Excuse me for indulging in a little pride. Finished pottery in my studio is usually stored on shelves, organized by item, and stacked tightly to be as space efficient as possible. These are the pots that have already been reserved for my upcoming sale, on tables, and organized by how customers are choosing to put them together. It doesn't look like an inventory monolith today. I can see the pots, as individuals and small groups. As I walked up to these tables this morning, it struck me that my work looks really good! Even when there is this much in one place, it doesn't make my head hurt from over-design or noisiness. I am recalling all of the thought and trial that went into each of these designs. These designs are about concept and function, not noise. And I love how the pieces work together. I am being true to my values. Again, sorry for the pride. This arrangement of the pottery is also making me say to myself "dang, girl, you've been productive!" For those who are waiting to shop the sale when it goes live, don't worry! This is only about one-third of the pots I made for the sale. Lots of nice pots will be in the shop!
The pandemic is partially responsible for these new platter designs. When shutdowns first began, I was watching a lot of Netflix and got hooked on a charming Japanese show called Midnight Diner. The title artwork for this show included pretty patterns that I knew were somehow related to fabric art, but I didn't know much else about them. I tried carving these patterns on some vases earlier this year, and when I posted them to facebook, some of my facebook followers (who are fabric artists) gave me the right term: Sashiko. It is a traditional form of Japanese embroidery that was initially developed to strengthen fabric and make it last longer. Carving these patterns is extremely time consuming! So I tried to develop a method that would be more productive and consistent. I ended up making stencils, cut from roofing felt. The cutting of the stencils was even more time consuming, but now that they're done, hopefully I can use these stencils for a long time.
I embed the stencil into a slab of clay, then brush over them with porcelain slip.
I also needed to make a new styrofoam mold for this 12 inch round platter. (If you are interested in learning this technique, Handbuilding with StyroFoam/Plaster Molds is available in my online pottery school.)
And here's how the finished platters have turned out. (Note: the one on the right is already sold). I am selling them now for an introductory price of $85 each. I'm hoping to sell them for $95 or $100 in the new year.
This next new design is something I've been hoping to develop for several years: a storage jar with a lid that holds a silicone gasket, making the jar airtight. Maybe not 100% airtight, given that the gasket is not being held down with pressure, but it's a lot more airtight than a typical ceramic jar. My intention is for these to be used for loose tea leaves, coffee beans, or spices. I like this design so much that I am keeping one for myself (if you know me, you know that mine is full of coffee beans now). These are being offered now for an introductory price of $48 each.
This last item is not really a new item, just a new variation on an existing form. The 4.5 x 10 inch rectangular trays now come in a "lily of the valley" design, in addition to the existing "cherry blossom" and "ginkgo leaves" designs. They are $38 each. Expect to see lily of the valley carvings on other forms in the coming year.
The holiday sale opens tomorrow, Wednesday December 9, at 12 noon. All of the photos will become visible at 9am, so shoppers have 3 hours to browse and make decisions before the selling begins. The store's URL is https://goodelephantpottery.square.site. Have fun shopping!
It's not going to be an "Open Studio" this year :-( I will miss having you all in my studio space for shopping. But I will have a holiday-sized inventory of pots available, including seconds. They will all be sold online, where you can shop from the safety of your home. If you already know exactly what you want, send me an email and reserve it!
Online store hours
Store opens on Wednesday December 9, at 12 noon. It will stay open thru Friday evening December 11, or until pots sell out, whichever comes first.
Pick up at my house
On Saturday December 12, from 10am-3pm, you can pick up your purchases at my house, located at 815 Bonifant Street, Silver Spring MD 20910. The pick up station will on the patio behind the house. Masks and social distancing are required! The pots will already be bagged and paid for, so the contact will be very limited. This option is for those who would like to get their pots a little sooner, those who are suffering from cabin fever and need a safe outing, and those who live outside of my delivery zone but are willing to drive to Silver Spring.
Or get a delivery
For those who would rather stay hunkered down, home deliveries will begin on Monday December 14. The delivery zone includes: Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Howard, Baltimore (County and CIty), and Harford Counties in Maryland. Plus Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax Counties in Virginia. And Washington, DC.
There is no charge for either the pick up or delivery options.
Free gift with purchase!
Everybody gets a tiny, refillable bottle of hand sanitizer with a carabiner clip. Keep it on your purse strap or belt loop, for all those times you touch something in public that you're not sure you should have.
Store opens Wednesday, December 9, at 12 noon!
Thank you for visiting my website during the 2020 Virtual PMA Craft Show! Please read this quick blog post, or watch the video below, before entering my web store. I will only be taking orders from the Philadelphia area, and your pottery will be hand delivered to your home, with no charge for the delivery. Shipping to other areas is not available during this event.
