Advice From the Trenches

Advice from the Trenches: Drop-Out Drudgery

dropoutDear C,

I am trying to decide if I should stay in college after this semester. I just don’t feel like I need a degree in order to do what I want to do, which is pottery. I love being creative. I am happiest in my space at a local share studio. I think I could sell what I do. And if it doesn’t work out, I’d rather work for a nonprofit than some corporation anyway. Also, I don’t have much money and running up my student loan isn’t going to help anything. I feel that the best way to develop as an artist is to work.

I remember you said that you dropped out of four colleges and freelanced for years without a degree. Doesn’t it seem like a reasonable move?

Stellar Stella

Dear Stella,

I never said dropping out was reasonable. I just said I did it. I used to do a lot of dumb things.

I have a question: Does “I think I could sell what I do” mean that it’s still just a theory? Have you tried selling your work yet? If you want to pay the bills with it, you really need to know more. I understand that you love being creative. I love being creative, too. But if you make a living off your art, it becomes less of a creative exploration and more of a business. You aren’t just doing pottery, you are chasing down jobs, meeting deadlines, pleasing clients, considering market trends, attending conferences and trade shows, developing promo materials, etc, etc. And all of it costs money. Most small businesses have to start with a loan. And it’s gotta be paid back, with interest. Suddenly art becomes something you HAVE to do. It stops being fun. Especially if you don’t know what the hell you are doing.

So, let’s say you go under. No problem, you say, you’ll work for a non-profit. Why on earth do you think you don’t need a degree to work for a non-profit? They are real businesses. Do you read the job postings? You need a degree for almost everything these days. I am not saying it’s right. I’m just saying it’s true. Back in the 1970s, you could go to trade school and get hired anywhere as a computer technician. Today, with so much competition, you need at least a degree from a technical college. True, you don’t need a degree to be an artisan with your own shop, but you will be competing with people who take business very seriously. Either they really know what they are doing or they have an agent or partner who does.

Here’s what I think: I think that if you were ready to drop out and make your own way, you wouldn’t be asking me. So, in answer to, “Is this a reasonable move?” I gotta say — maybe later … but not yet. If you are smart, you will test the waters before jumping off the deep end. Talk to people who make a living selling their work. Take notes. Observe trends. The market is constantly changing and different for everyone.You don’t all have the same style or the same audience. Identify yours. Get a booth at some art fairs and see how people respond to what you do. Learn as much as you can about this world you want to live in and see what opportunities are out there.You may find someone who wants to invest in you. You might realize you were out of your mind to even think about it. But you will know something. Right now you don’t.

As my Sensei always said, “If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything.” So I say, stay your course, Stella. When the time comes to jump, you won’t need to ask anyone.You’ll just sail off that cliff with a smile on your face and a carefully packed parachute on your back.