I was 36 when I got my MFA in 1978. I was offered two not-very-appealing jobs, one as a part-time ceramics instructor at a nearby college, another as a ceramics studio tech at another college. I knew the responsible thing to do would be to take one of these jobs, but I also knew that if I did, I wouldn’t make many pots. So I set up a studio in my basement. My first job as a potter consisted of making 288 unglazed earthenware cylinders every month, each imprinted with a hand-made stamp bearing the words “Cook’s Tools,” at 50¢ a pop.
Since then two modes of selling and marketing my work have evolved. During the 1980s a large portion of my income came from gallery sales, but selling directly from my studio has been my principal means of support for the last 20 years. I did participate in some craft fairs at the beginning of my career, but I soon decided I’d try to avoid that route if I could due to too much time spent not making pots.
Wholesaling has its advantages—for one thing, it gets my work out to a wider audience—but the disadvantages are considerable. There’s the 50/50 split, of course, and the packing and shipping involved. More importantly, I have no interaction with the customer, and there’s a limit to how much of my work any one gallery can display. Galleries can (and do) go out of business or change direction with respect to the kind of work they want to carry. I don’t make many high-priced pots, and since I work entirely alone I find it difficult to produce the volume of work that an extensive network of galleries requires.
In 1979 I was offered a residency at Penland School of Crafts. My wife and I fell in love with the area and decided to settle in western North Carolina. As luck would have it, this area gets many visitors during the summer and fall, and the number of vacation homes has increased significantly in the last 20 years or so. A customer base was thus established.
I prefer to sell from my studio. Over the years I’ve managed to build a solid clientele throughout the southeast, accomplished primarily through word of mouth. The studio provides for real communication between the customer and the maker. I’m able to explain the process and techniques used in making my pottery, and visitors are able to view all stages of the process. I think this is important to the way they experience the pottery, and their responses and feedback are certainly important to the way I experience being a potter. It’s enormously satisfying to see and hear a customer’s pleasure in the work.
Visitors to the studio have a large range of items to choose from, more than would be available in a gallery. Many of my customers like to spend time rummaging through pots, creating their own table settings, experimenting with different combinations of colors, patterns, and forms. They also place orders for custom work, or for pots that might not be available when they visit.
One of the disadvantages of studio selling is that, for me at least, it’s seasonal—not too many folks around from January to April. During this time I work on individual and gallery orders and build up inventory. If time permits, which it rarely does, I can also try to do some new work.
Another disadvantage is that I have a somewhat limited population to draw on, and market saturation is always a threat. Though I’ve been here so long I now have second generation customers, I worry that sooner or later my base will become exhausted.
As I became aware of these deficiencies, I began to think about ways to expand my market. I now regularly participate in the TRAC (Toe River Arts Council) semi-annual studio tour that takes place in Mitchell and Yancey counties. The tour opens my studio to visitors who might not otherwise see my work. More recently, I joined the Potters of the Roan, a guild that has focused on encouraging buyers and collectors to visit and buy directly from members’ studios. To this end, the guild produces a brochure, a map to studio locations, and maintains a website: www.pottersoftheroan.com. I also participate in a recent local innovation, The Spruce Pine Potters Market (www.sprucepinepottersmarket.com), an October weekend show, now in its fifth year. Thirty area potters participate, and the event is only about 20 minutes from home.
Presently these two websites constitute the extent of my involvement with digital and social media. I have only recently started compiling a mailing list, and even that is handwritten in a notebook—an actual paper notebook.
With respect to health and fitness, I’ve been a pretty regular runner since before I became a potter and I like to think this has been of some benefit. Karen, my wife of 40 years, is a great cook and has always placed high emphasis on a healthy diet. My work day is broken up so much that I don’t spend long hours at any one task, which means I’m exercising different muscle groups all the time. We’ve been growing our own organic vegetables for about 25 years, and working in the garden also adds to the variety of my physical activity. At any rate, I haven’t had any serious pottery-related ailments over the years.
I’m on Medicare now, but except for a year or two we’ve been without health insurance. I did buy insurance once, years ago, but the rates increased so dramatically each quarter, without our ever having filed a single claim, that we could no longer afford to keep it up. I’m still paying on a $40,000 hospital bill I acquired about five years ago.
I think the biggest change I’ve seen in the potter’s lifestyle over the past 30 years is the same change nearly every profession has undergone in that time: the digital revolution. There’s a whole new set of marketing skills I don’t have, and would have to have if I were starting out now. There are also a whole lot more potters out there than there were 30 years ago, so many that I don’t think a potter beginning today could get away with my lackadaisical approach to marketing. On the upside, there is also much more information available to young potters, information, for instance, about how to set up a studio and other practicalities.
Things have changed so much, in fact, I’m not sure my experience will be of much use to those just embarking on a career as a studio potter. I would certainly recommend that a young potter be more prudent and foresightful than I was. I kind of recklessly plunged into this without seriously thinking about whether I could actually make a living. Though I’ve worked very hard and have been thoroughly committed to my work, I realize now, looking back, that I had a hell of a lot of good luck, too.
I’m sure there are more efficient ways of being a studio potter, but my “potter’s lifestyle” has meant working seven days a week most weeks, vacationing rarely, and living modestly. My advice to young potters: If that doesn’t sound too daunting, go for it.