Mary Barringer is a full time studio potter and has recently retired from being the editor of Studio Potter Magazine. She earned her BFA from Bennington College in 1972 and started the Studio Potter Magazine soon after. Mary has taught full and part-time and maintained her own studio for over 20 years.
How do you divide your time between life in the studio and life at the magazine?
This is an ongoing and evolving question for me, because I do the magazine in my studio. It’s a challenge to do so, it could take all of my time, but that would make me a very unhappy camper. It’s taken me a while to learn to create boundaries between the two activities. Now, I’m only doing one when I’m doing it and not doing the other when I’m not doing it, in other words, one thing at a time. I would call that a kind of life challenge everybody has to figure out one way or the other, some people have teaching jobs, others have children, I’ve just been lucky to have time in the studio for most of my working life, so I’m a little late in trying to figure out how to juggle this.
You have such an interesting position in the field as a ‘maker’ and a journalist, please talk about these roles and how they inform your perception of contemporary ceramic arts.
Well I would say the magazine is almost like a gathering process, but it uses the same part of me that likes to teach, the part of me that is curious about the field as a whole, curious about the stories of people involved in clay and what they’re doing. Other questions too, like how they came to work in their studios and what they bring to it. That encompasses a much broader spectrum of work and people than I actually make use of in my own studio, but it uses a part of me that looks outward. My work uses a piece of me that looks inward and I need to be quiet to do it.
Do you believe that are certain privileges or disadvantages that today’s ceramicists have that did not exist several years ago?
I do. Both I think. Some of that is a function of the field having grown and ‘professionalized’ so much and there are good and bad aspects. The good ones have to do with the number of opportunities that are out there for people. Especially when they are going out to find residencies, apprenticeships, community studios, and special student programs. There’s just a lot more formalized and accessible networks for people to find a place in the field. That also is sometimes a disadvantage because I think it’s possible to postpone certain questions that are very personal and that everybody has to figure out. Questions like, “What are your work habits and your aspirations?” or ‘How to make a life out of this for yourself?” According to your own definition of what you want, I think that comes up more quickly for people starting out now that when I was starting out because my generation was more likely to have to do it on our own. This new established frame-work can be a disadvantage if someone just rolls around and goes from residency to residency. However I think the amount of professional activity and conversation going on in the field is a great boon because it creates a kind of virtual community, even if you’re not working in shared studio there’s still stuff to tap into that you can find in publications or online. It’s out there and that conveys both information and a feeling for this ‘thing’ that we’re all doing. I would say the down side is that sometimes everybody just needs to stop talking and get to work! The enormous appeal, draw, and stimulation of all that stuff going, can make it hard to be in the studio. Even just to make dumb things, that regardless, push your work along and help you figure out how to find a place for it in the world. Our field is very sociable compared to say, other media, and very ‘communitarian’, but I think in the end there are solitary encounters that we all have. There’s more opportunity and more temptation in respect to how the field has grown. The community is bigger and the ways to connect to it are easier than they used to be, and when you need community its fabulous to be able to find it so readily, and that is a great thing, but I know for myself and I know from the kind of conversations that I have all the time with people that everybody’s got a lot coming at them and sometimes it’s overwhelming.
What in your opinion are the greatest challenges facing students who are about to enter the field as professionals?
I would say debt is one. I think almost all students have more debt than when I was starting out and that’s not just a challenge for the ceramic students, but for everybody. Ceramic students are entering an entrepreneurial field rather than one where there’s a clear salary structure. It just makes things a little more intense. I think the other challenge is a kind of ‘revved up’ time frame on what success might look like and I think it takes a while to figure out how to do your own work. That really hasn’t changed, but I think there’s maybe a stronger expectation now than there was 30 years ago that your should have a career or see some kind of tangible results in your career. If it doesn’t happen in a few years it can be very discouraging.
What advice would you offer to these emerging artists?
Be patient. Try to be flexible, meaning, have an open mind about your opportunities because the things that you might learn from or might be supported by may not look like your idea of the next good career move. If you apply to grad school or you apply to a bunch of residencies and you don’t get into them but you do have a change to do something else that doesn’t seem like it’s quite as clear then don’t count it out. There are a lot of ways to grow as an artist and it’s good to be flexible about that. Another thing is to put a priority on your life so that you have a way to work even if it’s not the ideal situation. If you’ve been to a school with lots of great facilities it may seem like working in your living room is a few steps down from that and a long ways off from that anagama that you feel like you need to have for your work. It’s just important to keep the work happening in some way, whatever that is, whether than waiting for the ideal situation. That’s the only way you get anywhere, by supporting what happens in the studio and if you don’t have a place to work than the rest of it really doesn’t matter.