The following counties are included in my delivery zone:
In Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, Chester
In New Jersey: Mercer, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester
My store will be open for the Preview Night on November 5, from 4pm to 8pm. Click here to buy tickets for Preview Night. The store will open again on November 6 at 9am, and stay open until 9pm on November 8, or until the store sells out, whichever comes first. Shopping on Nov 6-8 is free, but a suggested gift of $10 to the museum is requested. Deliveries will begin on November 10.
Click here to enter my store!
I mentioned this on my blog once before, that whenever I am engaged in DIY home improvement projects, I refer to myself in the third person as "Harriet Homeowner." This summer, I have been working on my house more than I have been making pots. Partly because I am not traveling for shows, and have not needed as many pots. And partly because this is how I deal with chaos, by putting my house into perfect order.
Whenever I complete a project successfully, especially if it's something I wasn't sure I could do by myself, I like to raise both arms in the air and declare "I AM HARRIET."
I'll start with the biggest and most impactful project, though technically does not count as a Harriet project. I now have what I am unabashedly calling "real f*cking air conditioning." I got a mini-split heat pump system for my whole house. I had been living with window units for 20+ years. The difference in incredible. We've had some prolonged heat waves this summer, and I sailed through them. I plan to keep using my boiler and hot water radiators for heat, but now I have a backup heat system in case the boiler ever needs work.
This was a project I had saved up for last year, and was just waiting for the spring to do it. Then came the pandemic, and I decided to put it on hold, thinking I might need my savings account for other things. As I've been writing about on the blog this summer, I have found other ways to keep my pottery income flowing. So I went ahead with the mini-split.
I had to move everything out of the way for the mini-split contractors to work. Before I put everything back into place, Harriet decided to tackle a project that she had put off for way too long. There was one last room in my house, the smallest bedroom, that had never been painted.
Although it is the smallest bedroom, it gets the best natural light in the house, at all hours of the day. So it is where I take photographs of my pottery. It also gets used to store miscellany. Before I put everything back, I purged out a bunch of the stored stuff.
The paint for the above room was free, because I had a whole can leftover from when I painted my office a few years ago, which is right next to the above room. When I was done, I had a quarter can left, and I started thinking about the guest room, which is on the other side of this room. I had painted the guest room yellow about ten years ago, and I was tired of the color. So I went out a bought another gallon of this paint, and painted the guest room too.
The walls in the guest room went from yellow to gray, which means I did not need to replace the yellow and gray curtains. Harriet was pleased with that. Now all three rooms in this area of the house (office, photo room, guest room) are all the same color.
My house was full of bad light fixtures. Old, worn-out looking, and builder grade. I spent a lot of time shopping for new ones. I tend to prefer modern designs, but my house is 85 years old. I tried to walk the line between "clean and simple" and "1930s appropriate."
All of the light switch and outlet cover plates on the first floor of my house had been painted over many times. I swear I wasn't the first one to do it! But I admit I did it too during previous painting projects. Harriet said "enough!" The switches and outlets themselves were so dingy, and many of the outlets were so loose, plugs would fall out of them.
They have all been replaced, with new components that match the ones on the second floor of my house, which was completely renovated last fall. I even installed a nifty dimmer switch for the dining room (which can now accommodate either a sewing project or a fancy dinner) and a combination GFCI outlet/light switch for the bathroom. All of the old outlets were two-prong outlets. I learned that these can be replaced with grounded three-prong outlets as long as you have metal outlet boxes and armored (or BX) wiring. This is common in old houses like mine. A grounding wire can be attached to the metal outlet box. For those who are surprised that I did all this electrical work myself, anyone who can maintain an electric kiln can easily learn how to replace light fixtures, switches, and outlets.
While I was touching up the paint around the new light fixtures and switches in the downstairs bathroom, I discovered that the paint in the can no longer matched the paint on the wall. I stirred and stirred and stirred, but it was off by a shade and a half. It looked terrible. So I repainted the whole bathroom.
Now that it's done, I don't mind that this happened, because I'm really into this new color. While I was in here painting, I decided to replace the sink faucet as well. The old one had a "chrome" finish that was corroding away. My memories are fuzzy, but I'm pretty sure it was a cheap model. This new one wasn't terribly expensive either, I chose it because it was the closest match design-wise to the tub's faucet. I hope it holds up better than the last one. I had always regarded the medicine cabinet and exhaust fan as "things that must be replaced eventually, because they are so old." I've had a change of heart. During this project, I scrubbed and shined up the outside of the medicine cabinet, and gave the inside a fresh coat of paint. The exhaust fan's cover plate had been painted over many times. I took it down and scrubbed off all the layers of paint, back to bare metal. Now it's feels nice to keep things that are original to the house, "because they are so old."
Harriet is done. For now. I can't think of a single thing that needs to be worked on right now.
Some of you might be thinking, "it looks like she's getting her house ready to sell it." My answer is that the plan is not imminent, but you're not wrong. I would like to enjoy the air conditioning for at least a while.
