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.
For some reason, there are people in the art world who get offended (faux offended maybe?) if you call them “talented.” They claim that they developed their abilities through hard work, rather than being born with certain aptitudes. I have never understood this. First of all, it’s humble-bragging, which is annoying. More importantly, I sense that these people are avoiding a hard truth. Saying “I am talented” has the subtext “which means others are not” and they don’t want to deliver that message. Teaching art to kids involves an “anyone can make art” message. This is fine for kids, but too many people try to extend this to adults who are facing professional and career decisions. The professional art world is not an “anyone can do it” situation. The art/craft market is not big enough to support everyone who wants to be in it. The ones who will succeed will do so on a multi-faceted combination of factors. And one of those, like it or not, is talent.
I know that my blog has inspired people to start craft businesses. I’m happy about that and I want others to succeed, if this is what they are meant to do. My goal with writing has never been to convey an “anyone can do it” message. I hope I am portraying things realistically, more like “if you are willing to bust your ass year after year, can live with delayed gratification, and have a sufficient amount of talent, then maybe this is for you.”
“It’s not always a great idea to follow your passion, if you’re passionate about something you will never be good at. At some point you’re gonna have to recognize that. But if you feel in your heart, if you know, if you have reason to believe, that you can be awesome at something, that you can do something unique, that will shock and astound and terrify people, and bewitch them … do that.” – Anthony Bourdain
When I was a kid, I did competitive gymnastics. I got into it because my older sister, Jinny, was already an elite-level gymnast. For an 11 year-old Class III gymnast, I was good. I came in second place all-around at the state championships that year, and our team won first place. All of my friends and teammates got promoted to Class II, but I was promoted two levels to Class I. I quit a few months later. Why? Because I ran into the limits of my talent. It turns out that I don’t have a good inner gyroscope. As an adult, I know now that my inner ears are somewhat faulty. I am terribly prone to motion sickness, and have dealt with occasional vertigo. For a gymnast, this means I have no idea where I am when I can’t see the ground. A Class III gymnast can see the ground most of the time. In Class I, I was being asked to do far more complicated things, and I was lost. I crash landed on my head on a regular basis. (which hurts, by the way)
This is why I am comfortable with the “talented/not talented” discussion. I confronted the limits of my gymnastics talent, and it wasn’t the end of the world. It’s not a difficult reckoning, when the alternative involves crash landing on my head. “I’m never going to the Olympics. And you know what? That’s ok.”
I didn’t stop doing gymnastics. I joined my junior high and high school teams, which were not at all pressurized or competitive. In high school, our “coach” was a nice lady who didn’t really know anything about gymnastics, so we coached ourselves. We weren’t slackers, we put forth our best routines, but never worried about scores or winning. We cared about getting a good workout everyday, and having fun. Looking back, this team is where I find my fondest memories of high school.
I do not consider myself a gymnastics failure, even though I never came close to my original goals. I took it as far as I could, and found a place where I was happy and my talent level made sense.
Do I think it’s unfair that my sister had more talent than me? Heck no! I think this is another reason why some artists are afraid to admit they’re talented. Because somehow being “born with it” means “not deserved” or “not earned.” The truth is there is no correlation between your “born with it” attributes and whether you deserve them. If you have talent, you deserve it just as much as anybody else. So if you are having pangs of guilt over this, get over it. Or, if you are doubting yourself, that is an internal battle. The person who called you “talented” probably didn’t mean it that way, so don’t take it out on them.
And here’s the other reason why I don’t envy my sister. I mentioned this above already: her talent was only one factor. The rest was accomplished through years and years of hard work and practice, developing her talent into high level skills. Anyone willing to go through that deserves their success. So for those of you who argue “I’m not talented, I worked for it!” you are getting it wrong. It takes both to make it to the elite level of anything.
What exactly does “talent” mean for a potter? Luckily, it has nothing to do with your inner ears. It starts with the ability to recognize beauty, and to understand the differences between “beautiful” and “pretty” and everything else. It’s the ability to put together elements of beauty into your own complete designs, and to perceive how the various elements relate to each other. It’s about being enough of a science geek to embrace the technical aspects of the ceramics process. And it’s about having enough manual dexterity to execute the ideas in your brain out of a material like clay, which has an independent mind of its own. Manual skill level is learnable to some extent, but a baseline of talent goes a long way.