When I was a student one of the really and inspiring useful things I did was to visit a lot of potters, I actually spent a couple of months going across country and visiting people and visiting schools which was a way just to see what was going on in other schools. It was really important for me to see how people’s work spaces by extension looked like what their lives looked like. I still think that you can get a sense of possibility form just seeing how different people do this. It can be very encouraging. It can also be discouraging if you visit people who are all very successful and all in their 60’s and it seems like they’re in a place you can’t even imagine how to get to. It meant a lot to me to visit a whole range of potters and sculptors in their studios and that was a very generous gesture on behalf of them.
When you exhibit your work, how do you know what venues are right for you and how do you find them?
That’s a moving target of a question. I think my assessments of that are different than what they were ten years ago and they are definitely different than they were starting out. I can kind of tell from the work that the place shows whether they get what I do. I can probably inform myself a little as to how they treat their artists, whether they are professional, or whether they’re flaky. If the person who’s going to be directly involved in selling the work doesn’t seem to be passionate about my work or work in clay then there is really no point. I would say that starting out I showed my work in a lot of different places including some incredibly embarrassing and dead end places and I don’t really regret any of them. I feel like I learned a lot about where my work belonged, what kind of conversation the work created and the context in which that all worked. When people are starting out I think it’s a good idea to show your work in a wide variety of places whether they will look good on your resume or not. You’ll learn about your work that way, but as you go along you sort of winnow out the ones that really don’t work. It’s a little intuitive, a little about doing your research, and it’s a little bit about luck. It’s not like this question gets solved once and for all. There are people who have a gallery that represents them and takes care of stuff and that’s it, but for me it’s been something that kind of changes as my work changes. Galleries that seemed like great places then went out of business as the economic climate changes or as the regional audience that had seemed to really support my work dried up for whatever reason. It doesn’t ever get solved, but things work for a while and then things change.
From your vantage point as an editor, what are some of the most important considerations when an artist is interested in publishing their images or articles?
From my vantage point as an editor (of the publication that I edit), it has everything to do with somebody ‘having something to say’. That’s kind of the first thing I’m looking for, is there some content in there. I also look at the way the work looks and how that’s paired with what the person says about their work. Or maybe there’s a theme I’m thinking about how that ties into the work. Beyond that I’m attuned to a sense of somebody’s voice, whether they have some spark there that makes me want to read or makes me want to enter into that person’s article or story or viewpoint. Sometimes they are not right for the publication, sometimes they’re not right for what I’m thinking of currently, but I might want to revisit that person’s article in the future. If it seems like it’s just not right for Studio Potter I try and let them know right away so they can do something else with it, ’cause writing is hard work and most of us don’t do it for fun. I’ve only got 200 pages to play with so I really try to think about whether something will be specific to the publication since the magazine only comes out twice a year. It’s hard to quantity what those qualities are.
If an artist were interested in improving his/her writing skills, what would you suggest they do to get better?
I have four suggestions to this. The first one is to read. The more that you read the more you get familiar with how people’s voices and ideas come across. It’s different from hearing people talk. My second would be to try and write a lot. Don’t wait til you have something that you ‘have to’ or want to write because writing takes practice just like making things takes practice. The more you do it the easier it is and if somebody is really serious about writing I would tell them to write on a regular basis. The third is to try and find a person or a group of people you can get together regularly and share what you write. This way you get feedback. It’s very difficult to tell how your writing sounds. How the ideas sound in your head and how they sound to someone else could be very different. That’s true no matter how experienced a writer you are. The fourth thing I would say is to understand that words are a medium just like clay and working with them is a process just like clay. Finding out what your ideas are in words is the same as finding out what your ideas are in clay and that means that in order to write you have to think in words. You have to write and accept that the first try or three might be just warming up. I wish I’d understood that writing was like that, I would have saved myself a lot of agonizing and procrastinating. I think you figure out what you’re trying to say by writing, not by thinking about it and in a way this is so much like what we do in our studios. It was kind of revelation to me when I finally figured it out and that what I encourage people who’ve said they are going to write something for Studio Potter and say, “oh, I can’t do it, “ I say “just start writing and let’s talk about it.”