Trey Hill is an Assistant Professor of Ceramics at the University of Montana. In addition to teaching, Trey has traveled and worked at many different residencies, including two years at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, MT and the LH Project in Joseph, OR. His international experience includes time spent in Latvia building a public commission and also China, where he built work for the Fu Le International Ceramic Art Museum in Fuping.
What was most difficult when you first finished school?
It wasn’t as hard as it could’ve been because I was able to start a studio at my house. I feel like it’s usually a scramble to figure out where you’re going to make work and where you’re going to fire work. When I got out of school, I started a studio at my house. It was actually just in my backyard. It was very simple, but it was California so it didn’t rain. I didn’t have to worry about rain and I just worked outside under a big cover. It was the most simple studio you could have, it was just tables and a cover. That’s when I realized that’s all it takes; just a place to work. I did that for awhile and I was able to fire at San Jose State for a little bit. They gave me a grace period so I was able to keep making work. Then I ended up starting a studio inside of my house once my roommate left. That part wasn’t all that difficult for me. I think what I found to be the hardest thing was finding the time. I had a full-time job as a steel fabricator at the time, which was extremely labor-intensive work and I’d come home tired and dirty. We built other people’s work for them, like public sculptures. So I was making things all day and it was really hard. I had to make a point to get home and go into the studio. By that point, my studio was inside. Some days I would just go in my studio and sit. I would just go inside and read the newspaper. Just so I was in there, at least that way I was in my studio. I realized after doing that for a year that even just putting in three hours after work I was getting a lot of work made. By far the hardest thing was the balance between having a job that had nothing to do with my work and finding the time to build work.
What were some of your professional goals when you first got out of school and have you achieved them or how have they changed?
The simplest one was I just wanted to keep making work. There are so many people that don’t. So I achieved that goal. I also wanted to leave the Bay Area. Right when I got out of school, that was one of my goals to get out and work somewhere else because I felt like I’d been involved in that community for four years and I was ready to go somewhere else. That’s when I went to the Archie Bray for two years. One of my other goals was to get a good teaching job. I got a great one at the University of Montana, so I achieved that. Thinking back to when I got out of school, they were really realistic goals which I think is helpful. I don’t think you want to get out of school and say ‘I need to be showing with this gallery within a year.’ I don’t know that that’s a realistic goal. Finding a place to work and finding the time to work is a good goal. I was never really too worried that I would stop making work. I was more worried about how difficult it was going to be to make the work. I felt like I moved around quite a bit for five years or so. Each time I moved, I had a new great experience but after a while of doing that I was feeling ready to stop moving around. Olivia and I decided moving every six months to a year was getting pretty tough. Then, our goal was to find a place to settle down and build a studio; make a run of it somewhere. My advice on goals is being realistic. People say shoot for the stars, but a little bit at a time. You want to be able to get them accomplished.
How did you go about accomplishing your goals to get out of the Bay Area and find a teaching job?
I think I was pretty fortunate because I was able to go to the Archie Bray pretty close to right out of grad school. That opportunity afforded me all these other options. I think a lot of people who go to the Bray would say that the amount of people that see your work really rises. That experience afforded me all these other opportunities and places to go work like traveling to China or working at the LH Project. Then each of those things seems to lead to another thing. The way to accomplish those goals is to really go out and go for it. You have got to get applications out to residencies, and to shows that you don’t think you can get into. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for people to apply for residencies even if they don’t think they can get into them and to keep applying because the director then sees the growth in that work. I think that means a lot and they’ll see the commitment. I know a lot of people who tried to get into somewhere for four years and they’ve gotten it on their fifth. They get disheartened, but then it works. I even hear from people ‘we’ve seen this person’s work and watched it grow, so we feel that this is a perfect time for them to come out.’ So I would say really get your work out there and get the applications out there, even with jobs. Somebody is going to get that job. It’s extremely competitive, but if you don’t put your application in, no one will see it. I’m a firm believer in applying for more than you think you can get.
