I arrived in the county around mid-May, and less than 12 hours later started my summer job painting pottery for Jeanne and David Aurelius at Clay Bay Pottery in Ellison Bay. My head was still buzzing around the concept of the “artist’s life” after my first year of graduate school at Louisiana State
University, where I’m pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing. I knew this degree was not going to lead me to a life of wealth and ease. Though “starving artist” is thankfully an exaggeration in my case, most of my jobs in the arts have come alongside a creaky studio apartment and rice and beans for dinner at least four nights a week.
So when I pulled up to the Aurelius’ idyllic property, surveyed the generous studio space, admired the gorgeous sky-lit gallery, and met their warm family and staff, my perception of the self-sustained artist (and visions of myself completing my novel from the bed of my truck) were turned upside down. “This is heaven,” I thought.
My situation was ideal: my commute to work was a walk down the stairs. My “office” was located in a charming old farmhouse nestled beside a cherry orchard in one of the most beautiful counties on the planet. My bosses and co-workers were kind, knowledgeable, and down-to-earth. My daily tasks consisted of painting natural scenery on pottery fresh off the wheel to the tune of classical music playing in the background, birds singing out the windows, friendly conversation, and regular cookie breaks.
Clearly, a summer spent enmeshed in the Door County art community is not one to bemoan. And during my time working with the talented and dedicated potters (and painters) at Clay Bay, I was thanking my lucky stars – which are plentiful, as anyone here who has looked skyward on a clear night knows.
However, this life is not without sacrifice and hard work. I’ve realized that self-employment means very little, if any, separation between art, work, and life. Jeanne and David were often in the studio for hours before I’d arrive at 9:30 am, and I could often hear them down there well past dark. If they were able to sneak away for a lunch break, it was often interrupted by visiting friends and customers, questions about shipping or commissions, or by the ringing telephone.
Was my initial “this is heaven” thought wrong? No. I’ll amend it to “this is Door County.” Though I don’t think many people would argue if I claimed Door County is synonymous with heaven, that’s not quite what I’m getting at. Door County, when it comes to being a working artist, is simply unlike other places.
I’ve been restless and blessed enough to fill much of my young life with travels, but Door County stands out for its ability to sustain and nurture experienced and budding artists alike. Though I’m relaying just my (budding) experience with the (experienced) Jeanne and David, I know this is not a rare relationship. Musician Jess Holland supplements her artistic career working for Renee Schwaller at Off the Wheel Pottery. Woodworker and metalsmith Jared Nellis exercises his skills with Keith Clayton at K. Allen Gallery. The list goes on. And, unlike places like New York City, these are paid positions.
I highlight this because I think it’s important to recognize budding artists are not always able to stay in
the art world without a trust fund, generous parents, or significant savings. Many apprenticeships and internships – even for skilled artists – are unpaid or very low paying. So the artist is forced to take another job, and often one that takes up a great deal of their time and energy, making it difficult to achieve their artistic aspirations.
In Door County, however, those dreams are being realized, lived out, and perpetuated year after year. How? Perhaps it’s because there’s enough magic nested in the natural beauty of the peninsula to keep every artist, from the plein air painter to silver jeweler, inspired. Or, maybe, it’s because there are
enough visitors to the county who are grateful to be able to take a piece of the magic home with them at the end of their stay. But mostly, I believe, it’s because there are enough willing artists to create a community of support, generosity and loyalty.
What I’ve realized is that being an artist here is not the romantic notion of setting my laptop in front of a window overlooking the bay and having hours of uninterrupted time, money and energy to write the next great American novel. Nor, if I can put words in their mouths, is it that way for potters like Jeanne and David, or the many other artists living and working in Door County.
Being an artist here means being an active member of the community, which for many artists may not come so naturally. It requires donating that piece you spent eight hours working on, or making art you’d rather not make. It requires leaving the studio early to bring soup to an old friend who’s recovering from surgery. It requires being nice to the occasional not-so-nice client or customer. It means constant baby showers, birthday parties, retirement parties, and weddings. It means teaching classes and taking classes.
All of these things will take us away from the wheel, from the blank page, the canvas, the studio, again and again and again. But ultimately, it is all of these things that will give us the fuel and allow us the ability to come back to it. And for that, we thank our lucky stars.