Part of the Leisure Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
I didn’t love my old therapist, but she did give me one crucial piece of advice: Get a hobby. I was writing about food for work, so cooking didn’t really count as a hobby anymore — I’d already monetized that one — nor did reading, nor socializing, especially since all of my friends worked in my industry. I needed something in my life that existed apart from all that. I was stressed and, of course, also on my phone too much (and still am).
Maybe something you can do with your hands. The suggestion felt like an escape hatch: Maybe a hobby could free me from toil. Cooking had once been the thing I did to relax when I got home from work, the thing I was curious about, the thing that distracted my brain from its standard litany of complaints. Puttering in the kitchen had once been a release, but now it was part of my professional life. It needed a replacement. A few months later, I dutifully signed up for a ceramics class at a studio nearish my Brooklyn apartment.
This was March 2016. One of my roommates was an artist who had taken a class at that same studio, and I always envied the little pots she made. One of them was shaped like the face of a woman, with a ponytail for a handle. She gave it to me, and I put a small succulent in it that would soon die. I hoped that taking a class could make me more like her, or at the very least, happier — and if not that, well, maybe I’d make myself a bowl to put pasta in.
Learning to make ceramics on the wheel — this is what you picture when you think of that scene from Ghost — feels initially impossible, pointless, tantrum-inducing. In class, our teacher showed us how to take a blob of clay and slam it onto the machine’s surface, strong-arm it into symmetry as the wheel whirred around, dig a hole in its center with our fingers, make the hole wider, and then raise up the walls that would make it a vessel. Doing it on my own was another thing entirely: a reminder of the unkind presence of physics, an asymmetrical lump thwapping around like an off-balance tornado, just some really ugly shit that would occasionally collapse in on itself.
This is par for the course. Most of us suck at first. The stuff you made in second-grade art class was objectively better. Clay shrinks when fired in a kiln, so the first mugs I made that weren’t ugly came out more like handled thimbles. Glazing each piece — decorating it with the often-colorful vitrified coating that makes it water-tight and food-safe, and glossy or matte — was its own messy challenge. My goal became not to make art or even craft, so much as to make things I didn’t hate. Of course, failing at something new doesn’t feel good; it feels like banging your head against a wall in front of an invisible audience of your own making. Turning off the desire to excel once you leave work is often impossible, if not difficult.
That said, the pace of my failure was different at the studio. Making ceramics requires patience and is an exercise in delayed gratification (or dissatisfaction). There are so many ways to fuck something up, so many stages to the process, and entering that cycle of hope, expectation, and either failure and trying again or ecstatic satisfaction added a new dimension to the rhythms of my life.
Through this mild and harmless struggle, I acquired a hobby. “How agitated I am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so agitated,” Jamaica Kincaid writes in My Garden (Book). “Nothing works just the way I thought it would, nothing looks just the way I had imagined it, and when sometimes it does look like what I had imagined (and this, thank God, is rare) I am startled that my imagination is so ordinary.”
Powerlessness, for an amateur, can be its own draw. At the studio, I started as a lazy learner, but in a few months became obsessed, signing up for more classes when my session ended. My classes netted out to about $40 a week, plus materials and the cost of firing. I was spending maybe $200 a month, which required an increased vigilance in my other spending but also meant I had something to care about. I had a place to go in my free time that was not my office, or my apartment, or a friend’s apartment, or a restaurant, or a bar. I had something to be curious about, and my goals were unrelated to exterior forces: a boss, a job, a market, a reader. Unlike with writing, my progress was quantifiable: Now I can make a vase this tall. Now I have made a planter. Now my handles are beautiful. Now I have made two things that more or less look like a pair.
I also relished having something to do that didn’t involve a screen and therefore felt far from the style of work to which I was most accustomed. Hands covered in clay cannot swipe very well. Hobbies have always been defined by their tenuous relationship to work: After industrialization bifurcated life into the realms of work and leisure, hobbies appeared as something “productive” for workers to do with their newly minted chunks of free time.
“Leisure came to represent freedom because it took place in time separate from work, and time in an industrial world could be used for either work or leisure,” writes Steven Gelber in his book Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. “For this reason, industrial capitalism sharpened the West’s ambivalent feelings about leisure.” Leisure does not exist without work and is therefore defined by it.
Even as hobbies gained popularity among the 19th-century middle class, they mimicked the capitalist attitudes of the workplaces from which they were meant to provide relief. “Since the hobby was done at home in free time, it was under the complete control of the hobbyist. It was, in other words, a re-embracing of preindustrial labor, a recreation of the world of the yeoman, artisan, and independent merchant,” Gelber writes. “Hobbies were a Trojan horse that brought the ideology of the factory and office into the parlor.”
The capitalist value of a “work ethic” has always been present in the world of the hobbyist. We love hobbies because they are something to do that isn’t work, something that we choose to do. But they still so often require toil; we are still proud of ourselves when we perform our hobbies efficiently, competently. Pursuit of mastery is implied, if not always present. For me, few things match the thrill of pulling something beautiful out of the kiln. It always feels like a surprise I have magically given myself.
Once I had made a few things that I didn’t hate — and because I have a smartphone and a need for validation — I began posting photos of my work on Instagram. I loved making mugs, loved their practicality and the way they fit into a home. A mug can look like anything. I had newfound opinions on what mine should look like, and that felt good. By the winter, people were asking to buy them. I was freelancing at the time, and my studio cost about $200 a month, plus more for materials. If I could regularly sell a few mugs, I’d break even. The baseline price for these things, according to a brief survey of other potters, was around $40 — I started selling mine for $35 or $40, depending on size.
