1 Tiger Love Mug, 5 in. (13 cm) in height.
“You’d sell a lot more if they actually worked.” Those were the harsh words that repeatedly spewed from my child-psychiatrist of a mother’s mouth. They simultaneously clamped down on my jugular, crushed my ego, and incensed me to do more, to do better, and to succeed as a self-sustaining professional artist. Such potent words were first uttered in response to work that I made as an undergraduate student; quasi-functional, these Funk-induced pieces funk-tioned more as a nod to ceramic history and a “flip of the bird” to my mother who didn’t believe I would ever amount to much. Somewhere along the way though, my jaded pursuit of making ergonomically challenged pieces that deliberately snubbed the notion of daily use grew too tiresome a task to uphold. I still do make work that is more sculptural in feel in that they reference some of the great forms and shapes of ceramic history, but like a little foil-wrapped butter patty left long forgotten in the fridge, I brought my hurt, frostbitten heart in from the cold. It did not take long for it to soften and wrap itself around the notion of making an alternate line of functional work that might, just might, earn me a living. Like they say, “Haters gonna hate,” so I emptied my hurt locker of its vitriolic content and filled it with good karmic intentions. “Think like a winner, chicken dinner,” exclaimed my former Greenwich House Pottery tech-mate and friend, Peter Lane. I started to believe in myself and my work and my decision-making abilities. So far so good, the bills get paid, the lights and kilns keep a hummin’, and my bruised heart has started to heal.
Years as a professional potter: 7
Number of pots made in a year: 300–400 pots, 15 sculptures
Education: MFA 1998 Kent State University, Kent, Ohio Diploma of Fine Art 1993–95 Alberta College of Art and Design, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
the time it takes: Making work (including firing, studio maintenance, cleaning): 60% Promotions/Selling: 30% Office/Bookkeeping: 10%
where it goes: Galleries: 10% Online: 90%
where to see more: Forage Studios, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada: www.foragestudios.com Make and Do: www.makeanddo.ca Red Lodge Clay Center, Red Lodge, Montana: www.redlodgeclaycenter.com Red Star Studios/Belger Crane Yard Studios, Kansas City, Missouri: http://redstarstudios.org Cerbera Gallery, Kansas City, Missouri: https://cerberagallery.com Charlie Cummings Gallery: http://charliecummingsgallery.com (Psst..show coming in 2017)
2 Roller Derby Boys, 14 in (36 cm) in diameter. Collection of Roy Thompson. 1, 2 Cone 6 clay, glaze, china paints, lusters.
I Make What I Make
I am a sponge. A big, fat sponge that has trolled through books and webpages alike for years, mopping up influences and gleefully squeezing them all over my work. Sure Picasso’s words about begging and stealing are cliché, but I have fine tuned my technique of gleaning but a blip of color here, and a patch of texture there, a certain quality of line or a handle oh-so-fine without the worry of truly plagiarizing. I suppose this all started when my first college professor, Don Hutchinson walked up and down the wheels pointing out the historical references we were blindly channelling with our lumpy, bumpy pots. While I think he was pretty generous throwing out the likes of Chinese and European greats we were supposedly divining with our beginner hands, his point was that a lot of history had preceded our efforts. He emphasized not getting so caught up on making something new, but rather, working hard to make it your own work.
Sculpturally speaking, I have always mined the annals of the Funk movement. The desire to adapt and transform the tongue-in-cheek/slap-stick commentary of Robert Arneson et al. really developed under the tutelage of the great and mighty Kirk Mangus when I was a graduate student at Kent State University in Ohio. It was the early days of the Internet so we were encouraged to plunder the oversized book collection in the basement of the university’s library. While Mangus lured us in with tales of finding pot squashed between the pages, I was completely blown away by the absurdity of the Chinese Qing Dynasty. How could an era with such a gruesome, yet soap-operatic feel (not unlike the Game of Thrones series) produce such overzealously refined forms decorated to within a millimeter of their life? How could tales of assassination, anarchy, and abdication be reflected in such saccharine-sweet imagery? “Sacré bleu!” as they exclaim in these Canadian parts! Why, it was beginning to look like I could have it all. Let me tell you, I wanted to broker this historical vs. hysterical ceramic fight club real bad. Mangus fostered my menacing wants like a boxing coach champions an underdog. He pulled on so many ceramics threads that led deep into the underground world of ceramics I darn near wove myself an entire wardrobe with the entanglement of weirdness. I call this line my Qing-Ca-Ching $eries. While sales of these pieces seem only to be made to the strangest of collector types and strong-stomached admirers, the monetary return on them is steady enough to continue to quench my wanton ceramic desires and pad my slim wallet.
