My blog post about my new photo stand has made it into Ceramics Monthly! This is the Tips and Tools column in the December 2013 issue.
Originally published in Ceramics Monthly, December, 2013, page 16. http://www.ceramicsmonthly.org . Copyright, The American Ceramic Society. Reprinted with permission.
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'm back from another Artscape Baltimore. Despite the storms and the abominable heat, it was another stellar show. This is my eleventh year at this show, and it continues to be my favorite and highly profitable. At the beginning of this year, I decided to ramp up the "dinnerware" part of my product line, and after six months this has paid great dividends. I've been making plates as fast as I can, but always running out. And the feedback has been even better. Right now I'm trying to figure out how to create more drying space in the studio for plate-shaped things.
My "I shouldn't have eaten that" indulgence were some deep-fried Oreos. They were way too sweet, but I'd probably eat them again. I also indulged in a little schadenfreude. I don't believe in criticizing people on my blog, so I'm just going to keep it to myself.
But here's the main reason why the show was really exciting: I have a new car! I realize I am the only single and child-free female who was dying to have a minivan. "But people will mistake you for a soccer mom! Or a burglar!" I don't care. A minivan is the vehicle of choice on the art festival circuit. It really is the best combination of cargo space, drivability, gas mileage, and price.
My mom did her polite best to change my mind. "Umm, isn't that Nissan Murano pretty?" "No mom, those round-shaped cars are not useful. Everything I'm carrying is a box or a table. I want the most rectangular car I can find."
Here is my rectangle. It's a Toyota Sienna. Despite it's size it is very easy to drive.
This is a vision! Just look at all this space. I have the middle row seats tumbled forward, I can remove them if I want even more room.
This is my entire display for the Artscape show. Just about everything fits into the van SIDEWAYS. I will repeat that just to emphasize my amazement: SIDEWAYS. The only thing that doesn't is a five-foot-long tabletop, which I have propped against the right wall. Yes I am contemplating replacing that with a four-foot tabletop, just so I can pack it sideways too.
This leaves the rest of the space for, you guessed it, pottery! I packed a hefty inventory for Artscape, five 12-gallon boxes and three 8-gallon boxes. But there was plenty of room to spare.
And here's why this matters so much. There are so few economies of scale with a pottery business, but here's one that can make a big difference: packing your car once and doing two shows. My former car was a Subaru Forester. It was much-loved, but I could barely squeeze in my display and enough pots for one show. The pottery boxes were on the bottom of the payload, so I could not restock them without unpacking the entire car. My renovated studio and the second kiln made it possible to make enough work for two consecutive shows, but the Subaru couldn't match that. As you can see in the above photo, the van could easily hold twice as many pottery boxes. Well, first I need to get more boxes. When Artscape was over, I put the empty boxes in the very back near the liftgate. All I needed to do was fill those boxes up with pots again, and put them back in the van. Without unpacking everything else. And BAM! I'm off to another show.
This weekend I'll be at the Pennsylvania Guild Fine Craft Fair in Wilmington, Delaware. This is my first time at this show, but I've heard from many sources it is top-notch. This is outside of my local zone, so I'm not sure how many of my usual customer base will attend, but if you are in the area, I hope to see you there!
I bet the minivan will be comfy for a long drive too. I can't wait.
Friday, July 19, 11am - 9pm
Saturday, July 20, 11am - 9pm
Sunday, July 21, 11am - 8pm
Along Mt. Royal Avenue and North Charles Street.
My pottery and I will be in space E06, in my "usual" area on Mt. Royal Avenue near the west end of the show.
Here's a peek at some new things I've been developing. Two weeks ago I blogged about a new platter mold, here's the first finished platter! Large square platter with two fish, 14 inches across. $225
If you've ever felt like your Enormous Coffee Mug would be better with a lid, I am now offering Enormous Lids. One size fits most (but not all) of the mugs. Lids are $12 each, or $8 if bought with a mug. If you show me that you already own a mug (such as, show me a picture on your smart phone) you can buy one for $8 too. I only made a few, supplies are limited. If they sell well I'll start making a lot.
Large soap dispensers, size is designed for dish soap next to your kitchen sink. To 9 inches tall. $58 each.
Medium Servings Bowls. To 10 inches across. I'll have a few one-of-a-kind designs, prices range from $60 - $75.
These are just the new designs. I am fully stocked with all the favorites too, and really excited for the show for several reasons. Such as, being the first show where I get to use my newly acquired car, which I will blog about very soon. Hope to see you there!
I have been neglecting my Online Store. As I mentioned earlier this year, I am currently using the free version of Big Cartel, which means I can only list five items at a time. And because I took time off for the studio renovation, my inventory was too low to add anything new. But not anymore! I've been producing pots at an alarming rate, both for the Online Store and for my upcoming summer festivals.
My current strategy for the Online Store is to list five items that (1) I usually have in stock, (2) can quickly be made to order if they are not in stock, and (3) have been requested by customers. Check out the selection now! goodelephant.bigcartel.com
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!
I am starting this post with a picture of my old studio:
People who know me in person have often heard me refer to my studio as a "cave." Since 2002, I have been making pots in the basement of my 78-year-old house. I have always appreciated that the space was essentially free. It came with the house, and I didn't need it for anything else. It has been great for the bottom line. But it was a 78-year-old basement. It had no natural light. It was dark and grimy. There were areas that could rightfully be called "makeshift" or "weird," and other areas that could be called "gross" or "scary."
