The Minimalists Dilemma

by Emily Schroeder Willis

My first cup I ever bought!  A Matt Metz from the American Pottery Festival in Minneapolis at the Northern Clay Center in 1998.

My first cup I ever bought!  A Matt Metz from the American Pottery Festival in Minneapolis at the Northern Clay Center in 1998.

When I first started making pots I couldn’t get enough.  I would trade with anyone I could; I would buy whatever my menial salary would allow. I remember the very first pots I dished out real money for (a Matt Metz cup and a Linda Christenson casserole, in case you were wondering), but now as I have gotten older things have changed.  When I was single and lived alone, I made my own choices to buy and display whatever I liked.  My cupboards were overflowing (and I must be honest, I am also a bit of a kitchen tools/pots whore). Whenever I moved it was an atrocious endeavor packing up and moving all of those fragile ceramics.  Then I met Matt; a minimalist to the core.  When we first started dating and I went to his house I was amazed at what I saw when I walked in.  The walls were nearly bare and the cupboards were quite empty.  If I remember correctly there were two forks, two spoons, a knife and handful of dishes.  I assumed he must have just moved in and when I inquired long he had lived here he stated, “Ten years”.  My jaw dropped.  How could ANYONE live in a place with so little stuff!  I could hardly believe it. 

Three years later we were married and the challenge began of what to do when you live with an ultra minimalist.  At first things were frustrating (to say the least).  He would comment on why was it we needed 40 different mugs?  How come none of our plates matched? He grew to love certain artists and have attachments to certain objects and accept that he was going to have a lot more stuff around than he was used to.  But on the other hand I began to really wrestle with the larger issue of why do we need to have so much stuff. 

I must add in here this is one of the bigger personal/professional/moral dilemma’s I face and it goes beyond the simple acquisition of pottery.  It applies to clothes, linens, books, tubes of toothpaste…  Looking at artists like Andrea Zittel and her Seasonal Uniform project where she wore the same outfit everyday for 6 months at a time for several years she comments:

"I’ve been doing this uniform project since 1991. It started because I had an office job and I was supposed to wear something respectable to work. But I didn’t have that much money and so I was thinking about how most of the time we can afford one fabulous outfit that you really love to wear. But there’s some sort of social stigma against wearing the same thing two days in a row. So I decided that, in my case, variety seemed more oppressive or restrictive than continuity. So for each season I’ll make one garment. That’s my fantasy garment or my favorite thing that I can imagine at that period in time, and then I'll wear it every day for six months."  (from http://www.art21.org/images/andrea-zittel/various-a-z-six-month-seasonal-uniforms-1992-1995)

It made me rethink larger issues of consumption such as if you have SO much stuff, can you actually enjoy those things you have? Do we do it because it’s unacceptable to wear the same thing every day for a week.  That it would be weird if you lived with one mug per person, per home?  I know that I am going to get some serious hate mail for even saying this stuff, especially as a potter no less.  But I keep thinking, am I just buying to simply buy something.    Anyhow, more on this later.

Additionally, my sister, who isn’t a minimalist but rather has a limited budget and hates being wasteful, told me how for one year she didn’t buy any new clothes. She did this because she realized that often times she would buy clothes out of boredom (either she was “bored” with her clothes, i.e. wearing the same things week after week or it gave her something to do when she was with friends).  I thought about it and decided that for one year I wouldn’t buy any new clothes either.  To be frank, it was actually much easier that I ever anticipated.  I could walk into a store, appreciate things and leave.  It was actually very freeing!  I didn’t have to consider options of this color or that or whether or not I should buy it.  It simply wasn’t an option.  This all began in fall of 2013. 

The other interesting experiment in minimalism was a six week visiting artist position at the University of Montana.  I had limited ability to bring clothes with me since I was bringing with a bunch of ceramics tools, a bike helmet and also it was April..…in Montana…which meant it could be 15 degrees or 60 degrees.  This meant not only did I have a limited amount of space, but I had to bring a wide variety of things with me.  It was laughable the amount of clothing I brought with me.  I kept thinking about Andrea Zittel and her uniform project and realized, this was really no big deal.  I got through the 6 weeks and at the end recognized I didn’t even need all I had brought. 

About a year later, a good friend of mine who lives here in Chicago with her husband in a rather “modest” apartment (i.e. no more than a 500 square foot apartment) and is constantly trying to figure out how to live with less recommended the book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”. The premise of the book is to go through everything you own, touch it and ask the question, “Does this object spark joy?”.  If the answer is “yes”, you keep it.  If “no”, then you get rid of it.  It also speaks of the need to not own multiples of objects, that one is simply enough.  After both Matt and I read this book we got rid of even MORE stuff. It was amazing how much we had and how little we items or that we were simply holding on to objects out of guilt or obligation.

Alright, now to come back full circle to the big question of how do you live a life as a maker of objects, when you yourself are constantly trying to live with less.  Here is the answer I have come up with.  It is simply: I don’t know.  If I didn’t state that this wasn’t something I wrestle with on a daily basis I would be lying.  I no longer buy books (or at least very, very rarely), I just check them out of the library.  I seldom buy clothes any more and try to buy clothes out of need rather than impulse.  I have really cut back on the amount of pottery I buy. I usually limit it to 1 pot a year (this year it was a sweet little Beth Lo cup!).  I also have become a bit more generous in sharing my ceramics collection.  If someone comes over and really likes a piece I have and they themselves aren’t makers, I usually give them the piece.  Sometimes it’s tough, but I realize it might spark some joy in their daily routine. 

I feel very hypocritical in having these thoughts, but nonetheless, I feel a LOT of relief not being surrounded by so much stuff. It’s less to clean, less to wash, less to try and find a place for.  It also makes me really enjoy the stuff with which I surround myself.  The pieces I keep are pieces I absolutely love. Our mug collection has slimmed down, mostly because as cups have broken, we haven’t replaced them.  But now, every cup that is on our shelf gets used.  I mean, really used and not just once in a big while.  It allows me to see what I have because all of the pieces we have stand out and I can fully appreciate those pieces for what they are.  And they are all things that spark joy in my day.