Mid Career or Mid life: A Pathway

Mid Career or Mid life: A Pathway

Text by Merran Esson

In preparing this talk I took time to reflect on the meaning of being at one’s mid career; really I was bit shocked to be asked to be on this panel, as I wanted to be on the panel of emerging artists. Because I feel as though I am just emerging, but as the title suggests there are pathways that I have taken which have created a journey that has me arriving at this spot, on this platform. Mid career is probably not too bad, – but which career. I feel comfortable with where I have been and hopefully there is more ahead for me.

In this lecture I will look at the place of the mid career artist and reflect on how in my case, a life became a career without me realising it. The purpose of reflecting on my pathways is to ask questions about what responsibilities it carries to be in this position.

I really have two careers, in one I am an educator and probably past the mid career point. This career has given me a privileged position, which I do believe comes with responsibilities, some of which I have actively sort to be involved with. In my other career I am an artist, and one of the benefits of teaching is that I have had the opportunity to explore quite difficult bodies of work without the constant worry about sales.

As the pathways of these two careers merge I know that one career will come to an end in the next few years as I reach goals and the other career is just waiting to fly.

Firstly I would like to touch on some of the responsibilities that I believe that someone in my position has. There is the imparting of knowledge through my role in education, and there is the providing of support for younger emerging artists. I can do this through the curating of exhibitions, something that I have discovered that I quite enjoy. It can also occur through mentoring, often providing advice and a friendly ear. My experiences can be shared and may help someone else make sense of where they are.

For me a very important period of time was taking time out from my exhibition schedule to study an MA. This proved to be a valuable pathway in my career as an artist, It gave me permission to take ‘time out’ from my commitments and rediscover my own work. My decision not to exhibit during that time was valuable, and this time gave me the opportunity to return to rigorous research and a chance to revitalise thinking. Teaching has so many visual stimuli, it is so important to have time to reflect and re-evaluate.

Attending conferences is a hugely valuable pathway. Meeting your peers, getting involved in discussions and becoming proactive in the support and promotion of ceramics is hugely rewarding, both as an artist but also as stakeholder in the arts.

I am quite fascinated by the different pathways that we all take. I would like to talk a little about where we all started, usually at a college of some sort, and a valuable place to make friends and contacts. Of course at the beginning none of us knew who in the class would go on to become recognised contributors to ceramics, but those relationships have often had a very important effect on where we end up and how we get there. I met my partner at art college, and when I completed my course I followed him to UK where he was enrolled in the MA program at the Royal College of Art. In some ways leaving Melbourne as soon as I completed my course and going to live in London meant that I disconnected my links with my classmates and I have not returned there. But don’t be surprised if some quiet unknowns that cross your path become bigger influences… you don’t know who they are. I hung around the RCA, and I went to a few lectures, I saw lots of exhibitions and met a few of the fellow artists. What an amazing graduation year it was in 1977. Elizabeth & David Emmanuel (designers of Princess Diana’s wedding gown), Martin Smith, these were all quite visible students, especially the Emmanuels at the RCA fashion show, there was one name on the graduation list that I knew nothing about, until years later… Garth Clark. Garth, where were you? Did we sit next to each other in the bar, did you go to Dicky Chopping’s birthday party? Were you locked away writing a huge thesis?

The moral here is look around you, some of your unknown colleagues may become contributors to contemporary ceramics, you may be a contributor too.

This paper is about pathways and if you are serious about your work then you must have a studio and a kiln. You can talk around it and say it’s all too hard and expensive, well if you do, then you are not taking your work or your contribution seriously. I looked after babies, taught high school and saved up. My first real studio was a shower recess at the back of a terrace house in inner city Sydney…. When my family needed the loo, I had to leave the studio, but it worked. Acquiring the space and equipment necessary to start a practice is important. It states “I am serious – take me seriously”.

The other piece of advice, and I presume that is why I am on this panel, is to set goals. I remember going to the 1978 Conference at the Seymour centre and watching established and young stars talking and performing and I thought …. ‘How great to be invited to speak or demonstrate at a conference.’  Years later when as delegate at one of the Gulgong events, Bernard Kerr approached me and asked if I would demonstrate at the Edge Conference in Perth in 1999.. yippeeeeeee I was about to achieve my goal.


But goals are deceptive.. as soon as you reach one you have to set another. My advice here is don’t stop setting goals. They are one of the most important tools in a pathway. So while I am on about important tools and giving out advice, I have a few points here I would like to elaborate on.

You need to make work and get it out and seen.

My advice is to take good photos. Or have someone else take good photos, and send images to journals and curators, in fact send to Robert Bell, because yesterday he said so.

Be technology savvy, having good images, understanding email and researching through the world wide web, and being able to provide images and documentation, its very much part of life as a 21st century artist,

Don’t be disillusioned if at first you don’t succeed in getting work published or recognised by a curator.

Find an area that you are good at and become involved, in other words it might be as a writer, or as a member of a group. It might be organising events such as conferences, helping to bring ideas and people together.

Remember to take time out for yourself to develop new work.

Travel. Get out and see what else is going on in your chosen area. Become familiar with others who work in a similar way to you. Keep abreast of what is happening in the art world, galleries and design.

No one knows for sure what the future is in ceramics………………. Its up to you.


This is an edited version of a lecture, exploring the pathways of a mid career artists in contemporary society.
delivered at “Verge” 11th National Ceramics Conference, Brisbane Convention Centre, July 2006
©Merran Esson 2006. All rights reserved