When I fell in love with pottery, I was 18, already in art school, and searching for my artistic identity. I was idealistic and enamored with the romance and the anti-establishment statement of being a potter in the 21st century. My 40-year-old perspective is much different; I’m much more caught up with paying bills and balancing family life, but I still love it. Making pottery continues to be my passion, and I’m still obsessed with it the way I was as an 18-year-old art student.
I have been making and selling pottery part time since I was an undergraduate at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, Massachusetts. Very soon after earning my BFA, I started teaching pottery part time, first at community centers, then as an adjunct at a local college and also as an art teacher in public school. Through all that, I managed to continue to make and sell pottery. I wanted to make the jump to being a full-time potter for a long time; it had always been my dream, but it seemed like a really big risk. In 2010 my family asked my wife and me to live with and take care of my elderly grandfather. This was the opportunity I needed to leave my school teaching job and start making pottery full time.
The choice to sell my work wholesale was the change to my process that has allowed me to make a full-time living from selling pottery. This was a hard decision for me. For the 15+ years since college that I made and sold my pottery, I always felt that I wasn’t interested in making an established line of work. Instead I was most interested in following the meandering path of my work and letting the daily decisions of pottery making inform my choices, focusing on whatever forms and surfaces inspired me.
I am pleased with how well my wholesale work is selling, and producing it has kept me busy especially in the winter months when I am not selling as much retail. The negative side is that I am somewhat bored with my wholesale production. I work alone, I haven’t taken on an apprentice or an intern, so I still do all the work myself. I’m always wishing I had more time to make new work. I have plenty of directions that I want to go in, however I probably work on new pots only 20% of the time.
I do almost all of my retail sales between June and December in the farmers/artists market season. I have managed and sold my work at the Burlington City Arts Artist’s Market for eleven summers. This regularity has helped me build customers, both locals and tourists, who can find me in a retail location with very low overhead. I don’t do craft shows; I experimented with them for several years but I always found that I was coming out breaking even too often and that all the effort wasn’t worth it.
As far as an online presence, I keep my website, blog, Facebook, and Instagram pages updated weekly. It seems like I am always collecting new followers, but I do not sell individual pots from my website. I haven’t yet figured out how to do this in a way that is worth my time. I can’t stop my workflow to pack and ship a single mug or bowl. I believe my online presence is helpful to market my work to a certain extent, but I think I have more impact by being in certain stores and galleries.
Working from home has its benefits and challenges. I have two young children and my wife works evenings, so she is a stay-at-home mom during the day. The main benefit is that I am nearby for the daily life of my family, and I can lend a hand with lunch or nap time when I’m needed. I can also spend a couple hours in the studio after the kids’ bedtime while my wife is at work. The challenge is that I am so close that I can’t escape the daily ups and downs of life with two toddlers. I sometimes turn my music up really loud. I have been working on renovating a barn space on our property for a studio and small retail space. The walk across the driveway will be just far enough to provide a nice separation. I stretch regularly and try to vary my tasks so that I’m not working too long in one position, but now that I’m 40 I deal regularly with aches and pains from this physically intensive work. My lower arms and wrists are where my most regular aches are centered. I deal with this with regular acupuncture visits. I’m thankful that there is a community acupuncture center nearby so that regular visits are somewhat affordable because acupuncture is not covered by my insurance.
Health insurance is definitely the hardest puzzle piece of being self employed; I went without it for many years, but now that I have young children that is not a choice. I am thankful that Vermont has a state-run health-care plan that makes it possible for us to afford health insurance for a family of four. I would advise would-be potters to invest time and money building your business and equipment before you have children. It’s much harder to take risks with the heavy expenses of family life.
Having a variety of income streams is also key. Teaching part time has always been a key part of my success in making a living as a potter. The money I make from teaching (currently one-third of my income) has been reliable when my pottery sales have been inconsistent. Teaching also informs my work in a huge way. The life of a studio potter can be solitary. I enjoy the two half days that I teach because it gets me out of the studio and talking about pottery making with students. Also, having to succinctly describe skills, techniques, and ideas to students has helped me have a sharper eye pointed at the development of my own work.
I would also advise those still in school pursuing a BFA to take business classes. I was wholly unprepared to run a small business after college, and have spent so much time learning how to do so through trial and error. A focus on business classes in college would have helped me tremendously and saved me time and frustration.
Finally I would offer the very simple advice to ask for what you want because you’ll often get it. I have built a lot of my pottery business because I solicited it myself. I sell pottery to many galleries, bars and restaurants, real estate agents, boutique hotels, and coffee companies all because I cold called (or emailed) them. I would say almost half of my sales are from businesses that I approached.