Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Whoa, Curve Ball!

Bustier baskets are some of the higher-end, more labor intensive pieces I can work on in the bleak mid-winter, when no one is waiting on orders. I like the baskets, they are fun and somewhat figurative without being overly literal. Here's a typical bustier basket from last year.:

I threw some larger items yesterday, and started the altering and decorating this afternoon. I was a little dissatisfied with the one I'm currently working on - thought it was blocky and ungraceful -  but I also know the ones you don't love are great chances to try new things- you already don't like it, right? Nothing to lose. Here's how it looked right off the wheel:
I started by cutting the overly-wide rim. Then bending it, then cutting a dart from the waist to interrupt the symmetry that was reading so static and dead.  Then I stretched the bottom a bit...and it started to be something I'd never envisioned:

Still needs lots of work, of course: a handle, some sprigs, and hours of slip trailing. But I am delighted with its transformation, and the way that clay can still surprise me.

More Thoughts on Branding

I realized a few things about this topic after I posted about this last time, and those are these:

  1. Most (not all, but most) of the potters I know who are making an actual living, as opposed to having a higher-earning spouse or family money (not that there's anything wrong with that - believe me, no snotty judgement here) or working another job, are potters who have a line, or a few lines, of production, the work from which is very, very consistent. You might say these are the most well-branded potters: customers know what they are getting, and they know they will get the same thing every time. I am thinking of outfits like Union Pottery, and The Potter's House (owned by my good friend Mary K. Spencer) here in Maine. Purchasing from these potteries is more like buying from a big retailer: you chose the style you want, as many as you want, and trust that they will be exactly the same. You can order matching pieces, and you can feel confident that, if you want to order six more mugs later, you can still get them. These potters have found a road between creativity and commerce that works for them.And:
  2. Part of the reason it works is because it fits in the model shoppers are comfortable with, because most of their buying experiences are with big, consistent retailers. Buying a one-of-a-kind piece from an individual, it's different. It's outside of the comfortable predictability. And:
  3. I already tried that road, and it doesn't work for me. Remember Cottage, Lodge, and Sweet Life? I designed three lines, going on four, so I could pursue all of my aesthetic inclinations, when I realized it was too limiting. After a short while I didn't want to make any of them, even if they started selling like hot dogs at Fenway. This put me in mind of all those silly books in the 80s about how to make a man fall in love with you. The strategy may have worked, but by the time it did you'd despise him.
But I digress.
I've received several comments and emails to the effect that having a very recognizable style and body of work is what passes for branding among studio as opposed to production potters. (Again, no judgement. Just examining what works or and what doesn't for me.) I think I am approaching that point, so maybe branding is not my problem at all.

Instead I think I need to spend more time thinking about marketing: the process of getting the work in front of the people who might buy it, and  selling: the process of convincing those people it's a good way to spend their money.

I remain convinced that the work itself is not the problem, in part because of some good advice I got from Bob Briscoe, a near-legend of a Mingei-soda potter. I was getting discouraged and wondering aloud if maybe the work was just not good enough. I can't remember his exact words but Bob said something to the effect of: Never do that. Nothing good can come of it. If you're in the studio every day, committed to making the best pots you can, what more can you do?

Sort of scary that that was 20 years ago, and I still have the same problems now. On the other hand, I'm still standing, still throwing, still firing.

That's something.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Three Days in the Studio

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

I did not get a whole hell of a lot done in the studio yesterday. Sometimes a whole day just gets swallowed by minutia: grocery shopping, scooping the litterboxes, checking the oil, calling my mother, making a pot of soup. These are all important and valuable accomplishments, but so mundane they sort of leave me with that where-did-the-day-go? feeling.

I did unmold and slice a new loaf of soap, called Stormy Night; taught my evening class; and wrote a blog post for Wicked Cozy.  I had forgotten how hard it is to gain readers! I see some of you have given me a leg up, G+ing the new blog for me. Thanks for that. The new post will publish on Monday.

I think to have fewer of these "lost days," I need to get back in the habit of to-do lists to keep me on track. I always seem to overdo the lists and put like fifteen items on them, which I then inevitably fail to accomplish. So, trying to keep it in the realm of the doable:
  • Finish leatherhard ware
  • Clean studio! It's getting to that point where it's hard to work because of all the stuff just laying around, in the way. 
  • Throw mugs to get a jump on this year's Mug Season 
  • Go to the gym. This is not my favorite thing, but it's part of the holy trinity of self-care - sleep, nutrition, and exercise - that keep me out of that dark place where my mind sometimes falls. (I'm good today, though. Think things are on the upswing.)
  • Make at least one follow up call to the emails I sent to stores last week.  Man how I hate to do those calls! But emails alone are almost never enough. I get myself to do it by promising myself I only have to do one. Sometimes after the first one it's easier, and I continue. But no pressure!
  • Put together a Thursday Inspiration post.  If you squint your eyes a little, any day can be Thursday.
And tomorrow:
  • Sort pots into Best, Pretty Good, and Bargain bins. I am starting to get a crazy-lot of pots in that last category. Nothing wrong with them, just that they are demos, so don't fit with my body of work, or the color didn't make me happy, or I'm just tired of looking at them. This year's Maine Pottery Tour is going to include a giant clearance table. 
  • Put handles on those Mug Season Mugs. 
  • Go the the gym, again.  That pesky chore just will not stay done.
  • I hope to have a couple of hours of unfettered studio time to just make whatever comes to mind. This is my reward for getting the rest of my list done!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Silvery Lining

Whenever I am not in the studio, I keep it closed off to save on heating bills. Those are particularly brutal this winter, what with the polar vortex and whatnot; today was in the single digits. Not delightful, by any stretch, but look at the beautiful frost paintings on my windows!

