We all know that making a living at pottery is incredibly challenging. If you are not a determined, hard worker, you might as well leave your pottery tools at the door.
For potter Linda Christianson, making pottery wasn’t a career, but more of a requirement that the rest of her life would just have to adjust to. In today’s post, Linda shares how she did whatever it would take to make her life with pottery possible. From setting up a self service pottery shop at the end of her driveway, to living in a rent-free farmhouse with no heat or electricity (in Minnesota!), Linda shares how her determination and hard work lead her to the successful way of life she has today. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
The Time It Takes
Years as a professional potter: 35
Number of pots made in a year: 3000
Making work (including firing): 60%
Where It Goes
Studio/Home Sales: 60%
After finishing art school in Canada in 1977, my goal was to keep making pots while maintaining a life of outdoor adventure. Establishing a base camp was my model, and pottery was the central component. It did not occur to me that making pots was a profession or a career, it was a compulsion that I would adjust my life around. I had no business plan, but a small amount of money that I had saved while teaching community classes in art school and selling my work through student sales.
Moving to Minnesota, I found a small farmhouse to rent. With four kiln shelves, a pile of used bricks, a homemade kick wheel, and a recipe book, I immediately built a small wood kiln. I was unprepared for the loneliness and disappointment in my work that would follow. Alone with my ideas and myself, I knew no one in the area. I nailed up a pottery sign at the end of my driveway, and put the pots and a self-service box for money out on some sawhorses. Only a few cars stopped, out of curiosity or charity. The kiln was difficult to fire, and the pots were disappointing even before they went into the fire. Within three months I was out of money, and was forced to find some outside work.
What followed were a few years of making pots while bouncing around seasonal outdoor work: ski area lift operator, welder, snowmaker, firetower sitter, and firefighter. I taught pottery classes through two local community education programs. My old car always had a box of pots in it, and breakdowns along the highway became a sort of ad hoc marketplace. It became increasingly frustrating to maintain an outside work schedule and make pots in the evenings. I made a crucial decision to move on down the economic ladder, abandoning any kind of outside job and living as close to the bone as possible. Having been around the area for a few years, I found a free house-sitting situation and shared Jeff Oestreich’s studio for a winter. What a joy it was to have an aesthetic ally generously sharing his world. We made a lot of pots and had a sale together.
When my house-sitting situation ended, I found a rustic farmhouse with no water or heat, but a working chimney and electricity. In exchange for cleaning out the owner’s barn, I could live and work in the house for free and build a kiln out back. It was the best move I could have made. While rustic, the old farmhouse gave me the financial freedom to really establish a rhythm in the studio. My business plan was to make a lot of pots, put them in the front room on some sawhorses, and hold a studio sale after each firing. I worked in three rooms and lived in a fourth. Anyone who stopped by was put on my mailing list, and I was able to eventually spark enough interest in my pots to pay my few bills. The idea of health or disability insurance was absent from my brain. Retirement planning was equally as vaporous. After working long enough in one place, I began to get invitations to exhibit my work. I tried the few art fairs that were within driving distance, but found little interest in my work. I was always careful to take excellent photographs of my work and create sale invitations utilizing my idea of good graphics. Though unsuccessful for many years, I maintained a slim but neat resume and applied for every grant I was aware of. While nothing really worked gangbusters, I was able to cobble enough money together to get by.
Where’s your copy?
Many of us dream about making pottery a career and Linda Christianson tells her story in the latest issue of Ceramics Monthly. You’ll find stories like this along with features on the latest in ceramic art trends and technology in each issue of CM.
As time went by, I became increasingly eager to have my own house and studio. After looking at a few run down farmhouses, I came face to face with the consequences of my choices. I had made a lot of pots, but had no savings to speak of. Early on, I had made a set of guidelines for myself:
- Make only what I really want to make
- Spend money on only essential things
- Never take out a loan
- Sell the pots so I can make more
- Surround myself only with things I love
- Say yes to interesting situations, even if they are scary or far reaching
As a child, I had helped my parents move and rebuild a couple of buildings at a historical museum. I decided to find an old log building to disassemble and move onto a secluded piece of woodland. After looking at several rotting structures, I found a Finnish log building a few hours drive away. With $500 cash, I was a homeowner! My mother cried upon seeing the cabin, but offered to loan me $7000 to purchase the woodland. While I had broken my no loan rule, it seemed the only way I could ever have my own place. Here was my permanent base camp.
My marketing scheme stayed the same: make what I want, and try to sell it to make more. Studio sales, a makeshift showroom, and some gallery exhibits brought in just enough money to pay the bills and keep going. I was lucky to have been invited to be a part of Warren MacKenzie’s annual fall sale and have some of my pots in his showroom year round.
With increased exposure through exhibits, I was asked to lead some workshops, be on panels at pottery conferences, and teach itinerantly at the college level. While moving a house and living without water or electricity were inconvenient, my fear of public speaking was crippling. This fear, coupled with disappointment in my own work coming out of the kiln, have been the biggest challenges in my pottery life. I have found ways to cope and transcend my fear of public speaking, even enjoying it at times. My disappointment is more complex, however, and I have had to make peace with my inner critic.
I am very lucky to have good health, and continue to indulge myself in outdoor adventure. My morning usually begins with a great cup of coffee, stretching, and a sweaty ski or run. Like many potters, I have had my struggles with back and hand issues. As long as I maintain a daily routine of stretching and exercises, all is well. Besides making things, my main drive in life is to be outside moving. Each day, I look forward to doing something outside at a kiln woodpile. Even going to the mailbox is a terrific little hike that breaks up the day.
The curiosity that compelled me to make pots all those years ago still holds up today for me. Lots of things have changed around me, including expensive health insurance, car payments, and now looking at colleges with my daughter. Some years ago my husband and I decided to build a new studio. It is beautiful and generous, but has taken seventeen years to build, adding as we could afford to. I no longer can live on financial bare bones. More and more time is spent away from the studio on correspondence, grant writing, travel, photo management, and writing and discarding emails. With the advent of the Internet, requests for materials seem to have shorter and shorter notices and deadlines. I find the office pace distracting and dizzying. I only recently have made a website, and I can’t imagine spending any more time on the computer with Facebook or other social media. It has become harder to maintain a rhythm in the studio, for there are office fires to be put out continually. My sense is that it takes more effort now to bring in what feels like a proportionally smaller amount of money. I am fortunate to be able to make what I want and live as close to an outdoor life as possible. If you’re just starting out, make what you really want to make.
To learn more about Linda Christianson or see more images of her work, please visit www.christiansonpottery.com.