The June/July/August 2015 issue of Ceramics Monthly should be hitting your mailboxes now! My recent blog post following up on The Hourly Earning Project was adapted for CM and appears in this issue. Check it out!
Originally published in June 2015 issue of Ceramics Monthly, pages (20-21). http://www.ceramicsmonthly.org . Copyright, The American Ceramic Society. Reprinted with permission.
I am slowly returning to a normal routine, after spending the last week at the Smithsonian Craft Show. It was an unforgettable week. As I expressed on this blog, I consider this show to be the pinnacle of the craft world. I did not really expect to achieve this during my lifetime. Which I was totally OK with, given the ratio of applicants to invitations, and all of the amazing craft work being done today. But there I was last fall, with my jaw hanging open, looking at the green check mark that means "invited" next to my application, slowly processing what it meant. I was ecstatic, but also intimidated. I haven't been nervous about a show in a long time. These days, it takes a lot to make me nervous.
The unknown factor is gone now. I was correct that there were many things that differentiate this show from others. But there were plenty of familiarities too. Yes, there was a lot of gorgeous ceramic work that was at an artistic level far above mine. But there were others selling simple functional wares like me. I didn't feel out of place. It helped that every single person I met from the Smithsonian Women's Committee made me feel welcome. It also helped that I nearly sold out of pots. Lately, that's not unusual for me (which is why I don't get nervous for most shows), but this was a very different audience. I was pleased and relieved that they found my work worthwhile too. I loved that the show was so small, even though this is why it is so darn hard to get a spot in the show. It really conveyed a sense of exclusivity. And I was able to look closely at everyone else's work. I also love that it was close to home. For four days, I left my house on foot and rode the subway into the city. I felt like a grown-up with a real job. And once again, I felt fortunate that I live in a region with institutions like the Smithsonian.
It seems pretty common for an artist to get into this show once, then never again. Or not again for ten years. Just as I felt before, I am totally OK with this. I can still say I summited this mountain in 2015. I was explaining this to a friend, and he said "so it's like winning a Oscar." Exactly.
If you can take your eyes off of the 50 foot marble columns in the National Building Museum, you can see my booth near the lower right corner.
It's hard to believe it is almost time to "spring forward" with our clocks, because there is a foot of snow in my yard, and it's 20°F outside. It really ought to be warmer by now. I've gotten used to the frozen temps, but our endless winter has been a nuisance in other ways. Last week, I ran out of clay. But the distance between my driveway and my studio door was blocked by a small mountain of snow and ice. Earlier this week, there was one day of above-freezing temps, and I shoveled and hacked out a narrow path. The clay delivery was made, followed by another eight inches of snow. Phew!
The first two months of 2015 flew past, with one big show already behind me, and the next one approaching fast. I have a new production schedule this year, and so far it is working out very well. It is an update to last year's production schedule, which was based on a three-week cycle (produce $5000 of inventory in two weeks, followed by one week of glazing and firing). I followed To-Do Lists that totaled $5000 worth of pots. I had two of these lists, and used them alternately. That schedule worked well, but by the end of the year, I had outgrown it. This seems to happen every year. My production speed continues to improve. It no longer takes two weeks to produce $5000 worth of pots.
This year, rather than Two-Week To-Do Lists that total $5000, I divided up my production needs into Two-Day To-Do Lists that total roughly $1250 worth of pots each. What I used to produce in a week, I now produce in four days. Then I take two days off. Now I produce $5000 of pots in 12 days, not 14. Firing and glazing does not get a whole week anymore either. This phase only takes three days, followed by two days off. What took me three weeks last year, this year takes 17 days, including plenty of down time.
My goal is not to produce more work this year, my goal is to take more days off. Last year, when I spent a weekend doing a show, I was "forfeiting" my weekend for the show. This year, show days will be considered work days too, and days off will be scheduled after every show. See, I'm no longer bound by a schedule that is defined by "weeks." Weeks do not exist anymore in my world.
For those of you who read this blog to learn about the inner workings of a full-time pottery business, here are my Two-Day To-Do Lists. I have eight of them. I have completed 13 of them this year so far. I have been doing them in this order, but I like that I have the flexibility to do them out-of-order depending on my inventory needs. My shorthand might not make sense to you.