You mentioned exhibiting or finding a gallery. When you exhibit your work, how do you know what venues are going to be right for you and how do you find them?
Lately, I feel like more and more people invite me to do things, so I have to apply for less things which is a benefit to the job. Early on, I got some good advice that there are so many shows out there and you can apply for a show that is in the middle of nowhere that no one ever sees and spend all this money shipping your work to get this little line on your resume. What I look for is one a good location. A good city I’d like to show at in the future, perhaps. Second, a juror who I would like to see my work. I also would like to see if they have a catalog for the show. Those are the things I would look for at that time, but now I would also look at what the online presence of that show is and how much will that get. I had a friend who would apply for everything and she was shipping work all over for little tiny shows that might not have been all that healthy for her. Some people disagree with that, but if I was trying to give someone advice on what to apply for, I would say if you’re going to apply to X amount of shows a year, work with these categories.
You mentioned an online presence of a gallery. A lot of people have been talking about the Internet being a huge privilege for emerging artists right now. Do you see any other privileges or disadvantages for artists now?
One thing that I think is different now than it was when I got out of grad school is I feel like now it’s much more competitive than even in 2002, just over 10 years ago. In that time, I’ve seen an amazing difference between how graduate students get out and it’s almost like they have to have a name already before they even get out of school and in a way that’s tough. I think in a way that is a disadvantage because it loses some of that will to experiment and fail instead having to try and create this body of work that’s memorable that will carry them forward. I think they’re trying to do that earlier now. I really am a believer that in graduate school, people should fail and take some chances and risks. I think it’s harder now because of the way that everything is stepped up faster. The other thing I would say is there’s a lot more people making work now than 10 years ago. 15 years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, there were X amount of people who everybody knew. Now, it’s so much bigger. There are so many people making great work out there. There are new venues, new places turning up for people to work but it’s much more competitive now and all those programs are getting bigger and bigger and producing more students so I don’t see that changing in any way. All those are things that make it harder, but one benefit I would say is the Internet because it’s a giant venue for people to access. It’s a way for people to get their work out there and get it out there early. You see all the time, on Facebook for instance, work you wouldn’t normally see because maybe it’s not at a stage where it could be out in public but that’s a chance for people to start getting their work out there. I wouldn’t encourage people to do that too early if they’re not ready but I think that’s one advantage that it is there. This community, as far as our making goes, seems very welcoming to people. It’s much different I think than other fields that I’ve felt the competitive side, that feeling in other fields of people holding things back from other people. This is much more welcoming to people coming in.
How would you say the idea of cross disciplinary is affecting ceramics? Do think it’s an advantage?
I think it’s an advantage. I’ve got a lot of views on it. I think that ceramics can become too isolated. We go to our own conferences, everybody’s there, you see all the people you know. I go every year and its great. However, I think that can make us too closed out. There’s a whole lot happening out there in the art world that I think we should be a bigger player in. By saying that, I think that especially students who are crossing disciplines, that happens with undergrads and grad students, in my opinion it’s hard enough to make a really good piece and if you set too many limitations on yourself like ‘I’m only going to do this or use ceramic; I’m only going to use glaze’ that makes things harder. I feel like it’s difficult to make a great piece and I say use everything and everyone to your advantage whether it’s material or if it’s working with other professors outside of your discipline. For me it’s a miss if you don’t do it and that goes for the professors too. I think people can go through and make purely ceramic work and I think that’s important too. But it’s also important for people to use other materials across disciplines. I just think it’s happening everywhere in the art world and for us to not want to do that seems pretty dated to me.
I know you have a show that is completely online right now. Could you talk a little bit about how that experience came about and what response you are getting?
