My article was about my Ahjoshi Hanbok canister. Which is in my mind, functionally speaking, a cookie jar.
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).
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!
Mea Rhee (mee-uh ree),
Smithsonian Craft Show
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