There comes a point in any potter’s life—when you are rushing to meet a deadline, maybe for a craft fair or to fill a commission, or perhaps apply to a show—that you say to yourself, “This isn’t fun any more.” Sooner or later every potter is going to realize that the fun, exploration, and self actualization that occurred during those early days in the studio is only a small part of what it means to be a potter. Eventually you must come to realize that carving out a life as a studio potter is a job just like any other in the sense that you have to show up and do the work or you’re not going to get paid.
The Path is the Goal
I came to pottery a little later in life, taking my first ceramics course just shy of my 30th birthday. Before that my life had very little purpose or meaning. I was always a very creative person with a particular aesthetic that I was attracted to, but was never in the right frame of mind to really commit to mastering a specific medium. That all changed when I took my first ceramics class with Phyllis Kloda at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming. Finally I had the opportunity to really express myself. I was not an art major but I knew from that point forward I would be devoting my life to clay.
I’m writing this from my studio at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana. Thanks to a global pandemic, my six–week residency has turned into a four–month residency. This is just the latest stop on a journey that has taken me from Wyoming to New York City to Baton Rouge to the Hudson Valley, and most recently to Western North Carolina, with a few stops in between. I’ve been a visiting artist, an adjunct professor, a studio technician, and an artist in residence. I’ve done whatever it takes to keep making pots and putting them out in the world. For me, making pottery was never the means to an end, but the end itself.
Jeff Shapiro, a potter living in Accord, New York, was one of my earliest mentors. I worked for Jeff a couple days a week, helping him make work, mix clay, and occasionally load and fire his kiln. Jeff was the first potter I met who actually made a living entirely from selling pots. He didn’t have anything to fall back on aside from his pottery, so he was very exacting in his approach. It was such an eye-opening experience after solely learning about pottery in an academic setting. I learned so much from Jeff about how to be a professional as well as how to think critically about what a good functional pot really was. I observed that for Jeff, there was very little separation between his home life and his studio life. Pottery was his occupation and his avocation, and the line between the two was very blurry. Although my lifestyle is very different than Jeff’s, it has always been my hope to emulate his connection between work and life.
A Studio and Selling Pots
My studio requirements are pretty simple; I just need red clay, white slip, some underglaze, and a clear glaze. All my work is fired in an electric kiln, so it doesn’t take me long to adjust to a new environment. I try to keep my overhead as low as possible and I’m not ashamed to scrounge for second-hand equipment, reclaimed clay, and used packing materials.
My favorite way to sell pots is out of my own studio. I love wrapping up a pot and sending it off with a satisfied customer. Selling through galleries and via the Internet is great, but nothing beats that face-to-face interaction. For this reason, I would recommend that artists settle down in a supportive community where handmade objects are appreciated. Planting yourself in an art desert where you have little local support or attention can be uninspiring and might have a negative long-term effect on your studio practice.
I’ve never participated in an art/craft fair and it’s not an avenue I am particularly interested in exploring. I know quite a few potters who attend them regularly and have great success, but I am much too introverted to be able to handle that amount of public interaction. Studio sales are great because the hours are shorter than at art fairs, and just when you are at your wits end, the day is over and you can go talk to your dog. In addition to selling from my own studio, I also focus my attention on Etsy, which has been a steady source of income for me over the last few years.
Finding a Voice and Building Relationships
I’ve had great luck working with a few galleries scattered around the East Coast and the Southeast. Although it’s hard to give up a percentage of the sale of a pot, it’s worth it if the gallery is helping to promote and introduce my work to customers who wouldn’t normally find me. I highly recommend cultivating a good relationship with a few galleries, but also realize that if the commission isn’t worth what you’re getting in return, then it’s okay to walk away. Getting invited to show in a gallery can be a great stroke to your ego but can also be an unwise financial decision. It wasn’t until quite recently that I learned it’s okay to say no and that realization is also a great feeling.
Making pots is easy. The hard part is finding your voice and creating pots that are unique and truly express who you are. I encourage artists who are just starting out to avoid trends and be authentic. Look to the classics for inspiration, rather than Instagram stars. Fill your life with music, books, and other forms of art. Purchase pots from your favorite potters and use them every day to figure out why they are so good. Believe in your vision and find a way to keep making pots. Eventually, if you work hard at it for long enough you will find your audience and then you are on your way.
Years as a professional potter
Number of pots made in a year
Bachelor of Science in Education, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming
Post Baccalaureate Studies, State University of New York at New Paltz, New Paltz, New York
Post Baccalaureate Studies, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Master of Fine Arts, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
The time it takes
Making Work: 75%
Carving into slip
Where it Goes
Studio/Home Sales: 40%
Other Events (Art of the Pot in Austin, Texas, and The Hudson Valley Pottery Tour in New York): 5%