Jennifer Allen Shares her Insights on Making a Living as A Potter

Being a potter is a romantic profession – what could be better than making beautiful things with your hands and getting paid for it? But as anyone who has embarked on being a potter as a career will tell you, it’s HARD work. And a lot of it.

In today’s post, potter Jennifer Allen talks about the trajectory of her career and shares advice for anyone doing this labor of love. – Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor.

 


 

 

I first knew I wanted to make pots for a living while working for a studio potter in Anchorage, Alaska (1998-2002). That was when the clay bug sunk its teeth in deep. Making a living off my work finally became a reality, but it’s a fairly new one. I’ve been making pots as a profession since 2006. As soon as I received my graduate degree in 2006, I went to the Archie Bray Foundation as a resident artist and Taunt Fellow. The fellowship helped alleviate most of my material and firing costs, but I still needed to get a part-time job so I could afford to pay rent, pump gas and buy food. During my first year at the Bray, I spent a lot of time marketing. I developed a website (with the help of a web designer) and put together promotional packets to send off to galleries. Lots of money was allocated to business cards, postcards, paper clips, résumé paper and printer ink. Still, I made sure to keep close track of all of my purchases in order to claim them as business expenses.

That first year outside of academia was the toughest. I’d been tossed into the real world and somehow had to find my footing. By my second year at the Bray, sales picked up, and I formed relationships with many galleries. However, I still needed to work part-time in order to make ends meet. Last year, I moved to Morgantown, West Virginia, bought a small house with my husband and am in the process of establishing myself as a studio potter in the community. Now I sell work in galleries and out of my studio. In this age of globalization, it’s also important to promote and sell work online. This becomes a tricky task. The Internet plays a major role in growing one’s market by making the work accessible to a limitless audience. However, the tactile exchange between object and user is impossible to simulate online. I make physical objects, not images of objects. In the future, I will add both regional craft fairs and internet sales to my retail galleries and studio events. This way, I will have an image presence online and an object presence in my community.

As studio artists, our jobs become much more complicated than just making pots in the studio. We become managers, bookkeepers, advertisers, shippers, technicians, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, educators, etc. This type of lifestyle has the potential to wear on people; therefore, it is our responsibility to remind ourselves to take a break every now and then. Like most potters, I work in my studio seven days a week. In order to recharge, I need to spend time outside of my studio. This may mean visiting museums in the region, attending conferences, lectures and workshops, or chatting with fellow potters. It is also important for me to experience the local landscape, as it has tremendous influence on my work. The best way for me to do this is to go on long walks.

My husband and I recently welcomed our first child.  Since she arrived, it’s been a challenge juggling parenthood, studio time and teaching.  Needless to say, my priorities have changed a bit.  But I am very lucky to have a supportive husband who will let me sneak down to the studio for a few hours here and there.  Since I have less studio time, I find that I am able to spend my time more efficiently.  I also find that I want to experiment a lot more (with forms, glaze combos, pattern designs, etc).  Since I started this new chapter in my life, I feel like it’s time for my work to do the same.

When I worked in a pottery in Alaska, I started by wedging clay, mopping the floor and hauling water. This combination of tasks really took a toll on my body and I exhausted both wrists pretty quickly. Now, I buy my porcelain from a local clay manufacturer. My time is precious, and if I can spend added time painting stripes on a pitcher rather than mixing and wedging clay, pre-mixed clay is worth every penny.

Health and health insurance are major concerns for potters. Health insurance is extremely expensive, but due to the physical demands on our bodies and the environmental risks involved with our profession, it is a necessity. I am fortunate to have a husband who has health insurance. In fact, we got married one year before our wedding so I could be added to his policy. Last year, I developed extreme pain in my lower back from overextending unfit muscles. Since then, I have become very conscious of improving my overall health. I work out in a gym five days a week doing a combination of cardiovascular training, strengthening, stretching and core exercises. I also meet with a nutritionist once every three months in order to address dietary needs. I look at my gym’s monthly membership as an investment in preventative health care. After all, I am investing in my biggest asset, myself.

