Working Potter: Dan Finnegan

Dan Finnegan at work in his studio. Photo: Kenneth Lecky.

I became a potter through a series of fortunate accidents and a few fortuitous leaps of faith. In the early 1970s, I went to college to study law and discovered pottery. Over the course of several years and at several universities, my interest in clay continued to grow. Then, in my biggest leap of faith, I left the excellent pottery program at Arizona State University to accept a teaching job at the Guildhouse, a craft center in rural England.

Finding Opportunities

This is where fate first played its part. Seven miles away from my job at The Guildhouse was the Winchcombe Pottery, and with persistence I was given a job there. Winchcombe has a storied history, and the opportunity to work alongside Ray Finch and his team was life changing. The pottery employed six people and my job was to make the tea, stack the wood, load and help fire the huge double-bourry box wood-burning kiln; everything, in fact, but make pots. They gave me access to a wheel to use on my off hours, but the knowledge that I acquired there came in handling every pot and observing the skill of these craftsmen. By the time I left, my path was set, and I had an understanding of the place where creativity, craft, and business intersect. I also left with a strong sense of form and aesthetics that has guided me ever since.

I returned to the US in late 1979 and by the fall of 1980, I had accepted a job as the manager of the Fredericksburg Pottery, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The job was advertised in the want ads in the back of Ceramics Monthly ! Like most potters, I began selling at local craft fairs and art shows, but I can’t say that I had great success or enjoyed the erratic nature of sales, so I began a wholesale business. It was a small team and was very influenced by my time in England. We made lots and lots of pots and sold them cheaply. As an example, my first wholesale price list included—Mug: $2.25. This is when my own skills were honed and I am very grateful to have had that time in my career.

1 Double-necked bird vase, 19 in. (48 cm) in width, crackle slip, wood-ash glazes, 2016.

Coming Into My Own

After three years of running the Fredericksburg Pottery, I moved to a farm and kept up the wholesale business on my own. Then in the early 1990s, I moved back to town and established a studio and showroom in my old neighborhood. It was here that I came into my own as a maker. For the first time, I was able to sell all of my work directly from the studio. Once again, I employed full-time assistants. (I think that 2–3 years is just the right time to share what knowledge I have with each assistant.) Then, I started a small pottery school. The assistants could be paid well for teaching, making it easier for them to afford a comfortable life.

The first school was tiny and demand for classes was great, so I began to think about expanding. In 2001, I went looking for a 2000-square-foot space and found myself instead with more than 12,000 square feet of commercial space on the fringes of downtown. I borrowed money from 23 different customers and friends (this was before of the days of internet crowdfunding) and converted the building into LibertyTown, an art center with an expanded school, a grand pottery space, a gallery, and 30 artists’ studios. It took a while, but my initial investors were paid back with interest.

While running the art center, I closed my retail shop and moved my studio to a farm and built the two-chamber wood-burning kiln of my dreams. I made pots half time while building and then managing LibertyTown, but after a dozen years, I yearned to return to my studio full time. I happily sold the art center in 2013 to a local couple, and LibertyTown continues to be a vibrant part of the arts community. I now spend most days driving down a mile-long dirt road just outside of town to my studio. My studio is off the grid, but I have to confess to owning a generator for certain tasks.

3 Finnegan’s two-chamber bourry-box wood/salt kiln.

4 Teapot, 9 in. (23 cm) in width, wood-fired and salt-glazed ceramic, brushed and trailed slip, chattered, 2019.

Most of the work I make is intended to be used—the legacy of Winchcombe has always informed my pots, even as I have constantly explored new ideas. I don’t really see myself as a decorator, but I have often employed layers of texture to build up interest on the surface. I have used a crackle slip for many years, both on its own and under glazes. Lately, I have been brushing and combing slips, chattering across that surface, slip trailing over those layers, and then wood firing and salting. As it comes off the wheel, my work tends to be pretty clean, I use the firing and surface treatment to soften that up. A few years ago I made a bird from clay, loosely modeled on the work of the Martin Bros. I wanted to make something special for a birdwatching friend of mine. Crude as that first one was, the response to it was exciting and it has led me down a very different path as I have continued to find new ways to explore them. I have always enjoyed handbuilding and these peculiar things continue to amuse me. Several of them stand next to Martin Bros. birds in private collections.

A New Chapter

It’s funny how when one door closes another opens. Just as I closed my retail shop and sold the art center, I was invited to participate in the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour. This opportunity changed my life again; much of my work these days is sold at invitational shows like St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour, Flower City Invitational, and Pottery on the Hill. I also still sell my work locally through LibertyTown.

In 2012, I was invited to collaborate with the staff at the Hill Center in Washington, DC, to create a pottery show (Pottery on the Hill). It is an exciting project on many fronts—held in an elegant, intimate space with a small group of potters in our nation’s capital, in view of the Capitol Building. While not a completely new idea (thank you Old Church Pottery Show and Sale in Demarest, New Jersey), I think that this show is a great model for other potters; it was an instant success and continues to grow each year. The show is made up of a regular group of makers with a few guest artists each year. While the business end is important, the show also provides a great opportunity for personal connections between exhibitors and patrons. The emphasis is on useful pots and we offer educational opportunities like lectures and demonstrations that expand our mission beyond sales.

5 Pitcher with pellets, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, wood-fired and salt-glazed ceramic, crackle slip, wood-ash glazes, 2018.

Staying Connected

I came a bit late to the Internet, writing a blog while running LibertyTown; it became quite popular and began to connect me to the wider, online pottery community. Nowadays, I post regularly on Facebook and Instagram. I don’t often see a direct link to sales from this, but it has helped my career to share my work and ideas with like-minded people.

There’s a small group of potters in town (some are my former assistants) who meet most Friday mornings. It’s a great chance to discuss pots and business and keeps me in touch with what is happening in town. We started our own show, Sophia Street Pottery Throwdown, 3 years ago over pastries and coffee (tea for me, please).

I have always believed that to be successful makers, we need to be as creative in our business practices as we are in our studios; over a long career, the old models fade and opportunities for new ideas arise. I think potters are optimists. So much can go wrong, and yet we get up the next day and try again to get it right. It’s not for the faint of heart. I also think that these are the glory days of pottery—great work is being made all around the world and there is a place—and a very satisfying life—for those determined to make it work.

6 Dan Finnegan’s studio (left) and kiln shed (right).

Career Snapshot

Years as a professional potter
39

Number of pots made in a year
1200–1500

Education
S.U.C. at Geneseo, New York
S.U.N.Y. at Buffalo, New York
Arizona State University (no degree)
Trained at the Winchcombe Pottery

The time it takes
Making: 75%
Promotion/Selling: 15%
Office/Bookkeeping: 10%

Favorite Tool
my hands

Favorite process
changes all the time

Where it Goes
Retail Stores: 0%
Galleries: 10%
Studio/Home Sales: 65%
Online: 5%
Other: 20% (invitational shows)

Learn More
danfinneganpottery.com
danfinneganpottery@cox.net
Instagram: @dan_finnegan_pottery
Facebook: Dan Finnegan

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