Studio Visit: Robert Briscoe, Stark, Minnesota

Studio

We built our home and my studio in 1988 on a wooded, hilly, 31-acre horse pasture. The studio is 1250 square feet connected to a 1000-square-foot space that houses two gas kilns, storage, and a garage. We live on the two floors above the studio.

Minnesota winters were a big factor in the studio design. Being able to move from the house to the studio and from the studio to the kilns without having to traverse icy stairs or sidewalks was a priority.

Two walls of the studio are full of windows showing our pond and the surrounding woods. The views are particularly beautiful in the winter.

The studio is very well insulated. We installed a geothermal system for the home and studio a few years ago, which has been a great change. I have been known to comfortably trim pots barefoot when the outside thermometer read −30°F.

The physical layout of the studio was designed so I could produce a lot of pots without having to move them for the next process. It consists of lots of work surfaces around the perimeter with drying racks and clay mixing in the center. I can throw pots every day for a week without having to move a ware board a second time, which functions well for my work cycles. I use a Brent kick wheel with an electric motor attachment for throwing pots and have an old Shimpo wheel dedicated to trimming. I also custom built a very handy vertical pugmill (see page 30).

Over the years I have had seven young guest potters work here. I set aside about 10% of my space for them. I was always surprised how much 10% compressed my personal work area.

I have two large electric kilns for bisque firings and two modest-sized (35-cubic-foot and 60-cubic-foot) gas kilns for glaze firing. I wanted approximately 100 cubic feet of kiln space but the flexibility of having smaller kilns. This affords me more opportunities to experiment with firing techniques.

When we host the annual St. Croix Valley Pottery Studio Tour and sale each year, the studio gets a bit of cleaning, but otherwise it is left in its normal, post-production disarray. The sale itself is held in our yard. Hauling all the pots up to displays outside is difficult, but the studio is simply not large enough to handle the event.

In a separate building I have a small, self-service showroom, which is rather neglected. I love my studio for its efficiency and the quantity of work that I can produce in it. The thing that I dislike about my studio is that it is a bit too industrial—it needs more romance.

I’ve always thought the amount of space we allow ourselves is one of the most underrated aspects of a studio potter’s life. I always wanted the most space I could afford.

Transitions

In late May 2016, we are selling our home and studio to a young potter and his sweetheart. Matthew Krousey and I will trade roles at the St. Croix Pottery Tour and the fall sale, with him becoming the host and me a guest potter. After 28 years in the country, we are downsizing to a condominium in the heart of downtown Minneapolis.

I am now in the planning stages for my next (probably last) studio. My new studio building is in Clearwater, Minnesota, one block off the Mississippi River some miles west of Minneapolis. This move will require a commute somewhat longer than walking down a flight of stairs. The studio space will be 1350 square feet with room for a young guest, just slightly larger than my current space, with an 800-square-foot kiln room attachment and a 250-square-foot room upstairs. This time I plan to devote a bit more space to “breathing,” sacrificing some efficiency/capacity for ambiance. I am curious to see how this new structure will affect my work and think I am going to enjoy the change.

Paying Dues

I studied ceramics for two years at Kansas State University with Angelo Garzio back in the 60s. I served two apprenticeships: one with James Vandergriff in Zarah, Kansas, and a second with Lou and Al Wynne in Black Forest, Colorado. Beyond these, I am essentially self-taught.

I haven’t had a day job since 1978. Prior to that time, I worked as a produce manager, a janitor, a bartender, a foundryman, and a woodcutter to fund my clay addiction.

Over the years I have primarily made my living from traveling to arts festivals. At one time, I did 15 or more shows a year, often more than 300 miles from my home and as far away as 1700 miles. Looking back, I think I was probably addicted to the road trip. I supplemented my art fair sales with some sales through galleries, the showroom, and teaching a few workshops.

With the growing success of the two shows at my home, the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour in May and my fall sale in October, I was forced to cut back on my travel. Over half my sales are now made in my own backyard.