When it comes to professional pottery, I’d say that talent is about 25% of the equation. The rest comes from education, work ethic, process management, initiative, courage, patience, and more. Talentwise, I don’t see myself as being at the top of the scale. This is not required. In fact, the “most talented” potters are not necessarily going to make it as pros. So it’s not about comparing your talent level against other potters. What matters is whether you have enough, before the other 75% of factors can make any difference.
After I launched a pottery business, it took eight years before the business generated a livable full-time income. During those eight years, I never (figuratively) crash landed on my head. I started out with small successes, which incrementally led to medium successes and then to big successes. But I was having good outcomes and moving upwards the whole time. I see lots of potters, out in the art festival circuit and in online communities, who are crash landing on their heads over and over. Lots of well-intentioned people say “oh that’s normal, keep trying.” But I am saying, “it’s not uncommon, but it’s a clear indicator that something is wrong.” For those potters, it might be time for an honest reckoning with themselves. It won’t be the end of the world.
When people tell me I’m talented at pottery, my reaction is “thanks!” I’ll take it as a compliment at face value. And I consider this separate from my own inner relationship with the word, one that is based on clear-headed honesty. Every professional artist needs to find this understanding with themselves too.
I barely remember wanting to be an Olympian. But I still long for my unfulfilled dream of being one of Lady Gaga’s backup dancers. Alas, I don’t have that kind of talent either. At least I’m talented at pottery.
I wrote a blog post about two years ago, with a recipe for Spice Cookies, and said I would explain why soon. And now I can explain! It was for a book project by The American Ceramic Society titled Clay & Cuisine: Techniques for the Studio, Recipes for the Kitchen, edited by Holly Goring. The book is a compilation of how-to articles from Pottery Making Illustrated magazine. Every potter included was asked to contribute a recipe, with photos, that corresponds with their article.
My article was about my Ahjoshi Hanbok canister. Which is in my mind, functionally speaking, a cookie jar.
I've had this recurring problem in my studio for a few years. The shelves where I keep my finished inventory were regularly overflowing their capacity. This is how they looked a few weeks ago, right before I embarked on a stretch of three consecutive weekend shows. This is how many pots it takes to do three shows:
This week I saw an opportunity to fix this. I am in between the second and third of the three consecutive shows. Therefore all remaining pots are currently packed in boxes. The shelves are never going to be emptier than this.
I do not have any floor space to add more furniture. I knew I would be replacing the shelves with something more capacious, rather than adding more furniture. I've known for a long time there was a big inefficiency in the old shelving. Can you see that two of the sections are 12 inches deep, and one of them in 19 inches deep? That's because the two 12 inch sections were purchased long before I renovated my studio in 2013. Back then, this was all the shelving I needed to store finished pots. When I moved these shelves into the renovated studio, that's when I bought the third, 19 inch deep section. At the time, it felt like an excessive and luxurious amount of space.
Five years later, things have changed. I explored many possible shelving options as a replacement, but ultimately chose to go back to budget-friendly IKEA. The old shelving was from IKEA, and I was hoping to simply replace all the 12 inch shelves with 19 inch shelves. Unfortunately, IKEA has redesigned this shelving system a little, enough that a shelf-switch-out was not possible. Then I decided, in the interest of visual continuity, and because this shelving is very affordable, that I would replace all three sections.
I have the same number of shelves, but now they are all 18.5 inches deep. On a 12 inch shelf, I could fit two rows of mugs, stacked two high. On an 18 inch shelf, I can fit three rows of mugs. Same with chopstick bowls, I should be able to fit three rows per shelf now. Big difference. The old shelving unit had 8,460 square inches of horizontal space. The new one has 11,100 square inches. That's 31% more space. This should be enough for doing three consecutive shows. Possibly four. Will I outgrow these too? I honestly don't think so. I've done four shows in a row a few times, and I don't see the benefit of scheduling my time that way. I plan to stick with maximum three in a row going forward.
There was one thing I didn't like about the slatted shelves. The spaces in between the slats were sometimes problematic for narrow-bottom pots, such as mugs and small bowls. I've think I've improved that situation too, with a heavy plastic shelf liner, also from IKEA. And note that the entire unit is secured to the cinder block wall with concrete anchors. Could you imagine if the whole thing tipped over while full of pots?
When I get back from this weekend's show, I'll take a few days off, then start filling up the new shelves.
Whenever anybody expresses doubt that I make pottery as my full-time job, I show them my arm muscles.
Particularly my Popeye-ish forearms.
