Thursday, December 17, 2009

Learning from mistakes...

One thing I'm realizing about myself is that I can sometimes be oblivious to things that must be obvious to the people around me. It's not that I'm an idiot, really. I just get enthusiastic about something and lose myself in the process, not considering pragmatic details.

I learn best by charging forward, then looking back at my screw-ups. Well, I have always believed that I learn best that way. Should I reconsider? In the early 1990s, I did a group apprenticeship with a potter/sculptor, Pam Sinclair. Each week, she set up a project for our small group to work on. I inevitably did something different, moving into unknown territories. Then the next week, I'd try what the others did the previous week. My projects were less consistent than everyone else at first, and Pam was often frustrated with my out-of-context questions, but by the end of a year I was selling my work in a New Mexico gallery.

With mosaic, as with most of the art forms I've tried, I'm basically self-taught. There has been a lot of trial and error. Over the years, I became more dedicated to mosaic, buying books, joining online forums, taking a few workshops, and now attending an annual conference. Because I'm being paid for my work, I need to meet a high standard for quality and integrity. But every job is different, with new challenges, usually unexpected.

As I mentioned in previous posts, the recent cold spell caused delays with my current project. I was unable to grout in freezing weather, and when it warmed up a bit, it was still cold enough to slow the curing process. I have a certain window of time to work, while Anouk is in school, and lately there have been obligations in the afternoons and on weekends, making it difficult to follow the grouting through the way I should. I've managed to find people to pick her up for me on a couple of these occasions, but the time it bought me wasn't enough.

It was only yesterday, while standing on a tall ladder in the cold and rain with tarps bungied overhead, whipping around me in the wind, I realized that I should have postponed the exterior portion of the installation until spring. Granted, the contract was signed in early September and I thought it would be done by October, but when it became clear that it would be pushed into December, I should have put a hold on it. I was too eager, both to see it through to completion and to get paid.

Yesterday, one of the doctors said the clinic is interested in having me put lettering up on the building to match the vines. I was still on the ladder in the wind and rain at the time. I said that would be great, but I warned him that my pricing will be higher. I explained that I was following though on pricing revisions on the advice of a coach, and had been tracking actual expenses on this job, and would be making appropriate adjustments in future. I added that I would need to wait for better weather, also. He seemed just fine with that.

So, while I may stumble over myself more than most people in order to move forward, each of these little falls teaches me something to do or avoid next time. I am constantly growing as an artist and business owner, and slowly gaining confidence with my work. I can't say enough about the NW mosaic yahoo group I joined a few years ago, as the members are all extremely generous about sharing information, advice and feedback. Whenever I'm stuck, they give me a push (or a pull, or a kick when I deserve it.)

From now on, no exterior architectural mosaic during winter. And I'm cutting back on this whole holiday bazaar frenzy that took so much of my energy this year. It's time to focus my time and work harder and better on mosaic. One step back; a big leap forward. On one hand, I look forward to becoming an expert mosaic artist who has already been through it all and knows exactly what to do. On the other, these challenges keep the work interesting. Besides, I realize there will always be challenges because I will never stop trying new techniques and approaches. That's the nature of the job.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


I moved away from Michigan in 1988 for a reason. Well, for several reasons, but one was the frigid cold that dominated at least half the year. When I moved to the Pacific NW, it was like Fall all Winter to me. I didn't mind the Moist Season because it usually hovered around 50 degrees, so I could throw on some gortex and still bike and hike and enjoy the outdoors in relative comfort. Every 3-5 years it seemed we would get some extreme weather in December or January, and most years we would get a day or two of snowfall.

Over the past 5 years, the weather has changed dramatically around here. We've seen more winter storms, and the past two years were marked by incredible floods, high winds, and landslides. We came close to some flooding this year in November, but the rain eased just before the Chehalis River crested. I am definitely grateful for that, but over the past couple of weeks, we have had some of the coldest temperatures I can remember in WA.

I have to admit, the blue skies and sunshine on the glittery, ice-covered landscape is stunning. Along the steep roadsides, incredible ice formations decorate the rock walls. When I pass by a small local lake in the mornings, just as the sun is hitting the water, thick steam swirls up in spooky wisps, looking like a huge crowd of ghosts dancing on the surface.

But this cold is causing me a whole heap of frustration and delay. I've been rushing to meet the deadline for installing this mosaic because the clinic is scheduled to open on the 18th. Last week, I spent two days putting up an exterior mosaic in 35 degree temps. My fingers were swollen with cold and my toes were numb. Luckily, the thinset seems to have cured without problems, which was a concern. I expected it to warm up this week for grouting, but it has only gotten colder, so I haven't been able to finish the work. If the grout freezes, it will compromise the curing process.

Meanwhile, I have 3 glass-on-glass mosaic panels in my studio that were supposed to be installed in the entryway of the clinic by now. On Friday, I started grouting early because I needed to leave for the night in the late afternoon. The cold caused the epoxy grout to cure very slowly, and I was not sure it was ready for me to leave it when I finally had to go. Sure enough, there is a light haze on the glass, so I have been painstakingly buffing each piece with superfine steel wool for the past couple of days, and I'm still not finished buffing the first panel. The third panel is still waiting for grout. I'm worried also that a couple hundred dollars worth of adhesives have frozen in my studio, deeming them unsuitable for use.

