Lessons Learned Over Time

View of Mark Cortright’s double-booth setup for his business Liscom Hill Pottery during Tempe, Arizona’s Festival of the Arts in December 2016. This was his last show after 24 years at this venue.

As a full-time working potter since 1976, I have had my share of successes and failures over four decades of making and selling functional wares. Here are some tips and examples from my experience.

Making and Updating a Production List

Making a functional line of work for me starts with what customers use everyday in their homes. This list started in the 1970s and now looks like the one shown on page 46. Every few years I add a form. My current list consists of about 40 forms and when a new form is added, one falls off the list.

The weights on the list are for cone 10 porcelain. Stoneware throws better and less material will be needed. I work strictly in porcelain except for making salt-glazed work for fun, which includes stoneware.

This list has evolved over the decades. It’s a list for art shows, wholesale orders, and consignment sales. I do not offer all these forms for everyone, as profit margins vary on each form. In addition, I try to match what will work for the various markets
or outlets.

For example, dinner plates are a footed form that takes up a lot of kiln space, so they cost more to produce. I can easily sell them at art shows, but they are not cost-effective for wholesale or consignment, since I cannot mark them up enough to account for the high-production cost. The other factor is they just do not sell as well at those outlets as they do directly to customers. If they just sit at a gallery and do not sell, it’s not doing anybody any good. On the other hand, a motion travel mug (wide bottom, narrow rim) sells far better in the wholesale and consignment outlets than they do selling directly at shows. Other items like regular mugs sell well in all venues. These lessons have been learned over time.

Covered jar, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, porcelain, homegrown black bamboo handle, fired in homemade gas reduction car kiln to cone 10, 2010.

Income Streams

I have three streams of income: art shows, wholesale, and consignment. I make the majority of my revenue at art shows. I began doing consignment outlets in the 1970s and still have several, as well as a few wholesale outlets. Some of these are decades-long business relationships. I like the mixed income stream, as checks arrive every month.

I stopped doing special orders and commissions years ago, as they are not cost-effective.

When I started out, I did small local art shows and still do a few of these as they are close to home. I really care about my longest running show, so I am on the board of directors to make sure that it survives as a community event. It’s the one I have done for 44 years. Over time, I found shows that worked well for me, that my work was juried into each year, and that I could depend on doing annually. I gave up on the super fancy shows that I only got into now and then. Returning every year to the same show has really helped sales over time, as I’ve been able to build a customer base. I have not done a new show in over 20 years; I am now cutting back shows as I slowly downsize.

On the subject of long-term events, I have found that the shows I did for many years turned into huge sales over time as my customer base grew. People always knew that I would be there every year and I got a 40–50% return base after 20 years of doing those same shows.

Recently I heard through one of my wholesale outlets that a new natural foods market was opening in a town nearby where I had always wanted to sell my products, but the right venue hadn’t existed there. I called the owner a year before the market was going to be built and suggested a plan for selling my mugs, as I knew they would sell well there. I suggested they try them at no risk on a trial consignment basis, and after 4 months if they liked the results we would switch to straight wholesale. I also told them if they ever wanted to end the relationship I would buy back the inventory. This was a no-lose situation for them. The sales took off right away. We adjusted the pricing a few times to find what worked best. Now I restock them every other week, and after one year, it’s worked well for us both.

In another wholesale situation I offered the owner mugs only, where they take $5 per mug, so we keep the price points low and the volume of sales up. This has grown into a very successful venture for both parties over time. The point of these unusual situations is that you do not have to stick to the standard 50/50 model, or any existing model. You can offer what works for both parties.

Mark Cortright with his homemade, 35-cubic-foot car kiln with Advancer kiln shelves. The work in the kiln is all porcelain, and was fired to soft cone 11 in a reduction atmosphere. Photo: Linda Miller.

Stoneware salt jug, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, flashing slips sprayed on, salt-fired in a homemade salt kiln to cone 10.

Advice

For new potters starting out, I suggest making a consistent, high-quality line of work. Work toward that goal. Sell your work for a fair price that works both ways for you and your customer. If they cannot afford it; it does not work for them or for you.

When starting out, think about keeping costs low and buy used equipment when you can. Buy your materials in bulk; this has saved me in costs over time, and allowed me to make a consistent product. I bought 3000 pounds of Kingman feldspar in 1982 and still make my glazes from it. My batch of feldspar has not changed in makeup, unlike Custer which has changed over the years. You can join a co-op and buy materials with other potters for better price breaks or you can take the ordering process on yourself as I have, and buy in bulk for local potters.

Speaking of glaze making, make your own, as store-bought glaze is too costly for production work, and by making your own glazes you will learn the process and have a better understanding of the chemistry.

One of the best tips I can offer is to learn to work more efficiently. Work in series, for example, throw forms 24–30 at a time, then trim and finish them all at once.

Stay out of debt. Potters never know how the year will go sales-wise when they are starting out. Only buy as you can afford to buy.

If I had only one piece of advice for a potter it would be to develop and nurture a strong work ethic. The potters’ lifestyle is not for everyone, but I believe my strong work ethic has made it work well. Functional pottery has been good to me and allowed me to live my way in life. I still cannot believe people pay me to work in my studio every day.

the author Mark Cortright has been a full-time potter since 1976, when he received his BA in Art from Humboldt State University. He is based outside Arcata, California. He is also a frequent contributor to Ceramic Arts Network forums. To learn more, visit www.liscomhillpottery.com.

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