I'm not completely comfortable with the effect this has had on my body. I admit to being self-conscious at times. And now that I am producing instructional videos, I am seeing myself center clay from an onlooker's perspective. Whoa, is that what I look like?
There are times when I think about what my life will be like after I retire from pottery. No, I don't plan to do this full-time into my golden years. At some point, I'd like to enjoy a less physically demanding life, while I still have the energy to appreciate it. One of the things I'm looking forward to is having normal-sized arms again. Like I said, I'm not crazy about the look, and buying shirts now isn't easy. T-shirts are designed with such skinny arms these days! And forget about woven shirts. My shoulders, neck, and torso are way out of proportion for those.
For now I have to live with them. I guess I could beat somebody up if I had to. Or at least make people think I could.
My mom and dad moved into an apartment about a year ago. They did some heavy editing in terms of the things they brought with them from their old house. This is when I realized my mom has some of my earliest pots, that I had forgotten about. They are terrible. I feel queasy every time I see them. It's not the quality that bothers me. I can forgive myself for being a beginner. The problem is they remind me of my hubris for once thinking they were good pots. Seriously, they are really bad, but at the time I thought I was pretty slick.
A couple of months ago, I asked my mom if I could take these pots, throw them away, and replace them with much higher quality new pots. She didn't want to let them go, but I did convince her to give me one of them.
She let me take the awful pitcher on the left, which she was using as a vase. I made it sometime in the 90s. There are too many disconnected features ... the sphere bottom, the vertical neck, and flared rim ... they have no reason or relationship to each other. The handle looks like a limp noodle, and is the wrong size for the pot. The glaze is covered in pinholes. What you can't tell from a photograph is that it weighs as much as a cinder block, and wobbles on a flat surface.
Once my mom let go of the pot, she started seeing the benefits of a switcharoo. "Could it be about an inch taller? Maybe just a simple straight shape? And I like this spout, can it have a spout? It doesn't need a handle." I asked if I could cover it with horizontal grooves, which is a theme that's going on in my current line of vases.
The one on the right is well-proportioned, properly weighted, with all of its design elements in balance, and no extraneous features.
This is a combination Mother's Day / Father's Day gift. The vase is for mom, and the flowers are for dad.
You may have noticed the following paragraphs on the Where to Buy page on this site:
"I respectfully ask that customers do not try to purchase my work when I am in between shows. Chances are I don't have any inventory, therefore I don't have what you're looking for anyways. Also, I am trying to adhere to a demanding production schedule, and don't have time to stop and pay proper attention to customers, either in person or via packing/shipping.
Here's what I am happy to do in between shows ... if you want to purchase a specific pot, you may request that I reserve it for you at my next show. Then I'll meet you there! Art festivals are really fun, I promise you will not regret making those plans. Festivals are fun for me too, I really enjoy meeting and talking to pottery fans, when I have enough time to do it properly."
This practice is becoming more and more common among my regular customers. When I designed a new shelving unit for my display last year, I included a shelf for the "reserved" pots. These days, that shelf is often full or even overflowing. In the photo below, everything on that bottom shelf is spoken for, and there are other reserved pots that didn't fit there. This makes things much easier for both the customer and for me. Customers don't have to waste time visiting a show only to find the items they want are sold out. I like knowing how to fulfill the wishes of my best customers. And sometimes this means I am having a profitable show even before a show begins.
If you are a customer interested in doing this, you only need to know what you want. In other words, you have bought my work before, or you have seen it enough times to know exactly what you want. A little bit of back and forth with me to help you make a decision is not a problem. But if your starting point is "I don't know what I want" or "do you have a pot like ....?" then it's probably not going to work. In those cases, come see my work in person first, then you can start planning your collection.
A very common sequence is for a new customer to buy one or two pots to begin with. Then a few more over the next year or so. Then "I'm ready for a whole dinner set now. Can I reserve it for this particular show?"
For other potters who wish to incorporate this type of selling into their business, here's what it takes: a consistent line of work that you are willing to make for years and years. Remember that a whole set of dinnerware is a lifelong commitment. Give your customers time to make that decision. Be ready for them when they do. And keep this in mind ... when you have a customer who understands your work enough to make a specific request, and also understands the making process enough to know it can't always be made available on short notice, and therefore is willing to wait for your next show, that is an amazing customer! Make sure they get what they want.
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).
Mea Rhee (mee-uh ree),
Portland Fine Craft Show
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