81. Retirement for Potters
People in most careers work for decades putting money into retirement plans looking forward to the day when they can say, “good-bye,” to the world of work. Retirement is to be their last great vacation, their ‘happily ever after’. It doesn’t always work out that way. For some people, retirement is just when the energy ran out, when all the best attributes of a person have been used up in the service of someone else’s causes.
Artists, on the other hand, are presumed by our culture to be laboring in the service of their own causes, strengthened over time by their accomplishments, and fueled by love to continue working until death itself intervenes. This can be a disastrous assumption for a working artist and even if the artist wants to continue working, poor planning or poor luck may make that impossible.
I’m not going to address the issues of injury and disability here. Yes, both are statistically more likely with advancing age, but disability can strike at any time and carries with it none of the emotional baggage or daydreaming that come with thoughts of retirement. Here, I want to focus on the aging potter.
There are two paradoxical dreads that come with a potter’s thoughts of retirement. (If they bother to think of retirement at all.) The first is that poor finances will require them to work unceasingly until they expire face down into their last coffee cup. The second dread is that forces will intervene to lock them out of their studios and that a life’s satisfactions will have to be abandoned prematurely.
Working out of financial necessity, even when a person would rather not, can happen to people from almost any career. Insufficient financial planning or unexpected expenses can force the nominal retiree back into the workforce. At least the self-employed artist can avoid having to apply to other people for the opportunity to work. Still, if you would rather not continue to produce and sell your work out of necessity you must plan for that while you are still young. You must project beyond this week and this month to the distant, seemingly impossible decades ahead. You must spend less and invest more.
Artists who have had other parallel careers as teachers, or workers in other fields, have some advantages here. They receive the retirement benefits associated with those second careers. Artists with large enough operations to involve family members, or employees, can also plan to be decreasingly required to work. Solitary artists can only invest their money wisely in other enterprises to create a diverse range of retirement income sources. Thinking of it in your fifties or sixties may well be waiting too long.
On the other hand, if you wish to follow Beatrice Wood’s example and produce art past your hundredth birthday you have a different range of plans to make. First and foremost, you must control your workspace. Many professors receive studio space as part of their employment and have nothing but their personal tools left to them when the school has retired them. Renters, too, can be forced away from their facilities any time a lease is not renewed. Karen Karnes enjoyed a studio space that disappeared as one of the consequences of divorce. Luckily, her galleries were able to persuade her bankers that she could pay the mortgage on a new studio. She had to create for herself a new life from scratch, with no equity.
If you own your studio, consider its layout. Age will increasingly limit your strength and stamina even if you never suffer a disabling injury. Do you have stairs? Heavy kiln shelves? Labor-intensive work processes? What potential do you have for properly employing an assistant, an apprentice, or a younger partner? Can you switch to a car kiln and leave the shelves in place? Can you reduce your need for wedging by buying pre-mixed de-aired clay? Can you install cranes and lifts if you know you’ll need them?
When we are young and in school it’s easy to imagine that the future holds nothing more serious for us than job-hunting and re-paying our student loans. We are thoroughly distracted by our immediate pleasures and difficulties. And retirement is an issue we may never live long enough to face (or think too frightening to consider). But the actuarial tables say otherwise. Most of the people reading this will live into their seventies, many even longer. Living one day at a time may see you through, but I doubt it.
Whatever vision you hold for your final years, the things you do to make that vision possible start now. One of my professors, Bunny McBride, once warned me, “You only have so many pots in you.” He’s right. Anything can happen. The supply is not infinite and whether it’s the spirit or the flesh that weakens first there will come a time for each of us that is after ceramics. None of us can predict when that time will be, but it’s inevitable.
Choose to plan for it, or not, but it is as much a part of your art career as the first day you ever sat in a Ceramics class and heard the words, “pinch pot.” Retirement need not be either a punishment or an impossibility. Continuing forever will be.
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