I wrote an article about my efficient approach to reclaiming clay, which has been published in the December 2018 issue of Ceramics Monthly. My method boils down to making small batches, and keeping an eye on the slop bucket everyday. It's not that much work, and I gain about 20% more clay for free. Better still, incorporating reclaimed clay into my workflow allows me to manage the softness of my throwing clay, which is much easier on my body. If you don't subscribe to Ceramics Monthly, you can download a high-res PDF of the article here.
Originally published in the December 2018 issue of Ceramics Monthly, page 58. http://www.ceramicsmonthly.org. Copyright, The American Ceramic Society. Reprinted with permission.
When applying for art festivals, many shows ask for a photograph of your booth. It's not that hard to photograph an indoor booth, with controlled lighting and no weather. But shooting an outdoor booth is kind of like nature photography! It's hard to get the conditions just right, and it takes a lot of patience. You really can't use an indoor photo to apply for an outdoor show. Some shows state specifically "white canopies only" and some shows will even get picky about which brands of canopies are acceptable or not. Therefore, your booth photo must show that you can handle outdoor logistics, and that you have a decent canopy.
I hadn't taken an outdoor booth shot in at least five years. I changed my display a lot since then, so it was time. Earlier this year, I realized there was only one show this entire year where I would have a chance to take photos during daylight hours, without any customers around. This was at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, where setup takes place starting at 6pm on the day before the show. It's the middle of summer, so the sun stays out past 8pm. All of my other outdoor shows this year had setup hours in the early morning or after dark.
I once paid a professional to photograph my booth, but I wasn't happy with the result (he might want to ease up on the sharpening filter). However, I did learn a neat trick from him while he was shooting. He took a bracketed range of photos, from underexposed to overexposed. The final photograph was a composite of different exposures, choosing areas of each shot where the lighting was ideal.
I had to shoot these photos around 8pm, with the sun starting to sink. I took a bracketed range of photos. Here is a darker one. Everything here is too dark, but I like that the canopy is not glaring white, and the bright ray of sunlight on the right wall is not too glaring either.
Here is the lightest photo that I took. The pots along the back wall of the display are now correctly exposed. But everything else looks obviously blown out. The canopy is still brighter than the display, and it is closer to your eye than the display, which means it draws more attention that it should.
Here are the two photos combined. In Photoshop, I layered the darker photo on top of the lighter photo. I added a Layer Mask to the darker layer. Then I selectively erased areas of the darker layer, using a soft-edged brush on the Layer Mask, to reveal areas of the lighter photo. This is mostly the dark photo. The light photo is only used for the pots and the logo curtain.
I also straightened and cropped the photo, leaving just enough details of my canopy for a knowledgeable juror to recognize it as a Light Dome, which is a well-known brand. And I applied the right amount of sharpening.
You might be wondering why I didn't just take a medium exposed photo, and lighten and darken areas using Photoshop tools. That's because making those types of edits results in data being thrown away from your original file. In some publishing situations, that loss of data can come back to bite you. In terms of good Photoshop habits, you should avoid throwing away data whenever possible. Also, if you don't have a good touch, inventing your own shadows and highlights can look very fake. Your camera does a much better job of calculating these things than Photoshop ever can. It's not a fair fight, your camera has the actual subject to work with. By combining two original photographs, you are not throwing away any data. And it's almost impossible to make it look fake.
So glad it wasn't raining that day! I would have had to wait for another year.
Last Friday night, I gave a talk at District Clay Center in Washington, DC, on the subject of pricing pottery. I explained, in full detail, how I approach my pricing. My methods are stress-free, objective, and based on metrics. My goal is to demystify the subject, and to encourage potters to think in a more business-like way. The difference in your sales results can be astounding.
When I announced on facebook and instagram that I would be giving this talk, several people commented that they were not local to DC, and could I make a video available? The video in now available! It is 1.5 hours long, and costs $22 to rent for 30 days. Visit the School page of this website for complete instructions on renting the video. Or if you already have a Vimeo account, click here to go straight to the video.
(Screen shot from Pricing Your Pottery)
I fully admit that when people accuse me of workaholism, they aren't wrong. Those who have been following my business for years may have noticed that last year I undertook an even busier show schedule than usual. I normally do about 10 shows per year, but last year I did 12. And the extra ones were not small filler shows, they were all ambitious shows. This means I was cranking out pottery at full-speed for the whole year. My only breaks from the studio were when I was doing a show.
