Pottery found me in high school as a rather indifferent kid. I was disinterested in anything related to school. When I encountered something that did not rely on the mundane basics of education, I thought, “this could be something for me.” In addition, there were legit folks in the community making a living working with clay who called themselves, of all things, potters. This was a big deal, and still is, because I knew that making pots was a real possibility. Of course, I did not account for any of the difficulties, challenges, and simple realities of being a potter; I just wanted to be one. Honestly, I was just so jazzed to find something that worked for me. My teachers recognized this and allowed me access to the art room whenever possible.
From that point on, my path, however meandering, was set to become a potter. I visited local studios, did some work exchange for studio access and got accepted into Virginia Tech pursuing a BFA in studio art. Again, I was fortunate to have professors that embraced my goal to become a potter. They opened their studio life up to me, which I greatly appreciated back then and even more so now that I understand the value of studio time.
Years as a professional potter
8 (full-time and part-time throughout)
Number of pots made in a year
Average of 1000
Undergraduate: Virginia Tech
Graduate: West Virginia University
Cub Creek Foundation Residency
The time it takes (percentages)
Making work (including firing): 73%
Research and development: 8%
Where It Goes
Retail Stores: 17%
Craft/Art Fairs: 41%
Studio/Home Sales: 5%
Where To See More
Upcoming gallery show July–September at Asheville Ceramics
A Changing Perception
I attended more workshops, completed my BFA and had a one-year residency at the Cub Creek Foundation in Appomattox, Virginia. Having decided to pursue a master’s degree, I eventually found the right fit at West Virginia University, which was known to have a particularly strong program for functional ceramics due to its overall pedagogy coupled with the production component and study abroad program in Jingdezhen, China. Working in Jingdezhen fundamentally shaped my understanding of what it means to be a potter as well as spurring a deep interest in the culture, which has been a constant source of inspiration. I cannot overstate how integral travel has been for my aesthetic development; I’ve visited Jingdezhen twice since my initial semester abroad and continually see the essences of those travels emerge out of the work I make in my studio.
When I started making pots after graduate school, my primary concern was making the best work that I could make with the tools I had. This is what I understood to be first and foremost in studio work and I would like to think that still is the case, but I’m not sure that this approach will pay the bills all the time. I have had to compromise studio time here and there, sometimes working on wholesale production items in lieu of my preference of small series pieces. Occasionally, I work the adjunct-teaching angle at the local university along with various other art-related side jobs like design work for industry and grading art portfolios. I’ve even been a substitute high-school art teacher. I tend to view anything outside of making as a necessary side hustle to support my studio practice, including social media and marketing or branding. I much prefer creating the work over creating buzz about the work.
There are many hard choices to make in this field and some can make or break you on many levels. Take the internal struggle over when to end a kiln firing, for example, “Do I fire to cone 10 at 3 o’clock or let it go until cone 10 is flat? I could be making landfill at cone 10 flat . . . . but with a little more heat, the glazes are so juicy.” Seriously though, I can pinpoint one crucial, difficult decision I made just before I completed my MFA. A fellow potter asked me to work in a group studio with him, and I really wanted to say yes. It made complete sense on all levels and it may have worked out well. The group studio was located in an awesome city with a strong market for ceramics. However, I also had another option to consider. There was this old 1900s farmhouse with a milk parlour out in the country, near my home town of Floyd, Virginia. I could not resist the raw potential in that house and milk parlour.
Choosing a Studio Location
The Floyd area has become an increasingly familiar destination for tourists due in part to its location and natural beauty, along with the many entrepreneurs, artists, and small-scale farmers that have settled here in recent years. Somewhat naturally, Floyd studio and farm tours are now a regular occurrence. I have yet to open Parlour Pottery up to the public but I plan to do so this fall. I have been fortunate to be hosted by other potters in the area for some of the established studio tours like the Floyd Artisan Trail and 16 Hands Studio Tour. Most recently, I’ve been working with a group of potters who, like myself, are in the building phases of creating a studio life. We’ve decided to pool resources for promotional purposes and to push marketing under one name, Terra Floyd. This will be our first year together with a complete studio tour of four pottery locations.
Factors in Teaching
Since 2009 I’ve had the occasional opportunity to do some adjunct teaching at Virginia Tech. This has helped to keep me informed of the art world at large and given me more insights into the process of making. There are some strong parallels between being an art student and a contemporary potter. Both have cyclical scheduling and deadlines, and require the following: time management, observing trends, and the ability to cope with and learn from failure. Failure is a big one and so important, though touchy. We have casual conversations about these topics in the class and I share my ways of dealing with failure as well as the faults and successes in my approach. Those things are just as valid to an undergraduate student as technique or process. Keeping excitement and motivation in class seems to be an ever-present struggle; therefore I try to design assignments with an awareness of my students and their lives. I feel this approach provides more potential for sustained engagement.
A Bit of Advice to Offer
If I could offer a bit of advice to anyone interested in this profession it would be: keep a low overhead and be a sponge. Absorb as much as possible—any and every bit of ceramics education will come in handy, especially the technical information. There is so much to learn about ceramic history and material, as well as the chemistry of clay, glaze, and heat. It can be very tempting to ignore the fundamentals and muddle through the process with some success until ultimately, it just beats you down due to technical faults, material changes, or kiln circumstances. Any one of those factors gone unchecked can eventually unravel a potter; troubleshooting is critical.