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making a living at clay (long)

updated wed 10 jan 01


Tom Wirt/Betsy Price on tue 9 jan 01

Hi Gretchen,
Glad you asked....this topic hasn't come up for a while, although
there is quite a bit of information in the archives from past

Your description of "making a comfortable living" is a depends on what
you mean. I've often wondered how many actually make the bulk of
their family living from the making of pots, but I don't have a clue.
More than you might guess, but many/most have a spouse working a
"regular" job or make a significant portion from other activities such
as teaching.

If you're just doing clay, first off, it's hard work. And you need to
be self-disciplined. You mentioned $30,000 as a comfortable living.
If by $30,000 you mean net profit (after ALL) expenses, yes, you can
get by. But you won't ever put anything away for the day you want to
slow down a bit.

But if, as I suspect, you means SALES of $30,000, then your net
profit, what you have to live on, will be more like $12,000, and that
gets tough in the US. We (Betsy and I alone) have made sales of well
over $120,000 doing retail shows and on-site sales and orders. We
scaled that back a bit and do mostly wholesale now...shows are just
too much work and lose you too much time as a full time potter.

Our net from this is about $45-50,000, it's tough to tell since so
many things are part business, part personal, separated as best we can
for tax purposes. We work 7 days a week at this, taking time off when
and where we can, but if you're doing something you love, why do you
need time off? (as was recently discussed.) Potting for a living is
a life, not making a living. Like farming, it's all woven into one.

First thing it sounds like you need to do, if you haven't already, is
to sit down and "run some numbers". Set up some budgets. If you're
not into this yourself, find a friendly CPA, offer to pay his/her
hourly fee to help you work this up...or trade some pieces.

You'll probably have to set up 2 or 3 years ahead, making some
assumptions as to how you'll earn the income, and what you're expenses
will be. If you haven't done this before (as your post indicates),
you may want to get your feet under you before jumping off the cliff
working, as you note, at something else while you get into it.

A couple of suggestions, and I'm going to say them even though you may
have started doing some of them.
1.) Spend some time talking face to face with some people who are
doing what you think you want to. Check with clay suppliers for names
and phones of people you can contact.
2.) As you go into it, avoid debt at all costs. Better to go in
slowly with no debt until you have your studio facility and basic
equipment, than to jump in with big bills. Nothing kills the creative
instinct faster than nasty calls from collectors.
3.) Get some basic business background, maybe a community college
entrepreneurs course. And find some one or two person business people
to talk to. Check a local Chamber of Commerce
4.)Go to the art shows you might think of applying to, and talk to the
people showing work. If it's busy, set up some other time with them
rather than interrupting the show. These people can be your best
source of business info as well as what shows are best.
5.) Spend some serious time in the archives. Go back at least to
1/1/99 and use the search words
Accounting, business, Resume, Show, pricing, studio, fairs,
profit, order, commission, display, consignment.
The harshest thing I'll say here is that, if you're not willing to
spend a few hard hours doing this basic piece of research, potting
will be way too much.
6.) Get a few good business books...Wendy Rosen's, Steve Branfman to
name a couple. The art education you got at school, if it's typical
of those discussed on ClayArt, left out the practical side of making a
living at your art and that's what your question is all
it's good that you see the need for this part of your knowledge.

I'll be glad to answer any questions I can on or off list, and give
you all the encouragement I can. It's a tough road, but it is being
done by thousands and it's a very fulfilling way of life. Good luck.
(And as Les Kouba said, "Yes, the harder I work, the luckier I get.")

Tom Wirt
Clay Coyote Pottery
Hutchinson MN

----- Original Message -----
From: "Gretchen Woodman"
Subject: making a living at clay

> Dear Clatarters,
> I would be very interested in hearing how many
> of you make a comfortable living in the field of clay.
>I would really like to think I could make at
> least 30K doing my work if I attended Fine Craft
> Shows, sold through shops, etc.
> I keep pushing myself forward anyway, but it is
> difficult at times. Sometimes I wonder if it is only
> possible if you have another job.