Thursday, April 9, 2015

Mugs and Models - NCECA 2015 Pre-conference lecture adaptation


The topic of this lecture was to be loosely based around "yesterday, today and tomorrow"  and although my title suggests "then, now and something after that"  I'm really not going to talk very much about the "then".  I trust that most, if not all of you have some sense of the history of studio pottery in the U.S., wether its through years of being one yourself, apprenticing with a potter, reading about pots and potters or just being here this weekend. . . .  What I chose to focus on is how the current generation of working potters is making it.  "IT" meaning not their work, but their living.
Western New England has an incredibly healthy and growing population of crafts people, and in particular potters, and even more particularly those in the GenX to Millennial crowds. 
I surveyed 10  from the region to give a cross section of how the modern potter makes his and her living.  With the exception of one, all are working outside of academia.  I wish I could have included so many more, infact, Molly Hatch, who is here is from western Mass and just moved into the same studio building as some of the potters in this slide talk.  Also, Sam Taylor and Adero Willard are also from the west side, and are working like crazy on POW - Pots on Wheels, which I can't wait to see. 
The 10 here were accessible on short notice (and thank you to all of them, by the way) for this 30 minute presentation.

I mentioned short notice, as Mary Barringer was supposed to have been speaking to you right now, but has become quite the jet-setter now that she's free from editing . . . so here I am instead, but to set the stage for our 10 cast members of The Real-World Ceramics, I'll read from her editorial in the 2010 "Money" issue of The Studio Potter:
"Older and more established makers tend toward thoughtful parsing of the role money plays in their studio practice, while young potters voice frustration and resentment at the script they have been handed for navigating a life in clay.  Starting up a studio now, when credit is tighter, real estate more expensive, and student loans an additional drain on the monthly budget, seems out of reach.  They wonder how their teachers and mentors managed, and suspect that they haven't been given the whole story."

Last year at the 2014 American Pottery Festival at Northern Clay Center, in Minneapolis, these three potters led a panel discussion on business models.   They had some really great advice, but all agreed that they didn't have "the answer" and shared their personal story of success.  Dan Finnegan is talking here about how he looks at all his expenses in terms of the revenue from a single mug.  I'm not sure what his price-point is, but mine is about $40.  
And, I of course, I get $20 if I'm selling through a gallery.  But, let's just say I get the full $40.  I have about 750 mugs worth of student loans to pay off. You can do the math. I'll come back to Mary's and Dan's ideas later, for now, here's what making it in 2015 looks like, (in ascending order by age).

Justine Figura is a super newbie at this game, but got her kickstarter project funded last year for a new kiln in a new studio and is pretty much busting her ass in the studio and working two other jobs to get a whole sale line of pottery up and running which will feature original decal designs by her printmaker husband.  

Her studio is in Florence, MA, and before this she apprenticed with Donna Polseno. She clearly values her apprenticeship more than her degree. When asked about her long-term goals she said that financial stability is her top priority, but that pure joy in making pots would be good too.  "Otherwise," she said, "What's the point?"

Dawn Dishaw is a ceramist (By the way, these folks self-titled as potter, artist, ceramist, etc.) She is living and working in Easthampton, MA, and has an office job 5 hours a week that "gets her out of the house," but 98% of her income is from making pots. 

When asked how long she'd been a ceramist, she answered, "full time since 2013. But I've considered myself one since 2008 . . . or maybe since I graduated in 2003?"  So, actually she doesn't know, but does it matter?  She's not been an apprentice, but takes cues from potters like one, as she followed Ayumi's advice, and followed it well in my opinion.  

Ben Eberle  recently relocated to Conway, MA from Cambridge, where he quit his job as a high school teacher to purchase and remodel an historic home where he hopes to start an artist residency program with his wife, who is a printmaker.  

Ben apprenticed with Toshiko Takaezu, which supremely influenced how he thinks about his life.  He said, "making meaningful, functional, unique pots and passing them on to the world is a beautiful thing, but teaching other people to do it - especially younger artists - is nearly untouchable."  

Steve Theberge has an ongoing work-exchange agreement with Mark Shapiro, for whom he also apprenticed 1998-2000. He splits his time between that and working at Snow Farm, a New England crafts program.  

Steve recently spent almost three years in monastic training at a Zen Buddhist temple in Japan, where he also was able to study Japanese ceramics in an informal way.  He articulates beautifully what kind of effect that experience had on him.  

Rob works for Laura Zindel Design in Brattleboro, and also has a small independent studio space within her production facility.  When I asked him what his long term goals are, understandably he found it difficult to answer: his second child was due March 18th.  He mustered, "I know I'll make pots, and they'll grow and change just as I will.  And right now that feels like a good answer."  

Rob is self-taught as a potter, he majored in political science and international studies.  Even though income from his own work is only 1/3, he is pleased to be working in the field for 100% of it, but says his ideal situation would be to work for himself in a capacity that supported his family. 

Maya Machin is also a former apprentice of Mark Shapiro, and has her own studio on Ashfield, MA.

