I never get tired of hearing how other artists came to pottery. That’s why I always enjoy the Working Potters issue of Ceramics Monthly. I could really relate to Sequoia Miller’s path because, like me, he studied something other than ceramics in undergrad, and when he got out, he didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to do – also like me. Then, when he took his first pottery class, he knew – also like me!
In today’s post, an excerpt from the Working Potters focus in the June/July/August 2010 issue of Ceramics Monthly, Sequoia tells the story of how he went on from that first class to establish a successful career for himself. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
I live outside of Olympia, Washington, where I have supported myself making pots for about 12 years. I moved here from New York City when my partner, Ariel, was hired as a visiting theater professor at the local college. At the time I was eager to get out of the city and make quiet, country pots. We’ve stayed in Olympia, Ariel with a tenured position, and me working in the studio.
I decided to pursue pottery seriously my first year out of college. I had studied Russian and art history as an undergrad. Not having a clear direction, I signed up for a pottery class while listlessly applying for museum and gallery jobs in New York. A dear friend gave me invaluable advice at that time: to start at the top of my list of passions and work my way down as needed, rather than start in the middle and work my way up. It turned out to be five years from my first workshop at Greenwich House Pottery to my last miserable night as the Monday shift manager of a restaurant in Olympia. It felt interminable at the time, but in retrospect it was a very quick transition.
This article appeared in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s June/July/August 2010 issue. To get great content like this delivered right to your door, subscribe today!
Years as a professional potter: 12
Number of pots made in a year: 1500
The Time It Takes
Making work: 70%
The Sales He Makes
Retail stores: 45%
Studio/Home Sales: 10%
Online Sales: 10%
Other: Some years I’ll do a craft show, which will be 10-20% out of the retail and gallery percentage.
I sold my first pots at flea markets in New York City. After we moved to the Northwest, I put them out on the lawn at Evergreen State College. At the time, my idea of a potter was someone who made inexpensive pots and sold them at craft fairs. I had a vague sense of stores, galleries, and academic ceramics, but I fully expected that I’d be able to support myself, and be happy, going to local craft fairs. I also imagined people would flock to my studio, as they did to those of potters around Penland. After a handful of rhododendron and salmon festivals, it became clear that selling $8 mugs would never enable me to quit my restaurant job.
Yellow faceted box, 4½ in. (12 cm) in height, stoneware, gas reduction fired, 2009.
This realization prompted me to seek out more upscale craft shows as well as wholesale venues, first regionally and then nationally through the American Craft Council Baltimore show. I was fortunate that with my first application I got into Baltimore. I was even more fortunate that once I got there I sold out my entire year of work in a day and a half. I came home and immediately quit the restaurant job.
While my partner has never supported me financially, his teaching job has played an important stabilizing role. I receive health insurance through his job, as does our son, and we were able to buy a house during the early days while my income was still shaky.
I always present my work through multiple venues—craft fairs, gallery shows, wholesale, studio sales and, now, online. My goal is to keep a diverse palette of options so I do not rely too heavily on any one outlet. I tinker with the balance regularly, depending on my needs and opportunities in any given year.
I have always sold at least half of my pots wholesale to shops and galleries. This suits me temperamentally, and it works well because I only sell to places that let me send whatever I make. My priority is to continually engage in evolution and exploration in my work, and the folks selling it for me benefit from that vitality, even though it comes with some lack of predictability.
In the last few years, I have scaled down my studio output. This is due to becoming a parent and also realizing that I was working too hard. For me, working too much is sort of a sustainability issue, and I’ve had to learn to ease up and smell the roses. There’s this stereotype of potters as laid back mellow folks, but my lawyer friends tell me I’m the only one they know who works more than they do.
Of course, the Internet has become a wonderful and important new space for culture to emerge, and the marketplace and dialog around pottery benefit from it. I have had a website for years, thanks to a very generous web designer friend, and I started a blog last fall. Blogging has been an unstable but interesting endeavor, mixing community, public relations, and the informal exploration of ideas.
- Tall altered box, stoneware, gas-reduction fired, 2010.
Perhaps the most difficult question for me to navigate as a potter has been my relationship with formal education and my intellectual life. I find it excruciatingly difficult to pursue serious reading and writing while I am active in my studio. I have given myself occasional studio sabbaticals to address this, but I have yet to strike the right balance.
I decided against an MFA early on, opting for workshops at craft schools like Penland and Haystack to set me on my path. I had just emerged from an intensely academic undergraduate experience and I very much wanted to be in the world making things. Also the contemporary pots I loved most were being made in studios rather than in universities, and I felt working alone would be a clearer path to discovering what my own work is about. School seemed like a far off possibility, but my life as a potter just took shape without it: a dynamic studio practice, a prosperous business, a loving partner.
Still, I have questions about the nature of pottery and how objects function in the culture that are not being answered by daily making, nor are they going away. Two and a half years ago, I enrolled in a low-residency MFA program and left after two semesters. Now I am in the midst of deciding whether to pursue an academic (rather than studio) degree, and I’m not sure what will happen.
My parting advice to any aspiring potters would be to pass on the immortal words of supermodel RuPaul: “You better work!”
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