It's not cold enough - quite - to freeze my clay, fortunately.  I really hate when the clay freezes, it's goopy and wet on the outside of the block and too dry in the middle, and needs to be wedged pretty much forever before it's ready to use. Sometimes I just write the date on it and come back to it in a few months, when the moisture will have migrated back to where it belongs.

 Anyway! No such misfortune today. Today I am trimming casseroles and thinking, funnily enough, of ice cream bowls.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My Students Are Awesome, Part A Million

Some dessert plates by my student and friend Maureen Renner.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Question I CAN Answer

Still rolling thoughts about branding and its big brother, marketing, around in my head. Much of what is written on the subject has some overlap, naturally, and one question keeps cropping up: who is your market? Who buys your products?

At first it seems like a tough question, and my contrarian impulse is to resist it: how the hell do I know? Anyone and everyone can use pottery. They buy it, they take it home, I don't ask them to fill out a survey.

But I do know, or I have an idea.

So, who buys my work, and for what?
  • Women more often than men
  • Middle income or higher; just by definition, it has to be someone who has some disposable income
  • Buyers are often shopping for a gift 
  • Often people are shopping for their cabin or vacation home. 
Most interestingly:
  • One category of people buys probably 80% of the ware I sell online, and that category is other potters.
I am always very appreciative when potters buy my work; that is a very special feeling. But there are a couple of takeaways here. One is, it's a losing game to market pottery primarily to potters. Coals to Newcastle, you know? 80% of the ware I sell online is to potters, but I hardly sell anything online. Because my primary audience are people who have no need of more pottery (though, like me, they sometimes have desire for more pottery!!) and not a whole lot in the way of spending money. No offense, y'all. I'd buy all of your work all the time, too, if I had the money, but we're potters, so, you know. We don't. Also, there just are not all that many of us, not enough to be the primary market.

The point here is that the reason my web sales are to potters (when I sell online at all) is not because potters like my work more than other people do (or, I dunno, maybe they do, but that's not the point) but because that's who I've been able to connect with online. That's who sees my pots.Who reads this blog? Potters! Which makes me think....I've been able to reach you all. Maybe I could also reach others: those gift-shoppers and people with lake homes....maybe through a different blog. One about...what? Home decor? Cooking? Gardening? Or all of those, under the rubric of the Maine Lifestyle.

This might be blue-skying. I hardly have time to do the things already on my docket, never mind maintain another blog, which would need to be updated a few times a week, at least, to gain any readership. Still, it's a thought. And that's what the Week of Reflection is for.

EDIT: Giving it a shot.  If I find I don't have time to keep it update, well, you can't get fired from your own blog. No harm in trying.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Grudge Match: Branding vs. The Eyeroll

I've been reading with interest a conversation started by clay blogger Tracey Broome and chimed in by  Michael Kline over at Sawdust and Dirt. It's about branding and how it relates to studio artists, and seems to dovetail with the thoughts I've been mulling lately.

First, I have to make a confession: I don't exactly know what branding is. I mean, I know the definition of the word:
brand´ • ing : v., burning a mark into the skin of an animal (such as a cow) to show who owns the animal
Wait, that can't be right....they probably mean this sense of the word: 
brand´ • ing: n., :  the promoting of a product or service by identifying it with particular qualities or values. 
Which is all fine, but what I have trouble with is how it applies to a studio artist. I mean, it's great if I say I want people to think of my work as creative and well crafted, but...who doesn't? Nobody's slogan is, "I'm a Hack!" And the only way to claim those qualities is for the work to actually be creative and well crafted. Which I would do anyway. So I'm missing something, here.

To figure out what, I did some more reading. Most of what's out there on branding is positively eye-rolling for potters, and artists in general, because it's not really aimed at us. (Even the one aimed at artists was not much better.) Integrate your brand into how you answer your phone! That's if I ever did answer my phone, which I don't because it's never for me anyway. And here's a scary quote from the Bloomberg Business Week article: "Branding is about getting your prospects to perceive you as the only solution to their problem." Gaaaaaah! That is literally impossible for me. There are thousands of excellent potters from whom a person could purchase a sugar bowl.

Maybe I am being too literal.

Part of the problem is that obvious efforts at branding seem laughable and hokey. An artist with a tagline? Come on.  Cue the eye-roll.