The show is with the Nevica project and I’ve been showing with them since probably 2008. When I first started doing it, to be totally honest, I didn’t know how well it would work because I was thinking ‘who would buy sculpture completely online without ever seeing it’. To my surprise and happiness it works. There are benefits and drawbacks to it. I’ll start with the benefits. The thing that’s great for me is the amount of people that see the show. For the show going on right now, I’m passing out cards and telling everyone about it and most of the people have already seen it. The gallery has a tremendous mailing list so the show goes out to everyone. One thing that is great for me is the amount of people who see the work. Now, the negative thing is that seeing the work and experiencing work is different. If I only ever showed online, that would feel odd. To be doing both seems like the right thing to do. To be showing in galleries as well as showing online. A real straightforward benefit is I can show whatever I want scale-wise and I don’t have to ship all this work to Chicago and it is kind of a selfish thing but it is really great for me just to be able to afford to do it. The way that works is when the collector buys the piece, I build the crate and they pay for the shipping. I think I should just reiterate that the amount of people that see the work is really important to me. You see show after show now that are just online and if people are looking to do that, I would really look at who they are working with. In this situation you really are relying on the director to do a lot and to make this happen; to sell the work to make the calls. For me I’m on the outside of this at an opening, hobnobbing and socializing with people and in this regard you’re not doing that in the same way. The way you do it this way is digitally. You pump the show digitally, you get people to go to the site rather than the gallery. It’s just different. In the beginning it was really foreign to me and I didn’t think it would work but it’s been by far my best gallery.
How important is it for you to be living here in Montana and how important is location to your quality of life and your work?
When Olivia and I were bouncing around a little bit we realized that we wanted to go back to Montana. We both really liked it here and as far as living here goes, this is one of the best places I can think of to be making work. The history of this state, the history of ceramics in this state, and the support of ceramics in this town is tremendous. It’s really unusual to be in a town of this size and have this much support from the community and this educated of a community. In Montana, the amount of people who are excited about ceramics makes me feel really great, to have conversations with people out here, people in the community, and they know what they’re talking about. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else, I love it. I really enjoy where we’ve moved to. To be able to have a studio at the house and build a kiln right here I feel really lucky to be working here in this state and especially right here. I really think place is one thing and its beautiful here but that’s just as important to me as the support of the community. People here at the Clay Studio of Missoula and at the University here and in Bozeman, and the great galleries here and in Helena and the Archie Bray. It’s really hard to beat for a state with one million people in it.
Which do you find influences your work stronger, success or failure?
What failure does for me is it tells me what I don’t want to do. I can really see my mistakes clearly. In a way, they’re kind of equal; one is pointing you in the right direction and the other one is telling you to back off from that direction. Something I really enjoyed about having a studio at the house is that I can fail here. I can take a chance here thinking ‘I don’t know if this is right or good’. Often I found when I’m second-guessing a lot, it’s because it’s something that’s new to me that I haven’t seen before. Often those are the successes but my trepidation is based on the fact that I’m somewhere I’m not comfortable, which that is often not failure but rather the concern of failure. A lot of that comes from never having made anything like this before. You haven’t seen anything like this in your own work. You’re worried that you’re going to fail, but often it ends up being a good direction. When you’re working in a group studio, everyone can see what you’re doing. There’s something for me about the quietness of my own studio in my own home and the fact that I can make something terrible and no one will know. It gives me that freedom to mess up and take chances. I enjoy that and those pieces just end up never leaving the studio. Success is a tricky thing, because there is personal success when you look at a piece and you’re really happy with it. There’s something about a good piece that really holds over time and you still like it years later. I don’t think that is all that common. There are a lot of pieces that people make and they think ‘that’s pretty good, I like that’. When it comes to sales, everyone’s really excited when they sell a big piece, but it can almost work in a negative way. Maybe you weren’t that excited about the piece before, but then somebody bought it. All that means is that one person really enjoyed it, and that’s great. That doesn’t mean that it’s the best piece in the show. I think that sales can drive people in a way and I feel very lucky that I get a salary. I don’t have to rely on sales. I don’t have to make moves in my work that are based on selling it. That’s a freedom that a lot of people don’t have because they have to sell their work. That’s a luxury that I have.
How do you keep balance between being a studio artist, keeping up with exhibitions, being a professor, having a partner, and also keeping a good quality of life?
