I had been on the fence about not applying for the show anyways, because I just surpassed a big “round number” birthday, and I was going to celebrate by skipping the show and taking a long trip to a warm location. Those plans went out the window with Covid. And skipping the show was decided for me. So here I am, staying safe at home, enjoying the free time.
“Harriet” came for another visit, and she painted my kitchen. This was another case of me choosing a non-neutral paint color years ago, then growing tired of it. I also fixed some old water damage on the ceiling. The color of the cabinets is so much prettier against a neutral background. I can’t believe I even considered painting the cabinets too, because I didn’t quite like their color. Boy would that have been a mistake! Phew. The old, too-dim fluorescent light fixture with the plastic cover had to go! The new one is glass and metal, and a blazing 3300 lumens bright. And I found a wall shelf unit that fits perfectly into a wall space that I wasn’t really using effectively before. Now I can display my favorite cups and mugs.
Ok, back to the subject of this blog post. This is about the path I took from being a recent college graduate with a design degree, to being a full-time potter, who makes a secure living, and made it to the top of the craft world in the US. This is more than simply a financial or business accomplishment. What I am most proud of is that, along the way, I discovered my values and priorities as an artist, and as a human. I get to live according to my values, one of which is that I have gained leverage over my whole life. It’s a path that is now almost 30 years long and still going. I’ve been thinking about it a lot this month, when I’ve had so much space and time to think. Sometimes I think people see me working as a potter, but they don't see what it took to get here. This is why so many start up pottery studios think they will have it all figured out within months, or maybe a year or two, and end up feeling like failures. And why such a small percentage will make it to full-time status. And a large percentage will opt for the part-time “side gig” option, which there is nothing wrong with (many years of my own path were spent in this mode).
From my perspective, there is an enormous, almost unfathomable gulf between Point A and Point B. When the hypothetical question is asked, would you want to go back to being 21 again? My answer is “not even a little bit.” I’d much rather be where I am now, and do you know how much hard labor I’d have to do again?
How I traversed this gulf can be broken down into steps. I always had a working goal. As soon as I met a goal, I had a new one. The goals got bigger as I went along, because goals can compound (just like money). Every goal you accomplish gives you the leverage and wherewithal to aim for something more ambitious and important.
“It’s about being prepared to lose what you have for what you might get … who you are for who you might become … it’s about letting go.” – Peter Gabriel
Goal 1. I want to have a full-time job. As I was about to graduate from college, I already had a full-time job lined up, as a graphic designer. So that didn’t take long. Except that I was immature, got frustrated with this job, and quit before lining up a new one. I was unemployed for about two months. The next job turned out to be worse than the one I quit! Lesson learned. This time I was smart enough to find a new job before quitting. The third job was much better, stable but still very frustrating in some ways.
Goal 2. I want to have a job in downtown DC. I’m not sure why this was so important to me, somehow I equated this with real adulthood. But anyways, my next job involved taking the subway right into the heart of DC. I loved that part. The job was much better than any of my previous jobs. I learned and grew a lot.
Goal 3. I want to be a freelance designer. At this job, I was one of two in-house designers. The company also hired design firms sometimes, so I got a close view of the differences. It was clear how advantageous it was to be a separate entity from your clients. You own all of your copyrights, and you get paid much better, as long as you can handle the additional responsibilities, and the risk of not having a regular paycheck and benefits. I’m lucky I had a terrific boss there (thanks Jeanne!) who didn’t mind that I was freelancing in my free time. I spent about two years doing freelance work on weekends, evenings, and early mornings, until my freelancing income grew to a real income. At that point, I made the first big, calculated risk of my life.
Goal 4. I want to own a house. This goal arose quickly after I began freelancing full-time. I was living in a small one-bedroom apartment. When it became both my home and my office, and I was there seven days a week, it suddenly felt impossibly tiny. So I bought a cheap fixer upper in the first year of my self-employment. This was my second big, calculated risk. I had to jump through a lot of extra hoops, given that I was newly self-employed. I had an awesome mortgage broker who guided me safely through the process (thanks Joe!).
I had started taking recreational pottery classes at a community center about two years after college. It was purely a hobby, and none of my Goals 1 through 4 had pottery in mind at all. I had begun to sell my work occasionally at student-level events, but I did not yet see it as a career path.
