I discovered clay quite by accident 25 years ago. While enrolled in a jewelry and goldsmith arts program, I took a clay elective and fell in love with the material, switched my major and never looked back. For the first eight or so years following graduate school, I taught, doing mostly 1-2 year appointments, sabbatical replacements and visiting artist gigs. It wasn’t until I left my last teaching job at the University of Manitoba in 2000 and moved to Oregon to build a pottery with my husband Tom Rohr that I committed my energies entirely to trying to live off my pots. We enthusiastically leaped into the life of working potters, where we found the learning curve steep and the road often bumpy. We converted a garage and a barn into working studios. We built tables, shelves and kilns. Setting up a studio and making thoughtful, well-crafted work is a full-time occupation, but it is only one facet of running a business. In addition, there are the issues of developing a market and sales.
For me, the biggest challenge was coming to terms with all the other stuff that goes into running a small business like bookkeeping, marketing and photography, maintaining equipment and acquiring computer and digital media skills. Since I had not been self-employed before, I took a basic course at our local college on running a small business. I also joined a local organization of potters and started asking them questions about which shows were good, what sales venues were available, whether to sell wholesale or retail or both and how they developed their markets.
The responses were varied and personal, and many potters performed the majority of these tasks themselves to varying degrees of success. Most felt they could not afford to hire professionals to photograph and market their work, but many were willing to seek help with bookkeeping, accounting and tax stuff. Weighing the pros and cons of doing something yourself or hiring is often dictated by how much it costs to hire someone versus how you value your own time. One of the best decisions I made early on was to hire someone to help me set up our office, bookkeeping and computer system. It took two afternoons and, when they were done, I was organized and ready to go. Today, I do simple data entry in QuickBooks and my accountant does my taxes.
Marketing is a tough one for me, and I admit that trial and error have played a big part in much of what I have done in the past. Early on, I tried the traditional route of placing ads in papers and magazines with pretty poor results. Developing a mailing list and doing mass mailings of postcards brought better results. Joining up with others to do group promotions and purchasing a mailing list also helped. In the past few years, the majority of my sales have come from galleries, direct sales events like the St. Croix Pottery Tour and our annual studio sale. The marketplace seems more unpredictable these days, and I am trying to be flexible and consider things outside of my comfort zone. In the past year, I have taken courses in Adobe Photoshop and am developing an internet business in an effort to broaden my skill base and knowledge. I admit that I came late to the digital/online game, and have only recently started to fully explore its potential. I recently consulted someone who promotes internet businesses and is well versed in internet commerce. It was an eye opener, and I have concluded that my time is probably better spent making pots and hiring others who are skilled at things like web design and marketing for the Internet.
Community plays an important part in the life of a working potter. If I were inclined to give advice to someone starting out on the path of a studio potter, I would encourage them to be active in building community with like-minded makers. This can provide valuable support and information as well as expand one’s opportunities. Be open, share your knowledge, experience and recipes. Be flexible, willing to learn, adapt and grow, and always make work you are proud of.
It helps if you have unmitigated passion for the material, tenacity and a willingness to embrace a rigorous practice. The work can be hard and solitary, and the hours are long. Costs are going up, markets are changing, the big paydays of the ’90s when you could come home from a single art fair with $10,000 to $20,000 have declined and never recovered. Play to your strengths, know when to do something yourself and when it is appropriate to hire out the job. One has to pay attention to so much more than just the act of creating objects of beauty and use.
Living where you work and working where you live is a challenge, and it is often difficult to maintain a balance. For me, it has been important to get out of the pottery for exercise, both physical and intellectual. Sometimes a quick trip into town to a yoga class is enough, other times it is a trip to find inspiration in a museum or on a walk at the coast. But most days, going for a walk with my three dogs is enough to provide me with the perspective and appreciation for this life I have chosen as a studio potter.