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making a living from pots (

updated sun 21 feb 99


Marcia Kindlmann on sat 20 feb 99

Subject: making a living from pots (longish)

Mimi, your thoughtful post brings forth issues I've struggled with as a
home-oriented functional potter, but before I get too philosophical
about those let me focus on your questions:

> When time is limited, output is limited, and a small but regular
> customer base is desired, where am I best served in focusing my
> marketing energies?

Being able to sell outright to a nearby shop is excellent, but if there
are not enough of these wholesaling opportunities in your area (while
respecting your shops' sense of 'territory' as you work with them), you
might be able to build a customer base of private individuals. This can
happen eventually via participating in small-scale local craft fairs
(churches as well as synagogues in our area sponsor Sunday-only events)
-- and you already have the summer camp contacts. There's one potter in
our area who does very well at a local agricultural fair because she
teaches in the public school in the area and everyone recognizes her and
appreciates her work in the school.

After several years of doing local craft fairs (within 2 hours drive;
there are lots in CT; I don't know about your area) I've built up that
"small but regular customer base" who look forward to my annual open
house at my home, where they buy as much pottery as I sell all year in
these local shows. This is not enough to make a living, no way, but it
is very satisfying. The open house is held on two weekends, and on more
than one day per week, to give more people a chance to attend, at what
is for most a very busy time of year.

Getting to this point by doing local shows can take a lot of time and
patience, while you discover which shows work for your own pottery. In
some of these venues you may also find it helpful to dissociate your own
sense of professionalism from the scene you find yourself in. You will
see some 'crafts' which you are surprised to find in a show that calls
itself juried. Some people may ask, "What are YOU doing here?" ("selling
pottery," she smiles cheerily.) But in these shows I have discovered
loyal customers who've become regulars at my open house and others
who've generated orders for dinnerware and wedding gifts.

In these local shows I've priced my work at a level that's comfortable
-- "reasonable" -- to people who are aware that handmade work should
not be cheap. This is a tough one. Despite seeing price resistance
from some other people attending these fairs I have persisted in keeping
my prices comparable to those of potters who do try to make a living
with their work, both out of respect for them and for myself.

You ask,

> can I set a realistic price structure yet, based upon all the figures
> I've spent time at: overhead, materials, hours spent, etc; or do I have
> to introduce my work at less than that, as I see other part- timers do?

Depends on what you mean by realistic. If you mean getting paid per
hour for your time what a building contractor, a dentist, an architect
gets paid, and you consider _all_ the hours you spend in addition to
throwing, trimming, glazing -- all the time in firing, recycling clay,
meeting with shop owners etc -- this could be difficult. But if your
work is of good quality there is no reason why you should introduce it
at prices less than a good full-time potter would ask. Again, in this
endeavor it takes some endurance to resist prevailing public attitudes
-- for instance the idea that because your work is fun you really don't
need to make money at it. (Architects don't have fun?)

You mention other part-timers introducing their work at less than they
probably would if they considered all the time that goes into it. The
only way I've found to compete with this (at higher prices) is to have
more interesting glazes, a wider range of colors and a wider range of
pieces, and pots that beg to come home with people -- mug handles that
really feel good to hold, pitchers that have hearty handles but weigh
little when empty, then serving bowls on the other hand with some heft,
which thus keep the food warmer than a thin pot would; baking dishes
that can be easily grabbed with a potholder, and so forth.

It sounds as if you have a strong sense of professionalism toward your
work while being aware that marketing opportunities, in the venues that
most full-time potters typically consider "professional," are often
difficult to integrate with family and religious life. Our surrounding
culture presents a view of professionalism that is often located as much
in the marketing venues as in the work itself. Professionalism (and
the right to ask respectable prices) gets equated with working
full-time, with _having_ to make a living at it.

In my own dealings with these issues I've come to realize that
professional satisfaction can be located in my relationship to the pots
I make and to my individual customers, quite apart from that world out
there of prestigious shows & resumes. It is a responsibility to the
functional work -- eg. testing ovenware for thermal shock, finding
glazes that don't craze (yes Ron, freezing & boiling those test pieces 3
x) -- our fellow Clayarters can be very supportive in this.

In my own efforts to sort out what it means to take my work seriously
while working in clay part time, at an annual income level that is
definitely "hobby," I've also taken heart from what I've learned about
the potting life of Native Americans in New Mexico. Making pottery
there is one element in a life which includes family care and the
religious life of one's community. But nobody speaks of these potters
as "hobbyists" or expects prices for good work to be low. What I'm
saying is that it's helpful to see the prevailing mindset in our own
world -- the mindset that equates professional respect/ professional
pricing with fulltime work -- as an artifact of our own culture rather
than as an absolute truth.

Good luck,

Marcia in Guilford CT