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Planning a Potter's Sabbatical

by Dick Lehman

"So, when are you going to take your sabbatical?"

The question came from my long-time friend, Jeff, a professional in the mental health field, during a three-month sabbatical he was enjoying as one of his job benefits. Jeff's question was meant largely in jest, with that twist of sarcasm that I have come to appreciate in him. We both knew that potters and other self-employed folks can't afford, and subsequently don't take, sabbatical leaves.

Even if I could afford the cost of a sabbatical (which I couldn't), what would happen to my business in the meantime? How could I keep the shelves stocked? Who would keep the store open? I couldn't just walk away from my retail business and leave customers of seven years in the lurch. "Impossible," I thought.

But the question remained with me, unanswered. I thought back to the year before, when during a visit to Arizona State University, Professor Randy Schmidt showed me the university's facility and told me about the visiting artist program, then asked, "So why don't you apply to come out and spend several months with us?"

"It just isn't possible," I'd replied.

Four years later I took a two-month sabbatical there. What happened in the meantime? How did the impossible become possible? Perhaps my story can serve as a model for how full-time and part-time clay artists might incorporate renewal time into their lives.

There are some things in my background which may have predisposed me to want to take seriously Jeff's and Randy's questions. From my undergraduate and graduate training in the ministry and helping professions, I had come to expect that a sabbatical — a period of paid time off from my profession — would periodically be a part of my personal and professional development. I had always believed in the value and legitimacy of sabbaticals, that in them was the potential for refreshment, discovery, growth.

Yet, after having been a full-time potter for seven years, I found it difficult to embrace my earlier beliefs. At first I couldn't decided if I thought sabbaticals were unnecessary for creative artists, or if I had just caved in to the realities of running a small business. (There seems never to be enough time or money.) Perhaps it was a mixture of both.

It was easy for me to see and to justify the need for sabbaticals for those in education and the helping professions. They are, after all, involved in a difficult, high calling, and need time to 'recharge their batteries'.

And it was easy for me to justify the affordability of sabbaticals for people in those professions. After all, the institutions for which they worked provided the sabbaticals for them — just part of the benefits package; no charge.

As I more carefully examined these assumptions and beliefs, I discovered that I have personal needs similar to those in educational pursuits. And I concluded that I have a similar, difficult, high calling, whether in my one-of-a-kind forms or in my production ware, to produce works that reflect and communicate with integrity the values I hold important.

I realized that those with paid sabbaticals are not really getting a "free lunch." They earn their sabbaticals in the same way that they earn the rest of their salary and job benefits. They can take a sabbatical because their employer believes in its value and plans accordingly.

Finally, I realized a need to enlarge my thinking about the length and nature of sabbaticals. Perhaps they did not need to be a year in length to have a similar value. What if one considered a six-month, a three-month, even a two-month break?

For me to seriously consider a sabbatical I needed to answer two major questions. First, could I make a philosophical commitment to it? Do I really need it? Am I worth it? Am I a professional deserving and needing the benefits of a sabbatical?

Second, would I, as both employer, and employee in my own business, step to the side, put on my 'employer hat' and discipline myself to do the hard work necessary to organize and plan the specifics of budget, staffing and production management?

Planning and Budgeting

Armed with goals and a timetable, I began contacting universities, art centers and individuals. At the same time, I checked with friends and contacts in ceramics circles about ideas they might have for sabbatical opportunities.

Slowly, a list of possibilities began to develop that might match up with my timetable and interests. Two years before I planned to take my sabbatical, I contacted locations that seemed most promising. Finally, one year before I planned to leave my studio, I drew up a full-fledged proposal and sent it to the place which looked most attractive, and where my needs and theirs seemed to match best.

Concurrent with this planning, I had to solve two other major issues: how was I going to pay for this experience; and how to staff and manage my studio while away? I immediately went to work on the funding issue. Initially, it appeared the most insurmountable. How could the business afford to support me for two unproductive months. My family seemed barely able to get by on what I was earning.

To complicate the situation, it was important to expect no salable pots from my sabbatical — no income. I wanted to be completely free of marketing requirements. I was looking for a time to experiment, to play.

So what could I do? I searched for ways to increase production while at the same time expanding my retail and wholesale base. Gradually, I began funneling some of the profits into savings for the sabbatical. By starting early, the sabbatical fund was spread out over two years. As a result, some of my savings actually worked for me by producing interest income.

Now, admittedly this is a very disciplined approach, very linear, left-brain thinking. If it is just not in you to work in this manner, yet you believe in the idea of a sabbatical, perhaps you could go about your planning in the same way my friend Jim went about getting his new bass boat. "Hey," he said to me, "there aint' no way a man can save up enough to pay cash for a new boat....at least this man can't. So I told my wife, 'There's a few things in life that are just important enough that a man should oughta have 'em. So I'm gonna buy that boat.' Now there's one thing for sure...I do pay my bills. If there's a bill every month for that boat, I will pay it. I'll just work a couple extra hours on the side, and I'll enjoy the boat starting now." If you believe as much in the value of a sabbatical as Jim did in his bass boat, perhaps it's worth borrowing for.

The staffing issue was a bit more complex. I have one part-time and one full-time person working for me. During my sabbatical I wanted the studio to remain productive, and the retail sales area open. Accomplishing this depended on two things: the quality of the staff; and how I prepared them for my absence.

Let's consider the second part first. Planning for an absence forced me to move the staff into areas of production, management and decision making that I probably would have been, otherwise, slow to do had the situation not demanded it. What I discovered was that they were both ready and able to handle these areas.

But regardless of how well I worked at preparing my staff, the key ingredient was that they were committed and qualified people of integrity, who would be as careful with my business as they would had it been their own.

