Just the Facts
Primary forming method
wheel throwing and handbuilding
Primary firing temperature
cone 10–12 wood-fired salt glaze
Favorite surface treatment
using varying slips
rigid metal rib and a paddle
My wife, Amanda, and I bought this property in 2009 from the Hurley family, who were descendents of the original homesteaders going back to 1840. The original farmhouse still stands to this day, although it only serves as storage and is not habitable. My 800-square-foot studio is a converted woodworking shop. We added on the gallery space to the building in 2013. Due to the shape of the land and the location of the existing buildings, we had to place the kiln downhill approximately 150 feet from the back of the workshop. This makes the transport of pottery, especially the large pots and sculptures, quite difficult. We have plans to build another studio for handbuilding work and larger wheel-thrown work closer to the kiln to make the transport easier. This new studio would have all the things that the existing workshop doesn’t have: better storage for large, unfired pots, running water, lots of windows, and better energy efficiency and temperature management.
The current workshop still works for my apprentice and me; however, having an apprentice has created a few logistical challenges (but the benefits outweigh the challenges). One challenge has become the amount of available storage for finished work. Space is now a commodity and maximizing its efficient use without breaking anything requires strategic placement of pots and sculptures. We don’t have a dedicated space for slab prep or glaze prep/storage so those items live on wheeled dollies and are maneuvered around the workshop (and sometimes the gallery between sales). Despite these little challenges, I would never be without an apprentice.
It was the way that I was trained, and so I know no different. I saw the benefits of learning this way, starting when I was an apprentice and learned how to make pottery (and run an art business) from Mark Hewitt. Now that I am my own boss, I continue to recognize the benefits, as I have help doing the smaller jobs. My apprentice is responsible for kiln wood prep, cleaning kiln shelves and the kiln, workshop maintenance, and clay prep for me including pugging, recycling reclaim, as well as weighing and rolling out balls and slabs of clay. When not doing that prep and clean-up work, then the apprentice is throwing pots. Typically, the work day is split so labor is completed in the mornings (which is great in the hot summer) and then pots are made in the afternoon. In exchange for their hard work, we provide a stipend and a small cabin on our property to stay in. We also have a steady crew of hobby potters and full-time artists who assist us with loading, firing, and unloading the kiln. It is a community effort and, for us, requires many extra hands. Even though I set out to work for myself, I couldn’t do this job without a supportive community of dedicated help.
Paying Dues (and Bills)
I received a BFA in Studio Art (with a sculpture focus) from the University of Minnesota–Duluth. During college, I studied for one year in Italy with the intent to learn more about figurative sculpture, but by the end of my stay, I knew that I wanted to make a career out of making pottery. A year later, I received a scholarship to study for a year in England, where I had the opportunity to have mini-apprenticeships with many prolific potters including Svend Bayer, Clive Bowen, Mark Griffiths, and Micki Schloessingk. After graduating, I went on to complete a three-and-a-half-year apprenticeship with Mark Hewitt in Pittsboro, North Carolina. It was there that I learned to create a daily schedule and to make sure to take time off to recharge. In 2015, I had the opportunity to learn how to make slab sculpture from Eric Knoche, which opened a new creative vein for my work, bringing me back to my sculptural roots.
My production schedule demands that I work every day, sometimes popping in during evening hours to glaze or cover pots. Typically, I try to take Sundays off, but sometimes the pots cannot wait. But, when I do take breaks, I really enjoy landscaping, gardening, and woodworking. Working for myself gives me the flexibility to control my schedule, allowing me to attend my kids’ preschool events and participate in my local community.
During my various apprenticeships abroad and in the US, my wife and I gleaned everything we could, which helped us to set up a successful business. One thing that I took away from my experiences is that you can be the best artist in the world; however, if you don’t have business sense or marketing skills (or someone on board who can do that for you), you’ll never make it.
We are fortunate in that most of our sales (approximately 75%) take place during our kiln opening events, which happen three times a year. The remainder of income comes through sales to galleries and wholesale orders (20%), and online sales/orders (5%). One unique thing that we do at our kiln opening sales is to offer something called Pottery Bucks. Our customers receive colorful play money (at a rate of $1 for every $25 spent) to redeem for pottery anytime. Our customers find this fun and we certainly feel that it helps to create repeat customers. These repeat customers are our best, most efficient, and cheapest source of advertising through word of mouth. Another advantage of our kiln opening sales is that we get to sell pieces here where they were made (in our backyard), which avoids the issue of travel time and costs, packaging and transporting our pots, and worrying about breakage during transport. Fortunately, we don’t have to do many festivals during the year since we can sell so much locally. To increase our online sales and to reach more galleries, we have really started to focus our efforts on social media marketing, using sites such as Instagram and Facebook. It’s a double-edged sword, though, because we are just a two-person team (my wife and me), with her doing all the marketing, website updates, and bookkeeping, while holding down a part-time job and staying at home with our two young sons. Are we creating more work for ourselves? Yes. But, in the digital age, you don’t exist if you aren’t on Facebook or Instagram. It’s a lot of work to be self-employed, but I pinch myself daily because I do get to work for myself and get paid to make art. It’s an artist’s dream.
Most Important Lesson
Even though I set out to work for myself, that doesn’t mean I must do everything myself. I have been incredibly blessed to have a partner (my wife, Amanda) who is willing to do all the aspects of the business that would detract from my time in the studio. If I didn’t have this, I think I would struggle creatively because of the obligation to be on the computer rather than creating art. We each can focus on what we do best. If you don’t have a person in your life that is willing to do that, you should hire someone. This saying by Heather Hart sums it up: “It’s better to do one thing well than ten things poorly.” Another suggestion is to make sure to put in studio time every day, but also pace yourself. If you produce pots for 8 hours straight on a Friday, it’s important to know that you may end up working all weekend getting them finished. Lastly, wherever you set up shop, I highly recommend immersing yourself in the community. Get to know who lives there and what interests them. Network and make friends. Not only will you feel connected and supported (and not isolated, which could easily happen when you work alone) but you will find individuals who have resources available, such as wood, materials, and time to offer to help you succeed.
I’ve really tried to immerse myself in my community by joining various civic groups and the arts guild board, but also by inviting the community to my studio. Since 2013, I have hosted nearby 4H groups, church youth groups, and homeschool groups here at my workshop and we get to create pottery together. I feel it’s another way I can give back, meanwhile creating the next generation of potters and pottery enthusiasts.