Glass Artist Davin Ebanks' Work-Life Balance

Glass Artist Davin Ebanks' Work-Life Balance

Davin Ebanks portrait

Davin Ebanks at work in the studio.

Arlon Bayliss

Working artists often face a conundrum: They need a second job to pay the bills. For some, it’s a welcomed opportunity to expand their practice. For others, it’s a distraction from their art. For all, figuring out how to balance the demands of their private practice with those of their other roles is tricky business.

Glass artist Davin Ebanks has found a sweet spot. Since 2016, he has served as the head of the glass department at Kent State University, where he also teaches – two roles that he feels nurture his private practice. The 42-year-old took time out of his busy schedule (he and his wife welcomed their first child into the world just a few weeks ago) to talk about how he makes it work as a practicing artist with a demanding day job.

What do you like about teaching and running Kent State’s glass department?
There’s something about the demand of responsibility that I enjoy, having to rely only on what you’ve got at hand: your experience, your intuition, your connections, and colleagues. I find that strangely freeing. It’s a lot like art making – having to have faith in your decisions. I’m reminded of a quote from a documentary on [Czech glass artists] Libensky and Brychtova: “In this occupation, you always dangle in the air; you’re always about to take another step, hoping there is solid ground.” There are no excuses, no waiting on someone else.

In this occupation, there is a continuous parade of problems, mainly the day-to-day issues that go with running a functional studio. From the moment I arrived, I found myself engaged in things I have never done before, whether in my personal work – with the equipment and facilities – or as a teacher. I had to reach out to my amazing friends and colleagues in the glass community for advice and counsel.

What is challenging about it?
The biggest challenge is continuing my research and art practice – making work, applying for shows, packing, shipping, installing, promoting – all while still meeting the demands of teaching and running a glass program. In such an equipment-heavy field as glass, there are always maintenance needs. That’s the hardest thing: realizing that there will always be equipment issues but [my independent] research must go on. A working studio is not a sterile showroom; as long as everyone can make work, things don’t have to be perfect.

Many artists find it difficult to juggle their teaching responsibilities with the demands of their private practice. How do you manage to carve out time to do your own work?
It definitely does not come naturally. As I mentioned earlier, it’s tough to not feel selfish when you place your research above some small maintenance or equipment issue. But, that’s a huge part of the actual job I’m being paid for: to do my research. Also, it’s a large part of my pedagogical practice: modeling for my students how to be a working artist. In a sense, being a part of a research university means that my “private” work is no longer just my own, it’s part of my responsibility to my colleagues and students.

That being said, I’ve always been a studio artist, a maker. That means you make time to make your work. You carve out little blocks between classes to make a mold or do some cold-working. You stay a little later a few nights a week or find a way to work from home after family dinner. I’m lucky in that my practice utilizes digital tools for many projects, so I can sit in my study at home and move my work forward. But, it’s not easy. It takes discipline; it’s definitely not a nine-to-five kind of gig.

How do you find exhibitions and other opportunities? 
Some of these come through my network of colleagues in the field, but most of opportunities come through dedicated research. Again, I’m lucky because my wife, Jamie Hahn, is also a practicing artist, and while she’s researching opportunities for herself, she keeps an eye out for shows that would fit my work. Between us, I’m almost always in process of applying to something.

Also, I find shows lead to shows – especially if you make life easy for curators and gallery directors. This means keeping a good professional practice: good packing, clear installation instructions, never being late on delivery, and punctual communication. Basic stuff, but you’d be surprised how many artists struggle with these fundamental things. If you make good work and are easy to work with, you’d be surprised how many random shows might turn into more substantial opportunities down the road.

Do you have any help in the studio or with administrative work, such as website maintenance?
I wish! The answer is no, aside from glassblowing assistants. Graduate teaching assistants do occasionally help me in the hot shop, but [hot-shop work] is not the majority of my practice.

As for the website, I have a background in graphic design, which has been a huge help navigating the technical complexities of not only building a site, but also getting found on Google, etc.

How do you maintain your wellness while juggling such a busy schedule?H
Three things: sleep, good food, and exercise. None of these are easy or a gimme, but they’re all critical for staying healthy. You’re going to struggle to sleep if you don’t exercise, and you’ll struggle to work out with any intensity if your diet is garbage. They all feed into each other and you’ve got to make time for them all.

By the way, exercise for me doesn’t mean hitting the elliptical for an hour. My workouts average 12 minutes, but it’s the intensity and variety that matter. Keep it interesting and short, and it’s harder to make excuses.

You have a teaching manifesto on your website. Why? Does teaching feed your studio practice in any way?
Teaching is very important to my practice. I think an artist conducts their education in public (to borrow a phrase from Anish Kapoor), and being a teacher helps me learn (and re-learn) the fundamentals of being an artist. The issues my students struggle with – trying to work every day, realizing the work is the work, disciplining yourself to be both maker and interpreter of the work – these are issues I think all artists struggle with until they die. Teaching is a way for me to stay “in the trenches,” as it were, and stay focused on the fundamentals.