We can be artists, can’t we?

A story about how I dropped out and found a strange new world on the art show road. At the beginning of the 1970s my wife and I suddenly decided to drop out of the university career path we were on and become potters. A really, really crazy idea. It all started when we looked at each other one day and asked, we can be artists, can’t we?

Somehow, this crazy idea actually worked. For the next fifty years my wife and I made a living selling pottery and then landscape photography. We did pottery for 25 years and then we were photographers for another 25 years.

Sometimes we sold our wares at street fairs, sometimes at big city wholesale shows, and sometimes to a whole series of galleries. For awhile we had our own gallery. But in the beginning we were mostly part of the ragtag band of small artisans selling pots in small town parks and along small town main streets and to small galleries.

Church in Hernandes NM.  This is the church that Ansel Adams turn into his famous picture Moonlight over Hernandes.  The church is just north of Espanola, NM.  I haven't seen this church for 40 years, I guess it's still there.
Church in Hernandes NM. This is the church that Ansel Adams turn into his famous picture Moonlight over Hernandes. The church is just north of Espanola, NM. I haven’t seen this church for 40 years, I guess it’s still there.

Before we dropped out I was an English teacher and Joan was a housewife looking for ways to somehow be a craftsperson. She got her chance when we moved to Albuquerque in 1970 so I could go back to grad school. I was at classes or teaching English most of the time so she decided to take some pottery lessons in an artsy little town nearby. It wasn’t long before it was obvious that Joan was a natural.

All of this was just a couple years from the heyday of the 1960’s, the days of hippies, youth rebellion and free spirits. My wife and I were young and thought living the free life of artists sounded great. We were hippies in spirit and like most of our fellow dropouts solidly believed corporations were evil, and doing-it-yourself by hand was always best.

The Vietnam war especially had a lot to do with this; after seeing what America was doing in Vietnam, many young people in America, including us, did not feel very eager to belong to what we called the establishment.

Many young people were in the process of deciding how they wanted to live the rest of their lives, and the traditional paths of corporate life and small business seemed like drudgery and worse. As a result, lots of people turned to art as a more valuable, honest, maybe even more moral alternative. Or so we thought at the time anyway. 

Dropping out and becoming artists wasn’t a completely daft idea in the early 1970. If there was ever a good time to drop out and become an artist, this was the time. In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a huge demand for hand-crafted anything. Little galleries cropped up everywhere. People were ready for the idea that maybe the mainstream was more rat-race than anything else.

Many young people like us were hot on going back to nature and living natural lives and and somehow surviving. And many decided if they couldn’t be artists themselves they could at least collect handcrats. There was a vigorous market for what we wanted to do.

Not everyone thought selling art on the street was such a wonderful life though. A lot of the people who saw us at art shows thought we were basically street people.

Jackson Hole ranch road and approaching storm.
Jackson Hole ranch road and approaching storm.

I remember one day at an art show in a small town in Colorado where we were struggling to sell a few pots. I was taking a break on a bench a few yards away from the booth and no one realised was one of the artists. A well dressed gentleman and an equally well attired young son of twelve or so stopped in front of me and looked at our booth. The father pointed at my booth and said to the son, “Here is a good lesson for you son. Pay attention in school and study hard or you may end up on the streets just like these poor folks.”  That was often us, object examples of what not to be.

Jemez Mountain highway in New Mexico
Jemez Mountain highway in New Mexico

Art shows began in the late 1960s as part of this whole counterculture rebellion of the sixties: hippies, anti-business, anti-corporations, antiwar, peace, love, back to the natural, living the good life, back to simplicity, authentic life. A lot of young people, mostly in their twenties and early thirties, became very disillusioned with the way they were expected to live their lives. 

Grizley Peak at dawn in Colorado

But there was a little hitch; how could you earn a living making art? This is where art shows came in. And since Joan was a great potter from day one, we actually managed to sell enough pots to make a small living fairly quickly.

So, there we were, dropping out of the university and setting out into a new world.

After taking her pottery lessons Joan soon set up as a potter on her own. She had a potter’s wheel and a small electric kiln on the back porch and she was soon busy making coffee mugs, teapots, casseroles and cookie jars. And she was very, very good at this; it was soon very clear that she was born to be a potter.

