How customers look at pots, and does it matter

This one is going to test the patience and endurance of even my most hardcore readers (and in itself probably serves as a case in point of an artist’s work being received by an audience). As it is, this is only the first half of what I wrote, and its still huge. It is a mammoth post because it seems like a big question, and big questions sometimes deserve big answers. It is written as a response to a blog post by Richard Jacobs (you know, the guy who wrote that wonderful book of letters that he used to correspond with Christa Assad), but it embraces many issues that have been on my mind recently.

Read his book if you haven’t already. Anyway, he also has a blog that shares many of his other fine and engaging ideas. This is the link to the post my response was supposed to be a comment to, but dropping 3800+ words on someone else’s blog just didn’t seem right. Here’s the first part of what I wrote:

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Hi Richard,

Thanks so much for your response to my other comment! I am so scattered these days that I haven’t quite gotten around to properly digesting the feedback you gave me. My guess is that we are very nearly on the exact same page in this matter, and I’m so glad you took the time to write back to me.

Well, in my confusing and unpredictable state of mounting chaos I decided to first go back over some of your other blog posts that had caught my attention. This one seems especially relevant. I just had a disappointing sale at my studio and I find I need to reevaluate my understanding of how I address my audience. Your post makes the excellent point that it takes actual effort for an observer to ‘read’ all the information contained in a piece of pottery. And this means that it is perhaps only exceptional interest in pottery that can reveal all there is to be seen, but maybe also that we can do certain things that will make our work easier to appreciate.

The unfortunate truth seems to be that handmade pottery is not well recognized as requiring this focus and attention to detail. Most people can look, but don’t see. They gloss over the details as either irrelevant or uninteresting, or they are simply unaware of what counts as a detail (Take beginning students as a telling example of how far we have to go to get people to see nuance and sophistication). But it is probably also the case that the majority of the public are just too busy to look very deeply. That or they have been trained to a certain laziness regarding visual information. Just how ready are we to jump to conclusions in our everyday life based on first impressions and superficial information? It may just be a fact of human nature that for the most part we are remedial and careless ‘readers’ of the world, and unfamiliar or unrecognized objects just don’t stand a chance.

With that in mind, it seems that getting the public to actually stand still long enough to ‘read’ one’s pots requires its own special effort. So the question is whether there are things the artist can do to make the pot more accessible to an otherwise mostly inattentive audience. How can you make them want to ‘read’ the pot, and how can you make ‘reading’ the pot easy enough for today’s compromised MTV addled attention spans? Bare chested rock stars and scantily clad Divas? Muscle cars and explosions? Booze and bling?

Instead of exclusively following my own personal interest in making the pots I want to make, I suddenly find I may also need to make space for how the audience perceives what I’m doing. I fear that I have been conducting myself in a hopelessly naive sort of way. I am worried that not enough people can actually ‘read’ the pots that I’m making, much less want to. When I started out as a beginner what a future customer might think of my pots never entered my thoughts. I was captivated by making, an innocent walking in a pottery Garden of Eden. Trying to make a living from selling pots is just our fall from this Grace. We have tasted the fruit of knowledge and our innocence no longer suits what we are doing. Does that make sense?

As a potter you often hear the dollop of homespun advice that you should “make what you want to make and the customers will eventually see the worth of what you are doing.” But I’m not so sure this isn’t a terrible oversimplification. For instance, my concerns about the lure of having a signature message (from my other comment) now seem like I may be spitting in the face of convention and the public’s expectation. I only wonder if my habit of following my nose in whatever direction it points me isn’t tantamount to pulling the rug out from under my customers. Consistency of message is perhaps more important to the public than to the artist who can’t stop evolving. And that’s why the idea of branding is so fundamental to marketing: Consistency leads to dependability, and dependability leads to desirability. How can you trust what you can’t predict?

The simple truth is that customers rarely see what I’m getting at in my aesthetic explorations. How can they? Sometimes even I don’t know where I’m being taken. And its hard enough for me the maker to look at any one iteration as merely the stepping stone that it is. Sometimes it takes weeks or months to tease all the good information out from what I’ve done. If each work represents what I am learning then I am much more focused on the process than an ideal artifact. And if its a problem for the maker to see his own work clearly, just what handicaps does an outsider suffer? Is it a mistake to show customers anything ‘less’ than a fully articulated design idea? Can potters always afford to share their exploratory journey? Or, is it much safer to only give the audience the destination, a solid stable point of reference? This seems to be a real issue once we start making allowances for the customer’s perspective.

My point being that it may not be as simple as just sticking to your principles. If you want to actually make a living as a potter there may be certain practical considerations that take precedence. So the question is, is there a case to be made that contradicts potters simply doing what they want to do? Is untethered artistic liberty fundamentally in conflict with the realities of an artist’s financial stability? Isn’t willful disregard of the public only a romantic and implausible daydream for any potter who actually wants to make a living? Haven’t ‘successful’ potters all figured out something that extends beyond purely personal preferences? Haven’t they learned that to survive a certain amount of attention needs to be paid to the audience? “I need to replace the 10 mugs I just sold” seems so simple. And how much clearer does it need to be that we are always keeping at least one eye on the expectations of our customers, that we have enough mugs for them, or some such? Doesn’t our artistic integrity as potters always have at least this partial subservience to the people who ‘read’ our pots?

