Years as a professional potter
Number of pots made in a year
Resident Potter at Berea College, Kentucky
MFA in Ceramics from the University of Georgia
Assistant potter at Truro Pottery, Cornwall, Britain
BA in 3D Design, Bath Academy of Art, Britain
Apprentice to Harry Juniper, Devon, Britain
The time it takes (percentages)
Making work (including firing): 82%
Where it Goes
Craft/Art Fairs: 19%
Studio/Home Sales: 73%
Where to See More
The Signature Shop and Gallery:
Open House Pottery Sales
(see personal website below for dates and details)
Searching for a Creative Profession
My introduction to pottery was at the local art school, taking evening classes, while studying mechanical engineering at another local college by day. At the end of the first year, I abandoned engineering completely, enrolled in a four-year degree program in ceramics and obtained work in a pottery during college breaks. I remember thinking at the time that engineering could be a very creative profession, but it involved way too much math and theory before the creativity began. Naturally this decision to attend art college was met with some reservations from my parents and others, but to their credit I was allowed to decide my own path.
On completing four years of college and an informal apprenticeship, I had no resources or even access to premises where I could work toward becoming a self-supporting potter. Most of my art-college peers were in the same situation: some went to teacher training, some applied for post-graduate studies, and many went to gain further experience as assistant potters, myself included. This proved to be a very valuable experience in that I could be solely concerned with making pots, but observe various selling methods first hand. I feel if I had gone solo right away, I would have really struggled with developing products and marketing simultaneously.
As it turned out, my journeyman phase lasted longer than I had ever expected, which included working in many different potteries, travels throughout Asia and the US, an MFA, and finally two years as the resident potter at Berea College in Kentucky. Berea is a labor school where all students work a set amount of hours each week for the college in exchange for a tuition waiver. The resident potter worked independently, while serving as a role model for students and helping run the workshop. At the end of my residency, when I was in my early 30s, it was finally time to set up my own pottery.
Setting Up My Own Workshop
The most important decision for me in setting up a workshop was access to a viable local market and affordability/suitability of property. Given my interest in wood firing, it was obvious that we could not choose an urban setting, but, on the other hand, we did not want to be too far out in the sticks. I can’t say it was a very thorough survey; however, we did seriously consider three different locations. Athens, Georgia, won out as the best location with a solid clay community and a city that is surrounded by rural counties, which are ideal for a wood-firing potter.
Aside from professional considerations, we also weighed in spouse employment opportunities, general lifestyle, and local culture. As home to a large research university, Athens is quite cosmopolitan, with a remarkable culture. Students come from all over, and upon graduation, some never leave. Consequently there is always someone around here doing something creative, at all hours of the night and day.
My preference from the beginning was to host two semi-annual, open-house pottery sales, in line with local tradition, where it is possible to sell quite a lot of affordable pottery in a weekend, then return to making without too much interruption. Generally that has worked well for me, allows for repeat business, and we get to know many customers personally. In between open-house sales, the pottery is always open by appointment. The remainder of the work goes to invitational exhibitions, consignment, etc., but very little wholesale. At various times early in my career, I did some art festivals (probably unsuitable ones) with unpredictable, sometimes revenue negative, results.
Tools and Equipment
Most of the pots are wheel thrown, with some press molding and handbuilding for non-circular forms. By far the most labor-saving tool I use is a pug mill. Although I did fine without it for about eight years, I would not be without it now.
I have a collection of tools, which fall in and out of favor. I love making tools, mostly without expecting any of them to be significantly useful. Some prove to be quite useful, while others become interesting clutter. One proven useful tool is a handmade throwing stick that allows me to reach the inside of pots.
Recently I have been taking the time to measure the specific gravity of glazes by weighing a 100ml sample, which has cut down on defects, especially with layered glaze applications.
The Effect of Changing Materials
The closing of the G-200 potash feldspar plant was quite an uncomfortable event in my supply chain. Before it closed I purchased G-200 direct from the plant, to be used as 25% of the dry ingredients in my porcelain clay body. Substituting one complex material (G-200) with another (Custer feldspar) is not producing the same results in my wood firings.
Years of Experience, Changes Taking Place
During the past 28 years of running this pottery, many changes have occurred, mostly positive. Pottery remains a viable occupation, hence no cause for alarm, but recent changes have been rather broad in communications, marketing, and products.
Communications/direct marketing is now so much easier. After years of mailing color slides and playing phone tag with people, I adore sending images and answering customers inquiries via email. Quite early on, I decided to have a website, simply to be accessible. Our email list has slowly been replacing our snail mail list, but I’m happy for customers to be on either, or both lists. Some still enjoy the materiality of a postcard rather than looking at a screen, myself included. The pottery doesn’t regularly employ any social media platforms, but my wife often does a link from our open-house email announcements to her Facebook page.
Few studio potters have been able to acquire skill at mass marketing due to expensive advertising rates outstripping profits. However, based on public interest, many newspapers here have been very generous in writing informative articles on all the arts, while posting specific details on where and when an event will happen. I think all newspapers have had budget cuts and some have made the transition to online only. Possibly there is also a move toward consolidation, which might make the media remote from local interests. Fortunately a free local media website has become popular, and we post our open house events on a platform there.
The most valuable strategy we introduced after several years of hosting our labor-intensive open-house sales is the use of a simple sequential list. This list lays out in order the jobs that have to be done and the actual time those jobs take to complete. The list has over 20 incidental items to be completed before the sale, starting 6 weeks prior to the sale with ordering the postcards and ending with setting up the check-out area on the evening before the event.
Diversity and Availability
Finally, and most importantly, pottery is more diverse and more available than ever. Since the economic recession of 2008, many new people are/have been attempting to supplement their income with crafts. For example, our local indie craft festivals represent more craft vendors than were active in this entire area fifteen years ago. Shipping rates have increased faster than pottery prices over the last few years; consequently, long distance wholesaling seems less viable, which is possibly further increasing local sales of crafts.
The increased diversity is heralded by a new generation of makers and ideas. Some work is taking a rather Rococo direction while other work is being made exclusively using industrial methods, a significant departure from my perception of studio pottery. The technology of 3D printing is advancing by leaps and bounds, in a revolutionary way. I feel fortunate to be in a field where this diversity makes it possible to look at 20 different mugs by 20 different makers and clearly distinguish them from one another.
The size of the US allows for significant regionalism, with greatly varying viability for potters. We did not choose an area to set up a pottery with really cheap real estate, but it has been possible to become established as a full-time potter here without too much financial difficulty. However, our single biggest worry over the years has been affording health insurance and which direction health care will take in the future. We make an effort to take care of our own health with regular checkups. Unless under deadline pressure, we hike in the woods three times a week to try to maintain flexibility. Plenty of wood cutting comes with the job, which I tell myself helps maintain muscle mass.
My advice to someone setting up a pottery: be careful not to acquire too much overhead initially, as it can divert focus away from the product and certainly can inhibit the ability to grow and change. Conversely, I would say do not skimp on putting any spare cash back into the pottery, at least until it is well-equipped and sustainable.