Ouch! A thought just hit me, hard. Have you ever gone out with friends to Karaoke Night? Karaoke night is no fun if you can't quit rolling your eyes, drop your self-consciousness, and belt it out. Part of my resistance to the whole idea of branding is that it will be obvious what I am doing, and generate eye-rolls out there in TVland. But, so what? I love karaoke. I don't care who thinks I'm a cornball up there crooning Total Eclipse of the Heart.

But, flip! It does matter. The people who I need to like my work are pretty sophisticated. If I send out an email to stores or galleries, and the signature line contains a tagline, an eyeroll in that situation is near-fatal. It seems like any obvious attempt at branding could cause a potter - even a good one - to be perceived as a hack. A cornball hack.

It seems like I need to do more thinking on this matter. Back atcha tomorrow.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Do What You Love, Blah Blah Blah

I've been reading articles lately (here's one) on following your passion as a work/life choice, a topic which is very close to home for me. (Hey Captain Obvious! Missed you.) The full mantra is either "Do what you love. Love what you do" or "Do what you love and the money will follow." BWAAA-HAAAAA-HAAA-HA-HA!!! HAH! HA! HA!

Oh, my, let me catch my breathe a bit. That last one really hits me funny bone for some reason.

Smart assitude aside, I've been an advocate for this approach, never noticing the snobbery built into it. The aphorisms themselves suggest that if you find yourself doing a tedious or unpleasant job, it's because you were insufficiently dedicated to your passion. If only everyone would do what they love, then every job would be filled by passionate, enthusiastic people!

Except, no. Most jobs in the world are not especially lovable, but somebody still needs to do them. Somebody needs to assemble the iphones, if they are going to get assembled. Somebody needs to take away the rubbish. It's hard to imagine a person busing dishes as a calling because of their deep love of the work and dedication to being the best damn busboy ever. I'm not saying one should not do what they love; only that we should recognize the extraordinary privilege built into the freedom to make that choice.

Even me. Especially me.

I do what I love, yes. I make pottery and teach others to make pottery, and I love doing it. And the money has not followed from just loving what I do and my commitment to do it as well as it can be done, no. I've made the financial end work by hook or by crook, but it's an outright lie to imply that just dedication to a passion will cause the world to supply one with a living. The fact that we are still afloat owes much to middle class beginnings and privileges: I have a college education, and a mid-Atlantic accent that helps me interview very well when I have needed to grab a temp job to cover a shortfall. We made it through December because many of our Christmas presents were Hannaford gift cards (thank God), made possible because we have family who can afford to buy gift cards. Our car recently died, so we drove a vehicle borrowed from a friend who is traveling for a few months until we could replace it. Friends with resources are a privilege, too.

Right now I am struggling with whether I can continue to be potter in a full time way.  This is not a pity party (although the next time I have one, you'll surely get a gold-plated invitation and a ringside seat; I do love me a good pity party.) This is an observation: part of my struggle here is a sense of shame, that I might have to lower myself to do work which is merely work. And that is bullshit.

There is no failure there. I want to get past the reverence for creative pursuits above more mundane ones which makes me feel I am wasting the Gifts of the Magi or something if I decide that the necessary thing for me and my family is for me to get an office job. No more than I am wasting my talents as a receptionist (and I can joke about it, but I really was a very good receptionist) by spending my days with muddy hands.

This isn't a big announcement, and more likely than not I will find a way to keep on keeping on, because I am stubborn as hell and maybe a little selfish. Instead, this is  a shout-out to the folks whose work is purely work, an economic activity, and a reminder to myself not to devalue those whose jobs that are done of necessity rather than passion. If I join their ranks, I am still me, still a person, still making a contribution.

Looks like the Week of Reflection has begun.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Thursday Inspiration: Linda Styles

See lots more of Linda's amazing work here.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Whatcha Doin'?

As in previous years, I am using the relative freedom of January to work on some larger pieces. No one is waiting for orders or needing empty shelves filled in post haste, so I can take all the time I want with the stamps and slip bottles.

Also, the seed catalogs have arrived, sweet harbingers of spring, and my mind has leapt forward to the Maine Pottery Tour, which this year will be on the first weekend in May. I've got such a backlog of demo pots and minor seconds that I'm thinking to use the tour as a humongo-ginormous studio clearing sale. It's either that or Hammer Party, or possibly both, the one following the other.

Also, briefly, thanks muchly for all the kind inquiries which followed my post about depression. This could easily become the all-depression-all-the-time blog if I let it - and wouldn't that be a treat - but suffice it for now to say that I am functional, some days better than others. I have ideas for more informative blog posts - demos, videos, etc. - but those are still a little too daunting to tackle. For now, I am working, which is always a good sign. I'm also lurking on all of your blogs, which helps me feel connected.

A few more pots in progress:

How are you spending your January freedom?

PS. I could have sworn I'd already done a photo tutorial a couple of years ago on the Jaunty Jars - the ones with the tipsy lids. But I can't find it, so maybe I just thought so much about it I convinced myself I'd already done it. Anyway. It's on the list. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Thursday Inspiration: Megan Mitchell

See lots more of Megan's intriguing work here.