The pandemic has now been hovering over us for over five months. All of my shows through the end of 2020 have been cancelled. I’m sad, and a little angry at those who think the public health restrictions don’t apply to them. I miss doing shows, but I would rather give them up in order to take the fastest path out of the crisis. I see other countries having festivals again already, and I feel embarrassed about the US.
I do feel generally happy with my home state of Maryland, for understanding the situation and choosing smart policies. We still have pockets of dumbassery here, but it’s not as rampant as in other parts of the country. When I leave my house, which is rare, I feel safe. Everyone I see is masked, and everyone keeps their distance.
Initially, my pandemic plan was to stay home, keep making pots, and live off my savings account. I thought we would be doing shows again in the fall, at the latest. Well, that proved to be wrong. Right now, there is no clear indication that we can have shows in 2021 either.
As I talked about in my last blog post, before the pandemic I had vowed to never ship pottery again. I found a way to sell pottery without shipping it, which is to sell pots online to local DC/Baltimore area customers, then deliver the pots in person. I also did a sale like this for the State College, PA area. I am planning to do one for the Philadelphia area in the fall. These places are not too far from home. My mailing list contains many nice contacts for these areas, because of the number of shows I have done there.
I am wary about how many times I can reach out to my local customers this way. One of my business goals is to constantly add a steady stream of new fans to my mailing list. This is accomplished by doing shows, and meeting new people at every one. So by selling in the “home delivery” model, I am tapping my existing audience, but not growing it.
My mailing list also contains contacts in further places too. But the numbers get a lot more sparse. I felt like I also needed to reach places where I could not make home deliveries. I was having an argument with my brain. “Just face it you have to start shipping pots again.” “NOOOOO!!!!!” “But you can reach the entirety of your mailing list all at once.” “BUT TRASH, BREAKAGE, ANXIETY, WASTED TIME!!” “You only have to do it until the pandemic is over, which will happen eventually.”
I thought back to my previous online sales. During those long, tedious hours of packing, whenever I picked up an order sheet that only contained one small item, I would brighten up. Small items are the fastest and easiest to pack. They only require a small amount of packing materials. And because the boxes are small and light, they are the least likely to suffer damage during shipping.
So this is the settlement I negotiated with my brain. I would ship pots again, but only small pots, and only a limited number. And only until I can do shows again.
I developed some miniaturized versions of my existing designs, just for these sales.
I have now completed two “small pots only” online sales. I learned a lot from the first one. Online sales are very different from art festivals. When dealing with customers face to face, they are polite to me, and polite to fellow customers. An online sale is more like the wild, wild west. There’s no waiting for your turn in a line. Customers race to check out as fast as possible. A lot of seasoned online shoppers seemed to know this beforehand. But some of my mailing list customers were not prepared. I got several emails afterwards from customers complaining that the store “didn’t work” because items just disappeared from their cart. Most of them were nice about it, albeit disappointed. One of them was really mad.
For the second edition of the online sale, I included the following language in my marketing emails and social media posts: “Last time, the pots sold out in minutes. If you have an item in your cart, it is still available to everyone until you finish paying for it. If an item disappears from your cart, that's because somebody else paid for it first. Be prepared! Speed counts!” I did not get any complaints afterwards. I realize now that communicating how the shopping cart works, and that there is an unmoderated race to checkout, is my responsibility.
Here’s another thing I learned. I sent some marketing messages that talked about both my first “small pots only” online sale, and my “home delivery” sale for State College, PA. They were scheduled about two weeks apart, and I wanted to give the State College customers an ample amount of notice. This was a mistake. Some customers conflated the two events. When the State College sale went live, I got orders from all over the country. I had to cancel more orders than I accepted. Once again, most of the customers whose orders were cancelled were nice about it. But one customer in particular simply could not understand why I was refusing to ship his order. Argh.
I learned to never advertise two events at the same time, because this causes confusion. I need to schedule the events far enough apart, so they each have enough room for an their own, exclusive marketing campaign. It was never a problem to advertise more than one art festival at the same time. These events have clear, physical boundaries. Only those who attend in person can purchase. But the online space is just one big, vague space. Defining the parameters of an online event takes a lot more effort and care.
The entire inventory of one online sale.
I’m really happy with my decision to only ship small pots. My definition of “small pot” is one that can ship in a 9x9x9 inch box. This drastically simplified the sourcing of packing materials. I only need to buy two sizes of boxes: 9x9x9 for one pot, and 16x9x9 for two pots. One of the biggest drags about my previous online sales was when I had a large or weirdly-shaped pot, and no appropriate box. Buying boxes efficiently requires buying bundles of 25. It sucks when you only need one of a odd size box.
I offered 40 small pots in the first sale. The packing took about 4 hours, which I found manageable. Packing the boxes was so much faster, and less mentally taxing, than packing pots of a whole range of sizes.
