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.
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.