One kiln was heating up, the other was cooling down. I caught a photo of that brief moment right before their temperatures converge then trade places. I like to think they are high-fiving each other. Yes, I am a dork.
I started 2014 in a full sprint. I hadn't made any pots since mid-December. For sure I needed a break after a grueling holiday season. And it's not that I didn't enjoy the holidays with my fam. But when I am away from my studio this long, I really miss it. I can't wait to get back to work. I know that phrase will make people jealous. I don't wish to make anyone feel bad. On the contrary, I hope I am inspiring you to figure out what would make you this eager to go back to work, then figure out how to get it.
I have a big show looming in February, the American Craft Council show in Baltimore. My first task upon returning to work: I took an inventory of the pots I had in stock, about $4700 worth. I decided that I wanted to add $6000 worth of pots for the show. I made a list of the pots I thought I needed, which added up to about $7300. I couldn't decide which pots to cross off the list, so I said "Ok fine. $7300."
I had a previously established benchmark for what I considered a "fast-pace" for work, which was to produce $1000 worth of pots in a two-day cycle of throwing and trimming. "Normal-pace" was $700, and "slow-pace" was $500 or less. During this past fall, while I was struggling to keep up with my show schedule, I was working at "fast-pace" much of the time. But not all the time, I was also attending shows, and teaching classes. So as I entered January with nothing on my schedule except studio time, I challenged myself to complete the entire $7300 list at "fast-pace," that is to finish it in 14 straight days.
There was a meaningful purpose to this, not just the cravings of a obsessed potter. I suspected that my "fast-pace" was now my "normal-pace," and I needed to confirm it. This year, I get to plan my show schedule without having to work around a teaching schedule. And without a studio renovation gobbling up the spring. My choices are wide open. I want to take as much advantage of this as I can, but hopefully without exceeding my production capabilities. Like I did last fall, where I admit I arrived at some shows without enough inventory. That's an awfully cheezy thing to do, I'm mad at myself for it. Shows cost a lot of money, time, and labor. It's dumb to throw away those resources with poor planning. I should be able to add some shows to the spring months, and maybe subtract one or two from the fall. But how many? Applications for spring shows are due in January, so I needed to figure this out now.
I'm pleased to report I finished the list in only 13 days. And the last day was very light, I was down to a few hand-built pots. On most days, I was done with work by 6pm. I did not get particularly tired (this could be due to my new throwing chair). This includes one day where I mostly did desk work (paying bills and taxes, applying for shows), and didn't get into the studio until mid-afternoon. I also made time for three runs, and started taking a tai chi class. And I powered through the "coffee mistake" where I realized one morning I was out of coffee, but did not want to sacrifice any work hours by going to the store. After two days of drinking tea instead of coffee, I discovered my brain does not function and my whole body feels like crap. "You must not do that again," I told myself. I did not bisque fire or glaze anything, I was laser focused on building pots only. Now I'm going to take this weekend off, and start firing on Monday. I'm hoping to get that done in one week. But even if it takes a few more days than that, I will still be done with my ACC pots almost a month in advance. Feeling kind-of mighty.
Now for planning ahead, I'm glad to know I can make $7300 of stock in two weeks, but I don't think I need to. It's too much for one cycle. As you can see, this amount of pots overflowed my ware cart, and other tables that are not in the photo. Also, the amount of clay trimmings I need to recycle now are out of proportion with my recycling bucket and my plaster recycling batts. (I'm going to make sure to catch up on recycling next week while the kilns are firing, don't want to fall behind on that.)
So what is the right pace for work? And how many shows should I apply to? I added up the potential sales of all the shows I am considering for the spring and summer, and even if I project sales on the extreme side, say if all of the shows happen to hit their high potential, I still don't need to make pots at this pace. I calculated that I only need to produce $2500 per week. That's $5000 worth of pots every two weeks, followed by one week of glazing and firing. This is my new "normal-pace" which is half-way between the previous "normal" and "fast." This would generate more than enough for all the shows. In fact, whenever I complete $2500, no matter how many days it takes, I will force myself to take the rest of the week off. "You must go outside for sunshine and social interaction before making any more pots." Like I said before, I like to work. And I honestly don't mind working everyday. It will take some effort to make myself slow down and take regular days off. On the other hand, I have an important mission to accomplish sometime this weekend: to go down to the National Zoo and try to catch a glimpse of Bao Bao, the baby panda.
Good Elephant Pottery's 7th Annual Open Studio
Saturday, December 14, noon - 5pm
Sunday, December 15, noon - 4pm
For six years I've held this event in my living room and dining room. For the first time ever, I am having it in my basement studio. If you read this blog, you'll know I renovated the studio earlier this year, and now I want to show it off! When you get to my house, walk to the end of the driveway behind the house, and come down the stairs to the basement entrance.