Goal 5. I want my sell my pottery at more serious events. My freelance design practice was now established and running smoothly. I started doing pottery sales at small community events, sharing a booth with a few of my studio mates. It seemed easier to work in a group when you have never done something like this. Safety in numbers, right? No, it’s a fallacy. Some of these were fine, and some of them were kind-of a nightmare. It was always cumbersome to juggle everyone’s needs and logistics, and put together an attractive display with many different styles of work. So I started applying for shows by myself. Didn’t always get invited, given the quality of my work then. But doing shows by myself was a big step forward. This inevitably led to ….
Goal 6. I want my own pottery studio. I had outgrown my community center studio … artistically, socially, and business-wise. But I was conflicted and nervous about working all by myself. I had never mixed glazes before, or fired my own kiln. I was teaching computer graphics classes at a local college, and was chatting with a colleague there about my fork in the road. He said “if you do that you can have my kiln.” SAY WHAT?!? He said that his mom had bought a kiln 20 years earlier, but never fired it. He had moved with it several times, and was thrilled to give it away. I took it as a sign. (thanks Pepe!) I cleared out my mostly unused basement, turned it into a studio, and officially launched Good Elephant Pottery, which was meant to be a side-gig to my design business.
Let me make something clear, which a lot of aspiring potters don’t see. Even though I got a kiln for free, which saved me a lot of money, I still spent about $5000 to put together my initial studio. Pottery equipment is expensive. I could not have done this if my design business hadn’t supplied the funds. Nobody wants to say this out loud … this is not for people who are struggling to pay their bills. You need to earn your way into a position of extra cash flow first, before you can indulge in something like a pottery studio. I was 31 years old, ten years out of college, before I could justify this. It was still a big, calculated risk, not knowing if I could figure out how to work by myself, or if the expense would return any income. That was the only time I used design money to pay for pottery things. From that day forward, I financed my pottery studio with pottery sales only.
Buying the house a few years earlier was also an invaluable asset here. You can’t have a pottery studio without start up money, and you can’t do it without space either. It’s extremely messy and there are loads of safety requirements. Generally speaking, you need to own the property where you want to do this. It’s possible to rent a studio space, but that just means you’ll need a lot more money.
Becoming a freelance designer provided another indispensable paving stone for my path as a potter. It taught me how to run a small one-person business. This is another common deficit that aspiring potters face. If you have no experience with this, educate yourself before trying to start a business. I met my trusty accountant right before I made the leap into freelance design work. He is the one who taught me how to run a business, from a bookkeeping and tax accounting standpoint (thanks Paul!), and 25 years later he is still doing my taxes and giving me great advice. “You sold $6000 worth of pottery in one year?” he asked incredulously, but with a big smile, back in the early years. I used to think that was lot of pottery too, and was thrilled that I had impressed him. The pottery business grew steadily every year, taking up a bigger and bigger portion of my time. (These days I make $5000 worth of pottery every 2.5 weeks.)
Goal 7. I want to try working with galleries on a wholesale basis. About 5 years after starting the pottery business, I felt like I had hit a ceiling, doing small and medium shows in my local area. I didn’t understand the wholesale gallery industry very well, and felt that it was somewhat over my head, but I wanted to learn. So I signed up for a trade show to meet the buyers in this sector. I ended up attending trade shows annually for the next five years, and working with galleries for another four years after that. Wholesale work became half of my income. And during these years, my overall pottery income grew to a level that I could support myself with financially.
Attending a trade show (at least back in 2007-2011) costs a minimum of $3000. And that’s only if you live within driving distance of the event. If you need to fly there and ship your goods, then expect to spend up to $5000. Another big, calculated risk. I met good role models for full-time potters at these shows. And some bad ones. Plus, potters who were just breaking even on expenses. And plenty who were losing money. It worked out for me because I had been experiencing good success at local art festivals for years, enough that I had the excess cash to invest, and a track record that indicated that people liked my work.
Goal 8. I want to stop being a designer. By this time, it was clear just how much easier it was to make an income with design than with pottery. It’s just a more valuable skill in our economy. You only need a handful of good clients. With pottery, the production itself is extremely labor intensive, and you need hundreds of customers to buy it, so finding customers also takes a lot more effort. But I was feeling like I did back when I had a full-time design job and was freelancing in all of the other hours of the week. Something had to give. This was the scariest fork in the road I ever faced, because what I was giving up was much more valuable than anything I had given up before. But what I could gain in return was also so much greater! I ended up doing it in stages. I closed down most of my design practice in 2010, but I kept working for one client for three more years. This client only needed me for one big project every year, which would leave the rest of my year for pottery. I had a great working relationship with them (thanks Barb!) and the job always went smoothly. When Barb decided to move to a different job three years later, that was my sign to let go too. And I haven’t done any design work (except for myself) since.