To add a little more context to these lists ... when I complete all eight of these lists, I have just over $10,000 worth of inventory. This is enough to do two large shows, or one x-large show. How did I figure out the quantities for each pot in my line? The quantities are all based on last year's sales. By now, I have a pretty good idea of how many of each pot I will need per show.
In fact, today is a Friday and one of my days off. But like I said above, it is 20°F outside, and I don't feel like leaving my warm house. Better to write a blog post instead. Rumor is tomorrow will be above 40°F, the snow will melt off my car, and I can go out somewhere tomorrow. Then it's back to work on Sunday.
Yes, I am suffering from a "big head" right now. At the ACC Baltimore Show, I met Maishe Dickman and Kevin Hluch. Both of them made nice purchases of my work, and joined my mailing list. I also met several members of the Smithsonian Women's Committee, and they all seemed so excited to have me at their upcoming show. My nervousness about the Smithsonian Show is much improved now, because all of the contact I've had with the Committee has been so positive. And fellow potter Sang Joon Park let me bend his ear for a few minutes, and he gave me good advice and insight about what to expect.
Although most of the weekend went by in a blur, a few sales really stood out. I saw my old pals Shirley and Linda, who have been buying my pots for many years. But Linda was not physically there. She has now moved out west, but she attended the show anyways via Facetime on Shirley's iPhone. She ended up buying a really nice vase. What can't an iPhone do? It's mind boggling all the possibilities. I was also very tickled to see my regular customer Cindy. She is a devoted fan of my work, and she announced that her now-fiancé asked her to marry him by presenting the ring on one of my small dishes. How nice to have a small part in such a moment!
The weekend also featured a lovely blizzard. I had to drive home on through it on Saturday night, all the way from Baltimore to DC at 30mph. Luckily, there weren't many people on the road, and everyone was being careful and courteous. But I'd rather not have that experience again any time soon. And although I had lowered my expectations for sales due to the forecast, it turns out that all of the motivated craft fans figured out how to get to the show anyways. Most of them came on Friday instead. So sales were not impacted at all. Hooray for craft fans!
I've been back at work in the pottery studio for a week now, after a 2.5 week break for the holidays. I meant to write this blog post during my break, but Harriet got carried away. "Harriet Homeowner" is how I refer to myself in the third person when I am engaged in home improvement projects. Harriet spent four days scraping, spackling, sanding, and painting. She finally fixed the water damage on the ceiling from Snowmageddon 2010. She completely painted her office, followed by a symbolic purging of clutter, all of which was related to her previous career as a designer. She also sewed new curtains for the guest room, to make it pretty for incoming holiday guests. And Harriet's not done yet. Her new kitchen countertops will be installed later this month. Along with a new stove.
If you can't tell, I have extra money right now. 2014 was a record year for the pottery business. I'm still wrapping my head around the numbers. During the fall months, I realized I needed to write this post. It is a follow up to The Hourly Earnings Project. It has been four years since I finished it. I can clearly see how it drove the development of my business since then.
(If you are new to this blog, The Hourly Earnings Project was a year-long analysis of my pottery business, conducted in 2010. I tracked my income earned and my time spent, and calculated how much I was earning per hour. I also compared the hourly earnings values for various revenue sources. You can read all of the blog posts here, or you can read the condensed version that was published in Ceramics Monthly in the summer of 2011.)
My business operates at a much higher level now. My gross sales in 2014 were (believe it or not) more than double my gross sales of 2010. In 2010, I made enough income to support myself financially while living on a very shoestring budget. I was happy to give up my expendable-income lifestyle, in exchange for full-time pottery. I like peanut butter sandwiches. I was not expecting to return to my previous income level. But in 2014, I did.
There are some things about me and my work that changed in the past four years, which are not related to The Hourly Earnings Project:
• The quality, design, and craftsmanship of my work is much better now. Many of my prices have increased.
• My production speed is much faster now. And my endurance for working is much improved. In 2010, I noted that my typical studio day was 3 to 5 hours long, which would leave me tired and sore. These days, I comfortably work 6 to 8 hour days.
• In May 2013, I renovated my studio and purchased a second kiln. These things caused a significant increase in production too.