The Australian potter Shannon Garson said this in a blog post recently and it makes good sense: “If work is not selling then you haven’t either found the people who are able to hear you or, through arrogance and fear you and your pots are not even in the conversation…. It is a conversation which involves the sometimes boring, sometimes painful but always useful act of listening to others opinions and needs and responding to that with a new pot or a solution, or an discussion.” Just how far from the attitude of innocent self sufficiency is that?

We just don’t usually acknowledge how deep that outside influence can go. And potters rarely talk about these kinds of issues with the clarity, depth, and honesty that an outside perspective sometimes grants. And that’s why I thought this post on your blog had something interesting to offer. In as much as a pottery buying public needs to ‘read’ the pots to actually fork over the money that supports each artist, are there certain things that potters can aim for that makes their work a safe bet, and others that make it less tenable? Does being in this conversation with our audience equate to having a keen eye for the marketplace, and not having that conversation we are merely lucky when we get it right (or not when we don’t)? Do some potters have an intuitive grasp of what will work in a marketplace, and the conversation is more like a monolog where both participants are basically saying the same thing? Because the artist and the audience have so much in common that there is little that separates them? Are some potters ‘in tune’ with what will sell because they are speaking the same language, the same words, as the audience? Are others woefully ‘out of step’ because they seem to be using a different language? One that is poorly understood? Is it incumbent on the potter to always learn that other language or to sometimes teach the audience his own? Does being in the conversation always mean a combination of the two? And how much sacrifice is necessary (or appropriate)  for a potter to make the things an audience will buy?

This seems to be a vital issue, but one that few potters seem prepared to talk about as a community. We lack the infrastructure to get more than a few of us on the same page at the same time. The institutions where pottery is taught and learned seem either unwilling or unable to serve the community of potters in this way. I know it has taken me 20ish years for the question to force itself on my consciousness. But then I’m usually a slow learner. But then also, I know I’m not alone. The basic strategies of making a living are mostly treated like a taboo, a dirty word we don’t mention in polite company (certainly not in most academic Ceramics Departments!). We are usually much more interested in talking about how we are “being true to ourselves” and making “authentic original work”. So it can sometimes seem like we are hiding behind these mantras without actually confronting how tarnished those ideals can be.

But because no one really wants to talk about it (with a few exceptions) we usually end up skirting the issue and learning the hard way. Just where are potters supposed to learn these lessons? Art school? Community clay centers? Workshops? Youtube videos? It seems that the most common practice is for individual potters to gain knowledge by trial and error and carve out individual niches as if they are reinventing the wheel all on their own. Being good at being creative doesn’t always mean you will be good at self promotion or ‘communicating’ with an audience. You can have a fantastic imagination but be only an incompetent business person. Most of us need help and the advice of others who have been there before us. But the collective wisdom of potters is sometimes frighteningly scarce on this issue, and our potter culture is chaotically scattered about far flung points of light. I’m hoping that one day we can stand together more cohesively and that the result will be not only a firmer foundation for our practice but a more educated public and greater awareness of what potters have to contribute.

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The next post will talk about this issue more from the audience’s point of view, who they are and what kinds of visual information is accessible to them and why. In other words, what kinds of things are easiest for an audience to appreciate.

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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2 Responses to How customers look at pots, and does it matter

  1. Scott Cooper says:

    Like scaling Everest, I’m planting my flag here at the end. It was worth it! Good blog posts require the skill and determination to ‘read’, just like good pots do. Bring on part two!

    • Yay! You made it up Everest without rupturing anything (I hope!), and now you are faced with Mount McKinley and the Matterhorn (I split the next part into two more ‘halves’!).

      Are you sure you are up to it? Just don’t forget to bring your oxygen tank, an overnight tent, a blow torch for when things start to freeze up, and plenty of caffeine to keep you awake when you are teetering on the precipice. You don’t want to doze off and find you have plunged head first into your computer screen, keyboard, or mouse. Those dizzying heights have been known to make climbers lightheaded and drowsy. And things are pretty flimsy near the top. Lots of loose debris and unstable footing. Shaky ground that may look firm. Just don’t trust the appearances, especially when delirium sets in and it all starts to lose focus. Sheer exhaustion has claimed far too many climbers, and I don’t want to see your unfortunate remains splattered back down around the foothills. Maybe planning a few base camps along the way so you don’t get hung up and exposed to the raw voracious ‘elements’ when the sun goes down and the wind begins to shift. Yeah. And don’t forget those big spiky boots, because you will need to cling like a tick on all those slick surfaces. Tenacious Cooper. That’s what they call you, isn’t it?

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