Robert Pillars (potters for peace)

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What do you see young artists struggle with?

The primary struggle is often economic — how can I fulfill my economic responsibilities in a way that leaves me enough time to pursue my art? How can I balance my need to create with my family life and my larger responsibilities as a member of society? Will the larger society support and nourish my efforts, both economically and emotionally? How can I connect with an audience? How can my art and I find our place in the world?

What advice would you give a young artist …Pertaining to the dream of being able to just make, but the reality of having a job that pays the bills?

I don’t know how relevant my advice would be in today’s market. When I started it was the heyday of the hippie craftsman — it was like being an abstract expressionist artist in New York in the 50’s! The wind was at our back: people connected with the idea of a human being making something and wanted to get involved, if only vicariously, by living with hand-crafted items. Art fairs were abundant (but not so much as to saturate the market) and it was not that hard to eke out a living at your craft. Fortunately, I never had to take a day gig — but then, I also had a very supportive spouse to see me through the slow times.

My sense is that things are very different today. People get their rush now through buying shiny technology, and crafts are “out”. These things are cyclical, but unfortunately the cycles can last almost a generation or so. I see many younger crafts makers coming out now, but how many are there in their late 30s & 40s? It seems like that generation has been lost, so it’s good to see the next generation getting interested again.

Even though I never had to do something else for money, I found out that putting economic pressure on something you are primarily doing out of love brings its own set of conflicts. And the world has an unflattering name for someone who does that!

One of the best pieces of advice I can give comes from Bernard Leach (paraphrased) — only be an artist if you can’t do anything else. I don’t think he meant “if you don’t have the skills to do anything else”; I think he meant “if you can’t emotionally do anything else.” If you can do something else that will give you an equal amount of satisfaction — there are easier ways to make a living!

When I started I read something from John Glick that was great advice — you don’t have to dumb your work down or make “pot boilers” solely geared to the market to survive. Do your best work and hope that your audience will find you! I was always surprised that they did, and that gave me the inspiration to always push it a little farther.

Anyone can make ordinary hum-drum work, but you need to identify your strengths and play to them. What is it about your work that makes it different from everyone else’s?

Pay attention to what your customers say, they often will be able to answer this question better than you.

Also, remember that you are not creating individual pieces, you are creating a “body of work”. Everything you make should hang together and strongly reflect your own personal sensibility — even if it’s in different mediums. What makes you a unique person? How is this reflected in your work? Can people tell it’s you when they see your work? How? Color, shape, a certain attitude? Don’t be afraid to be different — that is the only way to stand out from the crowd.

How do you find where you and your work fit in the world?

Don’t worry about it –if you work has value, people will respond. Listen to your customers. There are a million ways to make pots, there is no shame in making pots that customers love if they remain a true reflection of yourself. This is subtly different than making things for purely commercial motives, nor is it necessarily compromising your vision. Don’t follow the market, but do try to connect with it. I always felt that if people did not emotionally connect with my work, the cycle was not complete, and I was not doing my assignment to contribute something positive to the world. It is a great blessing and privilege to be allowed the freedom to “waste your time” on your own artistic pursuits; you owe something back to a society that allows you to do so. Just do your best honest work and trust that you and it will find its place. People still do respond to authenticity.

Can you give some tips on grant writing?

Grant writing is another art in itself, my best advice is to take a course on it. The only thing I know about it is pay close attention to what the grantor is asking for, and be sure to give it to him!

What advice do you have about pricing work?

Pricing is one of the most difficult things, because you cannot be objective about the value of our own work. So you need to take your cues from the market–what are people willing to pay? It is just as dangerous to price your work too low as too high. Often the price is the customer’s only indication of the quality of the work — they haven’t been trained in the craft and only know “what I like”. If people see a price lower than their intuitive sense of the work’s value, they think something must be wrong with it. I often found that when a good-selling item started to slow down, it was time to raise the price. At the higher price, sales would inevitably pick back up! Pricing is just as much an art as creating the piece in the first place.

A job posting says 2 years experience, but you are right out of school; how do you get that experience, or should you just try for the job anyway?

How can you repackage yourself to demonstrate that you have the experience? (Without lying). In other words, what have you done (non- professionally) that shows that you have the qualifications required for the job, even though those qualifications may not have been acquired through traditional (employment) channels. Chances are you have been drawing your whole life — doesn’t this count for something? Be creative in showing that you actually have more than 2 years informal experience relevant to the job description.

Can you talk a little bit about how working with Potters for Peace has influenced how you view contemporary ceramics?

My work with rural women potters in Nicaragua, as well as living in a country where pre-Columbian pottery can still be dug up from the ground, has made me feel much more connected to pottery as an historic human expression. It is inspiring to me to be practicing one of the first and primal activities of our species — so closely connected to food preparation. My Nicaraguan friends learned their craft from their mothers and grandmothers, who in turn learned from their mothers and grandmothers. The idea that what they make might have cultural value is new to them; they have been simply supplying the needs of their families and communities with cooking utensils. There is no sense of individual ownership of a process or design — it all belongs to the community.

Contrast this with the myth of the heroic individual “artist” of western culture, whose main purpose is to make individual work that does not so much connect to society as to challenge its assumptions. And please — don’t copy!

Both approaches have value relative to their own time, place, and culture. It’s fascinating to me that “less developed” cultures often have a richer appreciation of artistic and cultural activities and assign them a higher value. In the US, art and culture are often seen more as frosting on the cake and not as high-status endeavors; whereas in Nicaragua (for instance) they are valued as not just the dessert, but the meal itself. Perhaps as art has become societally marginalized (or even ghettoized), artists have become more critics, than creators, of their cultures. It is a fascinating process that something as simple and ubiquitous as clay can have so many different cultural meanings!

How did Potters for Peace affect how you view a ceramicists role in the larger art world?

My work with Potters for Peace is primarily outside the art world. Our goal is to help children– to help children, you have to help their mothers– so what can their mothers do to improve their children’s lives? If they can bring in just a little more income, they can afford to feed the kids and send them to school. What skills do they have that can bring in the income? If they learned to work with clay from their mothers and grandmothers, bingo, there we are. So, really, it’s just that basic.

I really can only answer this on a personal basis, I don’t know how true it will be for other potters. It was one thing to make nice tchotchkes for people with disposable income. But when I discovered that my same set of skills could be used to make water filters to prevent the most prevalent diseases — aha!

Clay is the basis of all civilization. There is not a industry in existence that does not use clay. Clay has always been used to create and define cultures, both materially and intellectually. The Conquistadores mandated that pottery be undecorated, because the decorations served as libraries of cultural inheritances. Potters that did not comply were put to death. That is how powerful clay can be in a cultural context.

Perhaps we should look outside the narrow “art” world for our true calling as ceramicists.

Can you talk a about how volunteering and community outreach can benefit a emerging artists practice?

Anything that nourishes you as a person nourishes your art. Anything that connects you to your community strengthens your art’s impact. If society allows you the luxury of practicing your art, you owe it something in return.

Other than Potters for Peace what kind of volunteering opportunities would you encourage young artists to be involved in?

At the very least I would encourage a potter to get involved with their local “Empty Bowls” event. Other than that, follow your heart — it will lead you to where your highest contribution can be made. Look for opportunities that resonate within you.