My line of thrown work, a.k.a. my “bread and buttah” work, was inspired by that of Molly Hatch, Michael Corney, and Matt Nolen to name but a few graphic-minded ceramic artists I stalk. In addition to ceramics, I have always loved drawing and illustration and I was looking for a way to get a crisp, clean line on my wares. It took me about a year and a half to amalgamate and alter their ultra-finessed techniques to suit manhandled wares, but I was determined to take the time to develop the line quality that was just right for me. As for imagery inspiration, I don’t like the Internet, I love the Internet! Now that I have conquered (but hopefully not butchered) Hatch’s technique of transferring an image onto plastic and then clay, I fully indulge in traversing down virtual rabbit holes—tracing all kinds images from Mexican lucha libre wrestling poses to gay porn to the smug mugs of British Royalty. The Internet is a fabulously wonderful one-stop shop ripe for plundering and pillaging. Now that I have added two ceramic decal printers to my studio tool chest to compliment my drawing ways, I remain in a bubble of imagery bliss, which will never be popped again. “Take no prisoners!” is chanted loudly and proudly around Forage Studios!
Romancing the Stone. Ha! That’s probably what my starry-eyed undergraduate perception of the potter’s life was in the beginning. Being from the West Coast of Canada and growing up a child of the 70s and 80s, my initial thought was more or less to grow old and wise in a mountaintop studio divining forms and glazes from on high. Enter the gruesome and gleesome reality of it all and that dream has since crashed down to Earth in the form of a new-and-improved and totally awesome basement studio.
I didn’t really choose my current location of Halifax so much as the universe sent me here for love. Until I get my ceramic sea legs in this ol’ port city, I feel like a bit of a round peg leg in an oval hole, but time usually whittles away at the frayed edges and makes for a comfortable fit.
3 Controlled chaos. 4 Chaos controller (Mariko Paterson). 5 Mini but mighty, Forage Studios gallery/store space.
I have worked in a weird office space in downtown Calgary, followed by the ground-level shack of an existence called Kent State University’s ceramic program, then there were the basement digs the Greenwich House Pottery techs enjoyed in the late 90s. I had the pleasure of sampling many a university studio while on the visiting artist teaching circuit. Likewise, while on the Residency Vision Quest I got to experience the studios of Red Lodge Clay Center in Montana, Guuldegaard in Denmark, and the magnificent Banff Centre in the Canadian Rockies. Since then I have moved and grooved through such a variety of different places, I decided that my nomadic life demanded flexibility where my wants and needs were concerned. In the end I really need but four things to make my professional ceramic life work: clay, a canvas surface, the Internet, and a post office. Now that I am in my 40s I have added just a little to my list of needs.
Again, I did not choose to have a basement studio, but it has grown into one of my favorite spaces/love nests in the house. Blasting it with bright color that reflects that of the colors in my work as well as including A LOT of lighting helped to alleviate the heaviness I often feel in sub-terrain studio spaces.
I am an extroverted introvert, which is most likely a direct result of the depression and anxiety I have lived with for so long. So, while I have a small display area for those lucky few who beg their way into my workspace, for the most part my studio is considered holy ground dedicated solely to the upkeep of my ceramic sanity.
6, 7 Sailor Swill/Pirate Juice Punch Bowl, (top and side views) 10 in. (25 cm) in height, cone 6 clay, glaze, china paints, lusters, decals. Collection of Dave Hayden. 8 That deaf, dumb, blind kid sure plays a mean pinball, 16 in. (41 cm) in height, handbuilt cone 6 clay, glazes, decals, china paint, gold luster.
As for the question of being diagnosed with PPD, (Potter Personality Disorder), I have never been under any illusion that the life of a potter is anything but hard work. All potters, in my opinion, are heroes not zeroes.
