Working Potter: Natasha Alphonse

1 Tea bowls, vase, and bowl, to 7 in. (18 cm) in height, stoneware, porcelain, shino, iron wash, wood fired, 2021. Photo: Kyle Johnson.

Growing up I always knew I was going to be an artist of some kind, but it was hard for me to know which art form I’d pursue and what path it would set me on. In college, I studied art with a focus on drawing, but even then I was unsure of where it would lead me—blindly trusting that one day I would find what I was searching for. I took a wheel-throwing class during my final semester of college at Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, with Robin DuPont. This class was the first time I realized how much was going on with these physical objects we use every day. We were taught how to see a pot for its lines in space, weight, texture, presence, and most importantly—function. Before this, I never considered how handmade pots could alter everyday life experiences and perceptions until I began making them myself. I quickly became obsessed with learning all I could about making pottery, each step taking me deeper and leading to more questions. It slowly became all I wanted to do and all I thought about.

2 Natasha Alphonse attaching a handle to a mug. Photo: Kyle Johnson.

3 Ocean Mugs, 4½ in. (11 cm) in height, cone-10 stoneware, engobe, reduction fired, 2021. Photo: Kyle Johnson.

Making the Leap

After college, I moved to Seattle, Washington, and continued taking classes at local pottery studios as well as doing residences at the Banff Center for the Arts in Alberta, Canada, and Penland School of Craft in Bakersville, North Carolina. At this point, I knew what my hands should be doing and it then became a matter of solidifying my practice. I was working in restaurants during this time while honing my technical skills and building out a small studio. After about four years, I felt ready for the leap to become a full-time potter. I decided I was ready based on a couple of things. I had a fully furnished studio, and I felt like I was proud of the pots I was making, enough to start selling them. I also felt like my jobs in the service industry weren’t fulfilling, and I was ready to try something new.   

I’ve never worked under an established potter and I do regret this in some ways, but I also see that this approach has allowed me to come into pottery without a lot of preconceived notions about the right or wrong way to do things. The many technical mistakes I made in the beginning hit hard and made me feel foolish, but I learned a ton from them. The closest thing I have had to a mentor is Northwest potter Steve Sauer, who welcomed me into his community after I contacted him to learn about wood firing. These artists have now become my little pottery family. While he may not be a mentor in the traditional sense, Steve is a grounding person who I can look up to. I admire his work, and we spend time talking about what makes a good pot.

4 Natasha Alphonse throwing mugs in the studio. Photo: Kyle Johnson.

5 Bisque cart in the studio. Photo: Kyle Johnson.

It was scary to let go of the safety net of a reliable paycheck when I made the decision to become a studio potter, but I knew that letting go of my other jobs would light a fire under me—and it did. To make the transition a little more stable and successful, I bought some pottery wheels and offered wheel-throwing classes in my studio. Students found their way to me through both word of mouth and Instagram. This enabled the transition to be less financially stressful. I have always rented a studio space outside of my home. Finding affordable work spaces is getting harder in this city; I am hoping to build a studio in the future for a little extra stability.

The Business Side

What I imagined a potter’s life was and what it proves to be have been two different things at times, especially when it comes to the unexpected non-pottery tasks. I may spend half of my time actually making pots, but the rest is taken up by cleaning my studio, responding to emails, and running the business side of things.

My biggest difficulty has been figuring out my pricing structure. It is hard to establish what my time is worth, along with material expenses, and factoring in the loss of pots. I have worked somewhat backward to figure out how my pieces should be priced. I look at what I can physically make each month, the market value for the product, and then from there determine a figure that still works at wholesale price and leaves me with enough profit to be happy. If you want to be able to offer wholesale purchasing, where you live impacts your overhead and what your baseline prices need to be.

6 Stack of Riverbed Lunch Plates, 8 in. (20 cm) in diameter, cone-10 stoneware, reduction fired, 2021. Photo: Kyle Johnson.

7 Vase, 7 in. (19 cm) in height, stoneware, wood-fired to cone 10, iron wash, 2021.

Finding a Vision and Marketing

At first, I worked toward the goal of having a succinct vision of a limited collection of designs that I would be able to reproduce, as this would be the most efficient approach. But nothing ever felt like the final prototype. Every time I made something, it sparked a new idea for the next thing I wanted to make. I thought about this inner struggle and realized that was just the kind of ceramic artist I should be proud of being. I observed that buyers also responded best to the work I was most excited about. I now consider myself a small-batch maker, creating work in clusters as one body of work leads into the next, always evolving and expanding.

The modes in which I sell my work are pretty broad and I revisit each to weigh the pros and cons and make changes if need be. I have about ten wholesale clients, which is the most I can take on. For me, wholesale is not enough income to live off of, but the relationships and exposure are what is beneficial and valuable. I work with shops and galleries that I admire, and see the real gain from clients making their way to me for other commissions and larger orders on my website. I have an online shop, which is where I get about 75% of my sales from. I don’t focus on craft fairs or trade shows anymore. I have never really seen them benefit my business and usually I break even or worse, so I don’t put energy into those. I have found that Instagram has been a huge resource in being able to sell my work. I treat it like a visual journal where people can get a glimpse inside my studio to gain a deeper appreciation for how everything is made.

My advice to anyone starting a business in ceramics is to set goals and know that it will take time. You don’t have to have it all figured out, I’m pretty sure no one really does. However, trust that you can take it one step at a time and solve new challenges as they arise.

8 Bowl, 7½ in. (18 cm) in diameter, stoneware, shino, wood and soda fired to cone 10, 2021. 7, 8 Photos: Reva Keller.

9 Natasha Alphonse throwing a serving bowl. Photo: Kyle Johnson.

Career Snapshot

Years as a professional potter
5

Number of pots made in a year
3500

Education
Bachelor of Fine Arts from Alberta University of the Arts

The time it takes (percentages)
Making work (including firing): 60%
Promotions/selling: 20%
Office/bookkeeping: 20%

Favorite Tool
Serrated metal rib

Process
Making anything on the potter’s wheel

Where it Goes
Retail stores: 15%
Galleries: 5%
Studio/home sales: 5%
Online: 75%

Learn More
alphonsestudio.com
Instagram: @natashaalphonse

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