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."
My quest was to make gray pots in a wood kiln. It's not that my quest was so difficult, it's that I only get to wood-fire about once a year. I have always loved the brown and celadon green pots that I've gotten out of wood-firing. But as you've probably gathered by now, my aesthetic priorities are soft shades of gray. In recent years another priority has emerged, which is that I now support myself financially with nothing but pottery sales. Therefore everything I make must make sense within the line of work that I present for sale. My wood-fired pots are special to me. I do want them to stand out when I display them with the rest of my pottery, but also to look like they belong. Now, after about ten years of trying, I think I have struck the right balance.
All of my attempts to make a gray glaze for cone 10/reduction resulted in blue glazes (shudder). And sometimes I made gray pots by accident, mostly with heavy crusts of salt and/or soda. I love that look, but I need a process that is more predictable, and more food-friendly. Last year, the answers began to emerge for me. The basis of the solution is porcelain. In order to make gray, you need to start with a white background.
These pots were thrown in porcelain, then brushed with a thin layer of a gray flashing slip. I've learned this slip does not look great on stoneware, it just looks flat and brown. But the white porcelain peeking through brightens everything, creating pretty shades of gray and brown with lots of variation.
And this is the second approach I took this year ... these pots were thrown in stoneware, then brush with porcelain slip. I carved a minimal pattern through the porcelain, to reach some of the brown tones of the stoneware. Then I fired them in the salt chamber of the kiln to receive some of those gray tones of salt.
I'm really pleased that I got to wood-fire with my friends from the Greenbelt Community Center again this year. Even though I no longer work there, I was able to sign up for this workshop, which is now deftly led by Karen Arrington. And once again we had a great experience working with Jim Dugan at Baltimore Clayworks, where we always get loads of guidance and expertise.
I get a lot of nice compliments at shows. But once in a while I hear something that strikes me deeper, and really makes me feel good. Yesterday at Art on the Avenue, a woman looked around my booth for a few minutes then said, "Ceramic is such a hard material. But your glazes look so soft. It's a nice combination." I've never thought about my work like that before, but I do now.
Near the end of the day, another person walked into my booth and said, "People are talking about you up and down the avenue." That one made me a little nervous. But now that I have totaled up my sales for the day, I don't think I need to worry about it.
And it's not because I have two shows and a wood-firing. It's because the Orioles are in the playoffs! Unlike two years ago when landing the second wild-card spot was a breakthrough accomplishment, this year they won the AL East by a wide mile. Expectations are high. I will not try to predict how far they will get. But the farther they get, the more difficult it will be for me to handle. I'm basing this on 2001 and 2002 when the Maryland Terrapins made the Final Four. I couldn't sleep. My heart pounded and I got light-headed. My hands and feet were tingling. My blood pressure was either really high or really low, I'm not sure. It's going to be the same this month.
I will make sure that I am next to a TV or radio for every game. I apologize in advance to everyone who I blow off this month. I might be in a state of high-stress, or elation, or crying my eyes out. And thank goodness this Saturday, October 4, is an off day for the Os, because I have my first fall show! (Art on the Avenue in Alexandria, VA)
Let's go Os!
I got a new stamp to mark the bottoms of my plates and platters. It's larger and easier to read than my previous stamp. I can only use it on flat-ish items that are built on a hump mold, because it needs the support provided by the mold in order to make a clean impression. Also, it's too large to fit on anything three-dimensional. The stamp is rubber so it tends to stick to the clay, but a dusting of corn starch solves that.
This is one of my favorite designs. I've been making "the captain" for many years. The design has been updated a few times, but is essentially the same: a medium-sized, deep dish, flat bottom, vessel with a lid. The name "Captain Casserole" describes its superhero-like functionality. It not only cooks and bakes, it can serve, store, and transport. It makes a grand entrance at potlucks. The lid also works as a bowl. And, as much as I love casseroles, both the pots and the foods, I felt that the word "casserole" had developed an outdated and frumpy reputation. An association with people who can't cook, other than dumping a can of condensed soup over other canned products. I'm trying to elevate the word "casserole" into the realm of good food and serious cooks, by making it sound courageous and cool. I know there are people who always saw it that way, all I want is for everyone to agree.
One of its strong suits is covered roasting. This method allows you to slow roast inexpensive cuts of protein. The covered vessel keeps everything juicy and fork-tender, while still allowing the meat to brown.
Start with a glug of olive oil in the bottom of the pot, then a layer of sliced onions. Salt and pepper 1.5 lbs of shorts ribs, cut "flanken-style" which is another way of saying "the way Koreans cut their short ribs."
Layer the short ribs on top of the onions. Cover with lid, and bake at 300°F for 3 hours.
This is how the short ribs look right out of the oven. Yum.
