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In the Workspace with Linda Fahey

Linda Fahey is a ceramic artist living and working just minutes south of San Francisco, California.  She's been a regular on the ceramic blog scene, with the popular We Swim with the FishesRecently, she has begun working full-time on her pottery. Watching her work blossom so quickly and brilliantly has been an absolute joy, both as a friend and as a fellow ceramist. Several days ago Linda and I spent some time writing each other about her studio space, the challenges of making a living as an artist, and her recent entry in a grant contest, Mission: Small Business.


Jesse Lu: Your studio space is a bit of a patchwork situation, which I find interesting and lovely. Could you describe it to us a little? How long have you been making work here?  

Linda Fahey: Interesting is a nice way of putting it. It’s taken over my house, so it's definitely a live/work set up.  I live by myself, so I can spread out.  I'm up on a hill and have a very nice ocean view.  It could be more organized, but overall it works well.  I do wet work in the actual ‘studio outpost’ which is in my back yard.   The studio is a simple modern frame shed, pitch roof.  Seven feet high ceilings at the lowest with a pitch to eleven feet at the front, with old french doors from a San Francisco victorian for windows, floor to ceiling.  It has great light during the day.  The outpost is 10' X 14', not huge, but cozy.  I have a large table, a bench for drying work and storing materials along the wall, as well as a couch and surround sound.  I like my music and books on tape.  I also work at my dinning room table (see photo) where I do a lot of the carving and slip decoration.  My kiln and glaze area are in the garage providing easier clean up. 

JL: When I was in school I had a class my final semester where we talked about all the ins and outs of the working life of an artist, and there was a good deal of conversation about choosing the right studio space. And it seems from books I've read and artists I've spoken to that there is kind of a split preference between having your studio in your home space and having it away from home. I know you've worked both at and away from your home. Can you tell us a little about those experiences, the differences, and which you prefer?

LF: Ooh, loaded question.  I’ve done both, and until recently, simultaneously.  Probably common for many potters.  Each has pluses and minuses.  The community space is fertile ground, isn’t it?  The energy of being part of a strong artist community and sharing space means you have immediate access to many styles of process - everyone benefits from that type of environment.  Working closely with your mates builds community and camaraderie. That's hugely important to artists- who, like little gangs of birds, can gather together to weather the storms.  I miss it sometimes because, until very recently, I went to Skyline College (Tiffany Schmierer is the teacher) two nights a week to focus on on sculpture work.  I’d been there for over five years, and also Ruby’s Clay Studio for a couple years before that. Now I’m exclusively working at home, sometimes long hours, and it can be a lonely business.  You don’t get the benefit of just hangin’ out with fellow artists and working out an issue or ideas, getting feedback and support, or just taking a break to eat or have a beer with your studio mates.  My constant studio mates are my two dogs, Dante and the tiny Pig.   They are great to have around, unless they don’t get their walk.  

JL: So your studio space at home sounds pretty awesome. You are perched up the hill in a little coastal forest of sorts, looking out into the Pacific, with a beautiful garden and your lovely pups to keep you company when you're not in the water. Can you talk a little about how the space that surrounds you inspires you and influences your work? What is your favorite part about your working environment?

LF: If by environment you mean where I live?  Pacifica is a beach town along the Pacific not far from San Francisco.  Living in a small coastal town would always be my choice.  I get fidgety if I'm away from the ocean for too long.  The ocean is unbounded, vast, constantly changing, along with the weather.  I’ve blogged about it a lot.  One day it’s a perfect sunny day, the next with fog down to the ground, and then it's sunny again.  I love it.  The ocean is a constant inspiration, a million shades of blue, green, gray and white.  I hear the waves at night.  We have tons of sea life, dolphins and whales - it’s beautiful.  I've been in and out of the water most of my life.  I’m doing much less surfing these days, but I have started paddleboarding which I’m excited about.  Being in the water looking back on land, it’s a big experience, the ocean teaches you a lot.  I don’t get that experience anywhere else nor a greater connection to the land, a greater respect for nature and it’s power.  Seriously, it's that sublime effect that only nature creates. You know, the double rainbow effect... we laugh, and it is funny, but it’s also something that is so much bigger than us.

JL: So being such a water baby... that must find it's way into your work or into the way you work. Beyond the obvious ocean icons we see in your art, I mean.

LF: My house is stuffed to the gills with books.  I’ve been reading every book I can find on maritime history and the age of discovery over the last few years.  It's fascinating stuff.  So, it’s not connecting to the ocean via the natural world, but the man’s ferocious appetite for mastering his domain.  It’s incredible what they did.  Setting off towards the horizon not knowing where it would take them or what was waiting for them.  Sometimes they would be out at sea for years.  We have no equivalent for that today.  And it changed the whole world forever.  For my own work I can't always get my arms around how I want to convey the relationship between man and the sea.  How do we feel about the ocean?  I’m often asked about the whales; it’s not just as simple as I read Moby Dick and well, there you go.  Put a whale on it.  The whale is the greatest metaphor we have for the sea.  It’s about the elements, the environment, and the feel of the sea.  The line work, water, moving and turning, churning, wind blowing, the feeling that the ocean is bigger than we know.  

