Working Potters: Round Trip Clayworks

I only realize that Drew Darley and I (Erika Novak) have a pretty unique lifestyle when it’s time to fill out the occupation section of tax forms or official-looking paperwork. Sometimes, I’m unsure of what to put. Or, none of the options in the little pull-down menus pertain to us. Do I say artist, potter, ceramic artist, instructor, manufacturer? I guess technically we could be considered manufacturers, but that’s not quite right. When meeting new people and the “What do you do?” conversation comes up, I tell them, “I’m a potter. I own a studio with my partner, Drew. We’re full-time artists.” Half the time I get a look of confusion that begs further explanation and the other half I get an “Oh cool, I loved pottery class in high school,” followed by a more subtle look of confusion. How can someone make a living making pottery? Let alone, how can two people make a living making pottery? Spoiler: We’re still trying to figure that out.

1 Erika Novak and Drew Darley’s decorative porcelain bottle, to 15 in. (38 cm) in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 10 in oxidation.

2 Drew Darley’s nickel crystalline bottles, 12 in. (30 cm) in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, crystalline glaze, fired to cone 11 in oxidation.

Becoming Obsessed with Clay

Drew and I met in the ceramics lab at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We both took ceramics elective classes on top of our regular course loads for different degrees. Our professor was Vicente Garcia, to whom we owe much of our success in our early ceramics careers. As a working artist himself, Vicente is obsessed with clay and would only accept the best from students, no matter the class.

The community in the ceramics department was close knit and infectious. Many students, including us, never wanted to leave. I was taking my third class when Drew came into the lab. His newfound passion for clay led him to fit right in with the small group of us that all but lived in the studio. With any community studio space, getting to know everyone around you comes very quickly. It’s easy to bond with others who are also working in the glaze room until 3am. A special relationship forms when you’re working 10-hour days and eating leftover pizza topped with a dusting of leather-hard trimmings. This is the environment where our relationship started. We had a blast, we worked hard, we worked late, we made a huge mess, we laughed and cried, and we spent all of our free time in a basement at the back of the university art building.

The first time we sold some of our work was a city-wide arts event when we were still students. I set up a table in a co-op warehouse space with my friend and Drew set up across town in the hallway of a gallery with his pots on the floor. I sold three terrible mugs, a couple of bowls, and a plate or two, mostly to family friends. Drew’s first pot sold was a naked-raku vase to a woman who was astounded that he had only taken one pottery class. He was so excited to make his first sale that he offered her a discount after she had already decided to buy it.

3 Erika Novak carving a design on the bottom of a leather-hard tumbler.

4 Drew Darley throwing a large porcelain vase.

After doing a few shows here and there while still in school, I realized that we could make about the same money selling pots as working a traditional job. It was so much more work, but it was also so much more fulfilling.

We both loved the freedom and creativity that came with working for ourselves. Maybe you can chalk it up to stubbornness or ignorance, but after graduating, there was something in me that couldn’t go back. I didn’t want to have a typical job, I didn’t want to have a schedule that someone else dictated, and I didn’t want to stop making pottery. So, I had to bend my life and career around that need. I was lucky to have grown close to Drew who was also at a point in his life where he was ready to make a big, silly, reckless decision. With no business plan and no savings accounts, we planned to open a studio and take it one day at a time.

Opening a Studio

The first summer after graduating, we worked in Drew’s parents’ garage until I took a job as the studio technician for the ceramics department at our alma mater. Drew signed up for another class to have access to the studio, too. We called him the tech tech— the studio technician’s technician. During that year, we studied further as Vicente’s mentees to learn how to run a studio. I value that year of education the most. Drew and I were responsible for firing and fixing all the kilns—electric, gas, and raku. I made and mixed all the shop glazes, materials, and clay for the students to use. And we learned how to keep up with the daily working of a pottery studio. We both learned so much that would later help us open our own studio.

5 Drew Darley’s crystalline tumblers, 7 in. (18 cm) in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, crystalline glaze, fired to cone 10 in oxidation.

6 Drew Darley’s gold and purple crystalline bottle, 12 in. (30 cm) in width, wheel-thrown porcelain, crystalline glaze, fired to cone 11 in oxidation, post-firing reduction.

The next spring, we found a studio space in Avon, Connecticut, in the Farmington Valley Arts Center (FVAC) that was the perfect fit. The affordable rent and community aspect attracted us. We have our own space to work out of, but are still part of a public campus with other artists and community members. We have classrooms, galleries, and an office that helps host and promote events where visitors come to see and buy art right from the studio artists. Drew and I both teach wheel-throwing classes at FVAC. I consider that our side hustle, as the majority of our income comes from selling our pottery.

Finding Balance in the Studio

In our studio, Drew and I work together to make our own bodies of work. Over the years of being together all day every day, we’ve found a rhythm in how we function together as a team and as two very different artists. We make our own individual pieces as well as a handful of collaborative pots. Drew makes crystalline-glazed pots and I carve, paint, and decorate patterned pieces. Drew is a very proficient thrower. He throws all of the beautiful bottle forms and vases, while I throw most of the cups, mugs, planters, and little pots. Drew is the glaze mixer. I am the straight-line carver. Drew is the kiln fixer and I am the email sender. In the studio, we play to our strengths and rely on each other for everything in between.

7 Erika Novak’s assorted mugs, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, wheel-thrown stoneware, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 6 in oxidation.

