Susannah Paterson Painter, Ceramicist & Psychotherapist

Not Everything Is Made To Be Sold

I was chatting to a fellow potter the other day about the challenge of selling our work, especially when it’s a bit “different”. She has two streams of work - stuff that sells and the stuff she loves, feels compelled to make, but nobody ever buys it. Then she said something that I found quite comforting, “not everything we make is made to be sold” I have thought about this statement for the last week, - how wonderfully liberating!

As an artist in these times, there is a mountain of pressure to produce lots of work. The online galleries which I mainly sell my work through, encourage you to upload new work frequently. What
it really means is that you must put something new on the site every week or the algorithm just drops you off, and your work never gets any exposure at all. This is maddening, since it tends to favour those that can produce what my old teacher Kerrie Lester sometimes called “sausage paintings” - formulaic, possibly technically correct, but superficial and dull.

It can be the same with pottery. I have learned that I am not, and never will be a production potter. Producing hundreds of things all exactly the same would bore the pants off me. I love, love, love making big bowls, which need to be sold at around $200 - because they take longer, and much much more skill, and the price must reflect some self worth as well as time taken. Actually $200 for a large bowl does not reflect the level of skill in any way, but people are used to paying tiny amounts for pottery, and so it’s what the market will bear. My favourite answer to the perpetually regular question of “how long did it take you to make that?” is “about five years”, because that’s the length of time it’s taken me to develop the skill to throw such large pieces on the wheel.

I know my work is a bit “out there”, and I know can bring up uncomfortable feelings for some people. However, that is what I have spent a lifetime doing in my work as a therapist - looking for strengths, beauty and light, through the muck of dark, chaos and pain! Of course I know it’s more pleasant to look at a nice still life, or a landscape, or something your brain understands immediately, but I’m just not interested in making it. It would feel like I was betraying myself in some way. It is much more interesting to spend time going deeper and discovering new things all the time.

I’m currently working on putting my paintings onto large plates, which is taking ages and tons of experimentation - I will be lucky to sell them for more that a couple of hundred bucks despite spending hours and hours on each one. Hey ho .. I guess that’s not the point though .. the point is that I need to make them .. just like I need to paint these dreamscapes. Its nice to know that not all the work is made to be sold.

Growing Myself Up

I think it’s blindingly obvious that my art is closely informed by my work as a psychotherapist, but in case you hadn’t noticed … The human struggle of being loved, liked, accepted, happy has always intrigued me. Like many people in the helping professions, I studied psychotherapy to heal myself . After all these years I don’t know if anyone is ever truly “healed” . I’ve come to think of it as a lifelong project.

Having said all that, I know I went through stage of feeling pretty “healed” and stable, only to get knocked off my pedestal by a number of things. The first was professional burn out and some PTSD from the vicarious trauma of listening to so much distressing material. On reflection, it’s not so much the content, but the process and the psychic energy it takes to “hold the space” for years on end for somebody who is being consistently abused by a partner, but is trapped in a relationship. To hold the space with someone who contemplates suicide week in and week out. Holding the space with another who is so possessed with a life threatening addiction and who just can’t seem to surrender fully to the idea, and so on.

The second thing that knocked me was bumping into the reality of being a creative person and dealing with rejection after rejection. I joked with another therapist/artist friend that learning to deal with the inevitable and repeated rejection is the ultimate in personal growth. Gone is any illusion that I will be the next super dooper successful painter or potter. Gone is the dream that I will be “discovered”. The truth is that it is a grind, and it’s plod plod, and it takes years and years to develop your own visual voice, and the confidence to go with it.

You have to hold onto your belief in yourself like clinging to an anchor in a hurricane. Its easy to think that either you will never be good enough so why bother (whatsthepointitis), or you keep changing your style to the latest abstract artist who seems to be doing well , jumping on someone else’s wagon of success … and in the process, abandoning yourself.

I’ve been rejected from 90 % of art prizes I’ve entered, and I’ve had people promise to buy work, never to reappear again. There’s the endless unsolicited advice from well meaning people - and you need a strong internal boundary to deal with it. There’s the paintings that don’t work. The pots that looked fabulous before they were fired .. the breakages, the returns, the judgements.

On the other hand, the practice of a professional artist challenges and forces me to confront the bits of myself I don’t like, more than any Gestalt group I’ve ever been in. I can be lazy, impulsive and a bit disorganised .. oh no no no, there is no space for those things in a rigorous art practice! The public is no kind therapist inviting me to gently explore these things, it is a harsh nope, that won’t do. And of course, this is right. Art is pushing me, shaping me, forcing me to grow up and get real, and I am beginning to grudgingly appreciate it.