I once swam with a pod of dolphins in Hawaii; it changed my life.  But by contrast, we are poor stewards of the oceans.  Why are we still whaling?  How can we need anything from a whale in this day and age?   We are the arbiters of plastic and so incredibly irresponsible.  There's an endless stream of container ships that march across the horizon line (two a week on average go to the bottom) and then we're considering more oil rigs after the BP fiasco? How are we not doing better, being more sophisticated on how we utilize our resources?  We can’t stop, but we can be way more intelligent about it, instead of greedy.  Everything eventually ends up in the sea.  So, yes, there's a lot more I can do with the subject matter. There are many stories I haven't yet told.   One thing I’d like to do is partner in art with some ocean non-profits to donate sales/help bring greater awareness to how we can use less plastic for starters.

And then... there’s the flower thing in my work.  It’s as simple as I love flowers and pattern.  simplicity and innocence, old and new.  

JL: Recently you posted an article from Etsy on your Facebook that highlighted the misconception about artists and their time. So much more than molding clay or layering paint goes into being an artist. Can you break down what a real 'artist's schedule' is like for you? And on the other hand, if you didn't have to think about making money, what would a fantasy workday look like for you?

LF: I did my corporate time, some 20 years in heavily structured environments.  Now that I have the whole day to structure in anyway I like, it’s been challenging. What's weird is that I'm generally good at time management. Or I was. Now I'm in a world without inherent structure, where I am in charge of developing, implementing, and adjusting the work schedule day to day - even throughout the day.  I've gotten much better at it, but find that I still waste a lot of time.  I just went out and bought a huge calendar for the rest of the year to plot a plan and create a project timeline.  A corporate world of one.  I have a lot going on at the moment, more than I have ever had, so it's critical to my success and growth to get a handle on it.  I make myself work a minimum of six hours a day on clay and two hours on administrative stuff.  The toughest thing is when I'm ramping up for an event.  All hell breaks loose and the schedule gets tossed and I end up working 16/17 hrs a day.  

My fantasy workday... nice question!   So, fantasy day in my fantasy studio/gallery, right? Up around 6,  little workout, make coffee or tea, beach walk with the dogs, then get on my bike and ride to work at the studio/retail/gallery space around ten-thirty. I'd open at eleven.  Come home, wine, eat, rest, read, have fun. Sleep and repeat. Shop hours: Tuesday through Friday eleven - seven, Saturday and Sundays eleven - five. Mondays we'd be closed. I don't know.  Sounds pretty good to me.  Actually, my day is already like that except for the bike part. And, well, the awesome studio/gallery part.  

JL: You've got it all worked out! 

That Etsy article also cited an article on Salon about the plight of the creative class and the relatively obscured economic hardship it's currently facing. Incidentally, in the last year or so you also came across some economic obstacles of your own, the end of your twenty-year career in the corporate world and a leap into the 'creative for pay' wilderness. You mentioned that figuring out how to schedule your self hasn't been as easy as you would have guessed. What other challenges has that leap into self-employment as an artist presented for you in the studio? How has it affected your craft methods??

LF: There have been numerous challenges with the transition.  I think it's important to evaluate your weak points and areas where you are uneven, don't be afraid to get feedback, not just on your artwork, but on your business approach as well.  I know- easier said than done, but there is enormous value there.  Setting realistic goals and attaining them is key.  Again, I draw from my corporate experience a great deal.  I have a hard time with the idea of obscured economic hardship.  I want to be respectful to those, including myself at this point, who cannot make a sustainable living without supplemental income.  Self-employment in any field is a gamble, and it takes a lot of courage to believe in what you are doing and to continue to do that in the face of economic realities.  Where you live, the demographic, the work, luck, grit- everyone has to decide what their bottom line is.   For me, I try to look at my situation as a consultant might, if I could afford to hire one.  How can I be more efficient?  How can I save money?  I want to be smart and make thoughtful decisions.  How can I market myself effectively? What are my goals for the next three months, or six months, or the next year?  How can I round out some of the areas that are not my natural strengths?  I think these are reasonable questions.    

JL: So it seems like this leap has forced you into being more creative in other aspects or your work, not just the 'making' part. I think when it comes down to it though, that type of full throttle, creative thinking is essential to success as an artist and as an entrepreneur. To that effect, your ambition and dedication to this new, 'creative for pay,' has begun to bear some exciting opportunities for you. You are making plans with two stores for future collaborations and you've been accepted into several local art fairs for the upcoming year. Furthermore you've just applied for a small business grant from the 'Mission: Small Business' project. Can you tell us about your project and what the grant would mean for you and your town?