It’s tricky because it’s an extremely delicate balance. What helps me a lot is having my studio at home because I can stop what I’m doing here and I can go back inside and be a part of things. I’m not separated from the things that are happening in my home as if my studio were downtown. That really enables me to take the most advantage of my time. At first I wasn’t sure how it was going to work; if I was working too close, but for me it works out great. What I mean by too close is, would I need to get away from home to make the work? But for me this is not the case. One thing that really helps is the school year starting out for us and I see on the calendar that I have I have X amount of shows to make work for. I have to do that. Luckily I get asked to do enough shows that it constantly keeps me busy in the studio. I seem to work a little bit cyclical where I will build wet work and then I’ll fire work. When I stop working wet and I’m firing then I won’t start a new body of wet work, that way I can focus and follow work all the way through. As far as teaching goes, you can’t screw it up because they’re all there everyday. You have to be there and you have to be ready to go. I think that unfortunately the easiest thing to mess up is your relationship. I hate to say that and I don’t want to sound like a bad guy saying that, but unfortunately that is the easiest thing and also the most precious thing. It’s more important. I think it takes a really understanding partner and it takes energy coming from both people. Sometimes you need the time in order to get things done; and when you don’t, you really need to be aware that you just poured in all this time so you need be aware of what that means. The thing with the students is that they look to you for so much, especially the undergrads, they think you have all the answers and really what you’re doing is just guiding them in their work. The answers come from them, but you need to be there to help them find the answers and point them in the right directions. I take all three of those things really seriously. I take teaching really seriously and the studio and my relationship, and I wouldn’t put them in any order. I guess maybe to close that, what it really takes is an awareness of all three of those things and everybody knows that some things are running hotter at times.
Do you keep some kind of schedule? I know some artists who have kids have a certain carved out amount of time.
I used to be that way, but my job now affords me a good bit of studio time. When I was working five days a week, I had that. Now, I guess I could say that a little bit of schedule is I try to get as much of my work done and be as productive as I can when Olivia is at work. That would be my schedule, so my schedule follows hers a little bit. The other thing is if I can just stay ahead, which gets tricky when things pile up. Right now there are four shows at one time, so it becomes really hectic but as long as I can stay ahead and have the work on hand, that helps a lot. But that isn’t always the case, as everybody knows. As far as the schedule goes, I really try to make a point with Olivia to get out and claim whole days for ourselves like any couple would. With the job at the University, that’s a job like a lot of people have but when they go home they don’t really have another job. The studio for me is like a whole additional job. At the end of the day, you’re going home to the second career which is your studio career. That’s what creates the balance which is very difficult. It would be very different for just a studio artist. The other thing that’s tricky is you bring a lot of home from work mentally. One thing I try to do is when I walk into the studio, that’s what I’m there to do. It’s just one of those things that you wish there was a little bit more time in the day. It just takes time. I can only work so fast at so many different things.
Do you still try to get into the studio every day?
I don’t get into the studio every day anymore. I go into the studio every day for something mostly because I keep my tools and there. As far as the practice goes, it’s hard to say because right now I have all this finished work in here, so there’s nothing wet going on and I have to clean it up because there is this collector who is coming over. I push my work in some way daily even if it’s typing on the computer or whatever. It is my goal for the work to be moving forward. I said I work cyclically; I mostly do better when I have a little break between things, whether it’s to go somewhere to go on a trip or just catch up around the house. When I get out of here and come back, I have a kind of hunger and freshness that feels good. Those breaks usually don’t last very long, but I find that it’s important for me to get out. We live in a beautiful place; I feel I rarely get out and see it but I know it’s there.
How do you stay connected to your peers in the larger ceramics community? Do you keep a community that is beyond just ceramics?