• At the end of 2013, I gave up my part-time job teaching pottery classes. This freed up a lot of time to spend on my business.
Now for the areas where The Hourly Earnings Project has made a difference. Here is the graph that illustrates its overall findings:
The most important change that this project initiated was a shift away from wholesale work and towards retail (art festival) work. In 2010, my income was split almost exactly in half between wholesale and retail. The Hourly Earnings Project showed me that retail work was a much better use of my time. It yielded 32% more income than wholesale. ($32/hour vs. $24/hour) By the time I finished these calculations, I had already committed to and paid for a booth at a wholesale trade show at the beginning of 2011. So I spent one more year earning half of my income with wholesale work. I had a respectable 24% increase in gross sales in 2011.
Then in 2012, I changed direction. I skipped all the trade shows, and instead I solicited orders directly from my existing gallery accounts. I cut my wholesale workload to 65% of the previous year's orders, and I made up for the income by increasing my art festivals from 6 to 11. I wrote on my blog at the end of 2012, that I felt like I had taken back control of my business. I made slightly more income in 2012 as I did in 2011, but with a lot fewer pots and without feeling exhausted.
In 2013, I pushed even further in this direction. Given that I had leftover energy at the end of 2012, I knew I could expand. I took aim at a productivity ceiling that I had been battling for a couple of years ... the one-kiln situation. In order to make room for a second kiln, I had to renovate my space. As noted above, this happened in the spring of 2013. I managed to keep my wholesale income steady, while increasing my art festivals to 14. I was able to add some high quality shows (in particular ACC Baltimore, and the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen shows). Even though I missed 5 weeks of work due to the studio renovation, my gross sales increased by a whopping 44%. Hooray for the two-kiln situation!
Which brings me to 2014. Once again, I managed to keep my wholesale income steady, without attending any trade shows. I had the two-kiln situation for a full 12 months, rather than 7 months. I did 14 shows again, and continued to add great shows (such as the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts). At some of the shows I've done for many years, I had record-shattering sales (like Artscape Baltimore, and Bethesda Row). My gross sales grew by another 41%. Holy crap!
My wholesale income is now only 13% of my gross. My decision to focus on retail work has really paid off.
(A side note about art festival income ... learning how to be a good festival artist is a lot like learning how to make pots. It takes a lot of practice and repetition. My approach to doing shows now is much different than a few years ago, born out of the sheer number of shows I've done. I will write in detail about my current approach in a future blog post, I promise.)
I launched my online store in December 2011, and calculated its hourly earnings value over the subsequent year. (This came after the Ceramics Monthly article, which is why it didn't appear there.) As you can see in the graph above, online sales have almost the same hourly earnings value as retail sales. But as I noted in this blog post, the volume of online selling is so low. And as I've mentioned a few times on this blog, I really don't like packing and shipping. I planned to keep the online store open anyways, but by the middle of 2013, I had lost interest. I stocked the store sporadically for a while, then came up with a better plan near the end of 2013. Now I keep it closed for 11.5 months of the year. When my annual Open Studio is over, which is my last show of the year, I open the online store for the last two weeks of December. The sales don't happen over two weeks, they all happen during the first two days. I don't mind the packing and shipping when it is confined to two days, especially because I don't have anything else to do except process online orders. The sales volume seems more lucrative, but I know that's just an illusion because they happen all at once. Overall, I'm happy with these boundaries. Once again, I'm going to praise BigCartel, for having flexible plans that allow me to have things my way.
(edited on 1/27/15 to add the next few paragraphs, just some more thoughts that came to mind in the last few weeks)
On the subject of everyday vs. fancy ... the analysis revealed that making higher-priced, upscale pots yields a better hourly earnings value for my time. I noted that this bummed me out a little, because making everyday functional pots is far more pleasurable to me. How has this influenced my business in the last four years? It hasn't. I have basically ignored this finding. I still make some of my upscale line of work, it's a small percentage. Specifically, it is 22% of my work in terms of dollar value, but less than 6% of my work in terms of the number of pots. These percentages were not planned, they just naturally developed based on sales. I made what I needed to replace. I can tell that my upscale pieces are still yielding a higher hourly earnings value, because the days that I designate for those pieces can be completed in fewer hours, while yielding a better dollar value of inventory. But I'm still committed to the everyday pieces as the bulk of my work. Could I make more income if I brought 80% upscale pieces to every show? Maybe. I don't care and have no intention to find out.