All of those issues could be tolerated. But here's what I couldn't live with: I had outgrown the capacity of the space. I wrote about this last summer. To me, the source of the bottlenecks was clear. I could only produce as much pottery as one kiln could fire. In order to make room for a second kiln, I'd have to rearrange. I did not want to add any more makeshift to the situation. I was feeling confident that the business was going to last for the long term. Did I want to live with weird and dark that long? Working as a potter gives you a lot of time to think. So after months of contemplating all of the paths I could choose, I decided that I would not just make room for a second kiln. Instead I would make a bigger investment, and create a space that would work for me all the way into retirement.
It took me over a week to remove everything from the basement. Here's what it looked like when empty. The space in the foreground was my old studio, roughly 350 square feet. It was separated from the other half of the basement by ugly, dark wood-paneling walls.
The walls are gone now. The creepy corner behind the chimney does not exist anymore. All of the exterior walls, and the staircase, were given a fresh coat of paint. The space on the far side of the stairs was not part of my studio before. I am going to use it now. As you'll see in a later photo, that space will be used to store and display the finished pots. I am visualizing boxes of clay stored under the stairs. Or maybe packing peanuts. Overall, the studio has grown to almost 600 square feet.
Here and there were remnants of an old drop ceiling. Definitely gross. The ceiling tiles were older than the invention of aluminum. They were installed onto wooden strips with lots of messy leveling shims.
All of the ceiling tiles and wooden strips were removed. At the suggestion of my contractor, he sprayed all of the exposed rafters with a coat of white paint. This makes the entire space feel taller and brighter, and all of the pipes and conduits seem to have disappeared.
This was the only troublesome part of the renovation: vinyl-asbestos floor tiles. Very common in houses this age. Don't worry, this is not as hazardous as it sounds. They were generally in good condition, and I had never aggressively disturbed them. Still, it's a good idea to cover them up, so they can remain undisturbed.
The new flooring is a solid vinyl product that is intended for garages. It's very different from the vinyl floor in my kitchen. There is no fabric backing, and the surface is much harder. I have dragged heavy furniture across it, and the floor doesn't seem to notice. The surface is slightly textured, it's seems to be a good balance of "easy to mop" and "non-slip." Time will tell if it holds up well in a pottery studio, but so far I am impressed.
Although I've often complained about the lack of windows, the truth is my basement has four windows, which had been boarded up by a previous owner.
The amount of light coming in through the new windows is so bright, I had trouble photographing them. And you are not imagining, the glass has a pebbly texture that you can't see through. As much as I wanted some natural light, I did not want my studio to be visible from outside. I did not know that "privacy glass" existed until the window salesperson suggested it, at which point I heard the British-accented character from the beer commercial shouting "Brilliant!"
The gaps that surrounded the old door were so big, during the winter months the cold wind would just show itself in. The door opening is a non-standard size, and also slightly distorted, so whoever installed this door did their best to make an off-the-shelf door fit.
The new door was made to the correct size, and the weather-sealing around it was pitched as "like a refrigerator door." As an added bonus, I got another window, with more privacy glass. Brilliant!
You can probably guess what the blue tape, the new 60 amp circuit, and the swinging arm bracket for the vent hood mean. The new kiln has been ordered and is coming soon!
I love shelving. Shelving makes everything better. You can't have enough shelving.
I love wheels. Wheels make everything better. You can't have enough wheels.
Oh my goodness, shelving on wheels. My heart flutters. I can't wait to fill this up with pots. In the old studio, the shelves where the pots dried were about 15 feet from the kiln. Loading the kiln involved a lot of walking back and forth. The first time I roll this entire cart over to the kilns to begin loading, I'm going to faint from happiness. And although this cart looks fairly compact, it actually gives me almost twice as much drying space as I had before.
With all the additional square footage, I created a new area for storing the finished pottery, packing and shipping, and taking photographs. I used to do this in a bedroom on the first floor. Try to imagine ... every time I unloaded the kiln, I put the pots into a plastic bin and carried them up the stairs in two or three trips. Now I will unload the pots onto a new utility cart (pictured), and roll them over to here. Oh, how I love shelves on wheels. Yikes, my inventory is really low! I need to get back to work.
Right after all the renovation was finished, the space looked so pretty when it was empty, I almost didn't want to fill it back up, or get anything dirty. But that didn't last long. I missed my studio. Now that I have put everything back, I think it looks amazing. And I can't wait to get it dirty.
I shut down the studio on April 1, and I am going back to work tomorrow, May 7. It was a long five weeks. Lots of noise. Days of high stress. Days of utter boredom. Lots of excitement, anticipation, relief, and joy.
What I really love about the new studio, aside from the newfound spaciousness and light, is that it feels like a commercial space. A place for serious work. Not at all like an old residential basement. I am looking forward to coming down the stairs to this studio everyday.
Many thanks and praise to DE Thomason Construction Company, who handled most of this project, and did a fabulous job. And thanks also for great work done by Thompson Creek Window Company, H-TWO-O Plumbing, Tatson Electric, and APRO Enterprises, Inc.
Hibernation is not exactly the right word. I have not been unconscious, nor have I been away. I've been separated from my pottery studio since April 1. I feel dormant and unproductive. There have been days when I was consumed, dealing with the matters at hand. And there have been days, like today, when I have nothing to do. I am bored. I can't really leave the house, at least not on my own schedule. I have already spiffed up my yard and gardens so they look better than they have in years. I learned how to replace the blade in my lawnmower (thanks YouTube!), which turns out is a lot like getting a new lawnmower. I cleaned out and organized my file drawers. If I could clean my entire house, I would. But it doesn't make sense to do it right now.
It will all be over soon, and I'll explain what's going on. It's a very very good thing. My patience and planning will be rewarded.