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Reemerging Artists: Resurfacing After Times Of Transition

"Dear Dick,

I was lying in bed thinking and decided to get up to give you a quick snapshot of what I'm thinking:

You've had a very good run of 30 years.

You've done what you wanted to do.

You've made a good living at it.

You've made a good living for others.

You've mentored and equipped others.

You've developed an international network of friends and acquaintances.


The economy has turned down and the timing of a rebound is not fully clear.

The Bag Factory (Dick's studio location) future is unclear.

Your health future is an unknown.

This is the time to be proactive in deciding the future you want, with the time you have left. Something that will allow you to pursue your interests with less responsibility for others. Something that will meet at least your minimum financial needs AND give you time and flexibility to pursue your priorities.

There -- some half-baked thoughts. Now I'm off, hopefully, to sleep. Howard."

Thanks to Howard and others, I began to consider what was previously unthinkable: to either sell or close my successful studio pottery and retail gallery of 30 years. Howard was able to say what I was yet unable to articulate or admit. I was ready for a change and a new stage of my life and career. And medically it was a necessity.

What would my clay work look like after a two year medical hiatus from making pots? What would my career look like when and if I reemerged? How would I get there?

The way forward was exciting yet daunting: I could develop a home studio and I would be working alone for the first time. My contact with customers would go from nearly 70,000 each year to near zero. My professional profile would at least temporarily disappear.

None of us is a stranger to change in our lives and work. All major life transitions have elements of starting over. The impetus for change may be voluntary or involuntary. Sometimes circumstances that nudge us toward starting our clay careers anew are welcome, joyful and voluntary. We reach retirement age or we become empty nesters. We join the local cooperative gallery, attend work-changing workshops, or go back to school. We move, or build a new studio or kiln.

At other times our lives and work are remodeled due to changes that seem less under our own control. We confront the effects of aging. The economy makes a downturn. We face a physical disability, injury or disease. Our most-valued relationship is on the rocks. Our young children or our elderly parents require commitments that limit our studio time.

Over time most all of us choose to, or find that we must start anew.

What about my own transition experience? Overall it has been positive. During the last two years I sold my production studio, and achieved a slower pace in order to continue recovering from my stem cell transplant.

This new freedom has allowed me to begin sorting priorities. I have begun to regain some professional visibility by participating in exhibitions and symposia, by writing, and by teaching workshops. I'm discovering joy in some fresh pot-making methods.

Regardless the cause of transition, there are ways we can help ourselves during these times of change, reorientation and resurfacing. Here is my advice to myself:

Be purposeful and deliberate about your social, intellectual and artistic stimulation. Transition can be isolating.

Expose yourself to new artistic stimuli.

Make only the works that bring you joy.

Cook. Put ingredients together in new ways.

Work in a media you've never tried. Reclaim a beginner's mind.

Plumb your dreams.

Consider the attributes and temperament of an artist you admire.

Focus on the emotions that you would like your work to convey.

Repair a broken pot: find beauty in brokenness.

Fire your work differently or multiple times. Fire longer than you usually do. Fire your work in a Weber® grill or a wood-fired bread oven, or...

Journal or draw.

Attempt to reclaim the naivete of your early days in clay. Forget some of what you already know. Wonder, wonder, wonder.

Keep track of one satisfaction each day from your work in clay.

Be kind, gentle and patient with yourself in the process of transition.

Challenge yourself physically. Lose weight, gain endorphins.

Accept assistance when offered.

Compete only with yourself.

Assist someone else. Explore the pleasure of your own generosity.

Continue to investigation what you already know.

Look, look, look!

Find the "Howard" in your life -- someone who offers friendship, listening and insight into your particular variation of the reemerging process.

Whether transition comes as a welcome breeze or a battering storm, resetting priorities and reemerging take time. Starting over -- even when it is most pleasant and sought-after -- will likely interrupt our previous momentum and reputation. Our style of work, our expected trajectory, and our self-image may change. We might suffer a period of "professional invisibility". We may experience isolation as our prior social networks change. We might discover that the opportunity to start over offers too many choices and too little structure. We may be adrift with our work for a time.

And it is not unusual for major life transitions to remind us of life's deeper questions. Our definitions of career success may need rethinking. Are we happy with our lives and work if our mortality catches up with us sooner rather than later? The answers to these questions will affect our work.

Those of us who are moving into a changing stage of life and career share many of the same questions and challenges faced by newly emerging artists, but there is a substantive difference between emerging and reemerging. The flexibility, fearlessness, and inventiveness with which we face this experience will be the difference between remaining submerged or resurfacing.

"This is the time to be proactive in deciding the future you want, with the time you have left."

the author Dick Lehman, a frequent contributor to CM, is a studio artist and writer (www.dicklehman.com). He lives in Elkhart, Indiana, USA.