’re emotionally strong enough to stand failure, you probably learn more from failure and from what isn’t there. It makes you think about what you want to see. I think it’s easier to find failure than success. I can find failure in my studio almost every day. I can look at things I’ve made and think ‘if I’d only done X, I’d like it better.’ It tells me I should research or think or sketch or do something to move toward the thing that I think is going to improve my work. I have to confess I really like the journey. Once I make a nice piece, most of the time I’m really happy. But I’m not that precious about them. For me, it was getting to the nice piece and having it work rather than the piece itself. In that sense, I like adjusting and finally getting there. I’m okay with having a lot of failures and then a success. I do need some success. The proportion is definitely more failures, or at least things that have shortcoming. They’re not always an abject failure, but rarely do you get all the parts that you like in one piece.

Could you give us a brief ‘year in the life’ so we know how things fluctuate with school and studio for you?

For me, my year starts in August. The first week of August is just getting back to the idea that school is going to start really soon. I start getting emails from school about syllabus requirements and supervising the grad TAs. By the second week of August, I’m really firmly into it, and I’m doing syllabi and helping people who are teaching with their class planning and trying to get everything lined up for school. I usually do maybe two workshops in the fall away, so I have to have to have bisque ware for those. I’m in correspondence with people about the workshop, and I have probably earlier made arrangements for a workshop description and publicity photos and all those kinds of things. Sometimes you wind up collaborating with the people sponsoring workshops, so that you have a full workshop. School also has workshops. The students raise the money and put on the visiting artist workshop. There’ll be those things happening. That’s exciting. And then in the fall, I might get a couple days a week in the studio and probably three or four long days at school. As the year goes toward spring semester, we have a very short time off, maybe two weeks, by the time grading is finished before school starts again. There’s not much time in between semesters, and as school progresses it gets steadily crunchier into spring semester because we are writing letters of recommendation for people applying for opportunities and we are talking to people about their senior show, or their thesis show, or counseling people who are post-baccs about grad school applications and what they might like to do. If there any faculty searches, those happen in spring. We do progress reviews for faculty in the spring where we have to do classroom observations, and have a lot of meetings and vote on people’s progress. There are grad student annual reviews. It’s just a really dense and chewy time. So spring is not much studio work. NCECA also happens in the spring. I think it’s really important to go. There isn’t really time to go, but you should go anyway. There isn’t really money to go, but you should go anyway because meeting all those other people and seeing all that work feeds you in ways that really will sustain you. So, that’s always good. I usually only do one workshop in the spring because it’s so busy. We end school the end of April or beginning of May, and I’m trying not to do much in the summer in terms of workshops away because that’s my time for studio. My own personal life gets kind of trampled spring semester. There’s a lot of stuff that’s just life maintenance that I need to do after school ends. So I stay at home most of the summer. I love being at home. I love working in my studio. I’m very inspired by having the lushness of Florida and the flowers blooming, and the wildlife around me. Throughout the year, there are shows and other things that tweak the calendar. I recommend to everyone that you find some calendaring method that works for you, because the farther you get out of school, the more complicated your planning becomes. People ask you to do things a year in advance, and that really means the photo for the card is due six months in advance and you’ll have forgotten all about it. And you have to ship sometimes a month or more in advance to all these different dates. It seems so harmless when you say yes. You have to learn how to balance and schedule all those things. The summer is a really great time out for me. I value it because I recharge my batteries and get some work done, and I start to have the ability to get two thoughts in a row, which is really necessary.