In ceramics, it’s easier to stay in contact with people than most fields. I’ve been going to the NCECA conference since I was 21, so I see all these folks there every year. That’s one big way, but that’s pretty common. We also bought this house that’s an old farmhouse with an extra bedroom so that we can have people come out and stay with us. We’ve had residents who have been friends of mine who’ve been at the Clay studio or at the Bray and then they come here. One of the goals of building this kiln is to have a little bit more covered space outside to work so I can invite people out here to build work and fire in the kiln. Eventually I’d like to expand the studio and build another building up there, but that’s in the future. I’m the kind of person who if I don’t talk to somebody for a while I still feel fairly close to them. I’m not the best at keeping in touch with people and that may be why that works for me. I feel like with this community it’s really easy to keep connected within the digital arena. I have a really good idea what my friends are doing now, more than I did ten years ago. I don’t know that painters stay in touch and show work in their studio all the time, but i don’t know, maybe they do. When you ask about colleagues and friends in other fields; I try and keep in touch with a lot of people. I keep in touch with people who I went to school with, who I’ve met at different residencies who are working in different materials, all my colleagues at the University. I also try and show with artists who are outside of ceramics just on principle. Just because I don’t always want to be shown with only clay. I make a point do that. There’s a group of artists who are working in the Rocky Mountain West who started this post rural exhibition that has been traveling around; photographers, painters, sculptors, and it’s been pretty successful. That kind of keeps the whole arena open and it really engages a different audience and it does something for me, but I also think that it does something for the field just getting the work somewhere else. This is not unusual, a lot of people showing in galleries that are not just ceramic based. It’s important to me, so I make a concerted effort to do it.
What do you think the greatest challenges are facing students who are just entering the field as professionals?
I think the big one is the most simple one, and that’s just finding a place to work. The other thing is when you’re making your work is how to trust yourself because you don’t get the kind of reinforcement you get when you’re out of school. When you’re in school, people are helping you and that’s confusing getting viewpoints in five directions, but you’re getting attention and people genuinely care about what you are making. When you get out of school, you’re coming home from a job and you’re making work in some weird space and it feel like nobody cares. The idea that you have to believe in the choices that you make, I think that’s a big one. The other thing is there are a bunch of things to figure out; you need to find a space and figure out a how to fire your work, but you also need to then figure out what to do with your work. That’s a big one these days and a lot of people aren’t that comfortable with the idea of self-promotion, but that’s really what it takes. You’ve got to do what it takes to get your work out there. You need to have some relatively tough skin because you’re going to get rejected from a lot of things. That being said, apply for a lot of things. Apply for the big shows where people will see your work. The other thing is what can you do to make your work feel like it’s still growing like it was when you were a student? If you get some acclaim with your work early on, don’t be afraid to take some chances and you don’t have to stick with that. That being said, I would also say if you’re still excited about that then keep working on it. Nobody wants to feel like ‘well I have to change because I’ve been doings that for a while’. If you’re still excited about what you’re doing and It’s still compelling and challenging, keep going. That’s a tricky thing because it’s so individual, someone might say ‘you’ve been doing that for a while’ but it’s still something you’re working on. Look at a lot of work, but don’t look at too much because I think that is one of the problems in the field is that we look at each other’s work so much. It’s very important to be educated about what’s happening, but not to obsess over what’s happening. I would read other magazines and other books besides ceramic. Get a subscription to Art in America or Sculpture magazine so you can broaden what you’re looking at. Showing your work, at that point a lot of it’s going to be juried shows, but I would say just get it out there. The other thing is it’s going to be expensive. That’s the biggest thing is you need to be ready to put your money into your work. It’s going to be expensive in a lot of different ways. You may need to rent a studio, you have to buy your materials now which you weren’t used to doing that before, you have to pay for your firings, and you have to ship the work. Some years I’ve spent $5000 on shipping. It seems unbelievable, but you have to ship the work, you have to get to work out there. The job that you’re working, whatever that is, that job is paying to keep your art career going. That’s what that job is for. It’s not very glamorous, the idea that you’re doing all this work so that you can pay to ship something somewhere so that all these people can see it and maybe no one will buy it. Once those things build up and build up then all that investment becomes worth it. When I say go for the big show, go for the international shows, go for things with catalogs. Be proactive. It’s really easy to kind of disappear and a lot of good graduate students, I don’t know where they went. You’ve got to keep working at it even if it’s against your personality. Fight that and keep getting your work out there.