Compared to an art festival, I will have room to display far more pots. I've been working hard to take advantage of this. Here's a preview of some of the work you'll find, including some brand new designs:
Large Square Platter with Heron. 14 inches across. $205
Servings Bowls with Fish. 12 inches across ($170), and 10 inches across ($135)
I will have a few Elephant Jars, including this one, which is 8 inches tall. $95
I started making these Textured Jars with Wire Handles about a year ago. Since then they have become one of my most sought after designs. To 5.5 inches tall. $65 each
Introducing ... Dinner Bowl and Breakfast Bowl. Nothing fussy here, just perfect functional bowls. Dinner Bowl is 8.5 inches across ($38 each), and the Breakfast Bowl is 6 inches across ($24 each).
Who wants pie? 9 inch Extra Deep Pie Dish ($48), and introducing the new 6 inch Individual Pie Dish ($28).
Teapots with Reed Handles. 8 inches tall ($90) and 10 inches tall ($105)
Some of the pots from the 2013 wood-firing. I think I'm ready to part with them now. The pitcher is 11.5 inches tall. I haven't figured out the prices for these yet.
And of course there will be many mugs, tumblers, chopstick bowls, dinner plates, pitchers, elephants, and on and on ....
I hope you can make it! I know the weather will be crummy on Saturday, but the basement will be nice and warm, and there will be snacks! And once again, I will be packing everyone's purchases into free reusable grocery bags.
I had to laugh at myself the other day. I was browsing through my blog posts from last December, and realized that I referred to 2012 as "a year of change," in reference to the way I had redefined the wholesale side of my business. If I could travel back in time I'd tell myself "Change? That's cute. Wait until you see what's coming." Let's see, so far this year I got a new studio. I got a new kiln. I got a new car. My day-to-day life is completely different now. The time was right for all of these things, and all three have resulted in great dividends already.
But I am not done yet. This post is about another big change. This year I changed clay bodies. A professional potter does not do this lightly. In fact, the first time I thought "maybe it's time for a different clay" was 1.5 years ago. Then i spent a whole year trying out different clays, and combinations of clays. There is a lot to figure out. How does the clay look? How do I fire it? Does it work with my existing glazes? Is it as durable? How much does it cost? Where can I buy it? By the summertime, right around the time I was settling into my new studio, I felt confident that i had found a new clay.
The new clay is actually two clays mixed together. It is two parts Highwater Red Rock plus one part Standard 266. I mix them in my pug mill. Both of these clays are readily available at my local supplier, Clayworks Supplies. So whenever I need more, a truck will deliver it in a few days. It is more expensive than my old clay, but still affordable. It looks almost exactly like the old clay, only with fewer speckles, which I have gotten used to. It feels a whole lot different when throwing because it contains much less grog, but I've grown to prefer this. And now the unglazed bottoms of my pots have a smoother hand feel. I had to lower my glaze firing temp by a few degrees, and I had to tweak the recipe of one of my glazes. But overall I am really pleased, and I'm glad I went through this process.
Here's a look at a typical clay processing session. From right to left ... on top of the pugmill are scraps from hand-building, torn into roughly one-pound balls. Next is reclaimed clay from wheel-throwing (I slake down the trimmings into sludge, spread the sludge out on plaster batts, let it dry until it reaches the moisture level of throwing clay, then slice it into one-pound chunks). Next comes a full bag of Red Rock, sliced into 32 pieces. Finally, that's a half bag of Standard 266, also sliced into 32 pieces. I'll put all of this through the pug mill, taking pieces from each pile in successive order.
What a lovely sight! This is about 100 pounds of freshly pugged clay. Can't wait to attack it!
What prompted this change? Well, I can't explain this without violating my ground rules for this blog. I have never believed in criticizing people on my blog. It's not because I never encounter unpleasant people while working as a potter. It's just that there are so many reasons to be grateful, and honestly the unpleasant people population is pretty low around here. It's not worth griping about. So I will state this as matter-of-factly as I can. I had no problems with the old clay. I was no longer interested in working with the manufacturer of that clay. I understand that this is a huge company that supplies clay for institutions far larger than me. But I got tired of them letting me know that my one-person pottery studio didn't matter to them.
Believe it or not, I am not done with the big changes this year. I have one more. I'll write about it next month. It is a direct outcome of all the other changes. My pottery business is growing in surprising ways, and once again I am struggling to manage the workload. So I need to let go of some things. Unlike everything else, this change has not been a happy process. At best it has been bittersweet, at times it has been very troubling. I'll explain it all when I'm ready. I might allow myself to criticize one more person.
I do not wish to discourage anyone from pursuing a life as a potter. But I sometimes worry that, on this blog, I am portraying the life as being more fun than hard work. It is immensely rewarding and often fun, but there is no way around the "hard work" component. Here's what my studio looks like right now, at the end of October. This is already holiday season for anyone who runs a business like this. These photos do not include the five cartons of pots that I packed and shipped yesterday. I've got pots in every stage of the process. Gotta keep'em moving!