I had a reason. It has to do with my other "life's work" project, which is my 1930s bungalow. I bought the house in 1997 as a fixer upper, and I have been working on it ever since. I have tried to make one nice upgrade per year, but only when I have available cash.
I am an avowed frugalist. I live a very lean lifestyle. This is part of being self-employed. Our next paychecks are never guaranteed, therefore money management is a high priority. But I have never had a problem opening my checkbook for home improvement projects. To me, this is not spending. This is putting money into a giant piggy bank that I get to crack open later. Whenever I have accumulated some extra cash, I think "what's next for the house?"
The next project was to tackle one of the worst rooms in the house: the master bathroom. I don't know the full history of the house, but I believe the second floor, which is now the master bedroom/bathroom, was originally an unfinished attic. It was finished into a living space by someone who didn't know what they were doing. Crappy workmanship everywhere. I hadn't done any substantial projects since 2015, because I was saving up for this. When I started talking to contractors last year, I realized I had underestimated the cost. Or to be more accurate I should say, in order to hire a contractor that I trusted to do the job, I would need more money.
This is when I decided to apply for some extra shows, and basically lock myself in the basement to produce enough pots for them. Those who follow my Instagram (@goodelephantpottery) saw that the weeks leading up to the holidays were particularly hairy. My goal was to initiate this project by the end of 2017.
Here are some "before" photos. That's a $99 vanity from a big box store. All of the other fixtures are of the same grade. I had to buy these things right after I moved in, because the existing ones were not even in livable condition. Notice the closet on the right side of the photo. It was way too big for a small bathroom, and made the space feel very cramped.
The shower/tub combo. All I could afford when I moved in was to have the tub re-enamaled, and the cheapest possible tiles for the tub surround. Again, note the too-big closet, which was mostly empty on the inside.
If you looked closely at any surface in the old bathroom, you would see this kind of crap. Like someone applied drywall compound with their fingers, and called it done. The walls in my master bedroom look just as bad.
And now for the fun pictures. The "after" pictures. Let's start with the floor. Whenever I saw real estate listings of houses on my street, with bathrooms that have never been updated, they all have these floors. Black and white ceramic mosaic tiles, in what's called a "spiral" or "pinwheel" pattern. This is the bathroom floor my house was supposed to have.
The new vanity, toilet, mirror, and lights. No more big-box-store specials. The clock was made by me in the early 2000s. You can tell by the style that this was before I launched a serious pottery studio. I can't believe I still have it, but hey I like it.
And now for the driving force behind this entire project. I have named it the World's Greatest Shower. The past few years, my work has required me to travel a lot and stay in hotels. Hotels can range from gross to amazing. The amazing hotels all have one thing in common, a killer shower. Try to imagine how much this means when doing a multi-day, outdoor, summer festival, where you spend long days in the heat developing a salt crust. I have long dreamed of having such a shower in my own house. From now on, even when I have a great shower in a hotel, I know I'm going home to something better. For those who are concerned about me eliminating the bathtub, I still have a bathtub in my first floor bathroom. Does a small bungalow need more than one?
The World's Greatest Shower comes with the World's Largest Niche. Never again must I buy another ugly shower caddy!
The too-big closet was replaced by a sensibly-sized nook. Now this is the right amount of space to store some extra towels and supplies. And even though the World's Greatest Shower is quite a bit larger than the old bathtub, the removal of the too-big closet makes the whole bathroom a lot more spacious and comfortable.
Everything else that used to be stored in the too-big closet fits in the new vanity. I picked this vanity because it is loaded with drawers. Drawers are by far the best way to store and organize small things. Ok, I also picked the vanity because it's gray and white, and anyone who knows me knows those are my favorite colors.
I don't recommend mindless workaholism. But when you have a concrete goal in mind, sacrificing your life for a period of time can be worth it. This is not the first time I've done something like this. I went through similar periods when I transitioned from being a full-time employed designer to a self-employed designer. Then again when I transitioned from designer to potter. All worth it. And those previous sacrificial stages were much larger in scope. By comparison, this one was not so bad. Now this is what I get to wake up to every morning. Worth it!
All of the credit for this belongs to Modern Style Construction LLC. The process of working with them was outstanding from beginning to end, and the final results blow my mind. I got to observe everything being built from the studs up, and the amount of work and expertise involved was very humbling. They showed great respect for my house, and for my space and time. I did not miss a day of work during the construction, because the project was managed so well. So I send my endless gratitude to Sergei Tsoy (owner), Michelle Lee (designer), Abel Pineda (project manager), Nelson Pineda (lead carpenter), José Benitez (tile expert), and Naun Guerrero (painter).