Our pipes froze on Monday and we have been having a water shortage ever since, despite wrapping our pipes excessively with heat-tape and insulation. It has become clear that we somehow lost pressure in our water tank, which is something I'll be working on today. No water is always difficult, but is extra problematic when I am responsible for the care and feeding of so many animals. They are all very thirsty. I keep a container filling under my one trickling faucet, and use this source for all of our cleaning and as drinking water for the animals. Water for drinking and cooking comes from the store for now.

It doesn't help that I was really sick with a stomach bug at the beginning of the week, and could barely get myself upright. I'm just now feeling almost normal.

When it gets below freezing, it seems the raccoons become really desperate for food. Last year, we had a cold spell and lost 8 chickens and 9 ducks in two weeks to raccoons. They were ambushing during the day, when the birds are free-ranging. We have interrupted a raccoon attack on our turkeys each of the past two nights. The first night, one managed to bust through the chicken wire near the top of the coop. Last night, it reached through the wire, got hold of a turkey, and chewed on its shoulder before we got there. The turkey had managed to escape from the raccoon's grasp, and had somehow climbed the wall and wedged itself in a corner of the ceiling, using its wings to brace itself there with its feet holding onto the chicken wire. She is wounded, but recovering.

Beyond these major inconveniences, there are the small annoyances. The coop doors are frozen shut, the car won't warm up in the morning, Mike had to drive to work two mornings with no heat at all (45 miles!), the eggs are frozen when I get to them, and I'm having a hard time keeping the house above 60 degrees.

All of this typing served mainly to postpone going back outside to solve these issues. I have to repressurize the water tank (wish me luck!) and try to make the turkey coop more secure. All I can say is that, despite the sunshine and absolutely stunning surroundings, I am longing for the good old days of incessant drizzle that used to be the bane of December and January.

But, I realize that we can count on our weather just getting stranger and more unpredictable in future years. I guess I just need to suck it up and be more prepared. And I'll try to enjoy the sun while it shines on the glistening ice-covered hills.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

When you love your job, is it still work?

Working as an artist can feel socially weird, sort of in the same way as being a stay-at-home parent. That said, it was with great enthusiasm that I finally switched from saying "I'm a stay at home mom," to saying, "I'm an Artist," when asked. Still, that statement is usually met with a skeptical expression. People usually ask, "What do you paint?" I give a quick explanation of my work, then change the subject.

I'd say about one out of every 10 strangers I talk to responds with a slightly bitter, "How nice for you." And, it is very nice that I have been able to generate work for myself doing something creative and fulfilling. It is very nice that I am in a relationship with someone who can support us while I take this chance, and who believes that it is the best option for all of us. Several times a year, I ask, "Should I get a real job?" We have looked at the pros and cons, and the fact is, all of our lives would be negatively affected if I went to work for an employer. We might be able to buy new sheets or winter coats when we need them, sure, and it wouldn't be such a crazy idea for us to take a 10-day trip to Spain this winter. But, I would have to switch Anouk to the larger school so that she could catch the bus each morning, and she would have to go to daycare every afternoon, and much of my income would be paying for that. We would have to greatly reduce the amount of food we grow, sell the goats, and rely more on electric heat because I couldn't keep up with our wood supply. When Anouk is sick, I can keep her home without risk to my job security, and I spend a portion of each day just taking care of our home. So, as long as we can get by on Mike's income and what little I make, it just works out best for all of us.

I do sometimes feel like I am not considered to be "working". I'm not sure how much of this is my own complex, and how much comes from other people's attitudes. It is often seen as me having a fun hobby that earns me a little side money. Yes, I do enjoy my work most of the time, but man, it can be grueling! I stand on cement all day in a cold, studio. My hands get sore and stiff from repetitive motion and gripping. I often have to wear a wrist brace because my tendons become strained. My fingers are always covered in small cuts and stained from adhesives. During a large installation, I often work long hours in uncomfortable circumstances. For the past two days, for instance, I've been working in near-freezing temperatures with numb fingers and toes.

But that Pediatric Clinic has been transformed by a simple glass mosaic vine climbing the pillars that frame the entryway. I step back at the end of it all to get the full effect, and it is just lovely. Without my work, it would be a plain, stuccoed building like every other medical building on that street. Now, it stands apart and welcomes patients with a promise of a fun, cheerful interior. I love that feeling. I love when the doctors pop down to see my progress and they are SO happy!

My work makes people happy and I do love doing it. But it feels like work.

At a "Business of Art" workshop (by Pam Corwin - look into it if you are doing this kind of work) I asked the panel of wholesale artists if it is difficult to make the same item over and over, sometimes hundreds of times, and does it then feel less like fun and more like work? They all said, in different ways, that they can either use their innate talents to fill wholesale orders, sometimes working late into the night to meet a deadline - or they can go get a job, maybe in an office or waiting tables, on someone else's schedule and according to someone else's rules. It can be even harder work to labor tirelessly on art that you feel passionately about, that is part of you, and that is your only source of income, than to clock in at a job that you don't care so much about and that you can walk away from at the end of a day. Ultimately, it just depends on how you want to spend your time and how much risk you are willing and able to take.

Now, off to my other job; being a mom.