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Studio Visit: Russell Wrankle, Toquerville, Utah
Posted By Matthew Harris On May 24, 2010 @ 4:14 pm In Canned,Ceramics Monthly,Daily,Open Studios | 1 Comment
White stoneware, porcelain, and red earthenware
Primary forming method
Wheel throwing and handbuilding in equal amounts
Primary firing method
Cone 05 electric and cone 10 soda
Rib, scratch wire, and heavy paddle
Most-used piece of equipment
We were living in Denver nine years ago before we moved to Toquerville, Utah. We came to the area for a family vacation and when we drove through town, the house we currently occupy was for sale by owner. We screeched to a halt, got out of the car and walked around the property. There was an old, dusty pole barn in the back and when I opened the door I thought, “I could make pottery in here.” Once we moved in, I realized that the studio was less than ideal; there was no insulation, and the scabbed-on scraps of wood allowed more air and dust in than provided protection. Summer is hot here and winters are cold. For two years I worked in the existing studio, hot and sweaty all summer and in the winter staying somewhat comfortable with the wood-burning stove; however, some evenings after the fire went out, my work in progress would freeze and I’d have to abandon an entire day’s worth of work. If the freeze didn’t ruin the work, the mice would. For some reason, the mice enjoyed nibbling on the rims of the pots.
The first kiln I built was a flat top reduction kiln. At the time, we didn’t know how we would display the work, so I boxed it up and stored it in the garage. We put a small sign out on the road and, as a result, our first customers came to the door wanting pottery. So I took them to the garage, removed the pots from the boxes and had to dump the dead cockroaches out of the cups and bowls before I handed them to the customer.
After almost nine years, we’ve come a long way. I’ve raised the existing roof, poured a footing on two sides of the studio and built real walls with insulation and safe electrical outlets. The other two walls still wait to be updated, but it is good enough to keep things from freezing. Our display is in our house on one wall of our front room. Although not perfect, the space where I work and display is functional.
I like that my studio is in my backyard. The proximity to my house means that my kids find their way out there to visit or work alongside of me. Recently, my 5-year-old daughter came to the studio to paint her sculptures that she recently made. I took out some old acrylics and we had a morning filled with color theory lessons. It’s nice to be near the daily life of my family, and even though the kids interrupt the studio flow at times, I know in the long run we all benefit from the proximity.
My studio space is 20 feet square, and that area contains the space for three bodies of work. This means I need to clean up one mess before I can start another. This simple factor limits my time for creating new work.
I have three banding wheels, and they are all in constant use. If I am making pottery on the wheel, inevitably, I’ll have to put it on the banding wheel to either put knobs on lids or handles on mugs. If I’m making sculpture, 90% of the piece is made with the use of the banding wheel. I use them to design and glaze the tiles, too.
paying dues (and bills)
We live near Zion National Park. A few months after we moved here, my wife informed me that I was going to apply for a job driving tourists to the trail heads in the main part of the canyon. I went along with her instructions and I am glad I did. At the time, I was a part-time school bus driver and prior to that I was an early morning baker for a local bread store. None of these paid as well as driving the shuttle in Zion, plus the landscape is spectacular and I meet folks from around the world, which keeps the job interesting.
I have an MFA in ceramics from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. It was a very rigorous program and every time I have several deadlines looming at once, I refer back to that time. Dan Anderson, my graduate professor, used to say that if you can meet the deadlines in grad school, you can do it in the real world.
If I have shows on the immediate horizon, I’ll work 50–75 hours a week. My wife creates a space for me to thrive in the studio while we are raising three children and I’m holding down a part-time job. She is very organized and savvy when it comes to running the household, her career, (midwife, elementary art teacher) and her own education (she just started a masters program). In all, I’m lucky to be married to such a strong, organized, and supportive woman. I couldn’t do this without her.
We live in a stunning landscape, just a few miles away from vast areas of open space. I try to get into the landscape as much as possible, usually by bicycle, as we also enjoy some spectacular mountain bike paths. It’s an on and off love affair with exercising. I used to do it daily as a matter of course, now it’s getting easier to let my exercising languish for more studio time, especially when I have looming deadlines. During one of my exercise lapses, I had a sharp pain develop in my upper thigh and hip. I thought my hip was going bad but started riding again anyway. After a few weeks the pain went away and I’m feeling healthy. Lesson learned; don’t lose your fitness gains.
We have no insurance and we wouldn’t be able to afford any significant medical bills. We’ve been really lucky not to have any major illness. The kids are covered under CHIP so that gives some relief, but I’m not sure how extensive the coverage would be.
Reading fiction recharges my creative batteries. In the last few months, I’ve become immersed in stories by Phillip Roth, Ian McEwen, Michael Gruber, David Guterson, Khaled Hosseini, Chris Bohjalian, and Cormac McCarthy and a few nonfiction books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and The Tipping Point. I probably spend more time with the recorded format than the printed page. If I have days on end to work in the studio, I find that my natural rhythm is to work for two to three hours, come in the house, check email, do some writing or have lunch, then return to the studio. If I’m engaged with a good story, I take fewer breaks. We’re lucky in that we have a librarian that likes a good book, too, and she orders stuff with me in mind.
When we first moved here, I remember getting emotional knowing that we lived in this incredible landscape. I’m still amazed that we live here but the landscape has become an everyday experience. I regret not having those same feelings about the landscape, but the honeymoon has to end some time.
