Working Potter: Jo Severson, Clearwater, Minnesota

1 Tray, 14 in. (36 cm) in length, stoneware, 2017.

Career Snapshot

Years as a professional potter

Number of pots made in a year

Apprenticeship with Jim Vandergriff

The time it takes (percentages)
Making work (including firing): 80%
Promotions/Selling: 10%
Office/Bookkeeping: 10%

Where it Goes
Galleries: 30%
Craft/Art Fairs: 65%
Studio/Home Sales: 5%

Tools and Equipment
My favorite tool is my vertical de-airing pugmill, built in 1972, which is basically an industrial pugmill on a smaller scale. I also make good use out of my Shimpo Whisper wheel, small yellow synthetic sponges for throwing, pear-shaped trimming tool, and various rubber ribs.

Changing Materials
I have stayed consistent and go with the flow. I have learned to find substitutes for changes that happen. An example might be that I had to change to Minspar 200 feldspar when Kona F4 feldspar was no longer easily available.

Learn More

2 Jo standing in her studio, 2018.

Making things by hand is an amazing way to make a living! I find inspiration in the fact that my pots will be put to use in the simple traditions of everyday living, such as setting the table, sharing meals with friends, arranging flowers in a vase.

Making a Living with Functional Pottery

When I started out in 1969, I apprenticed with Jim Vandergriff, a production potter in Kansas. That was a critical experience for me because I saw that I could earn a living making and selling pottery. I already knew I wanted to be a potter, thanks to my wonderful high-school art teacher, Ron Hicks, but the apprenticeship showed me it was possible to do what I loved and still pay the bills.

The one constant throughout my career has been my aim to make high-fired stoneware that is simple, sturdy, and functional. Apprenticing in a production studio, where we made a lot of pots, influenced my choice to be a functional potter.

And, I do make a lot of pots, more than 2000 every year—though some years have been much higher than that. That’s important to me because when I am making pots, I get a good flow of ideas. I make creative decisions—sometime subtle variations, sometimes big changes—as I’m working. I have set up my studio for an efficient flow of processes and so everything has its place. I have separate wheels for throwing and trimming for example. I am, as I think many potters are, more tactile than cerebral—I love the feel of the clay, and my ideas come as I work through each step of the process.

A Consistent Body of Work

If you look back at pots I have made over the years, you will see a continuing focus on functionality, with subtle changes along the way that keep me energized and productive.

I did make one large change in direction in the 1990s. I started using matte stoneware glazes instead of decorated celadon, to achieve a more subtle palette. Although it was a risk, I was lucky enough to have great long-term customers who enthusiastically took that trip along with me.

3 Square footed jar, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, stoneware, 2010. Photo: Wayne Torborg.

4 Place setting, to 10 in. (25 cm) in diameter, stoneware, 2010.

Meeting Customers and Artists at Fairs

Over my nearly 50-year career, I have been fortunate to be accepted to participate in a number of prestigious shows. I always applied to the best shows. That can be risky; I got rejected a lot, but the rewards were worth it.

I call myself a street potter. I love to meet people at art fairs, to talk not just about art and pots but about whatever is important to them. Customers want to connect with the artist, and as a potter you want their feedback. Through these conversations, I have done a lot of informal educating of the general public (as well as young potters) over the years. I find it an easier way for me to share my knowledge than teaching classes or workshops. I do a bit of that as well, even though it’s somewhat tortuous for me.

Now, as I get older, I only do a couple of shows a year. I am able to do that largely thanks to the St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour here in Minnesota. I am one of the 62 potters from around the US exhibiting at seven studios in the tour. This past year we had visitors from half the states in the US, a number of Canadian provinces, and three foreign countries. The pottery tour has really allowed me to cut down on travel because it is such a successful show for me. A bonus is the close relationship I have built with the potters and volunteers at our site.

Since I do fewer art fairs, I do miss seeing my fellow exhibitors—many relationships with these colleagues have developed into strong friendships. At the fairs we all deal with (and bond over) the weather, sharing space, and the long hours. A side benefit is that my house is filled with traded artworks—pots, paintings, fiber—that remind me of those friends.

Being a geezer, I don’t have a Facebook page, and don’t use other social media. I do have a not-very-updated website. I have a good mailing list, which I have accumulated over the years from exhibiting at street fairs. But surely social media is critically important for young potters.

5 Bud vases, to 5 in. (13 cm) in height, stoneware, 2017.

6 Platter, 14 in. (36 cm) in diameter, stoneware, 2017.

The Working Life

I do the majority of my selling at art fairs. The compromise to making a living doing art fairs is the constant deadlines and lack of downtime. I made a conscious decision to go that route and I don’t regret it (although my husband and I went many years without time off in the summer).

Being self-employed is about time management decisions—being efficient, developing a rhythm of working and performing a wide variety of tasks, and figuring out the best use of your studio space. Investing in the right tools is so important when you are working by yourself. For example, I have a de-airing pug mill, so I don’t have to wedge clay.

Being self-employed is also about staying healthy, both physically and mentally. That is especially true for me because I make so many pots. Other than carpal tunnel surgery years ago, I have been very lucky. I walk all the time, and I have always had a pottery dog, which helps for stress relief. I’ve also had access to good health insurance, something that some of my potter friends haven’t had.

My husband has been able to adjust his work schedule to travel to most art fairs with me. He helps with the physical work (he calls himself “Your Bag Boy”), does well at answering customer questions, and keeps me laughing. I don’t think I could have kept up the heavy show schedule without him.

Studio Time

The three studios I have had during my career have all been in the country. My current studio is situated on 20 acres of farmland. Potters need a lot of room for stuff. It’s quiet and I can look at birds and wildlife and walk our dog, which are all important things to me.

I am happy to have customers stop by and browse, chat and/or purchase pots at my studio, but I don’t have a showroom. For me, having a showroom would cut into my working time a little too much.

These days I only sell work at galleries that are near enough to drive to—no more shipping please!

7 Teabowls, to 3 in. (8 cm) in height, stoneware, 2014.

8 Tall jar, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, stoneware, 2017.

Advice for Young Artists

My advice for young potters is to research the best shows and art fairs. Talk to other artists, read the journals, and do your homework. Then, apply for the top shows. Prepare yourself for rejection but try not to take it personally. Being rejected should motivate you to make new and better work.

There are practical issues for doing art fairs. You need a cargo van and a good canopy. You need a sturdy, but attractive display that fits in your van, a way to protect the display from wind and rain, and a way to store backstock in a 10×10 booth. This last part is harder for potters to work out.

Last words: Always make pots you like and respect. When all the elements come together, life as a potter can be a real joy.


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