For those who are considering studio pottery as a profession: Read as much as you can, but don’t forget to read for pure enjoyment as well as for research. Go to museums, gallery openings, conferences, workshops, lectures, craft fairs, farmers’ markets and meet people who share similar interests. Live with the pots you make and live with the pots of others. Befriend a web-designer and digital photographer or choose to tackle the tasks yourself. Remember to leave your comfort zone and experience things on your own (it’s much easier to approach others and network this way). Find a balance between work and play. Establish yourself locally, but think and promote globally. Don’t stand on the outside and stick one toe in, but rather jump on in, and let your whole self be a part of this madness!
Comments
  • Loved reading your article Jen! Miss working near you but it has been years since we were in the same studio. I can relate to all your juggling and hard work. I have two girls to manage, a studio, a school, a home, teaching, and the list goes on. Glad that we are all out there still making! Come visit us in Boston the next time you need to get out of the studio cycle!
    Kirsten Bassion

  • I enjoyed reading about you and your lovely work Jennifer. Like you, I consider my body the major tool of the trade, and try to treat it with as much care and respect as possible, especially now that it is getting close to 40 years that I’ve been working with clay. In addition to maintaining an active physical fitness routine, I have also changed my throwing position to an upright one, as a result of a herniated disc one year ago. If there is one piece of advice I would give to upcoming potters it is this: start to preserve your back now by learning to throw standing up. We put enough stress on our backs by loading kilns, hauling boxes of clay or heavy buckets, etc. so take every opportunity you can to be in an anatomically correct position. It’s an investment that will pay big dividends!

  • In my 15 years as a potter 2 people have had the most impact on my forms and surface decorations. Jen you and Chris Antemann have inspired me tremendously! I am privileged to call you my friend & mentor

  • As someone who is in the process of becoming a professional artist, I found this article to be very helpful 🙂 I found this comment interesting:

    “We become managers, bookkeepers, advertisers, shippers, technicians, bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, educators, etc. This type of lifestyle has the potential to wear on people….”

    One thing I have taken away from a number of women working in creative industries is the need to delegate non-core tasks as much as possible.

    For example, website design is something quite technical, and if you enjoy doing it, it can be fun to spend hours fiddling with layouts and fonts. But if web design is not your core business, it can be better to spend $1000 and get something really slick, professional and with an e-commerce component, rather than waste $3000 of your time doing it yourself, to get something with less functionality, which doesn’t look as good.

    One woman spoke of her struggles for years to keep her house clean while running a very demanding Yoga business. She felt embarrassed about hiring a cleaner, until her sister pointed out that she was making $150 an hour for a yoga class, which was what her time was worth; and she was exhausting herself doing cleaning work that she could pay someone $25 an hour to do. This freed up her time enormously and allowed her to put more time into expanding her classes to include Kids classes and Mums and Bubs classes, which in turn, expanded her business enormously. (I’m in Australia, BTW if those numbers sound a bit funny to you !)

    Now I’m not in a position to either pay someone $1000 for a website, or to hire a cleaner (dang !) but I do think that as a working artist its worth investing in childcare, or advertising, or website design or whatever it is that is needed to free you up to do your work…

    But I am currently squeezing in production around the edges of an already busy life, and I can see that if if I want to move up to the next level, I am going to have to find some way to make this trade-off between being in my studio and making ceramics, and everything else….

    And its hard, because I am not making anywhere *near* enough to justify it financially. But I can’t move up to the next level unless I free up more time, somehow. Its a catch-22 and I suspect the answer is to work harder and sleep less 😀 which is why I have found this article so helpful – I love seeing how other artists have made this life work for them.

  • As a now-retired production thrower for over 20 years, 2 things come to mind: learn to throw using a mirror (no more bending the neck and scrunching the back), and car kilns rule-no deep reaching with a heavy kiln shelves to strain the back and feet (yes feet. Many years of kiln loading caused me severe plantar fasciitis.)And I agree, premixed clay is the way to go along with buying the other services mentioned, wedging clay saves little, and earns nothing but a sore back! concentrate on what you do best and bring others to help with the rest.

  • Jen, thanks for the straight talk. Inspiring, challenging, exciting, I appreciate all of the comments as well, thank you! I love the idea of creating a community around you that can help support and assist each other to benefit both parties. Really great, thank you again. Your seminar sounds like it will be very fun, wish I was closer.
    Amanda J

  • Thank you, Jennifer, for this informative article and the perspective you give here! I am currently in the process of beginning to sell my work after recently finishing school and welcoming a new baby. It is a challenge to find time but you are so right, when you only have those small moments, you have to find ways to make your time more productive. It’s great to hear about your success as a mother & artist.

  • Yay! Another potter from Alaska…great insights, and it gives me hope. Your work is beautiful!

  • I really liked your balanced views, thank you. I am just setting up a pottery in Maputo, Mozambique where there are lots of challenges above those already mentioned in the article and comments above! But with passion I’m sure I’ll succeed. Emma Cardoso

  • Hi Jen Just to say thanks for your work/life story. I read it with hope as I am starting up my own business in the coming weeks as a potter/jack of all trades/general dogsbody over here in Ireland. I too have to look after my body after 20 years of not doing any exercise since I have left school. Walking briskly for about an hour and yoga work for me especially the yoga. And you are right in making time going to museums/galleries etc. just to see what other people are doing! Thanks again.
    Róisín Daly

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