Clay Culture: Mug Madness

1 Chanakarn Semachai’s Dino Jungle Mug, winner of the artists’ choice award, porcelain, underglazes, fired to cone 6 in oxidation, luster.

This exhibition put a competitive spin on ceramics with its bracket-style jurying system to select winners, boosting social media engagement and promoting the participating artists in the process.

Sarah Steininger-Leroux was looking for a way to engage a wider audience in handmade ceramics, preferably through social media, as well as raise awareness of good potters, at a reasonable cost. Another goal was to promote Saltstone Ceramics (https://saltstoneceramics.com), her teaching studio and gallery, which had recently moved after 3 years in her home to a larger space in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. Her partner, Steve Leroux, suggested a sports-bracket style mug competition and exhibition called “Mug Madness,” with voting done through Instagram. They planned for the exhibition to run through the month of March, 2019.

2 Sarah Steininger-Leroux outside Saltstone Ceramics in Seattle, Washington.

The Breakdown

Submission announcements shared through Facebook, Instagram, and Saltstone’s mailing list brought in entries from 82 artists from 21 states and England. Juror Justin Rothshank, of Goshen, Indiana, selected 56 mugs out of the 218 submitted to occupy 64 bracket slots, with 8 byes. Leroux assembled the brackets, rephotographed all the mugs for consistency of presentation, and posted the competition on both Instagram and Saltstone’s website.

Saltstone’s followers voted on head-to-head competitions between two mugs at least once per day. Justin’s vote, Sarah’s vote, and one vote based on the Instagram followers’ favorite each counted equally. In the end, the artists who made the cups that were selected as the first place and runner-up were awarded cash prizes. All the money from entry fees went to prizes, the juror’s fee, and promotion. Over 35,000 individual votes were cast (using a poll in the gallery’s Instagram stories), with 2104 people voting in the final match up.

All of the mugs were displayed in the Saltstone Gallery for the month of March, and most of the mugs (priced by the artists between $35 and $180) sold by the end of the month. There was a huge variety of styles, materials, and techniques. The majority of entrants were cone-6 oxidation fired, although three of the four semi-finalist cups turned out to be cone-10 reduction fired. Surprisingly, soda-fired work fared very well in the voting, while wood-fired work did not.

3 Philip Matthews’ amber celadon mug, first place winner, carved porcelain, fired to cone 6 in oxidation.

4 Bri Larson’s Porcelain Cloud Mug, final four bracket, porcelain, flashing slip, underglaze, soda-fired to cone 10 in reduction.

Jury System and Rankings

The three-entity jury system was designed to keep Mug Madness from becoming a mere popularity contest. This seems to have worked, according to a trend-line chart that Leroux put together. The number of Instagram followers of each of the participants did not correlate to votes in the competition. One entrant had vastly more followers than anyone else, yet that person’s vote total fell below the average. Steininger-Leroux concludes that in an anonymous competition, voters are choosing solely on their aesthetic preferences, and many of the voters are likely following multiple potters on Instagram, so they may follow more than one of the participants in the competition.

One thing that stood out for many of the participants was how much fun the whole process was, and how playful it was compared to a regular juried competition. One artist commented, “This was a great idea to engage the larger community and also promote artists’ work.” Rothshank remarked, “What a great way to combine the traditional juried-show concept with the social-media integration that is so important in marketing exhibitions to a broad community. It was exciting for me, even as the juror of the show, to follow my favorites, experience the ups and downs of bracket busters, and watch the buzz that built as the exhibition progressed.”

A follow-up survey returned by 23 of the participating artists yielded some interesting results. They were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most positive, how likely were they to enter Mug Madness next year (average 4.8); how likely were they to recommend Mug Madness to others (4.7); and whether they felt that Mug Madness had increased or expanded their Instagram presence (4.0). When asked if Mug Madness had boosted sales, entrants responded that it had (average 3.0). Another question asked their typical retail mug price ($35–$85, with most saying about $45). Instagram, not surprisingly for this contest, ranked as by far the most important sales channel for these potters, with a few citing Etsy, wholesale accounts, and direct sales.

5 Samantha Hostert, final four bracket, flat-bottom mug, porcelain, soda-fired to cone 10.

6 Danielle Hawk, runner-up, Output X Mug, colored porcelain, soda fired.

The Final Four

After 31 days, the winners were decided! First prize went to Philip Matthews and the runner-up award was given to Danielle Hawk. Bri Larson and Samantha Hostert rounded out the final four bracket of cups, and Chanakarn Semachai took the artists’ choice award. And Saltstone Ceramics more than doubled its Instagram following.

Mug Madness will definitely happen again in 2020. Steininger-Leroux is contemplating a number of modifications to the competition, but she knows that next time there will be no byes and each potter will be allowed to enter only one mug.

the author Paul Lewing is a tile muralist in the Seattle area and the author of China Paint & Overglaze. He has taught workshops in all 50 states and currently teaches china painting through www.TeachinArt.com.

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