There are times when I’m at a creative crossroads, and if I leave the studio to either go on a bike ride or wander the desert, almost without fail, 30 minutes into the ride the solution will reveal itself to me. I don’t think it’s the landscape so much as it’s just getting some distance from the problem and some perspective that is the key. It’s a bonus that I get to go into a landscape that contains so much visual drama.
I make tiles, pottery, and sculpture. The tiles I primarily wholesale to gift shops and the like and send them all over the country. During the real estate and building boom, I couldn’t make them fast enough. With the recession, tiles sales have slowed to a manageable pace, which opens up time for me to contemplate and make work that I’ve put off for awhile.
For the most part, I sell my pottery from our home gallery. I do this because I make pots at a pretty slow pace and I like the intimate relationships that we establish with customers. When I do participate in shows at other venues, it’s to gain peer recognition and to have my work seen by a larger audience. I value the recognition from my peers and I enjoy exhibiting with potters and artists around the country whom I admire.
As for the sculpture, they are sold primarily through the gallery system. The reputation of the gallery gives my work an extra stamp of legitimacy and I like the recognition.
I don’t know that what we do is unique other than we’re understated. For example, we have a sandwich sign that says “Gallery Open” and that’s all that we use to reel in the tourists that drive by on their way to the national parks. Also, I send out an email newsletter that seems to keep people aware that I’m active. We have about 600 names on the list and, on average, about half of the recipients open the newsletter. The company that hosts the newsletter recommends sending a new one out each month. We try, but we end up sending one about every two months. I’m hesitant to do more, because I don’t want to end up being a pest in the Inbox.
My personality is such that if we’re feeling flush with cash, I work less to promote and sell my work and focus more on the studio. I’m not sure if this is a weakness; I’m just not that aggressive about making lots of money. I prefer to spend more time in the studio, developing my ideas, and being part of the art conversation.
We also have a holiday sale, which is our biggest event of the year. I selfishly invite my favorite potters from around the country so that I can acquire their work and develop relationships, and so far we have been lucky and flattered that the artists I’ve invited agree to come. It has been a surprising success given that we live in a somewhat sparsely populated area. We have a loyal customer base that comes from as far away as Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. I owe much of the success to the high caliber of artists that participate in our holiday sale. With such great work represented, it’s easy for me to promote the sale.
We do press releases in the towns I mentioned as well as locally. We have relationships with a few of the newspaper editors so that makes it easier to get the word out. Also, the longer we are here and the fact that I get the best artists possible, has encouraged people to return each year to be surprised and delighted with the quality of work.
Because we’re understated, folks have to make an effort to find us and when they do they’re pretty loyal. On the other hand, we could stand to have more customers finding us. Our plan has always been to make the best work possible, keep to my core aesthetic values and eventually the work will be found by those who agree with my aesthetic sensibilities.
About five years ago, we developed a website that had a generic commerce page attached. It had the look of any other retail page and we had pretty good success—a few sales a week, which kept us busy enough. I didn’t like the appearance, though, so we hired someone to create a commerce page that was more specific to our tastes. Our sales abruptly stopped and we no longer count on online sales to help pay the bills. If we do sell online we consider it a bonus. We have since abandoned any kind of unique commerce page for my work. We have adopted Etsy.com for sales and are pleased with the affordability and ease of uploading images. We just haven’t had many sales. I think it has more to do with my lack of diligence in maintaining the page than it is the buying public. As I understand it, the folks who are successful are the ones who pay attention day to day.
I find that social networking, such as Facebook, is the most online success I have had so far. Not so much financially (although I have made a few sales indirectly due to Facebook) but more that I am able to stay in touch and see what other artists are doing, their shows, their new work, etc. I’m not into Facebook as a means to follow high school friends, the latest binge party, or even family. I keep it focused more on my professional life and I follow with interest what other artists are up to. Because of social networking, I’ve become more acquainted with other artists that I either met once at an opening at NCECA or whose work I have admired for a long time. Being a studio artist lends itself to isolation and with the emergence of Facebook, I feel more included in a community of artists. It doesn’t replace face-to-face dialog, but it sure helps in not feeling alone.
I tried Twitter but find that everyone is talking but nobody is listening. I still tune in sometimes, but seldom tweet. I find that the attention to online commerce is a distraction from my actual studio time. On the other hand, if someone stops by my home studio and gallery and is interested in purchasing my work, I’ll spend half a day with them, visiting, showing them around and telling them about the area. Being 45 years old, I fall into that category of internet/computer users who know its value but find that it’s not second nature like it is for younger people who started using the technology from an early age.
It’s not easy. We get many people who come through our gallery door with varied levels of commitment to clay and art, from the professional studio potter to a first-semester retired potter. The beginners often say that they love throwing on the wheel, it’s like therapy. If by therapy they mean that it’s challenging and difficult work to bring out our best artistic voices, then yes, I agree. I’ve never been to therapy but I imagine that it is extremely difficult and challenging work. I find that being in the studio, facing hundreds of creative choices and always striving to have a more eloquent message is agitating and difficult. The creative process is painful.
On the other hand, being a working artist allows me to be near my kids and engaged in their lives. There are many opportunities that they enjoy, from our relationship with extraordinary artists and patrons to gallery openings and the occasional lecture that I give. As a result, they are engaged with the world and aren’t afraid to try new, creative things. When they are young, like Ella is right now, they join me in the studio and make their own art. As they get older, they’re less inclined to join me in the studio, but I suspect that there’s comfort in knowing where their dad is. I think it’s nice that they come back to the studio to tell me it’s time to start dinner.
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