Art fairs were significant in helping me develop an audience and mailing list. I am now benefiting from this travel time as my audience comes to my home to buy pots. I still see art fairs as a terrific way to develop long-term support for a potter’s work.

Winter, spring, and fall are the seasons when I spend serious hours in the studio (6–12 hours a day). I love working hard and I also love taking time off. I can be insanely productive for a day, then a total bum the next day. I am always a vastly better person when I am working.

Marketing

I think we did a good job over the years of growing an audience for my work through art fairs, which have been very good for me. Even when sales were not particularly strong, the contact with the audience and being able to establish a relationship has paid off later.

I am so glad that I started doing a home show in the fall in 1989 and joined with seven neighbor potters to start the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour in 1992. In conjunction with my fall sale, these two self-produced events have provided some leveling to the vagaries of the economic landscape and a dependable structure for my pot producing cycles.

It is probably old-guy stuff, but I like the physical connection of selling in person to my customers. The St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour is a great example of this type of marketing. We send out paper flyers as our primary marketing tool, and we do have a strong presence on Minnesota Public Radio during the week leading up to the tour weekend, which has been very effective in getting our message out.

Years ago, when I was using art fairs almost exclusively as my market, I found it very difficult to transport a full repertoire of functional pots to these events. My solution was to limit myself to eight to ten pot forms for each event. This greatly helped my sanity in the studio, preparing a robust selection of each form. The forms varied from show to show, but I limited the number of ideas being shown.

I have always enjoyed making mugs—I refer to them as the potter’s union card—and have sold thousands over the years. I stopped taking mugs to shows though, because I found that customers used a mug as a default when they couldn’t choose between two more challenging pieces. Similar to the way customers started asking, “Do you have a website?” as a way to exit the booth without making a purchase.

Plates presented a different problem. People are used to buying them in sets. At an art fair, I could never bring enough plates for folks to make the specific set they wanted. Customers wanted to order specific glazes/numbers to be shipped to them later. I like to be accommodating but don’t like making pots to order and I really hate packing and shipping pots. My solution was to take no plates to art fairs, and to refuse special orders for plates. I do sell a lot of plates at the shows at my home, where the customers have become more comfortable with the idea of combining different potters’ work on their table as well as different variations of my own work. An unintended benefit is that customers have learned that my plates are only available twice a year in my own yard, providing an incentive to make the journey.

I make simple pots for people’s homes and lives. That has always been my focus and always will be. One of my favorite compliments  from a customer was, “At my house, we’re either eating from your bowl or it is in the dishwasher. It never makes it to the cupboard.”

Since I make simple, functional pots, I primarily choose to market where I can be in direct contact with people—studio sales, art fairs, and ceramics invitationals like Pottery on the Hill in Washington, DC, or the Flower City Pottery Invitational in Rochester, New York.

I supplement direct sales with sales through galleries owned by people who are passionate about utilitarian pots, including a few that are primarily online. Galleries represent about 15% of my total sales.

Other than those few online galleries, I have no presence whatsoever in internet marketing. I totally believe the Internet is a viable marketing device—it just doesn’t engage me. I prefer mailing postcards rather than email blasts.

The Mind

When I’m not working, hanging out with my wife Mary is my greatest pleasure. We actually now plan trips that do not involve doing an art fair, which gives us our road-trip fix. We love being together in the car, seeing the country. I recharge with friends—I particularly like hanging out in interesting taverns with my best buds.

I am a movie freak. I could/would probably watch anything, but I prefer films that try to be art.

I spend a lot of time reading about and trying to understand the political forces in our country. I can’t say this leads to any mental peace, but I wallow in it—trying to find some understanding. I also love reading mysteries and science fiction.

Most Important Lesson

The number one thing I’ve learned is that it’s important to preserve your passion. Allow as little as possible into your life that does not help you move forward in your art.

www.robertbriscoe.com

St. Croix Valley Pottery Studio Tour and Sale: www.minnesotapotters.com

Subscriber Extra Content:

Listen to Robert Briscoe’s podcast interview on Tales of a Red Clay Rambler here.

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