Yesterday I was talking with Beth Lo about how the ceramics market is being flooded by the sales of collections of collectors who are passing away. Would you like to expand on that?
I can talk about that because I see there are major collections going up for sale. However, in my opinion it maybe is affecting sales, but what I think is important is that work is going into another good collection. It’s important for that work to find the right place because a lot of these pieces that are being sold are major pieces and important work that I think these collectors’ children who are selling them or whomever it is, I think they are doing the right thing. Getting it back out there and get it somewhere where it belongs because once a piece goes in a collection, in a way there’s a security around it that is really welcome and you kind of hope that it would continue. A lot of collections get donated to museums, but a lot don’t. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I just think it’s something that when the big collection started to build up, those folks are getting older now. It’s something that is not new, but there’s more of it happening right now because more of those collections are reaching that point at the same time so everybody seems to become more aware of it. I actually think it’s important that those pieces find somewhere to be with security. There’s a lot of important work out there that’s in private collections that maybe will slowly work its way into public collections or another private collection. I really hope as that happens that there are new collectors starting and people start really simple, things they can afford and as their lifestyle changes then the collection changes. I think about the two as it relates back to students even if a lot of these students go through the program may have nothing to do with ceramics anymore but if they just gain an appreciation for the material, that can go a long way. That’s an interesting thought about the collectors.
I think it’s interesting that in the ceramics field we not only have this very supportive community of artists but we also have very supportive community of collectors. I wonder how things are going to change over the next few years with such a push in academia for students to work across disciplines, is that going to change the collectors or maybe change what new collectors are like?
It very well could, because typically in a perfect world, the collectors follow the scene and if that’s the work that’s hot and that’s what they respond to. It’s interesting to think about why someone is spending $10,000 on something. I think it’s a lot of different things, the’ve got to be attracted to the work, and then they start believing in those artists and they start championing them. I think that still happens and people really want to support an artist and collect several pieces. Something I’ve noticed is collectors seem to watch for a while. They’ll meet you and be introduced to the work and watch for a while. I figure it’s a smart way to buy something they know you’re going to make more work so they wait till they find the right one. The whole sales thing is a really tricky business as I said before, I feel really lucky to have a salary that affords me the privilege of not having to consider sales to make it work. It’s a finite group of collectors who buy ceramics, especially ceramic sculpture. A lot of people buy pots and it makes sense that they do. A lot less people buy sculpture, I would say. It’s just different to different sensibility.
Do you have any further advice for emerging artists?
It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be expensive. It’s not going to be glamorous. It’s going to be hard work, and the biggest thing is to keep making work. People are going to bail out and jump ship and you have to make good work and you have to be confident with the work. The biggest thing is to work when you don’t want to work. Go to your studio when you don’t want to go to your studio when you want watch TV or you want to just sit down. Just go your studio because other people are in their studios. It’s competitive, yet it’s very doable and I think it’s easy when people are giving advice ‘you’ve got to do this, you do that stuff, it’s going to be so hard.’ It’s also really doable. Look how many people are doing it. It’s not like you’re trying to be an astronaut and they’re only going to take 10; there’s no limit on how many people can do this and I think that’s a beautiful thing. If the work’s where the work should be, then it will find a place. Also, don’t beat yourself up about things too quick. When you get out, set really realistic goals like ‘I just want to be making work’. The more realistic your goals, the more it will build up your confidence. Rely as much as you can on the people who helped you. Use them, ask them for things, keep in contact with them. Things come up and they can turn you on to those things, so I think it’s really important to keep in close touch. That’s also your own peers. In this field, people help each other out so I would say when you’re looking for something ask them, that’s a big thing. I’d also say, all that being said, is have fun with it. It is supposed to be fun. You’re supposed to enjoy this, this is your dream. Don’t forget that it’s still fun even when it’s not and the just go to the studio.