I spent the first half of the day throwing, then stopped to take these photos. Afterwards, I glazed all of the unglazed bisque, and loaded both of the kilns. I still have about a dozen pots that didn't fit into either kiln. But another load of bisque will be ready any day now, so they can wait.
These pots are for two wholesale orders, and three November shows. I'm still working on one of the wholesale orders, but once it's done I need to start making pots for December shows, including my big Open House, and a large individual order.
I've mentioned this on my blog before ... there is one aspect of my job that I do not like ... packing and shipping. It's tedious, and it makes me feel anxious about the trip the pots are about to take. And there's my burning hatred of packing peanuts. Those annoying little turds. I hate that I need so many of them. They're hard to buy, they're hard to store. How can something so unsubstantial take up so much space? In the winter months, they get charged with static electricity. They will be stuck to my shirt and flying all over the place. Ugh! Most of the time, I buy peanuts in 12 cubic foot plastic bags. The best way to get the peanuts from the bag into a shipping carton is to dredge them with a bucket. It's tiring, slow, and messy. So many peanuts ended up on the floor. And once, the entire bag tipped over while it was open. On days like that, you just need to quit working and open a beer.
I wanted one of those ceiling-mounted peanut dispensers, but the ceilings in my basement studio are too low. What would be the closest solution that would fit in my studio? My wonderful students often give me peanuts for free, and I realized that I really liked when someone gave them to me in a large box. I could pick up the whole box and pour them.
So I built myself a box that is designed for pouring peanuts. It is two feet cubed, which equals eight cubic feet. It holds half of the 12 cubic foot bag of peanuts, plus a little head room. I cut off the four top flaps of the box, and saved one. I cut a V-shaped pouring hole into one of the top corners. I taped the saved top flap across the top edge of the pouring hole to complete the spout. Finally, I cut two handles into the side of the box, one near the spout, and one on the next adjacent side.
The Giant Cardboard Teapot dispenses peanuts at exactly the right rate. Not too slow, not too fast. I can pour a little or a lot. They all land inside the box. When I put the GCT down, it cannot tip over. I am typically working on two wholesale orders at a time, which usually takes four boxes. Six cubic feet of peanuts is just about right for four boxes. I still do not enjoy packing but at least I have the peanuts under control now.
To everyone who has been voting for me in the Martha Stewart "American Made" Awards ... THANK YOU! As I am writing this, I have over 750 votes. I can't believe it. Regardless of how I finish in this contest, I am proud and grateful for all the support. The voting for the first round has been extended until Sunday, September 22. I almost feel bad asking you to continue voting, I know you have been clicking for weeks. Maybe it's an endurance contest. If you can, please continue voting until September 22.
I have an odd compulsion for making miniature chairs. But I don't make them for my kilns at home, I only make them for wood-firing, and I've got one coming up in October. If I had to explain why I do this, my only answer is "because I start laughing every time I look at them."
Hey do me a favor? Vote for me in the 2013 Martha Stewart "American Made" Awards! I'm just excited that someone has created an award for creative entrepreneurs, and giving us a chance to show off a little. Follow the link below ... it only takes a minute to register and vote. Please cast your 6 votes per day for me. There are some great opportunities for the finalists, and a big fat $10K grant for the winner. http://www.marthastewart.com/americanmade/nominee/81034
Thanks in advance!
The trick to carving a pattern like this onto a pot is to carve every single line with only one pass of the carving tool. If you allow yourself to belabor over the lines, going over them again and again, it takes way too long and your brain will get very bored. The trick to making each line with only one pass is to realize it doesn't matter if some of them aren't perfect. Your eye cannot see the ones that aren't perfect, you can only see the whole pattern that all of the lines make together.
I've been carving a new styrofoam mold. The design is for a large square serving platter, about 15 inches across. Ok maybe 13 after it shrinks. I will make one or two (or however many it takes) prototypes from the mold-in-progress. Once I'm satisfied with the shape I will pour a layer of plaster over it. The finished surface will act like plaster, while the entire thing will be nowhere near as heavy as a solid plaster mold. I hope to have the first completed platter ready in time for Artscape in a few weeks.
You might have caught a glimpse of this in the pictures of my new studio. I built a new photo stand. My old one was fine, but it was much bigger than necessary. And my old Flotone backdrop had quite a few scratches. Not to mention I once spilled melted wax on it while trying to shoot lit candles. It was time for a new one!
A photo stand does not need to be expensive. Mine starts with a card table, which I already owned (was once part of my art festival display, glad I found a new use for it). I fashioned three pieces of white foam core into the side and back walls, held together with packaging tape. The Flotone backdrop is taped to the back foam core wall, and to the table. A simple piece of white fabric acts as the diffuser. It is secured across the top of the foam core walls with binder clips. Two cheap light fixtures hang from the ceiling, with two nice 5500K florescent light bulbs.
Here's how it looks in action:
And here's the photo I just took:
Ahhhh ... so nice that I didn't have to photoshop out the scratches and the wax stains!