Served with a sweet potato salad. This exact recipe works for brisket and lamb shanks too.
Braising is a lot like covered roasting, only with a little liquid to create a steamy environment, and a nice sauce at the end. Combine 1/4 cup lemon juice, 1/4 cup soy sauce, and 1/4 cup honey. Add one clove of minced garlic, a tsp of minced fresh ginger, and whisk it together. Pour the liquid over four chicken thighs in the casserole. Cover and bake at 350°F for 1.5 hours.
Oh yeah. Get in my belly.
Served in a bowl over rice, with some strings beans that I managed to harvest despite the bunny problem. This exact recipe works with a small whole chicken, or thick cut pork chops.
I've been working with cone 10 clays this week, making pots for a wood-firing that's planned for October. This time I am not the teacher ... my friend Karen Arrington has taken over this workshop for the Greenbelt Community Center ... and I am one of the students. I'm really happy that I still get to wood-fire with my favorite fellow stokers.
All of these pots were thrown with Helios Porcelain and brushed with a gray flashing slip on their exteriors, except for the jar lids. I plan to glaze the interiors with celadon. I made a few small pots last year with this approach, and it resulted in all of my favorite shades of gray and brown. And I'm dying to try it again.
These pots were thrown with Highwater Phoenix. Oh how I love to throw Phoenix. When I throw large and precise forms, sometimes my usual stoneware is like "uh I'm not so sure" but Phoenix is always like "LET'S DO THIS!"
Here are the Phoenix pots trimmed, brushed with porcelain slip, then carved with lots of skinny vertical lines.
With the rest of my Phoenix clay, I threw small bottle forms. Aside from brushing porcelain slip on the larger ones, I will leave these undecorated, and try to place them in the "heavy snot" zones of the kiln. Ash snot or salt snot, I like them both.
Now of course comes the hard part ... trying not to anticipate how they will look when they emerge from the kiln. If you don't think that sounds hard, you've never done it. It is a serious mind bender, and probably the most challenging and important aspect of wood-firing: accepting the limits of one's control. Funny thing is, the first time I was exposed to this mental challenge, my mind was blown open and I saw how much bigger and greater the subject of pottery is. Or another way of putting it, if you think you can control everything, you will confine yourself to making only mediocre pots. This is one of the reasons why I make time for wood-firing about once a year, in order to keep my perspective clear. I sometimes say "it's the closest thing to religion in my world."
My next show is not until October, therefore this month I can catch up on some tasks other than my usual routine. The first item is the first thing I plan to do (starting as soon as I finish writing this post), but the rest are in no particular order.
1. Clean the studio, especially the floor.
2. Change the elements, and possibly the thermocouples, in one of my kilns.
3. Teach a workshop at Chestertown River Arts in Chestertown, MD, on August 23.
4. Design the template and mold for a "kimchi dish." Hopefully debut the new design in October.
5. Make pots for an upcoming wood-firing. I've got lots of ideas brewing in my head, waiting to get out.
6. Weed the front yard gardens. Dig up some of the grape hyacinth bulbs, which have multiplied prolifically, and give them to my mom. Move the japanese ferns to a better location, and add some new coral bells.
7. Sew a custom "table runner" for my art festival display. There is one shelf where I display my dishes as placesettings, and I want it to look like a dining room table. I'm using linen napkins now, but they are not the right size and shape.
8. Sew a new carrying case for the tabletops I use in my display. Right now I carry all three 4x2 ft. tabletops in one case. I've decided there are some shows where I only want to use two. So I'm going to split them up ... two in one case, and one in a separate case. Also, carrying all three at the same time is really heavy. Splitting them up will be easier to carry.
9. Order more receipts and shopping bags.
10. Paint my steel canopy weights. They are looking a bit rusty.
11. Run run run. Go for as many runs as I can.
Three shows in three weeks. One Large and two X-Large, and two road trips. It wasn't that bad, in terms of the workload. On the weekdays in between, I kept working in the studio, though at roughly half-speed. I was planning to do this only once, to determine which were the best July shows, then pick the best one or two for next year. But now that I know I can do all three, without feeling exhausted, I want to do it again.
The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts was the first show, and the one I was hoping to like the least. It was the furthest drive, and the most expensive given that it requires four nights in a hotel. I loved the show. The logistics were easy, the sales were amazing. Factor in that the veteran artists there said it was a down year. I did notice there were hours when the crowd was very light. But still, my sales were gigantic. Wonder what a "normal" or "good" year would be like? I met Simon Leach there. Yes, that Simon Leach. It wasn't an accident, he and his wife saw my work on the festival's website and came to meet me. Very humbling, and I hope my pots impressed them in person too. As if I needed more reasons, the show invited me back for 2015. No jurying or jury fee for me to return next year, they offer this to the top 50 or so artists according to their onsite jurors. Definitely going back.