In the second sale, I offered 50 pots. Predictably, the packing took 5 hours, which was also manageable. However, I think I will go back to 40 for future sales. 50 pots took 3.25 bags of peanuts. That’s inefficient in terms of sourcing, I don’t want to buy 4 bags of peanuts and have so much leftover. 40 pots required 2.5 bags of peanuts. Having half a bag leftover makes more sense, and the leftovers easily fit into sourcing for the next sale. Maybe I can pack 45 pots with just under 3 whole bags of peanuts? That would be even more convenient, and might be worth trying.
Sourcing the packing materials is drastically simplified when all of the pots are roughly the same size.
For those who think online selling is “easier” than shows, I’m not so sure. It certainly doesn’t involve any heavy lifting. Or dealing with bad weather. But it still takes a lot of time to put together an online sale. The pots need to be photographed, the photographs need to be edited, then uploaded to the store, along with descriptions/prices/inventory counts. The store’s user interface is a website, and all the steps are done with mousing and clicking, not keyboarding. It’s tedious and slow. It’s easy to skip a step, or to do things inconsistently. It requires paying close attention to something that is very boring. At a show, I can setup a canopy and a full display in less than 3 hours. For an online sale, even though I now have all of my item descriptions saved in a text file for copy/pasting, it still took about 5 hours to put the whole sale together. Not to mention, one of the big reasons why I was so eager to quit doing design work, and opt for a pottery studio instead, is because I was tired of sitting in front of a computer all day. It's also much easier and more civilized to work with customers in person at a show, and to convey your communications more clearly. And as I described above, customers feel more entitled to be argumentative and demanding from across an online space, and misunderstandings are a lot more common.
Putting together an online sale is actually very time consuming. All the check marks ensure that I don't skip a step.
I think it’s important to mention that I really don’t have a big social media following. I don’t have 50K Instagram followers. I have about 8K Instagram followers, and 1.2K Facebook followers. I like to use both platforms, but do not view them as sales generators. I have no interest in playing those games that drive up your follower numbers. Nor will I try to make my pottery studio look “pretty” all the time, because that’s not real. I’ve advocated for many years on this blog that a mailing list is far more valuable than a big social media following. My online sales are coming from the following sources: 1) customers in cities where I travelled once for a show but haven’t returned, 2) customers who used to live in the DC area but have moved away, 3) fans of my blog, which is a very niche audience but those who get it really get it, and 4) students of my online pottery school. My mailing list currently has about 1400 contacts (after recently purging a bunch of contacts so I can continue to use MailChimp for free). So although my following isn’t huge, the connections are more meaningful than the average social media follower. Having spent many years developing an audience of this depth has proven to be invaluable during this crisis. I’ve had to totally reinvent the way I sell my work, and this audience has responded amazingly, both for the “home delivery” sales and for the “small pots only” online sales.
Even though I got a few unhappy notes after the first online sale, on balance I got so many more nice notes! They were thanking me for making my pots available to them. Although I am still shipping pots on a “grudgingly” basis, I admit that it makes me feel good to discover that people in far off places have been waiting for a chance to buy my work.
It took some experience to get my bearings, and correct some mistakes, but I think I’ve made peace with all of my misgivings. The narrow parameters make it work for me. My “home delivery” sales are my main source of income right now, but these online sales are a worthwhile supplement. I’m willing to do it on a regular basis, until we can put this pandemic behind us.
I’m writing down all the details of what I did this past week so that other potters can copy or adapt this idea.
So far, two of my spring and summer shows have been cancelled. I expect to lose a few more. At least. My original plan was to keep making pots as normal, and to try to make up for lost income later this year or next year. I quickly realized the flaw in this plan, which is that I don’t have room to store months worth of production. I can only store about 10 weeks worth of production at a time.
I’ve been seeing a lot of artists trying to sell online more, and that many of them are finding receptive audiences, who miss art festivals as much as the artists do. The thing is, I had sworn off online selling at the end of last year. Or, to be more specific, I had sworn off SHIPPING pottery anymore. I hate packing pots into shipping cartons. "Hate" is not a strong enough word. It’s such an inefficient use of time, and it produces so much trash in terms of packing materials. It creates an unacceptably low limit on volume of sales, due to the amount of time it takes to pack the boxes.
I was so sure that I wouldn’t sell online anymore, that I deleted my BigCartel account.
Here’s my new version of an online sale, that doesn’t involve any shipping, and works within our current strange circumstances. I called it The DC/Baltimore Area, Maximum Social Distancing, Free Home Delivery Pottery Sale.
Here’s the email I sent to my customer base, explaining all the terms and conditions:
Note the part about taking reservations in advance. This is something I’ve been doing with all of my shows for several years, and many of my customers have learned how to work with me this way. I have found this to be incredibly valuable in terms of building customer relationships. As soon as I sent this email, the reservations came pouring in. Along with many nice messages of support and “go girl!”
