'I'm leaving', I said, and I think I was as shocked to hear it as the other two people sitting round the table. This was me quitting my job as an analyst in a respected management consultancy firm, after fourteen years. My two colleagues had been outlining the company's next phase and I realised I didn't want to use words like 'phase' anymore. Many things silently clicked together in my middle-aged brain as I listened to the plan, each of which was tugging me towards something quite bizarre: a completely new career as an artist.
I'd dabbled for many years; I even rented a studio for a while, indulging as a gentleman amateur, a hobbyist with no risk of success because the daily bread was being comfortably made by logic and programming four days a week. The few small exhibitions I had were kindly attended by friends but hardly anyone seemed to see quite what I was aiming at. And I did have an aim: for a long time I'd worked on a form of abstract painting which I was quietly getting more comfortable with, perhaps even proficient at, although I had no obvious way of finding out.
The problem was the structure of work in which I had enmeshed myself. When you're competent in a technical skill and someone is willing to pay you a decent salary to indulge in it and it feels good to exercise your brain in that way, then why on earth would you consider stopping it? I had no problems at work: the people were a really kind and friendly bunch and the work was generally stimulating. But there had been this upwelling need which I'd pretended was fulfilled by a hobbyist's mentality and timetable. Having been on the other side of the divide for a couple of months now, I realise what I'd been missing, and missing terribly.
Part of it was to be independent of the rules of the game. Each organisation instills its own hierarchies of subtle power, and negotiating those requires a lot of energy and careful work. It can be exhausting, and that's in a benign institution. It is part of our culture to mock darkly the insidious trampling of personality we all know happens in more heavily 'corporate' environments. There must be many, many people who would love to break out of industrial prison and make things for a living, with their bare hands. And that was another part of it. To use one's body and not just one's mind. To make existential judgements based not only on logic and psychology but on gravity, heft, balance and... feel.
Large graphite drawings from the far past
So what could tip me over the edge? About six years ago I started learning to throw clay pots on a wheel, a venerable, quirky, very ancient and, in this mass-production day and age, completely useless pursuit if the creation of useful pots is all it's for. Turns out that's not all it's for. It's calming to learn this new skill. Its focus helped me enormously in a time of frantic and sad psychodrama. But I also slowly realised I was making curved surfaces on which I could try painting again, something I'd left lying in the dust of past life. And then a third characteristic of this craft became apparent. I started an Instagram account to record my progress and for six months it dawdled like almost everyone's. But then something happened and I started to accumulate a crazy number of followers (for a potter..). People liked what I was doing and they were telling me so. For the first time, I was gathering evidence that what I could make made sense to others; more than that, that some of them actually wanted to own it. As I met more and more potters, I stumbled over a truth which was obvious to all of them, that the humanity of the hand-made item is transferable. People are able to connect with others via something that one of them made. It helps that the thing is a recognisably useful and universal object: a bowl, a cup, a vase, a plate. There was something rich about this new pursuit.
I also discovered the ceramics community. A generous bunch of old-timers and new guns who were all perplexed with the vagaries of taking mud and turning it into something harder and more meaningful. Just as intriguing was the hugely expanding market for contemporary ceramics. In our studio I'm watching large numbers of beautifully handmade plates and bowls being created for upmarket restaurants, sets of cups and saucers produced for hotels, and any number of unique pieces made for any number of interior design shops and galleries.
As a cautious, scientific type I ran some experiments with selling my work. Our fabulous community studio holds sales every three or four months and the results were good for me. I found I was regularly in the top three earners, despite my lack of skill. More recently, I tried an Instagram auction of five larger vases, which was a moderate success and started to give me an idea of the range of prices people were willing to pay. I also started saving. I knew if I made the leap I'd need a buffer to begin with. Something that would mean I could avoid earning sufficient money for a few months without panicking. I also watched several of my colleagues at the studio, just in their twenties, blithely and freely choosing to work full-time with ceramics, becoming skilled in their craft, building their businesses, learning how to be marketers and salespeople, taking far more risk than I ever could and enjoying almost every minute of it.
So the moment turned up when I had no moral excuse but to throw my towel into one ring and my hat into another. I suppose I can always turn back to mind-work if necessary but I'm going to give hand-and-eye-work a real chance to succeed. At my age I have the opposite of a head-start but I also have a mass of industrial experience: I think I understand marketing, sales, processes, money, dealing with people and just getting things done. If I'm any kind of artist too then this might be interesting.