LF: The grant would be a windfall.  It came across my Facebook page quite accidentally; a "friend of a friend" had applied and I voted for her.  Then the wheels started turning and I decided to go for it  Chase Bank/Livesocial set aside some 3 million to give to small businesses that have been in business for at least two years and could use some capital, a financial boost for small business next level growth.   I can only imagine the number of people who applied.  And of course, I consider the unlikelihood of it, but then again... you never know, do you?  As we discussed challenges artists face,  I'm thinking financial creativity.  I've been throwing around in my head the idea of a brick and mortar store for some time, combining a gallery space, retail space, and studio space- romanticizing, idealizing, and visualizing what that would be. A dream for many artists.  The grant would obviously bring this idea to life quite quickly... at least much more quickly than I could do on my own. 

Pacifica is a beautiful place, as I mentioned, a small beach community of 30,000 very near the ocean - a slightly odd little town suffering, it’s fair to say, from a bit of an identity crisis. We have an historic surf culture, which is enjoying a bit of a renaissance and growing by the minute.  We also have a blue-collar flavor here, mixed in with a lot of new people moving in, building homes, wanting growth.  There have been some positive changes, and Pacifica feels like it's on the verge of a new expansion.  We have new business popping up here and there and we have a lively art community. I’d love to see a more vibrant shopping/restaurant trend happening here.  

I believe the idea I have may add something to our community.  I'd like a space to do my work with a gallery and retail store front.  We'd host monthly openings and other events.  I would like to focus on emerging artists and bring in work with moderate price points alongside more upscale pieces, well made textiles, paper goods, and clothing, furniture.   I envision a well-curated, inviting, curious, and interesting environment.  I also think of the space as a gathering place, a comfortable general mercantile.  I want people to see Pacifica as a destination, and to get that art is approachable and affordable for everyone. I want to be more involved day to day with the people in my community and I hope to draw people here from all over.  I am lucky that the Bay Area is saturated with enormous talent to draw from.  

JL: You've always been very supportive of other artists and have built a community for yourself of like-minded creatives. This project seems like it would be an extension of that part of your life. I know working as an artist can present a social challenge at times as you spend many, many hours just with yourself. Some folks blossom in that kind of isolation, but I think you and I are not those folks. Do you have any tips or advice on creating a creative community for oneself, especially as someone working from home?

LF: Yes!  We're Ambi-verts, right?  Ambi-verts can more comfortably navigate the lines between introversion and extroversion.  I have learned that some of my work requires concentration and focus and working alone is ideal. On the other hand, I like doing sculpture work in community studio spaces and I feel it needs that energy.  My peers, the people I've spent years working with, we know each other's work, where we've come from, and we benefit one another with good insight and valuable critique. Building a solid community of people you sync up with is an important part of your artistic development.  If you're not in a graduate program then going to workshops, reading and/or writing blogs, seeking out information and knowledge on your own is important. Finding a mentor or someone fitting to review and give feedback on your work is crucial.  Get your work out there and participate in shows and sales. You have to work it, feed it energy.  You will create a robust circle for yourself by being part of the greater creative community around you. I think it's vital.

JL: Lastly, I've been reading this zine lately, Good to Know, from Pikaland's Amy Ng. The latest issue is about rituals and how artists use them, or don't, to help their work. I'm fascinated by this concept as I feel rituals are really important to help us zone into creative space/time, especially when you work at home. Rituals are signals to your mind that it's time to work, like putting on your suit and tie or hopping on the train to Downtown. Do you have any rituals that you use to put you in studio mode? Do you think rituals are important?

LF: I find the number one important thing I do each day is my walk.  I’ve got a routine in place and I plan my entire work day around it.  That is the main ritual for me.  Besides cleaning up my space before setting to work, I don’t have any elaborate rituals.  I do tend to “circle” around my work sometimes for days before starting a new series.  You remember the spirograph?  Well, I’m the pen.


We can help Linda Fahey with the Mission: Small Business grant by voting for her project here. Enter Linda Fahey from Pacifica, California to find her project. She needs at least 250 votes to be considered for an award, but the more the better. Please take a moment to help a fellow ceramist and blogger get through the first round of this amazing opportunity.


Linda Starr said...

super interview and glimpse into Linda's studio practice.

TSchmierer said...

Wonderful interview! Go Jessie and Linda!

Erika said...

Amazing interview, it was so nice to get a glimpse into Linda's world, and thank your for the advise as well! :)

CeramicsAnnual said...

This post gives great insight into the life and process of contemporary ceramic artists. I loved hearing about the space she works in and her various influences. Thank you for sharing!

Sarah Zehr said...

Wow, what a great artist and interview! Love it.

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