I built an online store using the Square store platform this time. I already use (and like) Square to process credit cards at shows, and I was able to build a no-frills online store for free. Overall, I liked this platform better than BigCartel because the payment process was faster for the customers. With BigCartel, I was encountering an annoying problem with overselling, because the payment process took too long when customers were shuttled between BigCartel and PayPal. This meant a second (and sometimes third) customer could buy the same item before the first customer finished paying for it. With the Square store, the payments were processed on the same website as the store, and I did not have any items oversold.
The new store went live at 10am last Friday. By noon, all but four items had sold. I only had one item left when I shut down the store on Sunday.
Then came the next phase … I needed to deliver all of these pots! I had 46 addresses to visit. Fun fact, when I was in college, I worked part-time in a flower shop. On the busiest flower shop holidays (Valentines, Mothers Day, etc), they let me make deliveries instead of working in the store. I enjoyed this so much, being able to work independently in my car. And I got paid per delivery, thus would make a lot more money compared to my hourly wage in the shop. This was way before Google maps existed. So I was confident I could make these pottery deliveries.
First I sorted all of the purchases into neighborhoods.
Then I printed out maps of the region, and plotted the locations of each delivery. I numbered the plot points in the order that made the most sense. Then I numbered and organized the purchase sheets into this order.
I divided the 46 deliveries into 3 driving routes and 3 days. Each driving route took between 3 and 6 hours, for a total of 14 hours. The night before I set out for each driving route, I sent the following email to everyone whose pots would be arriving the next day:
Your pottery will be delivered tomorrow, Monday 4/20, between 12noon and 2pm (give or take). I will assume you are home, so I will knock or ring the doorbell, then leave. If you have any special delivery instructions (eg, leave on back porch, etc), just let me know!”
That last sentence proved to be very valuable, because quite a few people responded with instructions. In particular, those who live in secure apartment buildings. This allowed every single delivery to take place without a hitch.
I followed the sorting order as I packed the pots into shopping bags (which takes no time compared to packing them into shipping cartons), and therefore the shopping bags were sorted in my car in the same order.
Let’s talk numbers. While I was cooking up this plan in my head, I was thinking "it would be great to make $3000." After I sent out my email announcement, I got over $3000 in reservations alone. I had also been thinking that I wanted to make about 40 deliveries tops. But the reservations only involved 20 addresses. I realized that the deliveries-to-sales ratio was more favorable than I was expecting. So I raised my goals, and decided to offer a greater amount of pots in the online store.
The total sales from the MSDFHDPS ended being only $30 less than my 2019 average gross sales per show. Sales at shows vary a lot, between $2700 and $12500. And so do the expenses, between $200 and $2000. My expenses for the MSDFHDPS included 47 shopping bags ($0.60 ea = $28.20), and 1 tank of gas ($30). This means the MSDFHDPS came out ahead, given how low the expenses were. I am really stoked at how well it turned out.
How does this compare to selling online? In the past several years, my use of online selling has been limited to once a year. In December, when my annual Open Studio was over, I would offer the remaining pots for sale online. So I have never tried to sell a full-show-size inventory online. The largest online sale I ever had involved 35 pots, for a total dollar value of $2550. It took me about 10 hours to pack all the pots for shipping, spread over 2 days. And remember, this is labor that I hate so much, I felt like a zombie when I was done. There were also some substantial expenses. I spent $264 on shipping supplies (boxes, peanuts). I collected $315 in flat rate shipping fees from my customers, but ended up spending $441 on UPS that year (net loss of $126).
So it took me 10 hours to pack 35 pots into shipping cartons for an online sale. It took me 14 hours to deliver 154 pots for the MSDFHDPS.
Do you see how inefficient online selling is for a potter? Financially, materially, and time-wise? This is true for any artist who sells fragile, bulky, heavy items. And given the choice between spending my time packing boxes, or driving around in my car, it’s a no brainer. Especially when driving can yield so much more net profit. Driving is part of being a full-time festival artist anyways. If you don't like driving, your available choices for shows will be severely limited. When I had dropped off my last delivery, I felt sad that it was over, not like a zombie. And now more than ever, I needed a reason to get out of the house, in a safe fashion.
Does this mean I think the MSDFHDPS is better than shows? No way. As much as I enjoyed it, the MSDFHDPS was missing a very critical component, which was the opportunity to meet NEW customers. To survive for the long term, a pottery business needs a steady influx of new fans. This past week, I reached out to my existing customer base, but did not grow it. I won’t be able to do this too many times. If all of the summer shows get cancelled, I’ll probably do this again in late summer. And if all of the fall shows get cancelled too, I will hold my December open studio in this fashion. But I don’t think it would be wise to do it every month, and hopefully not into 2021. And in the coming weeks, I need to figure out places to store more inventory in my house.
On the plus side, though, the interactions I had with my best fans this week were overwhelmingly positive. They are all stuck at home too, and feeling unhappy. Some of them seemed genuinely tickled that pottery was arriving at their door. Everybody could use a bright spot right now, and I’m glad I could provide a small one. Although I did not grow my customer base with this sale, I do think I built stronger ties with my existing base.
