Erin McGuiness: Playing the Long Game

This is another installment in an ongoing monthly feature dedicated to spotlighting an ACGA member and learning more about their work, studio practice, and philosophy. Want to be featured in an upcoming spotlight? Email us to have your work featured in an upcoming post!

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a ceramic sculptor based in Berkeley California.  For about 15 years the focus of my work has been hand-coiled vesselsmcguiness at work with minimalist, raw surface treatments.  The pieces are focused on forms and how the forms relate with one another.   My pieces are represented in different design showrooms in major cities and sold to the design trade through the showrooms, which is a similar relationship to how many artists work with galleries.

What inspired you to start working in your medium?

My sophomore year in high school I took an after-school ceramics class on a whim and fell in love with the material and the sense of working in collective space with other artists. There was a specific moment when I realized it though. I was terribly sad after my first real relationship break-up and decided to spend a week noticing when I felt happiest. Quickly I realized I was most buoyant with my hands in clay in the ceramic studio.

That realization made me continue to value and prioritize clay in my life. My high school had a wonderful program in which the school days ran extra long for 4 days and then 1 day a week we did an internship. My senior year I was fortunate to intern with a ceramic artist and received the early learned experience of watching a working artist, balancing life, family, art – making a living and a life.

IMG_0135Who were your early influences?

Both of my parents are very into the arts, my father was a photographer in the early part of his working life and there was always a value put on the arts and beauty from my extended family. Growing up outside Washington, DC I was fortunate to have all the free Smithsonian museums literally in my backyard. I spent a lot of my free time as a teenager exploring the Asian and African Museums, which are connected underground. I still think those two influences are really evident in my work now, somehow walking that unground visual tunnel between two powerful clay traditions.

Who helped  you along your path the most?

My first year out of college I spent apprenticing with the potter Dale Huffman in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  That year was instrumental in teaching me the fundamentals of maintaining a studio practice and a business. He first exposed me to the reality that as a potter, I was a small business and would need to learn many skills to be successful.

Also, I made two wonderful friends when I did a summer abroad studying clay in Cortona Italy my junior year of college. Ceil and Deborah were both graduate students while I was an undergraduate and were about 20 years farther along in their lives than me. The importance of having their friendship/mentorship and guidance is immeasurable, and an indicator of how important it is to have a strong community of creative people in my life. People to bounce ideas about both business and art making. There is just something so powerful about the collective spirit of supporting each other, listening, encouraging risk taking, emotional support over set backs and losses.

How has the field changed since you started?mcguiness wip

The most significant changes are within the delivery of goods to consumers. When I started the options to sell one’s work were limited, each community had a couple good shows a year so it was primarily a traveling business with some income also from craft shops. Now, with the internet and social media the potential customer base and chance to connect with existing customer is so much more expansive.

What are your favorite pieces to make?

Last year I spent a month in Greece doing an artist residency for much of that time at the The Skopelos Foundation for the Arts and began a new body of work there. They are sculptural carved pieces that looks like bones, vertebras, some sort of object found underwater and they break many of the “pottery” rules I had acquired through school and varies places. I absolutely love doing these pieces, the process is very intuitive and feels like I am excavating or discovering the form rather than building them or thinking them into being. Creating a new body of work mid-career has been a wonderful challenge to learn balancing my studio time with the hand-coiled vessel work and the new experimental work. I find that each feeds the other in their own way.

What is your approach to the work/life juggle?

My life really feels more like the life of a turtle and not a hare. Slow and steady, showing up day after day, hour after hour no matter what is happening around me or in my life. Each year things have expanded and grown, with more representation in showrooms and more clients. Rather than a big jump at some point it has been a slow growing tree, ever widening the branches.

mcguiness toolsWhat are the biggest challenges you face in doing your work?

Maintaining faith in myself and my vision over time has been a roadblock to overcome. First starting out it was showing up and working day after day even when my work did not have an individual voice yet. I had to trust that something would happen and evolve. One day there was my voice talking to me from my work – specific and individual.

A similar need to have faith happened in the time leading up to my residency in Greece. My interest in the studio had begun to wane and for a few years I experimented with trying new work without really creating anything that resonated with me. I had written down all the many pottery culture rules I had accumulated over time and studio practice rules. Things like: the walls have to be even, cracks need to be fixed, a day outside the studio is wasted.

I kept trying to figure out how to then make work that broke those rules and disrupt my linear thinking. Somehow all that searching in the dark, looking for a light switch, dovetailed into the idea of my new body of work which just sort of arrived the first day of the residency and the new body of work flowed easily from there. I think all that prep, making unsuccessful work, looking at my inherent bias’ that I had unconsciously accepted created the capacity in me for the “aha” moment, when I could jump off into the new work.

Best piece of advice you received that you would like to pass along?

My favorite piece of advice is from Dale Huffman, which helped spur me on when I was searching to discover my own voice in clay. He said that a potter would not make a real living or really great pots until they were in their 40s. Rather than scaring me or intimidating me, it took the pressure off. He was saying show up every day, make work, don’t worry about external gratification. Play the long game.

mcguiness white

See more of Erin’s work online:

ErinMcGuiness.com
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Comments(2)

  1. Jan Schachter
    Jan Schachter says

    Thanks for sharing. So very thoughtful and helpful.
    Jan

  2. Mary Law
    marylaw says

    Great advice about not being in a rush to make a living or great pots ’til your 40’s, Erin–and very glad you weren’t intimidated by that. Thanks!

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