Approaching the Sabbatical Host

My first choice for a sabbatical location was Arizona State University, which offers a visiting artist position to professors and professional potters. The university provides studio space, select materials and equipment, and adjunct professor status to the visiting artists — no stipend.

My application contained a proposal that included the following elements: 1) a resume (thorough background information outlining who I am, where I've been, what I've done); 2) a goal statement identifying what I was looking for in a sabbatical from the university and its general/geographical location; 3) a timetable stipulating when I was free to come, and for how long; 4) clarification of how this location and what it had to offer meshed with my goals; 5) identification of what I had to offer the university — from both my experience and academic background; and 6) definition of the sorts of claywork I wanted to pursue.

A.S.U.'s initial response was to suggest a meeting to discuss my proposal. I financed a two-day trip to Arizona and, subsequently, was invited to come.

On Sabbatical

One of my philosophical as well as pragmatic commitments toward a sabbatical was to get as broad a range of exposure to new ideas as possible in a short two months. During my time at A.S.U., I participated in a variety of activities. The following list is representative: I sat in on some university classes; had numerous visits with the ceramics faculty and made several presentations to university classes; met with the art faculty from several other schools and universities; and spent time with all the graduate students in ceramics as well as some students from a variety of other disciplines. Spending several afternoons studying the work in the permanent ceramics collection (contemporary and early-American work) was a real treat; and, on one occasion, I had the pleasure of a three-hour personal tour of the collection with curator Rudy Turk. I also attended the Yuma Crafts Symposium, visited local production potters, and the Acoma Pueblo, plus several community art centers, museums, art fairs and galleries.

I tried to do all this and my claywork on a schedule that had me "working" a maximum of six hours a day. With the remaining "free time,' my family and I spent time together hiking, traveling, playing, absorbing what this part of the Southwest had to offer. Certainly this change of pace, new setting, and the stimulation from many contacts and activities provided a rich foundation for personal and professional growth.

In the past I have been intrigued with the interplay between controlled disciplined forms, and the spontaneous, accidental decoration of the flames which occurs, for example, in raku firing. The time at A.S.U. furthered that intrigue. I found the faculty to be a wealth of resources. Don Schaumburg has worked in raku for years. Jeanne Otis specializes in color. (See "Jeanne Otis: A Color Dialogue" in the January 1988 CM.) Randy Schmidt piqued my curiosity with some unusual pumice glazes of varying textures and colors.

These influences encouraged me to continue exploring the interplay between the intentional and the accidental — but with an altogether new color palette.

I tried two approaches that showed particular promise. The first involved using a modification of a flameware body. Thrown forms, with a Cone 011 copper stain, were smoked in a covered bed of sawdust, re-oxidized, and then reduced once more in the sawdust until cool; or smoked in a covered bed of sawdust for only five minutes, then removed and water-quenched almost immediately as the stain produced rapid and dramatic color changes in re-oxidation. (Quenching "fixes" the colors as it stops the re-oxidation.)

The second method focused on saggar-fired porcelains. Brick saggars built in kilns were partially filled with sawdust. Fresh leaves and weeds were used to form "beds" for the pots. Copper sulfate, cobalt sulfate, and/or cupric nitrate mixed with rock salt in a 1:1 ratio was sprinkled in troughs around the pieces. As the saggar was filled with sawdust, additional portions of the sulfate/salt mixture were placed on shards adjacent to the piece, in layers, from bottom to top. High quality charcoal was also scattered in the sawdust next to the pots, and provided a range of starburst pastels ranging from pinks and oranges to greens and blues.

Pots were fired in a range from Cone 013 to Cone 10. Careful control of saggar venting produced, on the same pot, a random range of pastels, plus deep blacks and clean whites. Some weed and leaf imaging remained at all temperature ranges.

I will be quick to say that alongside these two promising approaches were many unsuccessful approaches — and I contributed significantly to the A.S.U. shard pile. But I contributed happily, because a sabbatical is a time to play, to experiment, and to fail.

Occasionally this experimentation leads to the unexpected, pleasing discovery — the kind of discovery that comes when one puts aside the demands/constraints of marketing and showing, and simply responds to the inquisitive and curious "what-ifs" within oneself, then takes risks accordingly. For me, it is the interplay between risks, between control and spontaneity, between the intentional and accidental which makes for the most beautiful pots and the most interesting lives.

Finding Sabbatical Opportunities

Do sabbatical opportunities really exist? The key, I think, is not to allow "time" to be a final definition. A sabbatical is, at least in part, an attitude: an attitude of defining needs for personal and professional development; an attitude of adventure with a willingness to search out the opportunities, and at times even daring to create them; an attitude of commitment toward planning and implementing a scheme which fits our time, budgets, commitments and goals; an attitude of relationship — one which involves others in growth.

Can part-time clay artists take sabbaticals? Of course! But to plan yours you may need to think in unconventional ways. You may need to create an opportunity to match your goals. Take my friend, Dave, for example: he has twice scheduled a whole summer of volunteering in other peoples' studios - two or three weeks at each one. He was interested in expanding his view of form and style. And he wanted to be influenced by the geography from a variety of areas in the States. So he developed a sabbatical plan to meet his needs.

Does developing your own sabbatical sound too rigorous? If so, you may choose to take advantage of existing or easily-managed opportunities: workshops, conferences or symposia; summer courses at colleges or universities; volunteer work for another clay artist for two weeks free of charge; potters' tours to England, Japan, or elsewhere; or plan your own workshop, special firing, tour, etc.

The most exciting opportunities, I am convinced, are yet to come.

The author owns and operates Dick Lehman, Potter, Incorporated, a studio pottery in Goshen, Indiana.

This article is reprinted with expressed permission from the June/July/August 1989 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

© Dick Lehman, 1989. All rights reserved.