This brings me to one last point, which I have been preaching about for years on this blog … the importance of building and using an email list. It is the best way to stay in touch with people who actually want to buy your work. The ratio of serious customers within an email subscriber base is very high. The ratio of serious customers within a social media following is very low. And even if social media fans buy, chances are you have to ship their purchase to them, which is a real bummer, as far as I’m concerned. And the best way to build an email list is to do shows, because that’s where the right people are. It’s a slow process to build a list, one person at a time. But when you have done it consistently for many years, it can provide immeasurable value, at times when the world has been turned upside down..
(This is pretty much the exact same concept I wrote about in my recent blog post about financial preparedness. Think and plan for the long-term. Practicing consistent good habits over many years will pay you back when you need it.)
Many, many thanks to all the wonderful people who made this event work! And once again, to all the artists out there whose shows have been cancelled, please feel free to copy this idea. My friend Nan Rothwell has already created the Charlottesville, VA Area MSDFHDPS, which goes live this Saturday 4/25. If you are in her area, lucky you!
This is partly because I lost one show (so far) this spring to the pandemic, and partly because I could really use a day or two out of my house and driving around in the pottermobile. This Friday, April 17, opening at 10am, I will be holding the first ever pandemically-designed pottery sale, for my DC and Baltimore area customers.
A small selection of work will be made available to purchase online. I will give you the date and approximate time that your purchase will be delivered to your doorstep, free of charge. I will ring your doorbell then leave.
Orders to the following areas will be accepted
In Maryland: Montgomery, Prince George’s, Howard, Anne Arundel, Baltimore City, Baltimore County. Plus, Washington DC, and inside the Beltway in Virginia.
Just like with any of my shows, if you were hoping to buy a specific pot(s) this spring, you can contact me and reserve it before the sale begins. I am always happy to do that.
Mark your calendars!
Friday, April 17, starting at 10am. Store will be open through Sunday, or until the pots are sold out, whichever comes first.
(note that I am no longer using BigCartel for my online store. The above url is new.)
Wishing you all comfort and health. Stay strong, and keep up the good work with social distancing and mask wearing!
This seems like a good time to talk about a subject that many people (and not just artists) hate to talk about. Just like all artists who rely on festivals and craft shows for income, all of my spring shows have been postponed, and possibly cancelled. My income is on pause for an unknown amount of time.
How am I feeling? Well, I was feeling pretty anxious about two weeks ago. The health implications are frightening and uncharted. Then my 20 year old refrigerator decided to kick the bucket. I had to venture out into the scary world to buy a new one, which was then delivered with a dent. I had to venture out again to find another one. I had been following my normal production schedule until then, but the refrigerator situation made me say “take some days off.”
I spent 9 whole days not working. I might be the only one saying this right now, but I am actually feeling pretty good. I spent the whole time prioritizing one thing … getting a good night’s sleep every night. I’ve been eating healthy (easy when you’re stuck at home), doing light exercise (not heavy exercise, which can have the opposite effect), avoiding alcohol, avoiding known sources of stress, reading, meditating, and watching Netflix. I keep up with the news, but not to the point where it gets repetitive. Once the new refrigerator was in place, things here have been so nice and quiet. Being in neutral gear for days is refreshing. My neck muscles have relaxed. I am now rethinking my whole workaholic lifestyle. Maybe I should be taking week-long breaks several times a year.
Notice there is one thing I am not stressing about … money. Even despite needing to buy two refrigerators, and waiting for one to be refunded. The stress from the dead refrigerator was about needing to venture outside, and potentially losing my stash of frozen food. Not money.
If you ARE stressing about money right now, then this crisis should be a wakeup call. If you want to be an independent artist, i.e. reject a conventional lifestyle and go after a big creative dream, you hereby forfeit your right to be a financial dumb dumb.
If this type of talk makes you feel bad, at least you’re not alone. Two-thirds of American adults cannot pass a financial literacy test.
It doesn’t take something as unforeseen as a pandemic to derail your income for a while. You could simply break your leg. If you are not willing to prepare yourself for these work layoffs, then you are not ready to be self-employed.
I don’t believe financial literacy should be taught in schools. I think it should be taught at home by parents. And if your parents didn’t provide this, you can teach yourself. The principles of good personal finance management are actually very simple. But the reason financial illiteracy is so widespread is because of psychological barriers that cause people to avoid the subject.
When I was in my 20s and embarking on self-employment, my mom gave me the book The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas Stanley and William Danko. It was a real eye opener, and it legit made me change the way I live.
What this book teaches you is that when it comes to wealth-building and financial security, it doesn’t matter how much you earn. In fact, high-income earners are just as likely to be in financial trouble as low-income earners. What matters is how much you spend in relation to how much you earn, and what you do with the money you don’t spend.