Big shows vs. little shows ... in the original project, all of my art festivals yielded a fairly consistent hourly earnings value. Except for one little art festival which was kind-of a disaster in comparison. This has definitely shaped my choices going forward. I put a lot of thought and research into picking shows, and most of the shows I've added recently belong in the "big show" category. This doesn't mean I've given up on small shows, or one-day shows. I just hold them to the same high standards. It's rarer to find little shows that can draw a big crowd, but they do exist. As I mentioned above, I will write about my whole approach to doing shows in a future blog post, which will include my thought processes for picking shows.
My Open Studio continues to be my most important event of the year. Not just for sales, but I now see the value of giving my customers a chance to see inside my studio. I'm pretty sure it makes them appreciate the process better. And it motivates me to clean. This latest one was outrageous in terms of sales, though in the past four years the sales have been up and down. I've learned that weather plays an important role for December events. This year I had clear and mild weather, last year I had a sleet storm. Big difference in sales. I've also learned that I do better when I am alone, rather than having a guest artist. Given the amount of pots I want to display, I need all the space to myself. My conclusion from The Hourly Earnings Project was to limit this event to once-a-year, so as not to over-harvest the precious resource known as my mailing list. I'm sticking to that. I am now convinced that once-a-year, during holiday season, is the right formula for building demand. Besides I don't really want to deep clean more often than that :-)
One last reminder about this project ... my findings are not meant to apply to everyone's pottery business. These are the right choices for my pottery business. I don't want to send the message "wholesale bad, retail good" because that's not universally true. It's true for me because I live in a region where art festivals are very strong. I enjoy them and I'm good at working with crowds. I've met other potters for whom the wholesale format makes a lot more sense. My message is to take the time to figure out for yourself where to spend your energy. If I had not done this analysis, I would still be attending wholesale trade shows every year, and still wondering if that was a good idea. Making this one fundamental shift, away from wholesale and towards retail, made a dramatic difference for me.
(end of addition)
Onward to 2015! I have no expectations to exceed my monster sales of 2014. But at the same time, I think there are good reasons to be optimistic.
This past weekend's Open Studio was a blur of selling. Thank you to everyone to made the trip to Silver Spring! There are very few pots left, they are now listed for sale on my Online Store. It will be open December 15-31, and all orders will ship for $10 flat.
Ready, set, click! http://goodelephant.bigcartel.com
I've been rolling out some new designs this fall. Some of you may have seen prototypes of these at recent shows. I am officially adding these to my line going forward. You can consider this weekend's Open Studio to be their "coming out party."
Ahjoshi Hanbok. This jar is an abstract representation of a traditional Korean gentleman's garment. 11 inches tall. $160
Vase with Wire Handle. Textured to resemble a woven basket. Stainless steel handle doesn't mind getting wet. 14 inches tall. $85
Paperclip Jars. I have a deep and growing love of small lidded jars. Ideas for new forms keep popping up in my head. These are the latest. 4.5 inches across. $38 each.
Small Spouted Bowls. For serving sauces and condiments, and small mixing jobs. These are an updated version of the Condiment Triad, now these can be purchased individually. 3 inches tall. $24 each.
Kimchi Dishes. Really there are tons of uses for these. They are named after the small dishes that cover your table in a Korean restaurant, filled with various kimchis and tasty little salads. 5.5 inches across. $18 each.
Leaf and Pebble Necklace. These are not a new design, I haven't made beads or jewelry in a few years. At most of the shows I attend these days, they forbid you to sell jewelry unless you have been juried into the jewelry category. So these have been around. They will be clearance-priced this weekend at $15 each.
I sprung for a new banner this year!
In addition to the pots pictured here, there will be plenty of mugs, bowls, plates, platters, vases, jars, and as always, elephants. There will be a bargain table with seconds and discontinued items. Expect some homemade snacks too.