8 Erika Novak adding underglaze colors to a carved, lidded box.

Each of us takes inspiration from different places, too. Drew loves the glazing process and the problem solving that crystalline glazes constantly demand, but his first love is throwing and form. He gravitated toward crystalline glazes to highlight the smooth curves of his bottle shapes. After testing glazes for a while, he is now most inspired by the glaze tests themselves and the anticipation of opening a kiln. Most recently, I’ve been inspired by bold patterns and textures. I get inspiration from pretty normal things like color combinations, fabrics, or old wallpaper. Sometimes I will pull influence from architecture, building materials, or maps.

Learning to Market and Sell Work

Figuring out our craft and making something unique and artful was just half the battle. There was a huge learning curve when it came to selling our pots. It took us a while to figure out what worked. Drew and I decided to pursue fine arts and craft shows. We liked traveling around the country and meeting new people. We specifically enjoyed selling our work in person, face to face, rather than dropping it off at a gallery or shop. This was particularly beneficial for Drew’s crystalline pots. To someone who knows very little about ceramics or glazes, looking at a crystalline glaze is usually accompanied by lots of questions, like “How do you achieve this effect?” and “What is this?” Drew loves explaining his process in depth to anyone who will listen. For my pieces, I loved being able to connect with someone over the patterns on my cups or the feeling of it in their hands. It helps sell a pot when someone learns something about it and gets to talk with the artist that made it.

I also consider us lucky (or maybe silly) for only selling the things we want to be making rather than just making things to sell. We consider ourselves artists first and a business second.

9 A full batch of pots by Erika Novak and Drew Darley fresh out of the kiln, ready to be added to the shop website.

Before 2020, we were participating in about 20–30 shows a year. Some months we would cram our calendar with a show every weekend. It was exhausting, but it was working and it was fun. We found that for crystalline pieces, fine arts and craft shows were the places to be. My carved pots did better at pop-up shops and festival-style shows in the cities. We always had a list of galleries or shops that we wanted to reach out to. We also had online sales in the back of our heads, but never got around to it. When your income relies solely on selling your art it’s hard to take a risk or try a new sales avenue. Participating in art and craft shows was working, for the most part, and it was hard to find the time to try something else. It took a pandemic for us to really sell online.

After everything was shut down last spring due to COVID-19 related restrictions, all of our shows for the 2020 season were canceled. Pursuing online sales was our only option. After some trial and error, we found that marketing and promoting on social media and an email list was the best way to share and sell our work. We upped our Instagram game while trying to stay authentic and not get addicted to it. The demand for my carved pots, specifically mugs, was much higher online than we expected or had ever experienced at a show. After a successful first couple of sales, we switched our selling focus to almost exclusively online. We hope to revisit the show world, too, sometime next year.

10 Drew Darley’s blue crystalline bottle, 15 in. (38 cm) in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, crystalline glaze, fired to cone 11 in oxidation.

11 Drew Darley’s nickel crystalline bottle and white crystalline bottle, to 14 in. (36 cm) in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, crystalline glaze, fired to cone 11 in oxidation.

A Dream and Reality

My perception of a working potter’s life is constantly changing. It involves way more administrative work than I ever thought. Originally, I dreamed that we would get to throw all day, then take a mid-afternoon break, head to the river to swim and fish, and then sell at the relaxing farmer’s markets on Sundays. Ha! There are some weeks when I don’t get to even sit at my wheel. In addition to making everything, we are full-time shop managers, merchandisers, product photographers, bookkeepers, customer-service representatives, marketing managers, sales representatives, pizza eaters, shipment fulfillers, kiln repairers, janitors, etc. Being a working potter is like having two or three full-time jobs.

About four years later, we’re making it work. The big question is why? Why do we do this? Why pursue pottery as a career? I think it comes down to lifestyle and the freedom we get from being working artists. Drew and I work all day, every day (at least it feels like that sometimes) but it rarely feels like work. Except answering emails—that will always feel like work. In the end, we do it for the freedom. The freedom of running our own business means setting our own schedules, deadlines, agenda, and time off. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy. Making a living as a potter is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And secretly, we have no idea what we’re doing. But it’s so worth it because after a day of throwing and glazing or packing boxes and sending shipments, we can find the time to go down to the river and swim on a sunny afternoon.

My honest advice to anyone thinking about pursuing a career as a working potter is this: make sure you have something special, and craftspersonship is key. You will need to be a good problem solver and unbelievably flexible, as things will always change. Find a different hobby, as pottery can no longer be your hobby if it’s your job (we like to be outside climbing and running in the mountains in our free time). And make sure you’re having a good time because it’s way too much work if you’re not enjoying it.

12 Erika Novak and Drew Darley’s Bell Pots, to 10 in. (25 cm) in height, wheel-thrown stoneware, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 6 in oxidation.

Career Snapshot

Years as professional potters
4

Number of pots made in a year
800 pots (combined)

Education
Erika: Bachelor of Science in geography and Bachelor of Arts in ceramics
Drew: Bachelor of Science in mathematics, minor in art

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

Favorite Tools
Erika: this weird little smooth stick thing
Drew: basic steel rib

Favorite techniques
Erika: carving
Drew: crystalline glaze

Where it Goes
Pre 2020
Craft/art fairs: 95%
Studio/home sales: 4%

Online: 1%

Post 2020
Studio/home sales: 5%

Online: 95%

Learn More
Website: www.RoundTripClayworks.com
Instagram: @RoundTripClayworks
Facebook: @RoundTripClayworks

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