It’s also common for “next door millionaires” to be small business owners, rather than regular paycheck types. Because there is less safety and predictability, we are more motivated to build our own safety nets.
In other words, you can make a modest potter’s income and still be financially healthy, and even become wealthy. Like I said above, you need to overcome the emotional barriers that hold most people back. Such as believing that spending money will increase their happiness and self worth, or make others like them more. Or, that the Joneses care about what they’re doing with their money. There’s an all too common attitude taught to artists, which is that being talented makes you “too special” to worry about icky things like bills and money, and that doing so requires you to sacrifice your creativity. This is just a form of denial, of course.
You might be thinking “easier said than done,” and sure, that’s true. But nobody ever said that owning your own business was supposed to be easy. It is supposed to be a serious mental challenge.
I live on an extremely frugal budget. And I never feel deprived. My needs are simple. I always have an emergency fund, which right now will cover my basic living costs for two years. When I need a new appliance, it’s not a problem. I can indulge in occasional luxuries. Though most of what I call “indulging” involves making improvements to my house. Which makes it nicer to live here, but is also improving my wealth.
But really, “normal” luxuries don’t matter much to me compared to what I consider to be bigger rewards … such as living a life of my own determination. I became self-employed (graphic design) at a young age, which is when I got serious about financial planning. It’s a long-term process of delayed gratification. Let’s be clear, I never made a high income as a graphic designer either, just a middle-class income. I was building up a pottery business at the same time. It was a crapton of work. Then one day I reached a point where I could safely let go of my design practice, because my pottery business was delivering a livable income, and I had built a sufficient safety net. I got the life that I really wanted. I get to set my own schedule and make all of my own decisions. I get to have relative peace of mind during a worldwide disaster. In my book, there is nothing I could have spent money on that would be better.
To some people this life sounds amazing, and to some it sounds like deprivation. It’s all a matter of priorities.
Again, if you are stressing hard about money right now, use the stress as motivation to build a financially sustainable plan and lifestyle. One that assumes there will be work stoppages along the way. If you are not currently on a sustainable plan, then you have a lot of work to do. But it’s not too late to start, and it’s too important not to do it. If you are a young person in your 20s or 30s, you have the gift of time. Don’t waste it!
Thomas Stanley recently wrote a follow-up to The Millionaire Next Door, titled The Next Millionaire Next Door. The first book debunks all the common myths about wealth and appearances, and the second book gives you nuts-and-bolts strategies for how to build wealth on any income. If you don't know where to start, then my recommendation is to start with these two books. They are both available as e-books and audiobooks, so you can get them from the safety of your home.
Here’s to prosperous times ahead for all artists.
You want to be your own boss? I think many people who express this have no idea what it really means. All they're thinking is they will no longer feel like a “worker.” I’m sorry to break the news, being your own boss means you are still the worker, but now you are responsible for everything too. Yes, there are plenty of rewards to be gained, especially when it comes time to take credit for your accomplishments. But the weight of responsibility is a constant presence.
Towards the end of last year, one of my glazes developed a pinholing problem. This glaze would make an occasional pinhole before, but suddenly the problem became much more prevalent. As soon as my holiday sales were over, I began trying to fix the problem.
Here's an example of too many pinholes. I pushed the contrast, and oversharpened the photo, in order to make them more visible.
A common cause of pinholing is that a glaze is being applied too thickly. This is an opaque white glaze, and it’s true I had to apply it thickly in order to get the right opacity. So my first attempt at solving the problem was to add more opacity to the glaze, so that I could apply it less thickly. On the test tiles I was firing, it seemed to work. No pinholes on the test tiles.
The glaze has another nice feature, which is that it is slightly runny. By applying the glaze less thickly, I lost the runny quality. So my next step was to add the runniness back. I tried increasing the flux so it would melt more, and I tried decreasing the stabilizer. Both approaches yielded promising results, according the the test tiles. However, it still didn’t look as nice as the previous glaze.
I had been using test tiles that were about a year old. Around this point in my testing, I ran out of tiles, and made a few dozen more. On the very next test firing, the pinholes came back.
SON OF A BITCH. It wasn’t the glaze. It was the clay.
In hindsight, it became perfectly clear. I first noticed the pinholes while setting up my display at the PMA Craft Show in November. About three weeks before that, I had bought a new supply of clay. The pots for that show were the first pots made with the new supply of clay.
All of the test tiles I had fired up to that point (in this photo) went in the trash. Useless.
Another common reason why pinholes form is because the glaze is being overfired. I had not considered that option, because I had not changed my clay, glazes, or firing schedules. I use two clays, and mix them together. And now I understand that one of them has changed. It is now maturing at a lower temperature, and my firing schedule was now “too hot” for the clay. The overfired clay was overfluxing my glaze, and causing the pinholes.
