Throwing Pots at the Pandemic

More though choices.

Posted Oct 19, 2020

Artokoloro / PICRYL
Vase with blue glaze
Source: Artokoloro / PICRYL

According to the Partnership for New York City, as many as a third of the city’s small businesses may never reopen. That’s a lot of donut shops, coffee shops, bodegas, sneaker stores, optometrists ... not to mention the vast number of ethnic restaurants in neighborhoods where English is the second language. Of course, none of these businesses wanted to close. But the virus gave them no choice. It was like the Mafia, whose demands for protection money had gone unheeded. The businesses just had to cave.  

When Carley came to see me last week, intent on closing her successful ceramics business, it seemed like a counterfactual – it should only have happened under different circumstances. Carley had been making decorative ceramics for 20 years and had a small Manhattan shop. On weekends, she taught pot-throwing, mostly to professionals who’d just discovered art after devoting themselves to being able to buy it. She’d studied classical Japanese glazes which, in fact, she never used but which sometimes brought appraisers to see her. She had a certain cachet and was featured last year in a trade publication for interior designers. She had enough orders to last for years. 

But then came the coronavirus.

In mid-March, Carley closed along with everyone else. But she opened up online. She gave demonstrations on Zoom and showed her wares from dozens of angles in all kinds of settings. She partnered with a local caterer, who was out of work, and together they created table settings with Carley’s ceramics holding delicate quenelles, a Roquefort soufflé, and perfect apple tarts. Again, the design publications got excited. So did the advertising sheets, which were starved for copy since their own clientele had gone dormant. “You know,” Carley told me, “the virus has been good to me.  I’m doing even better than I had been.”

But now she thought that she ought to close. Why?  

As Carley saw it, she was irrelevant. When she looked around and saw all the economic hardship, all the people whose lives had been upended – even shattered – by this virus, she felt like a not-so-innocent bystander, happily throwing pots in the midst of a catastrophe. She thought she ought to be doing something useful, like working in a food bank or teaching entrepreneurs how to open their businesses online. “It’s not just that my products are decorative,” she said. “I’m decorative.” There’s a time and place for everyone, she argued, and this was not her time.

She wanted to see what I could say in response – that is, whether I could convince her that staying in business was not an egregious display of vanity when the world needed everything-but.

Carley, it turned out, came from a family of thwarted bohemians who’d moved from rural Iowa to an intentional community in Arkansas. They’d come in search of a more egalitarian life. When they’d lived in Iowa, Carley’s father had to participate in a cooperative that assigned quotas to individual farmers in order to maintain prices. But it meant that he had to take orders from someone who thought they knew better than he did what he should grow and how much he should charge for it. So, he sold the farm, packed up his family, and headed for the Ozarks. The only problem was that in Arkansas, the community was so disorganized that its finances suffered irreparably. After a few years, the group disbanded, and Carley’s family was left with no resources. Her father went to work at a hardware store, and their life was seedy, boring, and without any trace of refinement. She fled as soon as she could.

Fortunately, artists had discovered Arkansas in the ‘60s. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were still pockets of weavers, potters, painters, and sculptors all around the state. Carley found some potters and, while she worked for a pittance, she learned a lot. In her mid-30s, she attended university on a work-study scholarship and majored in studio art. Ultimately, she got an MFA, and spent six months in Japan as an exchange student studying ancient glazes. When she returned, she would have stayed in Arkansas, except that she’d decided to become famous. “I thought I owed it to my parents, who never made me work and recognized that I had talent. Before he died, I promised my father that I’d make him proud.”

It’s just that now, she’s become conflicted. That is, she believes that pursuing art when people are out of work and desperate, is immoral. “At the least, I could be making life better for someone,” she said. “Instead, I’m just helping consumers to consume even more.” She acknowledges her promise to her father but thinks he would understand. “Dad was very independent, and he’d want me to do what I thought was right.”

Sometimes what people think is right, they ultimately regret. Like Carley’s father, who uprooted the family and ended up in a situation that was even worse. So, I saw my job as counseling Carley based on her long-term best interests – not just what assuaged her immediate sense of guilt. I thought, in fact, that she’d feel guilty no matter what she did, since neither course was without emotional challenges.

I asked her, “Look, do you really want to give up everything you’ve worked so hard for, just to become an anonymous cog in the machine that tries to rebuild the city? Maybe the city needs people who can add beauty to what’s likely to be a dreary phase in its history.” But Carley had a retort. “The real need is now. I can contribute skill and compassion.” Yes, so could we all. But that doesn’t mean that we walk away from what we’ve built and loved and seen that other people love. I suggested that she donate some of her profits – maybe 10% — to a group that’s helping individuals recover. “It’s not that money is a substitute for personal engagement. But engagement whose price is a significant personal loss, as well as the loss of a necessary beauty, is not a good trade-off.”

Fundamentally, Carley wasn’t sure that making art – making beauty – for its own sake had any place in our current environment. She felt guilty about it. She reduced herself to some marginal actor when, at the center of things, she saw people cooking meals, teaching other people how to restart businesses, and going to bat with the government for increased aid to cities like New York. “I could become a lobbyist. I could work to get the right people elected.” Sure, we can imagine all kinds of possibilities for ourselves that are noble, selfless, and possibly even draw on our last reserves of energy. But is any of this wise? “You don’t even have a real plan,” I said. “Have you thought this through?”

Finally, I suggested that putting herself out of business would just add to the city’s troubles. “Maybe you do the most good by serving as an example – you’re surviving, so other people can see that it’s possible.” “Yes,” she said, “but I’ve got something to sell.” Precisely. Maybe other people can do the same.   

I’m not sure how Carley will resolve her dilemma. Decent people suffer in times of calamity, because they’re torn over how best to help. In the end, the point is for Carley to be at peace with her decision – not just now, but in the long-term.