I became a potter later in life, following a previous career that never felt quite right—as though I was given a role that should have belonged to someone else. On the other hand, my experience making pots in several adult education classes resulted in exactly the opposite feeling: this was a good fit. I wanted to feel passionate about my profession and have it be an integral part of my everyday life. My 40th birthday was not far off, and I had the pressing realization there was no time to waste. With a little money in the bank and a blind leap of faith, I quit my full-time-with-benefits job and began looking for ways to immerse myself in pottery education. I spent a year and a half between the workshops of two studio potters who gave generously of their time, knowledge and skills to help me hone my own and learn about running a studio. My new world continued to expand through workshops at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, where I learned from some of the best potters teaching at that time and jump-started a network of friends and colleagues that continues today. Next, good fortune landed me as a non-degree student in the ceramics department at Indiana University where I began processing what I had learned during the previous two years.
Although my near-term goal was to quit waiting tables, set up a studio and start selling my work, I realized my tendency toward one-of-a-kind pieces and my passion for detail would have me endlessly working a second job to make ends meet. Teaching was a strong interest and seemed a more likely means of survival for me than being a potter, and there was still so much I wanted to learn. So I puffed up my courage, put together a portfolio, and applied to graduate school. Six months later, I moved to Edwardsville, Illinois, to begin the MFA program at Southern Illinois University. It was hard to leave the home I had finally bought and settle into the single-minded focus of a graduate student. As I look back on it now, despite the many challenges in putting together a studio, building a wood kiln, and getting a business off and running, this decision to interrupt my life with three more years of formal schooling was the most difficult one I had to make. Fortunately, it proved to be the best thing I could have done. I came away more widely and deeply informed, more confident, and most importantly with a better understanding of how to continue educating myself.
I also came away from graduate school with a partner in the best husband I could ever hope to meet. Through another stroke of luck we found a home on a wonderful piece of property with a studio and site for a wood kiln. After 12 years of building and remodeling, we now have the work spaces of our dreams. My earlier experiences in compromised studio spaces (first in a dark, moldy, limestone cold cellar and next in an unheated divided garage with no running water) help me to appreciate my current situation even more. Three rooms totaling about 1100 square feet are divided between my work and display areas, and the wood kiln is right outside the studio. My husband’s metal and woodworking shop is around the corner, and our home is a few feet away. All of this is at the end of a dead-end road on a peninsula of land surrounded by wooded ravines and an open meadow for my garden (and the deer that eat my garden). As I sit at my treadle wheel or work table, I have an unrestricted view of trees and sky. I still pinch myself every day.
Although I had been in a few gallery shows during school, I started selling my pots as a business eleven years ago. I began holding two studio sales a year in addition to the annual artist tour in my county, became part of a small indie craft show in St. Louis, and participated in national invitational and juried shows. I also began doing art fairs in my region, which helped expand my customer base, which then supported me at my studio sales. I branched out and traveled to a few shows, including the American Craft Council events in Baltimore and St. Paul, and the Original Ann Arbor Street Art Fair in Michigan. Although sales were usually quite good at these fairs, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was going into the art fair business as the heyday was ending. It also became apparent that I wasn’t making the number of pots I needed to satisfy the different avenues of selling I had set up for myself.
I felt fractured, dissatisfied with my studio practice, and out of touch with my local clientele. I no longer travel out of the area for art fairs and I’m re-examining how I want to sell my work. I know I want to re-invigorate my local and regional customer base and feel more a part of my community.
I’ve been slow to embrace online marketing tools and social media outside of Facebook, which I see primarily as a means of keeping lightly in touch with friends and acquaintances (many of whom are potters.) I’ve used it minimally as a tool for updating people about my professional activities, although there is clearly room for that. I finally have my first real website launched, something I feel has been way too long in the making. Having a web presence through listings of shows I’ve been a part of, as well as workshops I’ve taught, has been a great aid in getting and keeping my name afloat in the pottery ether. Gallery representation at AKAR in Iowa City has also been a great help, as it has for so many potters.
Pottery tours and other alternative selling venues are fresh options for spreading the word and getting pots into the hands of both novice and veteran customers. Recently I’ve been fortunate to be invited to some of these, including the Annual Pottery Show and Sale at the Art School at Old Church in Demarest, New Jersey; The Art of the Pot Tour in Austin, Texas; and the Dallas Pottery Invitational. This year I also will be joining a group sale in September at Center Street Clay in Sandwich, Illinois, and Russell Wrankle’s studio sale in December. Besides the obvious benefit of selling work, these are opportunities to gather with friends and colleagues, be a part of a diverse and energized event, and engage with customers. It always feels like a celebration to me, a collective handshake that endorses our hard work and fuels the enthusiasm of all who come to participate, both customers and potters.
Other than an impaired leg from a motorcycle accident in my 20s, I’ve been blessed with good health and stamina and have tried to maintain that over the years through swimming and bicycling. However, exercise has always been the first thing to go when I get overwhelmed with deadlines, a behavior I’m trying to change as I realize its increasing importance to my health. Adding pilates, some yoga, and biweekly visits to the gym are helping to counter the inevitable physical changes of aging, though I have yet to find a solution to the arthritis in my hands beyond cortisone shots. I am extremely fortunate to have health insurance through my husband. Having gone several years without it (including when I had my accident) I couldn’t be more appreciative.
Despite my fortunate work environment, I still believe it’s not acquiring the hardware that is most difficult about being a potter but rather maintaining the resolve, discipline, and tenacity to overcome rejection, fatigue, boredom, and any number of tempting distractions. It is difficult to find balance, and I still often feel like I’m either working too hard or not hard enough. I’ve tried to get better about asking for help, determining what I do best and what others can do better for me for pay or trade. I don’t believe anyone can carry the entire load of being a studio potter these days without sacrificing the joy in the work. And then what’s the point?
During a visit to the Penland campus in my early pottery-making days, I saw the following quote by the German philosopher Goethe that was posted in the dining hall and surely influenced many before and after me. In part it says: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Naturally slow to take big leaps, I drew energy and hope from these words and recalled them often over the next several years. I encourage anyone who can’t imagine being satisfied with any profession outside of ceramics to find a way. It is possible. And it becomes more possible with every step you take in that direction.
Facebook: Charity Davis-Woodard