For those of you who like reading about the geeky details of running a pottery business, this post is for you. This is probably completely uninteresting to anyone else. Every year, after my holiday sales events and before a new year of production begins, I rewrite my to-do lists. In every two days in my studio, I will complete one of these lists. I have eight of them total. When factoring in the days spent glazing the pots, and some regular days off, it takes me five weeks to complete all eight of the lists.
I do this every year to adjust to my output to the sales that I saw the previous year. I increase quantities for pots that were always selling out. For pots that didn't sell well, I lower the quantities or eliminate the item altogether. I usually introduce some new designs at my holiday open studio. The ones that were well-received are added to the plans, with hopes that I will figure out the right quantities and price points this year.
I also pay attention to labor hours. Last year, some of my to-do lists resulted in really long work days. And some of them were easy three hour days. I tried to spread out the workload more evenly. I pay attention to kiln loads too, and tried to create sensible kiln loads. I factor in "how many fit on a kiln shelf" when making quantity decisions.
My next show is ACC Baltimore. I consider this a "big" show, and for a big show I will take all of this inventory with me. For a "small" show, say a one-day show, I will take half of this amount. Most of my shows fall into the "medium" category, for which I will pack about 3/4 of this amount.
In terms of planning, if I have two medium shows plus one small show, in three consecutive weekends, I will finish all of the to-do lists twice. That's enough for two mediums and a small. This means I need ten weeks of studio time before this stretch of shows begins.
The first photo shows my first draft of the new lists. As you can see, I tweaked and tweaked it until everything added up sensibly. The second photo is my final plan for 2018. I might make some edits during the year. Then I will revisit them comprehensively at the end of the year, when the 2018 book has been written.
What's the point of doing this? I wrote about this in my Art Festival Plan series of blog posts. By paying careful attention to the quantities I'm selling, and adjusting my inventory to match those numbers, this is how I end up nearly selling out my booth at many shows. I more-or-less know what people are going to buy. Every box of pots packed has a cost, in heavy lifting, space, and time. Repeating that effort to bring unsold pots home is inefficient. My goal is to bring home less than one box of pots from every show, and I achieve that most of the time.
Other artists will sometimes look at my near empty booth and say "you should have packed more." I shrug and think "no I packed just the right amount." They don't see how much I brought in the first place. And I tried it a few times, to go back to an almost sold-out show with a few more boxes of pots the next year. It didn't correlate to better sales. Sometimes sales were better, sometimes they were worse. On average, it was the same. The limits have been reached. And besides, for a "big" show I can't fit any more pots into my van anyways.
Yes, this means I sometimes leave sales behind because I've run out of popular items. That's why the to-do lists get rewritten every year. But overall, if I did my best to maximize my sales, I'm not going to fret about the few sales I missed. I'd rather have a light workload for packing and going home.
This is not the first time I've written about my hatred of packing peanuts. I hate them a little less now, thanks to a new approach. A fellow potter from the Ceramic Arts Network Community Forum named Rae Reich suggested putting the peanuts into plastic bags first, so they don't go flying everywhere when the package is unpacked by the customer. This is one of my biggest gripes about peanuts: I hate receiving boxes packed with peanuts, because of the way they go flying. Therefore I cringe knowing that I'm putting my customers through the same experience.
This year for my annual online sale (the only time of year when I am willing to ship pots), I bought my usual bags of peanuts, along with a box of thin, clear plastic bags. And a pack of twist ties.
Here is one the pots I shipped, a small teapot with a stainless steel handle.
The handle is fairly rigid, but just in case I stuffed a roll of cardboard into its negative space.
The pot and its lid were wrapped separately in 1/16" thick foam sheets (available at Uline.com). I like using white paper tape (available at art supply stores) because it sticks well but also peels off easily.
I filled a plastic bag with peanuts, enough to fill half of the shipping carton. I made a depression in the middle to cradle the pot.
The teapot body and lid were placed side by side in the depression. One more piece of foam was folded and placed between them.
I placed another plastic bag on top of the pots, and filled it with peanuts. I borrowed a tool from my garden shed.
