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Paul Eshelman: Working Potter
Posted By Paul Eshelman On April 1, 2009 @ 12:04 pm In Ceramic Art and Artists,Ceramics Monthly,Functional Pottery | No Comments
Covered cups, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, slip-cast stoneware, fired to cone 4 in oxidation.
Boat platter, 14 in. (36 cm) in width, slip-cast stoneware, fired to cone 4 in oxidation.
Twenty years ago, I moved with my wife and three young children to rural northwestern Illinois to try my hand making a living as a studio potter. I was leaving midway through a graduate-study program in industrial design at The Ohio State University, where I felt severely mismatched. Although it was one of the toughest decisions our family made-facing loads of unknowns-in retrospect, it was a good one. Despite a rocky start, sales of my pottery have allowed us to make our house and studio payments, feed and clothe the family, and help send all three kids through college.
Before the move to full-time pottery, I lined up a slate of retail art shows. It was a fairly quick entrance into selling my work. I now do about fifteen shows a year. Doing the shows involves a lot of time out of the studio, but I don’t mind the travel and enjoy the personal interaction with those who buy and use my pots. Although sales at art shows still account for about 60% of my income, these sales have sharply declined in the last couple years. Wholesale orders augment the show sales. Additionally, I get online sales from my website. My oldest son designed and manages my website; I have no computer savvy. I began selling online in 2003 and web sales continue to increase, now accounting for about 10% of my income. Online customers usually have had initial contact with me at an art show. They have met me, and they have seen and touched the work firsthand. This gives them the confidence to purchase pottery in what could be a fairly abstract relationship with both me and my pottery.
I try to communicate well with customers, answering their e-mailed questions and shipping their pieces as promptly as possible to build a good relationship. I’m working to increase internet sales so that, even with the lagging sales at art shows, I can continue to sell the majority of my work retail and stay at home more.
My work time is split roughly into two-thirds making, glazing and firing pottery, and one-third traveling to and doing art shows, packing wholesale and retail orders, photographing the work, and doing repair work and other odd jobs that occur in my eighty-year-old brick studio building. I am blessed that my wife, Laurel, handles all the bookkeeping, art show applications, correspondence and all manner of computer work with grace and intellect. It is pretty much a full-time job. She accompanies me to most art shows now, which eases the burden of being away from home. From their teen years through college, our three children helped at the pottery doing finish work on the ware and all sorts of odd jobs. They saved money for college and acquired a first-hand taste of what financially supports them and what Dad does for a living. It truly is an integrated family enterprise.
In retrospect, I can see that one of the wisest decisions I made was to locate the pottery in a small town where I could keep costs low. From a practical standpoint, not having a burdensome rent or mortgage payment every month has eased the financial picture from the beginning. Although I could wish for more interest in my pottery from much of the community, I have been embraced by church, school and other small businesses among whom I am viewed without suspicion. Most of the farm families in the area have several sidelines in order to pull together a livelihood. The modest income of a potter isn’t seen as unusual.
I have tried to be frugal, upgrading equipment only when it is absolutely required. Presently my only major equipment are two ten-cubic-foot electric kilns and a portable casting machine. Although I did take out a mortgage to purchase a storefront that serves as studio and gallery, that has been our only loan. My advice to anyone starting out is to be careful of debt.
Growing up in a household of academics, I naturally assumed my interest in clay would take that route. I pursued an M.F.A. at Rhode Island School of Design, then spent six years teaching part-time and looking for full-time teaching positions.
I also spent this time learning about mold making and slip casting. Initially, the move to slip casting was made for aesthetic reasons, but the practical aspects soon became apparent. I was more productive and I made better pots. Without success snagging a full-time teaching job, and after the short foray into industrial design, I launched into studio pottery. Although not my original choice, my personality is best suited to it. I enjoy the largely solitary work and careful craftsmanship. I relish the luxury of taking the care needed to do the work well and making all the aesthetic and pragmatic decisions. There isn’t a demand to do slipshod work simply for the sake of someone else’s vision of efficiency.
It is startling how many pots it takes to make a living. Coming out of school, it is hard not to be impossibly idealistic. Running a pottery is a business, like it or not. I have to make and sell a significant number of pots in order to pay the bills. I have begun hiring a college student as an intern each summer. They help with the extra work load, have access to the studio to pursue their own work, and get an honest picture of what the life of a working craftsman looks like. So far, it has worked out well for all of us.
Cultural critic Ken Meyers defines culture as, “what we make of the world.” Culture encompasses all manner of human artifacts and activities, including pottery, which balances the divergent pulls of tradition and innovation, as well as functional and aesthetic enjoyment. Most of the cultural references I draw upon fall outside the world of pottery. I look to architecture, design, functional objects and tools as my guides. By keeping my eyes open during daily life, details such as a plumbing fixture or duct work junction initiate the creative thought process. I also draw much from print images. The abstraction from actual object to two-dimensional image through photography clarifies its form and surface. These visual resources become seeds for new work.
In the best of all possible worlds, I would wish for the financial demands on a potter to be not as significant. They make the decision to be a potter daunting in the beginning and challenging throughout. But I am thankful to be involved in making culture. Well-crafted, handmade objects dignify human activities. The simple fueling of one’s body is given poignancy and weight when the vessels used are not heartless disposables but well-crafted pots that serve with elegance.
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