From the beginning I felt like I was doing everything wrong. Like maybe I should wait until I got a little better, or until I could make a nice shiny website, or until I had, I don’t know, SKUs. But it felt irresponsible to turn down a few people who would help cover my expenses and who wanted my work in their hands. Once you start making things, you have to put them somewhere. You begin to understand why people collect stamps.
Certain hobbies are difficult to monetize — say, bird-watching. Coin collecting, unless you sell it all. Gardening. Many things can only be monetized by becoming a teacher, or maybe now an influencer. Once demand appeared, selling felt like an inevitability. I wanted to keep making things but didn’t have space to keep it all; people love mugs; selling something feels like a pat on the head followed by a treat. (To be clear, the treat is money.)
People began commissioning mugs, and they’d tell me what color they wanted, send me a photo of something I’d made and ask for something similar. It was slapdash but it worked, and it covered my expenses. I was having fun and only mildly stressed by the process, always behind schedule. I look back now at some of the things that people paid for and feel a bit embarrassed, but I’m always wishing my work were a little uglier, so maybe I should be proud.
Somewhere along the line I made a website and started selling things more formally, claiming the revenue on my taxes, finding a person with a real camera to take photos of my work. I’d leave my day job at a magazine and go to the studio, often until 1 or 2 in the morning. It made me late for work, but I didn’t care; I ended up getting laid off with one foot out the door, and was given the gift of time — more daytime hours, at least — to spend at the studio. I had lost my hobby and gained a revenue stream.
My ceramic work, now, is caught up in the question of selling. Mugs sell, so I make more of them. I take a sick pleasure in the exhausting production line of throwing, trimming, attaching handles, smoothing everything down, painting, glazing, firing, staring at rows of cups lined up like synchronized swimmers, ready to jump. It’s the same sick pleasure I get in staying up until 2 am working on a jigsaw puzzle: maniacally focused on my goal at the expense of my posture. Untangling the question of what I want to make from what will sell feels like crawling out of a very deep well.
The swiftness with which modern craftspeople can and do monetize their hobbies is, of course, not a surprise. Traditional careers are crumbling, and side hustles are fetishized; Instagram has turned marketing into a basic skill we’re all expected to have. It’s easier to sell the crap you make in your spare time, and you’re more likely to need the money than you might have been a few decades ago, when you could have just foisted it all on your friends. This all risks turning hobbies into even more of an illusion, a mirage of leisure that quickly turns to obligation.
Some people, though, have fought the seduction of commerce and won. RC, an artist who makes work under the name marinatedclouds, began her first sculptural project with the express intention not to sell it. She was burned out from working a full-time job in graphic design, where in order for an idea to succeed, it needed to be marketable. “So many interesting concepts got dismissed because they couldn’t fit into a business context,” she remembers. “It became a situation where I started feeling really empty — I didn’t know how to have fun anymore.”
She had long toyed with the idea of creating a book about chicken and rice, with 35 different dishes from around the world. But she’d never gotten around to it; the work was too similar to her job as a graphic designer. So she decided to turn it into a sculptural project, quitting her job in April 2018 and giving herself the summer to focus on ceramic chicken and rice. Once she was done, she just kept making things. Her work is influenced by early 2000s nostalgia and her Taiwanese American upbringing; her pieces look like something made by a child from a different dimension, playful and mind-blowing in one. Pencils are sliced like bananas; crayons threaten to crawl out of their box. She once made an entire aughts-era desktop computer.
“Nurturing ideas was and is something I’m still extremely steadfast about,” RC says. “I want to pursue every idea, whether it lacks concept or not. Sometimes just making crayons is literally what I want. There’s no additional background to it, I just like the rainbow.” Refusing to sell her work — something she did for two years, despite enthusiastic interest from people on Instagram — allowed her to create the world of marinatedclouds without tainting it with outside influence. “For me, it’s just pursuing any and every idea that I have. That’s my form of self-expression.”
Quickly, her pieces began to pile up in her one-bedroom apartment. She was tripping over things. She got rid of her living room and turned it into a studio; she has no couch. But last winter, after a financially challenging 2020, she decided to sell some of her older pieces, both to make money and to clear space for new work. She learned that donuts sell really well. “That’s feedback that I didn’t actually need, but it does stay in the back of my head, and that’s something I do really want to avoid,” she says. She doesn’t want to cater to demand — only her own whims.
This is, for many of us, the dream: unfettered commitment to externalizing our innards without concern for any gaze but our own. Reclaiming one’s time, you could say. But it requires nothing short of a battle. “Society puts so much pressure on success as in status or monetization,” RC says, “but success to me now is being true to myself.”
I can no longer call ceramics my hobby, and I doubt I ever will. I assume I will sell my work until people stop buying it, both out of necessity and because it does bring me joy to make a silly little thing that someone will incorporate into the tableau of their home. The struggle, for me, is between what I want to make and what I assume people will buy; the struggle of wishing I could log off forever but knowing that Instagram is the most direct marketing tool I have. The only solution I have come up with is to have a segment of my work I make just for myself, without concern for the market — or at least with an attempted lack of concern.
But making time for that also means carving out time, both for creation and inspiration, for the rest that is required for my brain to think thoughts. This is something I crave more than a new hobby; this is peace.
Marian Bull is an editor, writer, and potter living in Brooklyn.