Goal 9. I want a better studio and a bigger car. The year after I stopped doing design work for good, I was hitting another ceiling, which was that I could only produce as fast as one kiln could output. I was also feeling the limits of the cargo capacity in my Subaru station wagon. That year, I made big investments in my infrastructure, a renovated studio with space for a second kiln, and a used minivan. Both the studio and the van have served me well to this day! Once again, I paid for the whole renovation with cash. I mentioned that my initial studio investment was $5000. The renovation cost $17K, plus $3000 for the kiln. This happened 11 years after I launched the studio, which means I made pots in a gross basement for 11 years, and didn’t upgrade it until I had earned it. I did finance the van though, but it has long since been paid off.
Goal 10. I want to stop doing wholesale work. In 2011, right after I had mostly quit doing design work, I managed to put myself on the pottery map with The Hourly Earnings Project. This was a year-long project, where I tracked my working hours and my income, and calculated how much I was actually making as a potter, while comparing various selling formats. I wrote about it on this blog, and then it was picked up as an article in Ceramics Monthly (thanks Sherman!). This project made me realize that selling my work wholesale was a lot less profitable than doing shows. After finishing this project, I stopped attending the trade shows. I continued to work with my existing gallery accounts for four more years. It was another thing that was tough to let go! The people you get to work with in this industry are really wonderful. Think about it … running a successful craft gallery for decades takes people who are incredibly smart, understand both art and business, and are highly well-socialized. (thanks Audrey, Gerry, Paula, David, Sue, Steve, Ruth, Donna, Peg, Betsy, Phyllis, Stephanie, Caroline, John, Shawna, Bill, Bruni, and many others!!)
This is a very important point about doing wholesale work. Although I chose to stop doing it, I am very grateful that I did it. Those nine years provided me with another invaluable asset for a potter … speed! The only way to become fast at production is repetition, and lots of it. I would not be the prolific potter I am today without spending nine years training to be fast. Again, it was during these years that my income grew to a level that would support my life, and my business went from part-time to full-time. I don’t think I would have gotten here without attaining this level of skill.
Goal 11. I want to expand my radius for doing shows, and get into better shows. I had to replace the wholesale income, and The Hourly Earnings Project concluded that shows offer the best return on my time and energy. As favorable as my local area is for having good art festivals, I knew I would be required to travel in order to fill out a full-time schedule. Now armed with a minivan, I became a road warrior. It turns out I love this! It became part of my business plan to visit at least one new city/town every year. I also set my sights on doing all of the national-level craft shows. At that point, I had been in the ACC Baltimore show a few times, but that was the only national-level show I had done. Since then, I have made it to the Smithsonian Craft Show (DC), the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) Craft Show, the American Craft Expo (Chicago), and CraftBoston. Shows like Smithsonian and PMA are what I call “the top of the craft mountain.” There really isn’t anything better to aspire to, in my opinion. I’ve had many really fun road trips in addition to these. It’s pretty safe to say that any city or town with a quality art festival is also a nice place to visit.
So that brings me to today, or rather last April, when everything went on pause due to the pandemic. I’ve been keeping the business running in alternative ways, which I’ve written about on this blog. Being separated from art festivals these past nine months made me realize that I have built an amazing audience of customers along the way, who are eager to buy pottery even when there are no festivals. Though I have always preached the importance of this, I never considered audience-building to be a “goal” with a defined finish line, just something that I constantly work on. I am currently feeling much gratitude that I placed so much emphasis on this over the years. And for the people on my mailing list! (thank you, you know who you are!)
So what’s my next goal? Like I said, I feel like there’s nothing better to aspire to within the pottery world. Right now, I’d like to see the end of this pandemic and return to my usual format for working. I do have plans brewing in my head for beyond, though no firm decisions have been made. Like I said earlier, I have gained the leverage to do whatever I want. I will say that all of my potential future goals involve making my life LESS labor intensive.