I’ve been everywhere man, sung to the tune of “I’ve Been Everywhere Man” (thanks Johnny Cash). In my want to keep working and not be a diva about it, I have learned to adapt like a fine ceramic chameleon amid all my studio scenery changes. When I go to do residencies, I barely take any of my own tools, clays, or glazes. I like the challenge of working with what is or is not there, even if it is sheer hell. I have pared down my physical ceramic needs to a bare minimum. The rest is sort of fluff and stuff that I could take or leave.
The most difficult decision I have ever made, or not made really, is realizing that having a life and career in the arts was going to cause a devastating and irreparable chasm between my mother and me. The further I have dug my heels into a life as a potter, the deeper the abyss has become. Like the tale told in the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, embroiling your Asian mother in a battle over expectations is not a battle to be entered lightly. In fact, I don’t think there are any winners. The silver lining is that I have experienced in deciding to push forward with pursuing a life as a working potter is that I have had to look elsewhere for the support I was never, ever going to get from my mother. The result is that I have adopted and assembled a full-on support team made up of a most satisfying mix of young and old as well as established and emerging artist types. Collectively they fill the nasty hole in my heart, and we work together reciprocally to replenish the love, support, and encouragement it takes to make it in such a tough field.
9 Willow-Bago, 21 in. (53 cm) in height, clay, glaze, china paints, lusters, decals, mixed media. Collection of Dr. Robert and Deanna Harris Burger.
“Keep it simple stupid” is a motto I would love to live by, but totally threw by the wayside a long time ago. I once longed to pump out sleek and streamlined wares with but a dot and dash of color. The reality is that first, I am a pretty slow thrower/maker and second, I also suffer from horror vacui (fear of empty space). My surfaces are laden with mishima imagery, then underglazed, decaled, and finally lustered. Everything is then bunged through a kiln a minimum of four times, rendering finished objects of Frankenstein proportions in terms of labor vs. cost effectiveness. Thanks goodness that my slow-thrown production to surface-insanity process garners respectable financial gain as it takes so damn long for me to decorate a piece. On a good day I can glaze five to six mugs—any more would make me sweat profusely.
In terms of sales, all this means my work can sometimes sit awkwardly on store shelves next to their more modest mug cousins as the sheer time involved in making them means that I must ask a higher price if only to keep my habit going. I have a hard time signing up for markets that feature work that is priced significantly lower than what I can ask for my own. It is never my intention to appear elitist, but sometimes selling $75–85 mugs alongside an artist who features one for $40 can sometimes earn me a “look at Miss Hoity-Toity” glare. Enter the Internet as my saving grace, again.
I once had to rely solely on galleries in combination with working some markets. I still love working with galleries to gain exposure and move my larger sculptural works, but my day-to-day sales are made via my website and Instagram. As vast as the Internet’s seas are, I have found that people much prefer buying my work in this manner when it comes to the bread-and-butter pieces. And for as much stuff as there is to wade through on the Internet, I find my works are better received when looked at one image at a time instead of jockeying for an audience of eyes in a crowded gallery or market setting.
Another platform that has been going very well for me is a great Canadian effort called Make and Do (www.makeanddo.ca). Carole Epp, of Musing About Mud fame, and I are working alongside thirteen other ceramic artists to raise not only the profile of fellow Canadian ceramic artists, but also the bar to which we hold our own professional practices. Inspired by the like-minded efforts of Objective Clay and The Kansas City Urban Potters, we are endeavouring to put together world-class examples of blogging, ceramic education, and yes, shopping. While still very much in the fledgling phase of our website development, sales have been brisk as the shop’s contents have turned over every month.
Anyone interested in pursuing a career as a potter should consider the following: be prepared to work hard and then proceed to work even harder than that—think bleeding fingers.
Seek out mentorship. Ask questions of those you admire in the field. Don’t be afraid to drop them an email. I once showed up to have lunch with Matt Nolen after undergraduate school and we have been friends for 20 years.
Make yourself a website. There are so many great and affordable platforms out there with existing templates to build on. You have no excuse!
Embrace fully the concept of success through failure. Be humble enough to learn from your mistakes and yes, welcome hard times. It will make your skin a little tougher and more resilient and make the rewards you reap that much sweeter.
Finally, from Linda Barry’s book Cruddy, “No matter what, expect the unexpected. And whenever possible BE the unexpected.”