Studio Jewelers Sabbatical. You know the feeling. No matter what you do there’s never enough time! Well, after 17 very long years I finally managed to “buy” some. Here is how, and why, I did it. Where it will lead me, only time will tell. There is nothing new about needing a sabbatical; taking one feels like a Fantasy fulfilled. But unlike the fairy tales, this one only lasts as long as my savings.
The word sabbatical stems from the word “Sabbath.” or seventh day of rest and worship. Ancient Judea observed a year of rest for the land every seventh year. Farmers worldwide throughout recorded history have had the good sense to periodically allow their fields to lay fallow. In nature it is well established that nothing can yield unrelentingly, without pause, without rest.
Student loans rescued me the last time I felt the need for a spurt of artistic growth: a BFA in jewelry from Western Michigan University and six years of Midwest craft fairs had brought me as far as they could. Going to graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design allowed me time to develop new ideas into new work. Then over the next few years, this time in the Northeast, I established a “following” at the wholesale/ retail craft fairs. Hard work, careful budgeting, luck and dogged perseverance finally won out. I had survived the bulleting of the marketplace with the original spirit of my work intact. What more could I ask for? I had achieved financial stability with a minimum of artistic compromise.
A business can be great once it is working – as long as you remember that you set the standards, and you determine its course. I learned the meaning of good cash flow and discovered what an enabler it could be, as long as I kept sight of my artistic goals. Other than buying a Philadelphia rowhouse, I never changed my spending habits. When sales increased, I plowed them back into my jewelry, allowing me to test out ideas and solve esthetic and technical problems at an accelerated pace. I began to master things I never expected, learn things I never wanted to and accept what I never could. Businesses can also take on a life of their own. What I had so desperately sought began to feel thrust upon me, and the momentum began to propel me without my permission.
The routine I had established was not allowing enough time to explore new directions. I had been on a marathon. The daily demands of business consumed all my time. As a result, ideas accumulated and were shelved, for “when I had more time.” It’s not that I go looking for new challenges, but I care the most about whether I will last as an artist. I could not afford to stop growing. Repeatedly, I tried to carve out some time, but the responsibilities that came with success began to supersede my personal and artistic needs.
Had I been a professor, I would have been granted a paid sabbatical for research, rest and/or travel, and returned to the same position at the end. As a self-employed artist, I could only be sure that I would end up someplace else, but who could know where?
Research and creative play do not produce immediate income, but this has never lessened their importance to me. That probably stems from seeing the demise of my hometown, Detroit, as its auto executives skimped on quality, research and development and thought no one would notice. I literally bank on my creativity and consider it a resource I must nurture and protect at all costs.
I could see no point in just continuing a jewelry business for the sake of everyone else. It became an artistic imperative to slow down, catch my breath and regain possession of my soul. The galleries were notified, orders were honored on a first-come, first-served basis; I composed the last pieces and they were shipped out. My two assistants found new positions, and the multitude of loose ends that never seemed to cease. finally did. The long-tern costs of not taking time outweighed the short-term consequences. For the first time in my life, I needed time more than money.
January 1, 1990: the phone machine took over and I began my time off. I had fantasized for two decades about lying around reading magazines and eating pistachio nuts. So I began at least to read the magazines. About three years each of American Craft, American Jewelry Manufacturer, Archeology, Art Aurea, Arts & Antiques, Connoisseur, Craft Arts Australia, Crafts UK, Craft Canada, Eelat, Goldsmith, Metropolis, Metropolitan Home, Ornament, Smithsonian, anything I could get my hands on, page by page. I read books on jewelry and adornment of every time period and culture I could find, book by book.
I went to craft history conferences, historical jewelry conferences, bead and seashell conferences. I attended lectures on sculptors, painters, furniture designers, architects, clay artists. I listened to every creative person I could find. I was like someone emerging from an arid desert with an unquenchable thirst. I fed the birds, I watched the bees pollinate my flower garden, and along the way I rediscovered nature’s incredibly perfect design solutions. I read the newspaper, I formed opinions and I wrote notes to myself about jewelry, to newspaper editors about the city, to senators about censorship and the NEA. And, at the end of the year, I even got married to the man who had watched and encouraged me to plow through all of this the past four years.
Knowing that there is no substitute for the real thing, I scoured auction houses, flea markets, jewelry stores, galleries and museums. I touched and wore what I could; I looked at what I couldn’t. I researched jewelry from prehistoric to contemporary. I walked Madison Avenue, the Santa Fe Indian Market, the antique stalls of London and the galleries of Amsterdam. But, most of all, I just thought and thought and thought and rolled it all around, savored it and thought about it again.
Creativity for me is a slow process. My ideas are born clumsy and need a long period of incubation. Inspiration rarely visits me uninvited. I tried to gather information without preconceived notions, to just absorb without coming to conclusions too early. My goal was to expose every part of me to as much as possible, to gain a sense of what was out there, where the connections lay and how my work fit in. I no longer wanted to steer by instinct. I knew there were historical precedents for everything and I wanted to learn what they were.
As I began to see what I liked and didn’t like, I started to formulate criteria for my next creations. This time I would strive to continue to emphasize uniqueness, include subtle variations, irregularities and nuances, search for more complex forms and intricate textures to savor slowly, make my jewelry hold up at any distance and attempt to instill it with the same visual pleasures I discovered in the objects I had studied that made it feel good and want to be touched and worn. I would try to judge objectively, comparing my work with what I had seen and continuing to look for what was there in order to understand just what was not there.
It has been a great opportunity to recharge and reevaluate. I have plowed the soil, gathered the seeds and, now that they have been planted, all I can do is wait and watch how they grow.
If my fantasy were truly fulfilled, I would grant a sabbatical year for every artist everywhere. Our lives, our livelihoods, our art are all at their best when successfully interwoven. Like every living organism they feed from, depend upon and nourish each other, and all this takes is time.
Jan Yager lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.