I shoved the peanuts down the sides of the pots, trying to fill in all the empty spaces. I kept adding peanuts until they formed a mound over the top edge of the box.
The second bag was closed with a twist tie, then the box tops were squeezed shut. The closed box should be slightly dome shaped. The entire contents of the box should be under pressure.
Travel safely, pots!
I shipped out all of the orders two weeks ago, and have not had one report of damage. Hooray! It's a small sample size, but so far I am much happier with this. At first it took me a lot of extra time to pack a box, as I figured out how to work with the bags. By the end I was packing about as fast I did before with loose peanuts. There were two boxes that I unpacked and repacked. After thinking about it, I decided I hadn't filled in all the corners as well as I could have. They were a cinch to unpack, due to the bagged peanuts. I hope the customers experienced the same thing.
I can't express how grateful I am for all the people who trekked out into the snow to attend my Open Studio this weekend. My pottery business would not exist without people like you <3
The remaining pots are available for sale in my online store, which opens at 10am ET today, December 11, 2017. The store will remain open through December 31 or until the pots are sold out.
Wishing you all a warm and happy holiday season!
The current issue of Pottery Making Illustrated (Nov/Dec 2017) contains an article I wrote for them on the subject of pricing. This is an adaptation of things I've written on this blog before, pulled together into article form. This is a confusing and stressful subject for many potters, this article details my straightforward and objective approach to it. Of all the things I've written for Ceramics Monthly and Pottery Making Illustrated, this piece has generated the most thank you notes.
This is a play on the phrase “Law of the Jungle,” which generally translates to “every person for themselves” or “eat or be eaten.” On a regular basis at craft shows, a customer will decide for various reasons to leave my booth and come back to purchase the pot they want later. Only to find that somebody else got it first. When it happens, I shrug and say “sometimes that’s The Law of the Craft Show.” I try to be lighthearted about it to ease the customer's disappointment. Most of the time, they understand it was their own fault. Every once in a while, the customer will seem genuinely upset with me. Go figure.
At the end of a recent show, I heard a voice say “Oh no! It’s gone!” She was very understanding and immediately started signing up for my email list. I shrugged and said my “Law of the Craft Show” line. Her boyfriend/husband got very excited. “Oh my god that’s so true! It happened the other day at the farmer’s market. Only it was ME who won! I was buying this beautiful little potted tree and a woman came running up saying ‘I was going to buy that!’ and I was like ‘Well you should have gotten here before me BUT YOU DIDN’T. I got here first so I win! IT IS MINE! You were too slow and I beat you!’ ”
He went on like this for a good minute. Let me make something clear, there was no trace of malice in his excitement. It was more like he was making fun of himself for feeling so good about it. He was so funny it’s possible he was a professional comedian. I am paraphrasing his words, I don’t remember the exact words because I was laughing so hard. I only wish those people who ever held it against me were there to hear his gleeful and victorious rant.
These days, a nearly-empty booth at the end of a show is not that unusual for me. Not every show goes this well, but it’s not uncommon either. “Buying it later” will subject you to The Law. Just fyi, if you want to purchase something large or heavy but don’t want to carry it around, you are welcome to pay for it and leave it in my booth until you are ready to leave. I do that all the time, and I'm pretty sure most artists will.
Every pot that I sell gets wrapped in a piece of paper before bagging. I go through a lot of paper. I've been buying kraft paper rolls for this purpose, which are not very expensive. But the rolls are heavy, and in recent years, the cost to ship these rolls to me has become painful. Lately I've been paying over $100 for about 9 months supply of this paper.
A potter friend from the Ceramic Arts Network Forum, Mark Cortright from California, said that he uses "end rolls" from a local newspaper printer. I decided to look for a similar arrangement near me. There aren't many newspaper printing plants left, but I found one in Frederick, Maryland. Turns out they sell their end rolls for between $1 and $4 each, depending on the size. Jackpot! I drove out there yesterday and drove away with this. I think this will last about a year, and I only spent $47.
To any other potters within driving distance of Frederick, Maryland, you can buy end rolls at:
Frederick News Post (FNP) Printing and Publishing
351 Ballenger Center Drive
Frederick, MD 21703
They typically have some available everyday. Though not TODAY, because I just cleaned them out. You can contact them in advance to make sure they have some. Or, you can walk in the main entrance and ask at the front desk.
Mea Rhee (mee-uh ree),
PMA Craft Show
Good Elephant Pottery's
Holiday Open Studio
Silver Spring MD
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