Whiskey pitcher, 12 in. (30 cm) in height, anagama-fired stoneware.
Ringed pasta bowl, 8 in. (20 cm) in diameter, anagama-fired porcelain with wadding decoration.
The quiet life of the country potter is a myth. The romanticism of a simple life, spinning forms and firing with wood, has faded to be replaced by a richer reality. I live in a log home in rural Wisconsin. We have ten acres of land, three wood kilns and a joyous life filled with beauty, but that life is anything but quiet and serene. This may be a result of my personality as much as contemporary society, internet connectivity and the cost of living.
My personality is such that I don’t outsource well. I like to be involved in all aspects of my work, including making work on the wheel, designing clay bodies and glazes, building my own kilns, taking slides and designing my web site. Doing it myself has also aligned well with my marketing approach: low overhead and high rate of return. This approach does demand lots of time.
I have been making pots as my primary source of income for eleven years. Some of my income comes from teaching workshops, building kilns and creating websites. About half of my pottery income comes from galleries. The other half comes from local and internet sales. Given the consignment percentage, this means I am selling about twice as many pots through galleries around the country compared to those I sell locally and through my online store.
Promotion of my work includes maintaining my website, mailing out announcements, writing articles and entering shows. At the core of all my promotion is the artwork. The work comes first. I am always striving to make the pottery better, more clear, more articulate. Second in importance are good images. We covet that which we see. These two priorities form the foundation on which all other promotion springs. Good writing helps, but it can only speak to qualities in the work.
My market is varied. I often sell to local people who get excited about the process, people who are delighted to be connected to their everyday ware. I was selling work at the Art School at Old Church sale in Demarest, New Jersey, this past December and one of the volunteers asked me “Do you know who likes your pots? Potters.” I think there is some truth to this, as I make pots that speak about clay and its behaviors, and most potters love clay.
I grow my market by saying “yes” to opportunities and requests, by offering my skills and being on the spot with good images. Several years ago I set myself the task of publishing an article a year, as an inexpensive way to advertise my ideas and work. Until now, I have focused on the ceramic journals, but I have come to believe our community would be better served by reaching the larger public. Words have the power to introduce people to the passion and range of exploration that exists in contemporary clay as much as images.
This article appeared in the June/July/August 2009 issue
of Ceramics Monthly. Subscribe today!
The importance of introducing new people to clay was reinforced when
I read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. He talks about the
strength of weak ties, making the point that those to whom you are
loosely acquainted operate in social circles where you know no one,
whereas your friends and colleagues know most of the same people you
do. So, for promotion to reach new people, it is more powerful to
target acquaintances rather than friends.
Recently I have
discovered the effectiveness of group promoting. Rather than only using
the web to further myself, I have found that the effort is much more
powerful if others are being lifted up as well. If the motivation to
promote is tied to multiple people’s interest, ideas can spread like
wildfire. Social networking sites, such as Facebook, pass the word so
well inside and outside the ceramic world that it is an ideal tool to
use the strength of weak ties.
The surfaces that I love are based
in long wood-firings; firings where the flame has time to wash over and
recede from the work hundreds of times. This labor-intensive process
means about five weeks a year are spent firing; very little else occurs
during this time.
I think about how to maintain myself and
maintain my creativity as separate issues, although the division is not
always clean. I am very protective of what I let influence my making.
Seventeen years ago, as I entered the field, my wife, Susan, and I
visited a lot of potters and observed their business and artistic
models trying to develop an approach that would guide us. It was at
this time, with an eye toward sustainability, that I made a strong
distinction between making and selling. To keep my interest and protect
my passions, I make what interests me, then sell it, rather than making
what I think will sell. In some ways this is a selfish approach, but it
ensures the quality, integrity and my investment in the work.
demands on a wood-firer’s body are different from those who use other
fuels. The physicality of six-day firings and the processing of wood
that accompanies such marathons take a toll. During one firing, when I
had pneumonia, I felt trapped in something that would consume me. Bent
over coughing and stoking was miserable. My solution has been to take
on apprentices and spread out the prep work. Currently, through
organization and with apprentices, I feel the process will be
physically sustainable for years.
The apprenticeship program I
have set up is great! It has all the elements of teaching that I
enjoy-rapport, intrinsically motivated students and a symbiotic
relationship. The apprentices bring energy and ideas into my studio
that feed me creatively while also allowing me more time to create
pots. For the apprentices, I offer facilities, guidance and
My life enriches my pottery as pottery enhances my
life. I am a full-time papa to my two young children who constantly
charm and challenge me. I am husband to a creative woman who pushes me
to be my best, and has proofread every word you have read, several
times-even this one. I am a state certified firefighter with our local
department. I enjoy the different pace and clarity of purpose that goes
with fire fighting and rescue. I also organize adult soccer and coach
my children’s teams. All these things and more keep me from being
single minded about clay, offering fodder for creative expression.