Work and Play: John Brickels

I started making ceramic sculpture because I believed I had a marketable artistic vision that would provide me with a living. I wanted to spend my days making decisions centered on three- dimensional design and making the type of sculpture I would be excited to see if I walked into a gallery. I chose clay as a medium because it is plastic, elemental and, at least for me, nostalgic.

I am able to contribute significantly to the family budget. If I was single I could support myself, but with sacrifices. Health insurance would be a luxury item. My wife has taught high school ceramics and photography for 30 years. Her steady income smooths out the ups and downs of my income. It’s feast or famine, weeks without a sale or hitting the lottery.

I spend the majority of my time sculpting. I know I should spend more time promoting the process, but seeing my ideas grow in front of me has such a pull that everything else gets shoved aside. The journey to the final product is the most compelling.

Architecture, automobiles, machines and nostalgia all inform my work. Most things that show entropy inspire me. Old factories, barns and houses that show the effects of time and weather are inspirational because they evoke different emotions in me that I pass on to the sculptures.

I gather images from the internet and libraries. I’ll drive around Vermont taking photos of dilapidated barns. When in New Jersey visiting in-laws, I’ll take the bus into New York City to capture urban images.

To recharge, I change subject matter. Enough barns, let’s make steampunk robots! I’ll look at different art genres. I’ll watch documentaries of famous artists to catch their moment of epiphany.

I celebrate media specificity, in fact I’ve been exploiting a single technique, bisque, and a single clay body, Laguna #100, for the past 20 years. I can change the subject of my sculptures and the public still recognizes my work because I’ve been using the same brown stoneware for years. I never treat the surface of my sculptures; the form will be stronger because I’m not depending on glaze or color.

My buyers seem to be affluent, educated “baby boomer” professionals and small business owners. They purchase through galleries in Vermont, the occasional “fine craft” show, “word of mouth” and through my website. At the local level, I ascribe to the marketing principle of “top-of-mind awareness.” I exploit opportunities to be in the public eye as much as possible. I enter juried shows that garner press coverage. I always send a press release with a cd of professionally made images to area newspapers. I demo and lecture in local galleries, universities and colleges. Much to the shock of my artist friends, I demo for ten straight days at a local agricultural fair every summer. At least 200,000 people come through the front gates. Successful retailing boils down to how many people walk through the front door. I also supplement my income by doing a week long residency in the classroom once a year. The compensation is excellent. However, getting prepared and recovering from the experience eats up at least a week of studio time.

Where to see more:

Vermont State Craft Center Frog Hollow, Middlebury
and Burlington, VT

Lazy Pear Gallery,
Montpelier, VT

Vermont Artisans
Designs, Gallery 2,
Brattleboro, VT

Solo Exhibition March 6–
April 10, 2009 at
Meramec Contemporary
Art Gallery, Saint Louis
Community College,
Meramec Campus,
Saint Louis, MO


Nationally, I’ll drive thousands of miles to exhibit at the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference and several colleges and universities.The advantage of marketing locally the way I do is that it costs nothing. Driving out of state to exhibit at NCECA or a college can get expensive but is usually worth it because of the ceramic-educated audience these shows reach. Exhibiting at NCECA has always resulted in invitations to show my work at more colleges and galleries.

I do not pursue grants and public commissions because of the “hoops” one has to jump through. The process is very time consuming and often you are at the whim of a fickle board that has one member who doesn’t “get it.” I didn’t anticipate how addicting praise would become, nor did I anticipate how thick-skinned you have to become. Artists soon find that no matter how amazing you think your art is, it has absolutely no value for a majority of people. Rejection comes in many different ways. I have done craft shows without selling a single sculpture while listening to my neighbors remote credit card processor churn all day long. I’ve arrived at a juried show to see my work displayed on the floor because they didn’t want it to “get in the way of the art” hanging on the walls. Ouch.

The most difficult decision is deciding to carry on despite long periods of slow sales. One’s wallet and psyche take a hit when you’re not being validated by sales. And then, pow, you sell a large work and your pulled right back into the dream of being compensated for all of your wonderful ideas and skills.

To maintain my health, I spend a half-hour every morning on an elliptical machine, sometimes watching those documentaries of famous artists. I’m fortunate to have health insurance through my wife, in contrast to an artist friend, who has a $5000 deductible policy for catastrophic health care. I sweep and wet mop every day in the studio to cut down on dust.

Ideally, I would like to see Marketing for Fine Art 101 offered at colleges, universities and even at arts high schools. NCECA should offer marketing and promotion workshops.

My advice to others who are just starting is to organize your studio. Don’t be a slob. A sloppy studio will have a negative effect on your work. Wet mop every day. It will save your lungs and you’ll feel great walking into a clean studio in the morning. Develop your technical skills. Have a plan. Have a goal. Pester experienced and successful artists around you for their accumulated knowledge.

It is mainly an intuitive journey but find your “voice.” What would you want to see when you walk into a gallery? What would really energize you? What would animate you, make your jaw drop?


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