Then there was Artscape Baltimore. Holy crap, Artscape. The event was blessed with unusually comfortable weather. There was a full shoulder-to-shoulder crowd for most of the show hours, easily twice as many attendees as usual. Here's the story about Artscape this year: at the beginning of the year, they announced the booth fee was increasing from $500 to $700. Ouch. The announcement was respectful, like "please understand we have been eating costs for many years, we can't afford to do it anymore." It wasn't like "we're greedy and we hate you." (That might sound like a joke, but trust me there are shows where you can sense the organizers are greedy and hate the artists.) There was much hand-wringing and discussion amongst us artists. Some artists decided they simply couldn't afford it. But most of my friends and I decided that, even at $700, it would still result in a meaningful net profit. I noticed there were fewer ceramics exhibitors, I think there were fewer exhibitors overall. This probably helped my bottom line. I scorched my previous best sales mark for that show. I was stunned. All of my friends were in the same boat. And I don't think the huge crowd was just from the good weather. I saw and heard a lot of marketing leading up to the show. I also noticed my tent was clean with properly working walls (not so in previous years). I went into the show with some wariness, looking for signs that my $700 was not well-spent. But it wasn't the case at all. Everything was done right. The results were spectacular. Kudos to them, they chose to make a risky move, and pulled it off successfully. I will definitely keep applying.
So after having big successes at CPFA and Artscape, I was thinking I should stop doing the Pennsylvania Guild Wilmington show. But by the time this show was over, I was thinking "why would I do that?" This show is indoors in a convention hall. Air conditioning. Carpet. The new hotel next door was like staying in a palace. The restaurant in the hotel was incredible. Compared to four long days outdoors at CPFA and three long days outdoors at Artscape, this was literally a vacation. A vacation that yielded a handsome income. It was only two days with reasonable daytime hours, so this show's gross sales were not as high, but in fact the sales per hour were the highest of all three shows. And the effort level was by far the lowest. I really can't imagine passing up on this show either.
There were a few negative aspects of doing this many consecutive shows. I got a large wholesale order from one of my favorite gallery accounts in June, and had to ask for an extra month to complete it, because of the amount of inventory I needed to produce for the shows. This is an amazing account, and I would like to be available on shorter notice for people like that. I also forgot about the deadline to apply for one of my favorite fall shows (Bazaart at the American Visionary Art Museum). It was due on the Saturday I was away at CPFA. I sent in my app a few days late, and learned this week I did not get in. I take full responsibility. Realistically I will be ok without it, but I will miss being there. I will try hard to do it on time next year.
I have already pulled out of a September show, and didn't get into the AVAM show in November, so my fall schedule looks like four shows (one X-Large, one Large, one Medium, and one Small), plus my Open Studio. My production should be lighter for the rest of the year, and I should be available for some wholesale orders. Next year, I can certainly eliminate some spring shows (ahem ... Columbia), in order to create some space in my schedule, then go all out for the three show marathon in July again.
Here is the "after" photo of my inventory shelves. Scroll down to the next blog post to see the "before" picture. I didn't make any pots this week, because I was glazing that large wholesale order. Next week I will start filling these shelves up again.
The van is packed and I'm hitting the road. And I won't stop until three weeks from now.
Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts
State College, PA
Thursday, July 10, 10am - 8pm
Friday, July 11, 10am - 8pm
Saturday, July 10-12, 10am - 8pm
Sunday, July 13, 12noon - 5pm
Along the streets of downtown State College, and the Penn State University campus. I will be in booth R09 on Fraser Street.
Complete event details at http://arts-festival.com/
Friday, July 18, 11am - 9pm
Saturday, July 19, 11am - 9pm
Sunday, July 20, 11am - 8pm
Along Mt Royal Ave and Charles Street. I will be in Booth E11 on Mt Royal Avenue, near the northwest end of the show.
Complete event details at http://artscape.org
Pennsylvania Guild Fine Craft Fair
Chase Center on the Riverfront
Saturday, July 26, 10am - 6pm
Sunday, July 27, 10am - 5pm
An indoor show in July! I will be in chilling out in the air conditioning in booth 345.
Complete event details at http://www.pacrafts.org/fine-craft-fairs/july/
Unlike last year, when I sometimes booked more shows than I could supply, I feel totally confident that I have enough inventory to get through all three shows. I've been busy. In fact, I produced an entire cycle of work more than my wildest predictions for sales. (A cycle is worth roughly $5000 of inventory). This photo does not even include the last cycle, which was waiting to be fired at the time. So hopefully when I'm done with this month, I'll already have a head start on fall inventory.