Maya is a new mom, and also works part-time as a bookkeeper.  So, when I asked her about the ways she sells pots and which brings her the most revenue, she gave me the complete breakdown in specific percentages.  Something tells me she'll have no problem raising her son and getting that kiln built at the same time.  

Megan Mitchell teaches at Marlboro College in Vermont.  A few things set her apart from the rest of the potters here:  she works in academia, she says that although she's been an apprentice and a studio assistant in the past, her graduate experience tops the list of experiences that have influenced her work.  

Megan would like to be in the studio more, and teaching less, but she says that she doesn't want to be production oriented, she doesn't want to find a formula that works and repeat it of the next twenty years.  She says she enjoys how difficult it is to work in ceramics, and is propelled forward by curiosity about what lies around the next corner. 

Michael McCarthy's studio is at his home in Goshen, MA where nearby on a friend's property, he has built and fires his own wood-fueled salt kiln.  3/4 of his income is from teaching at Austen Riggs, a private residential hospital in Stockbridge, MA.

Michael belongs to the Shapiro lineage as well. When asked about how he sells his work, he said, "I keep getting sales from Instagram. For reals.  It's kinda crazy because it's free.  And I think it's odd that people learn about me that way but it's what people are doing now.  I'm sure next year people will be bored of Instagram and it will be something else."

Eric Smith has a workshop and kiln on his property in Cummington, MA.  
Eric is the classic studio potter of the group: 100% of his income is made through pots, he has a regular production and firing cycle, and the majority of his sales are made directly from his workshop.  He has a "very small presence on Etsy".  He is of the Mark Hewitt school of apprentices, and says the influence is very strong, not only in the pots, but my work ethic and how I run my business.  

12 years after starting her pottery business, Tiffany Hilton took the plunge into full-time studio work  and quit her day-job as a Librarian - where she was earning less than half of her total income, but had health insurance benefits.  

I can imagine this was a tough decision, but she says she now wakes up excited for her day.  "Having apparently reached mid-career status by being included in this lecture?," she says, "I appreciate getting to choose what projects I want to work on, even turn away custom orders that don't interest me."


You may have noticed that the majority of the potters you've just learned about have paid off their student load debt, and that's pretty damn impressive. Bravo! Leave it to a potter to pay that down one mug at a time. Yet, the fact remains that most HAD or still HAVE it.  That is a model that must change in the arts. 
Other fields will continue to offer more online courses and degrees, and eventually, the cost will drop to minimal or even free. While studio art may attempt to be an online class, tactile skills will be clumsily learned, and providing space and materials will allow it to remain one of the most expensive education fields. Furthermore, nearly all of the artists here valued their non-traditional educational experiences in clay hands-down over their traditional education.  
The way we do education in the arts needs a new model.  And subsidies or loans for tuition are not the answer.  Education needs to be less expensive, AND alternative options need to be valued equally.  
The Culinary Institute of America, mandates externships, which are 15-week experiences in real world environments, and rumor has it that if you are enrolled, you must also be currently working a job in the field.  Their tuition isn't low, but their curriculum is set up for success in the field.  After all, who want's to go to a restaurant where the chef knows all there is to know about food theory, but is clumsy with a knife, and has know idea where his ingredients come from or how expensive they are?
Even K-12 teachers in any education program have to complete required student teaching.  
While there are some programs that emphasize internships or similar external experiences, I don't think I'm alone in saying that through both my BFA and MFA studies not one professor asked me: so how are you going to set up your studio, support yourself, pay your taxes, and cover the 30 grand you borrowed?   
Should they have? It's debatable. But, isn't part of what I'm paying for to be prepared to contribute to my field of study?

Back to the potters, though . . . . 
Each one of these 10 potters have different goals, values, relationships, priorities that guide their lives and the choices they make to build a livelihood in ceramics that suits their needs.  The most important word here is probably choice.  In her editorial, Mary Barringer speculated frustration among young potters who aren't satisfied with the script they've been handed, and are skeptical about not having been given the whole story.  And Dan Finnegan and his panel did their best to provide an answer for what a business model might look like for a ceramist. I argue that there isn't one answer, and the whole story cannot be simply given to those aspiring a life in clay (at any age!). They have to write their own script.  
We are exceptionally fortunate that we live in a society of choice, where people have enough expendable income to buy our work and support our livings as makers of beautiful objects, functional or not.  The modern potter can decide what constitutes her living and her life, provided she does not see traditional education and student debt as the only - or even the best - option.  
I was talking to a potter who also happens to have an MBA degree the other day, and he said the best piece of advice he ever got was to figure out a way to have a positive cash flow.  Seems pretty simple, but the reality is that as long as the interest is accruing, you are not in a positive cash flow.  
Whether it is teaching classes, setting up an Etsy shop, using Kickstarter to fund a kiln, doing wholesale shows, or getting your MFA and become a full-time tenure track professor, the best model is one that the aspiring potter/artist/designer/teacher/craftsperson designs for himself . . . and quite frankly, so is the best mug.