Good Elephant Pottery's 8th Annual Open Studio
Saturday and Sunday, December 13-14
10am - 5pm both days
One of the best parts about visiting Lancaster, PA (where I did a show last month) is getting up early to explore the Lancaster Central Market, and picking up all kinds of traditional Amish foods to take home. One of my favorite treats is Shoo-Fly Pie. If you're not familiar with it, it's literal name would be Molasses Custard Pie with Crumb Topping. I decided to attempt one at home for Thanksgiving, and found out just how easy they are. In fact, you should be skeptical of any recipe that doesn't fit on one page.
1 nine-inch pie crust
1 cup molasses
3/4 cup hot water
3/4 tsp baking soda
1 egg, beaten
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
4 tbsp butter
Preheat oven to 400°F. Whisk together molasses, hot water, and baking soda. Whisk in the beaten egg. Pour into pie crust. In a food processor, pulse together the flour, brown sugar, and butter, until the mixture looks like sand. Spread evenly over the molasses mixture. Bake at 400°F for 15 minutes. Lower oven temp to 350°F, and bake another 30 minutes. Allow to cool completely. Seriously, practice some delayed gratification, or your filling will ooze out all over the place.
I hope your Thanksgiving was filled with yummy food and gooey sweet treats!
About a week ago, I drove down to Nelson County, Virginia with some friends. We went to visit Nan Rothwell, a fabulous potter who occupies a special place in my pottery world. About ten years ago, shortly after I had put together my own studio at home, I also made a point to start attending workshops whenever possible. The salt-glazing workshop I took with Nan changed my perspective on everything. I was so impressed by her studio. She operated on a larger scale than anything I had ever conceived of before. And then there was Nan the teacher, to this day the best teacher I've ever had. Though I was mostly happy to self-teach myself in the absence of good teachers, spending some weekends with Nan was of immeasurable value. Oh what a difference a good teacher makes! She's also hilarious, it's just fun to be around her. As I drove away, I was thinking "I want to be like Nan." And from then on, I had a role model for how it's done, and the type of person it takes to make it as a potter. When I became a teacher, I modeled myself after Nan as much as possible. To all of my former students who enjoyed working with me, you can also thank Nan.
In her fall newsletter, Nan announced that she was closing her countryside studio, and downsizing into an apartment in Charlottesville, Va. Semi-retiring, she is now going to teach classes at City Clay, and maintain a small studio. "That's weird," I thought, because this is exactly what I've been planning for myself down the road. Full-time pottery is very physical and I'm not sure I want to do it past age 60. Maybe 55. I think it's smart to think ahead to a downsized life, so I'll be ready to move on when my back and wrists start calling it quits. I would love to get back to teaching classes then, and maybe maintain a small studio. The only difference is that I won't be moving from a country house to a city apartment, my plan is to move from a city house to a beach apartment. But generally speaking, I will be following in her footsteps again.
So I had to visit her studio one last time while I had the chance, and some friends came along: Karen Arrington, Jonathan Gordy, Karen Morgenstern, and her brother Neil. We had a grand time, chatting and catching up, talking shop, and drooling over gorgeous pots. Her studio/classroom is set up as a showroom through the end of the year. She is selling pots, studio equipment and furniture. I bought several nice pots, and also a Thomas Stuart wheel! I've wanted one for so long. I consider them to be the best, something I planned to treat myself to "someday." I've been throwing on it for a week now, it is so sturdy and solid. I'm in love. My older Bailey wheel is now a dedicated trimming station, which is very convenient.
Here is the sake set I bought from Nan last week.
And here is my new Thomas Stuart wheel. I was a little worried about whether I had room for it in the studio, but it turns out to be fairly compact, and it fit right in. Also, big huge thanks to Jonathan and Neil who carried it down the stairs into my basement. It is solid metal and really heavy!
Someday when I'm old, I will look back on my life as a potter, and know that I did a good job. After several years of applying, and many more years of ambition, I've been juried into the 2015 Smithsonian Craft Show. I've always regarded this show as the top of the craft mountain. And now Mea the old lady can say "there I was, spinning around like Maria Von Trapp."
Mea Rhee, the potter behind Good Elephant Pottery
Festival of the Arts
State College, PA
Fine Craft Fair
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