In 1979, after my college experience, I was hired by Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center in Millville, New Jersey, as a resident potter. This was a golden ticket for me to become a full-time functional potter. My primary responsibility at Wheaton is to demonstrate pottery making to the thousands of visitors who visit our campus every year. I’ve become adept at making pots and talking to people (of all ages) at the same time. Making pots in front of a crowd and explaining what you are doing is not for everyone. However, having to continually demonstrate forced me to make a lot of pots each day. Despite a lack of formal training, I had an excellent opportunity to develop throwing, glazing, kiln building, and other skills needed to be a productive potter. While I have always envied potters who talk about their graduate school experiences or their apprenticeships abroad, Wheaton also provided numerous opportunities to meet and work with other accomplished potters, most notably Toshiko Takaezu, Mitch Lyons, and my primary mentor, Albert Green. Having great potters believe in me and provide directional encouragement has been paramount to my success in becoming a professional potter.
Though I live in the less populated part of New Jersey, there is still a great community of local/regional potters, including the four dedicated associate potters who work with me. Exchanging ideas and techniques with these folks reminds me of how fortunate I am to live where I do. Whenever I can, I fire with other local potters or they come and fire my wood or salt kiln with me. Interacting with these excellent potters is both motivating and humbling. Over the years, many exceptional interns have also enriched our studio community and have since become accomplished potters and educators, most notably Jackie Sandro, Christopher Chariw, and Kate Waltman. I don’t take any credit for who they have become but hopefully provided some encouragement and skill building in their formative years.
The Internet did not exist when I started out as a potter, so there was no Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube. Everything we learned came from books, sharing of information from other potters, and mostly from trial and error. Today, social media has allowed me to be friends with potters from all over the world. While I most likely will never meet them in person, I can watch them work and explain their techniques through videos posted online.
My studio situation at Wheaton is quasi-independent. I receive a modest salary to demonstrate for the visiting public, manage education programs, and oversee the studio building and equipment. I pay for all my own clay, glaze materials, tools, and non-permanent equipment, but have access to the studio 24/7 and the freedom to create my own work. The studio has five Brent wheels and our kiln site includes a gas-fired salt kiln, a reduction kiln, and a two-chamber Noborigama-style wood kiln. All artists at the studio have full access to the kilns, which involves signing up for firings—especially in the fall when we all have shows and kilns can often be fired twice a week.
I also have a studio at our home about 15 minutes away from Wheaton that gives me the opportunity to work in solitude, which I find I really enjoy as I’ve aged. I often make pots seven days a week, and working at home, particularly this past year due to the pandemic, allows me to connect with my family, two beautiful golden retrievers, and my yard/garden, all creating more of a balance in my life.
Selling and Marketing
I sell my work through Wheaton’s onsite gallery as well as a few other galleries in the region, but no longer do craft fairs. In addition to requiring physical stamina that has faded as I age, craft fairs today just don’t compare to the robust craft-show scene of the 1980s and 1990s. The online market has become so saturated with pottery that I don’t want to put the energy into trying to get a slice of that pie. With the exception of 2020 (due to COVID-19), I have an annual 10-day studio sale at Wheaton that is a primary generator of income.
I am constantly aware that I need to make a living as a potter. In college, we were always told to not worry about the price you were going to get for the pot. I suppose that was to help us be more creative, but I have never subscribed to that thought process. I often set a goal to throw at least $500 worth of pots a day (retail). In reality it never translates to that amount in the end, but my love of making pots and my desire not to be poor are married. Having a career that you can make as much money as you want based on how hard you want to work has always been a formula that made sense to me.
Making a Living
Looking back, I didn’t realize how much effort would be involved in achieving the goal of making a living as a potter, but I have no regrets. I grew up in a very low-income household and I knew that with hard work, which I have never shied away from, I could make a comfortable living doing something I loved. Without the opportunity of my position at Wheaton, I don’t think I would have made it.
Making a living as a potter is physically demanding and takes a considerable work ethic. Would I recommend it to a young potter starting out? Absolutely! The freedom to create new pots is limitless and finding one’s way in today’s market just takes time. I cannot emphasize enough how many pots you need to make to establish yourself as a decent potter. We have a quote on the wall in our studio by Émile Zola: “There are two men (women) inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.” This is what I try to instill in interns and apprentices. It takes a lot of pots, a lot of firings, a lot of failures and lessons.
Here’s my advice to any young potters wanting to pursue making pots for a living. If possible, go to graduate school; find the school with educators that match your direction. If you are like me and could never afford to do that, build your throwing skills in undergraduate school and go to North Carolina or Minnesota or somewhere with a rich tradition of pots and get an apprenticeship with a potter or small production-pottery studio. You’ll learn how to make pots if you’re required to throw 150 mugs a day. If you can arrange it, go to Japan, Thailand, or China and work with masters there for a year. Do this before starting a family, if you can, to reduce the financial pressure on yourself while learning to make pots and run a business.
Today, I make most of my income from gallery sales and the studio sales I have. I produce a line of decorated, salt-glazed stoneware designed by my wife, Susan, and I, a line of decorated salt-glazed flashing-slip pots, and a line of high-fire-reduction glazed pots. The wood kiln is typically fired twice a year with pots made of stoneware, porcelain, and local wild clay. These wood-fired pots are made for the enjoyment of the process, though I don’t rely on them for any regular income.
Looking back, I am quite aware of the breaks I had and how fortunate I was to cross paths with many great potters. The struggle to make a living initially was real but my desire to not give up sustained me. I am conscious of how important a few words of encouragement are and how meaningful the giving of my time to younger potters starting out can be. The demand for good functional pots will always be there and room for more functional potters will always exist.
Years as a professional potter
Number of pots made in a year
Jacksonville University (6 years)
Rowan University (2 years)
The time it takes (percentages)
Making work: 85%
Brent CXC wheel
Where it Goes
Craft shows: 15%
Annual studio sale: 55%