It wasn’t long before I drifted away from my dissertation at graduate school and began to drift into making pottery. I remember one university party where my distinguished dissertation advisor asked how the dissertation was going and I told him about the new clay body I had just invented and how wonderful it was.

My advisor got a deep frown on his face and that was pretty much the end of my university career.

Joan was definitely off and running. Unfortunately it soon became obvious that I was not a natural potter like Joan. So I soon became the all-around potter’s helper.

Joan decided that she needed a real high-fire gas kiln that would create the rich earth tones of good stoneware. So I decided to build one. I tore down an old brick kiln for the cheap firebrick and built a gas kiln in the backyard of our rental house in a suburban Albuquerque. Of course such kilns were not exactly legal in our neighbourhood so it was all an underground operation.

If you were an art show photographer, this is one of the two dozen or so locations in the American West where you were pretty much guaranteed a good selling art shot.  This is Schwabacker's Landing in Teton National Park.
If you were an art show photographer, this is one of the two dozen or so locations in the American West where you were pretty much guaranteed a good selling art shot. This is Schwabacker’s Landing in Teton National Park.

In order to get the gas pressure I needed, I quickly discovered how to illegally jerry rig the standard 6 oz. gas pressure at our gas meter up to a whopping two pounds. And no safety equipment of course; we couldn’t afford that kind of luxury. Every time we fired that kiln I was always waiting for the gas gestopo to swoop down in the middle of the night and arrest me.

That first kiln was a failure. I had no idea what I was doing. After 24 hours of firing into the wee hours of the dawn, it was back to the drawing board. 

The next model worked much better. After figuring out how to adjust our homemade burners constructed out of scrap pipe fittings, the kiln settled down to a satisfying roar. As we watched through the brick peep hole the whole inside of the kiln–pots, ceramic shelves, walls, everything, gradually turned a dull red, then cherry red, then yellow and finally the blinding white heat of 2300 degrees F.

That moment was one of the highlights of our whole art career. I remember that night as the moment when things in our lives changed forever.

After the twelve hour firing and another twelve hours of cooling, we unbricked the front door of the kiln and looked at our creations. Among the shards and rubble of pots that had exploded because we had increased the heat too rapidly, there were a half dozen pots that, at the time, we thought were very beautiful.

After that, there was no turning back. After the kiln, I moved on to high-fire glazes and my own high-fire clay recipes and began throwing a few of the simpler pots myself.

Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.  I location where we often shot art photographs for our photography show days.
Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. I location where we often shot art photographs for our photography show days.

It wasn’t long before we had a sizeable batch of hanging planters, coffee mugs, soup mugs and casseroles. So we decided to bite the bullet and take our wares to two of the most prominent local galleries. We made a sale in each gallery and ended up with a whopping $95.00 in hard cash. 

“WHOA,” I remember telling my wife, “We can do this. We can earn a living as potters. We don’t need real jobs. We can be artists, can’t we?”

That night we called our parents and told them I was quitting graduate school and we were going to be potters. I can still hear my wife’s father in the background, “Oh my God, we’re going to end up supporting those kids.” I think my parents were slightly less sympathetic.

Our first encounter with the on-the-road art world was the New Mexico Summer Arts and Crafts Fair. People all over the state actually waited all year long for this event. Opening night was all high society tuxes and gowns.

We nerved ourselves up to apply and actually got accepted. Our first booth was a 2000 pound monstrosity built out of rough-cut pine planks but we thought it was gorgeous. After a gruelling weekend of New Mexico heat and wind we finally managed to make $1800.00 which we thought was pretty much all the money in the world. And we met our first real art-show pros, people who did nothing but make art and do shows and made real money doing it.

After this, we were off and gone and never really looked back. We sold pots for a living for the next 25 years. “We can be artists, can’t we”, turned out to be actually true, more or less.

The Sandia Mountains and the Rio Grande River.  We sold both photography and and pottery in art shows at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta for many years.
The Sandia Mountains and the Rio Grande River. We sold both photography and and pottery in art shows at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta for many years. 

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Art shows are still going on out there. Here are some of the best.

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