I solved the pinholing problem by lowering the final temperature of firings. But just like all things in ceramics, it’s never as simple as that. For starters, I learned that if I lowered the temperature too much, another one of my glazes, a semi-matte, started to look too dry. This means that my range of acceptable firing temperatures had gotten much smaller.
Here comes the next problem. One of my kilns (named “Dr. Evil”) was bought in 2003. My other kiln (named “Number 2”) was bought in 2013. They are the same model kiln, but during that ten year gap, the kiln went through several design changes, and the digital controller also went through several upgrades. So really these are two different kilns. Before this problem arose, I knew that Number 2 fired hotter than Dr. Evil, despite having a lower set point for the final firing segment. I was not tuned in exactly to how different the firings were, because it never mattered before. This means I had to figure out a new firing schedule not once, but twice, one for each kiln separately.
Many test firings later, I figured out that the right answer was to lower Dr. Evil’s final set point by 7 degrees, and Number 2’s final set point by 15 degrees.
Then came the next problem. It is now important to get my kilns to fire as evenly as possible from top to bottom. Again, it is normally not considered a problem to have as much as a half-cone difference within a kiln load. But it’s a problem for me now. The solution for this has two prongs: learning how to calibrate thermocouples, and changing the way I stack shelves in the kiln.
Calibrating thermocouples is a fairly straightforward process. I never had to do it before. Now I will calibrate them when they’re new, and use witness cones in every 10th firing or so, and calibrate them as needed as they get older.
Changing my shelf stacking plans took quite a few test firings. My entire stacking strategy before consisted of using a minimum of 6.5 inch posts on my bottom shelf. 6.5 inch posts allow the second element from the bottom to barely be under the next shelf. The bottom zone is the hardest for the kiln to heat, and I thought that was as much help as I could give the bottom shelf. But I was wrong. Using 6.5 inch bottom posts still made the middle zone fire 10-20 degrees hotter. The answer was to increase the bottom posts to 8 inches tall, keep the space at the top of the kiln 7 inches tall, and pack four or five shelves into the middle zone. It felt extreme to use such tall spaces at the top and bottom, but I’ll be darned, it works! Now Dr. Evil can keep all zones within 4 degrees of each other. Number 2, with its newer controller, can keep them exactly even.
Did you know that the temperature at the middle of a kiln shelf is cooler than at the edge of the shelf near the elements? If you don’t place your witness cones at a consistent distance from the elements, your cones will give you unreliable readings. I know that now.
And here comes the next snafu! That’s right, I’m not done with those yet. During the 2 months that I was trying to solve these problems, I had relay failures in both kilns, at different times. I should have seen it coming. Both of the relays that failed were past the age where they could fail at any time. And I had been doing so many test firings, one after another, it’s not that surprising that I pushed them over the edge. A relay failure meant that I had to wait at least two days for new ones to be delivered. Which meant my testing had to screech to a halt, during a time period where the clock was ticking loudly, thanks to the upcoming ACC Baltimore show.
(I am now keeping a set of three relays on hand. Next time a relay fails, it won’t cause a delay.)
I was continuing to produce pots for the show, while conducting all of these firing tests. The longer it took to figure out all of these various issues meant the pots were piling up, waiting to be fired. There were several points along the way when I contemplated dropping out of the show, thus forfeting almost $1600 in non-refundable show fees, because I didn’t know if I would get the pots done.
In the end, I got all of the issues figured out almost 2 weeks before the show, which gave me enough time to get everything fired. I was firing non-stop for days, and the kilns turned out one perfect glaze load after another. I did not drop out of the show.
Dr. Evil is still firing less consistently than Number 2. This might be due to its older controller, but also because its elements and thermocouples are about 80 firings old. Roughly two-thirds of their lifespan. Thermocouples naturally get less reliable as they age. Number 2’s components are almost brand new. Dr. Evil will get new elements and thermocouples next summer or early fall. I can gauge then how much more consistent the kiln can be, if at all. Anyhow, the amount of variation in Dr. Evil’s current results is small enough to make good pots. These are the witness cones I am getting from both kilns now. Dr. Evil produces cones within this whole range. Number 2 produces cones that consistently look like the third and fourth cone.
There are so many details to my new kiln firing “rules” that I knew I should write them down so I don’t forget. I made this small poster to hang near the kilns.
After a bumpy 2 months, I am tired. I wish I could take a little time off. On the bright side, I am nearly out of pots, thanks to a great weekend at ACC. So I need to get back to work, whether I feel like it or not. Because I am still the worker. Am I upset that one of my clays changed its composition? No, because there are many valid reasons why a manufacturer would need to tweak their formula. And they don’t need to ask for my permission first. As a person who relies on pots for income, and relies on manufacturers to make the clay, it’s my responsibility to expect these changes to happen. And to be adaptable when it does. When you’re the boss, you don’t get to blame your problems on others.
Mea Rhee (mee-uh ree),
Receive email notices about upcoming shows/events, and/or the online school.