My decision to become a professional potter was based on a desire to have more control of my work on a daily basis, and to follow my passion to create.
I made a goal of becoming a full-time potter within a year and a half of finishing graduate school. When that time came I had to make one of the most difficult decisions in my career. The decision was to drop my other jobs and to make and sell pots as my sole income. I made the jump and sold enough pots during that time and we kept the electricity on. At the time, my wife had three more years to go in graduate school. I sold most of my pots at craft fairs. Our expenses were low. The studio I used was lent to me and, with my parents’ help, I was able to get a loan to build a kiln. I built a gas kiln with a good potter friend in an old orchard behind the studio and that was the beginning of my professional career as a potter.
I now have a studio in western Wisconsin. The studio is not what I had originally envisioned. I thought we would have a studio on the end of a dirt road in the country. We made the move to the Midwest for two reasons: one was to be closer to family, and the other was that my wife was getting ready to start a new job. We had a five-day house/studio hunting tour and we could not find anything in the country that was both affordable and workable for a studio. On our last day we found a place in town. This house is a 1920’s-era bungalow that was moved onto a new foundation. We re-evaluated our plans of a separate building for a studio, and decided to frame out business space in the open basement. This has worked out better than I imagined. We have been able to keep our overhead low and have a business similar to the old storefront model with the family living upstairs. I am able to have privacy and a disciplined work schedule and I am also able to quickly move into the needs of my family when the workday is done. I built a small separate showroom at the entrance of the house which functions as a small gallery space for customer/clients, by appointment, and also for my studio open houses.
The majority of my work is now sold in the region where I live and this is by design. I sell a fairly large percentage of my work to people with whom I have established a relationship through my pots. A smaller portion of my income comes from selling via website inquiries. I am also filling requests for wedding gifts and other needs. This has led to trying out a wedding registry on my website. Galleries have been great at educating people about my work and this has been a good source for selling and advertising as well. Periodically I also teach workshops.
I hold open studio sales and have been part of organizing an annual ceramic tour. I have also been invited to participate in other excellent tours. The efforts of selling pots in this region are shared by many. The potters and educators that have preceded me in this area have, through hard work, made a fertile place to sell work, and I feel that it is a team effort to keep building the momentum they have started.
Currently I do not use social media, but think it is a good tool. I send out email announcements for my studio but I struggle with finding the time to use social media with so many other demands. I am constantly working on balancing all of the needs of the studio and my family. Until recently, I have not thought a great deal about my main tool (my body) wearing out. I have enjoyed good health up to this point, but I find that I do have to exercise more to stay healthy. As a family, we maintain balanced nutrition and produce much of our own food. Keeping my studio clean by mopping several times a day is crucial for maintaining a healthy environment and it doesn’t take much time. I think it is important for new potters to remember that there is no one way to build a life of making and selling work. When I first started, I felt like I was pushing pots out the door, and now I find it difficult to keep up with the demand. These are some of the things I have learned: Keeping overhead low means that sales have greater financial impact. I make what I love to make and not what I think will sell; because my pots are an extension of me, my hope is that my customers will feel that in the work. Keeping the reasons why I am making pots in the first place fresh in my mind protects me from a life that can become complicated and distracting. These principles help me to say no to things (even good things), because they would distract me from what I set out to do (I have to edit life just as much as I have to edit my pots).
Working with really good mentors is extremely valuable. I have been fortunate to work with some giants both in academia and in an apprenticeship capacity. The knowledge I have received from working closely with them is invaluable. Another thing that I find helpful is to have very positive people around me. I am blessed to have a wife who has enjoyed cobbling a life together with me. We give and take to support each other’s interests and careers. Our children often humble me with how on board they are with the life we have chosen. I also feel embraced by our community, which is very supportive of the arts in general.
Subscriber Extras: Archive Article
Click here to read the archive article about Rolf from the December 2004 issue.