Victoria Christen hard at work in her pottery studio.
I always find it fascinating to talk to other potters about how successful bodies of work came about. Victoria Christen started out as a sculptor, but after taking a break from sculpture and making some small pots, she came to realize that she really enjoyed the pace of making pots. She found it freeing to be able to quickly move through the decorating and glazing processes.
In today’s post, Victoria talks about how she became a successful potter and how she maintains that success. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
Red basket, 14 in. (36 cm) in width, handbuilt with colored clay slips, 2009.
Years as a professional potter: 12
Number of pots made in a year: 500–1000
The Time It Takes
Making working (including firing): 60%
Promotions/ Selling: 20%
The Sales I Make
Craft/Art Fairs: 20%
Studio/Home Sales: 50%
As with almost everything in my life, I came to making pots in somewhat of a round about way. During graduate school at the University of Minnesota back in the early 1980s, I never once thought that I would try to earn a living making pots. I saw myself as a sculptor and, after graduating, I had a couple of successful gallery shows and even received a National Endowment for the Arts grant based on my sculpture. Around my second year out of school, I took a break from my sculptural work to handbuild some small jars and cups. I found that I really enjoyed the freedom of painting the pieces and loved how quickly I was able move through the stages of glazing and firing. I was enjoying the work, so I just kept at it.
Over the years, I have gained great joy and fulfillment from making pots. The process and product is important, of course. But mostly, I love how pots connect me with people. I enjoy meeting and talking to customers at my sales, and I like having them see the studio and garden that inspires my work. When they take one of my pieces home, I feel privileged to have become a little part of their daily life. It completes the work cycle for me.
Making and selling pots also links me to my family roots. My parents and grandparents were homesteaders and were all makers in their own ways, from creating farm tools out of odds and ends during the depression, to crafting locomotive parts on the lathe, to baking bread and sewing Easter dresses. Like them, I handcraft the essentials of everyday life. Like them, I put my personal imprint onto everything that I make. And like them, I see making as more than a job; it is a lifestyle.
My approach to marketing and selling my work has evolved over the years, in large part because my personal situation has changed. During the mid 1980s and early 1990s I lived in Minneapolis, where a part-time college teaching position and the high level of interest in pots generated by Warren MacKenzie, the St. Croix potters, and the Northern Clay Center allowed me to sell almost exclusively through local galleries and shops. In 1998, when I moved to Portland, Oregon, and decided to work full time in my studio, I began doing local and national craft fairs and having at least one home studio sale per year. Several years ago, I took a part-time teaching job at the University of Portland and began to do more workshops, allowing me to cut down on lugging my work out of town. Recently, I have become a member of The Craft Department, a team of four artists that organizes group sales and other crafts events.
Amidst all of this, change has been a consistent theme: I have always done whatever it takes to keep making my pots and to find homes for them. Over the last couple of years, this has meant spending more time on the computer. This was difficult for me, especially at first. It is still frustrating when checking my email keeps me out of the studio, but I am adjusting to the new reality that this is an important way to get my work into people’s homes. Last year I set up a website, a Facebook page, and built a large computerized mailing list; online sales will probably be in my future. If this is the case, I hope that I can find a way to preserve the human element of sales that means so much to me.
Over my career, I have also done whatever it takes to make sure that I have my own studio, a habit that was ingrained in me at the University of Minnesota by ceramics professor Curtis Hoard. Following Curt’s advice, I organized a studio raising right after graduation. I purchased all the windows, insulation, and sheetrock I needed to turn my garage into a studio, bought a case of beer, made a large pot of chili, and invited all my friends with power tools to come over on a Saturday. By the end of the day I had a new studio. Soon after I arrived in Portland, I hired a studio assistant to help me do the same thing. It took a little longer, but within six months we completed the workspace that I use today. Another key to making pots continuously for almost 30 years has been my ability to supplement my income with part-time teaching jobs and workshops. Teaching has been an important business tool for me. It has helped finance studio construction and equipment. It has exposed me to new ideas and fresh faces, kept my creative juices flowing, and given me the freedom to experiment with my work.
The life of a studio potter can be physically demanding, and I have had some work-related physical problems. Fortunately, I have always had health insurance through my husband’s job, and I have learned over the years to be more careful with my body. In the 1990s, I suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome and wore a wrist brace for several years. With the help of a Peter Pugger and a part-time studio assistant, my hand pain has largely gone away, only to be replaced by foot problems. Again, I have adjusted by wearing hiking boots in the studio and sitting whenever possible.
As I look back on my career, I realize that it has been a puzzle made up of many parts, both curved and straight and assembled intuitively like one of my constructed teapots. It consists of hard work, personal vision, a sense of meaning, excellent graduate school mentoring, teaching, care for my health, and good fortune. Somehow the pieces have all fit together to create a workable and beautiful picture—my career as a professional potter.
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