The annual Ceramics Monthly: Working Potters issue is out. The issue features five potters whose main source of income is making and selling pots. I always love reading this issue and fantasizing about one day making most of my living making pots! Since I am probably not alone, I thought I would share this excerpt from working potter Julie Crosby. Julie shares what she learned when starting her dream business, and how she adapted it along the way to make it work. Enjoy! –Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.
My reason for pursuing pottery as a profession was simple in the beginning. I wanted to make pots. I wanted to walk out to my studio in the morning, come back in for lunch, then go back out and work until dinner. I wanted to chop wood and sit by my own kiln through the night and into the morning. I wanted the life of a potter, and to have that, I needed to learn how to make a living at it. Admittedly, it was a naive and hopelessly romantic vision, but it was the driving force that ultimately brought me to the life I have now. While I can honestly say that I’ve acquired much of that romantic vision, my path (like that of many others) has not been without obstacles and hard lessons learned. My career has had many layers. The work I make, the time I spend making it, how I sell it, and what else I do to make an income have shifted and evolved over time, as the other important parts of my life fold in and concurrently weave through it.
My first attempt at making a living as a potter and attaining that elusive potter’s life was a failure. I say that with kindness toward myself, not as a put down. I was young and determined. Going after my goal wholeheartedly, I moved to an isolated place in the woods, where I had a little house with a big studio, a wood kiln, and a mortgage. There was a rhythm of long hours in the studio, preparing wood, firing the kiln, and going to shows to sell the pots. It was blissful but hard to maintain. I learned two important lessons over the course of four years that changed my perception of being a professional potter. One was about business. The number of pots I needed to make and sell to keep up with my overhead proved to be more than I could handle. So, if I wanted to keep making pots, I needed to lower my overhead. The second lesson was about community and connection. I had developed a wonderful crew of friends who came by to help with the wood firings, but I mostly lived and worked alone. For someone who loves solitude, the intermittent socializing around the firing was just right for a while. As time went on, I learned that I needed both solitude and steady companionship to grow as a person and as a potter. The decision to sell my dream place in the woods was difficult but necessary and ultimately proved fortuitous.
In making that decision, my life opened up to create room for marriage and motherhood. Being a mom plays a huge role in how I make and sell my work. For the past fifteen years, I’ve lived with my husband, Tom, and our daughter, Genevieve, in a rural town outside of Ithaca, New York, where I have a small studio and wood kiln. Through these years I have developed a new rhythm in the studio. During the baby, toddler, and pre-school years, I made work that could be covered up for days or weeks at a time—larger vessels and baskets that didn’t require small parts and pieces. This work got me into higher-end shows, including the Smithsonian Craft Show and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show. The opportunity to sell work on these platforms was a nice ego boost and I certainly sold a lot of pots at these shows. However, the bigger the show, the bigger the effort, expense, and traveling time. It became exhausting to stay in that cycle. In the end, the return on my investment of time, energy, and money wasn’t proving to be worth it. Though I still do shows, they are mostly pottery specific and invitational shows. Grouping potters together seems to be a good model for selling work. For me, these shows suit my working style and the number of pots I can produce in a year.