The shorter version

So what was that last post all about, eh? Driving a nail in the already miniscule readership of the blog?

Well, I suppose I was expressing being discouraged about some of my recent sales and how I have been struggling to understand where it all went wrong. But after around 2000 words I’m not sure how many people kept with me, how many stuck it out to the bitter end. I’d still love it if some folks actually read what I had to say in the longer version. There are a few ideas and expressions that I am quite fond of.

But this is the shorter version. So, in not so many words, just what was my point in all that expansive blathering? I guess it was that people look at pots in different ways and that the odds are stacked against widespread understanding of pottery at any substantial depth. ‘Reading’ pottery is a challenge, and we all know how we feel about challenges, don’t we?

But if ‘reading’ pots is challenging it is also true that not all of our audience has the tools to get everything we put into them. Other potters and artists with extensive visual training are the best suited to understanding our efforts. But these are never going to be the customers who can provide for a potter’s livelihood. Artists and potters are just too poor to buy all of our pots (though many of us do our part by filling our kitchens and homes with other artists’ work). No. Although artists and other potters often get what we are up to, we can’t depend on all the subtlety and sophistication of our craft to make much of an impression on the wider audience.

So we may also need to aim lower, to not always set the bar so high, the level of difficulty at professional or maximum. I am emphatically NOT saying that this means we are ‘selling out’ to sell more pots or that we can’t still make great art. It just won’t help us sell pots if our work is inscrutable and challenges our audience too much, right? Only a select audience gets the subtlety and nuance, and they almost always have the training or experience to ‘read’ what we are doing. You don’t hand Tolstoy to someone who is just learning how to read. Not even the people who already know how to read all want to take on that challenge. With the beginners, the inexperienced, you have to start out slow. Give them the easy things to read. Jack and Jill, See Spot Run,…. Small words, short sentences, big letters, and plenty of pictures. PLENTY OF PICTURES. Graphic novels, maybe.

So it probably comes down to the KISS principle: If you want to sell a lot of pots people have to want your work. People will only want your pots if they like what you are doing. People will be more ready to like what you are doing if they understand it. And the majority of people will only understand what you are doing if you make it fairly obvious and easy for them. KISS. If they can’t understand it they won’t be as inclined to like it, and if they don’t like it they wont buy it. Seems pretty simple when its put like that. And it only took me 20 years to figure it out….

So the next installment is going to be another BIG one: Just who are my pots supposed to be talking to and what do they want to see?


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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21 Responses to The shorter version

  1. Tom Johnson says:

    Mr. Dude: You are quite expressive. I vote for the barium turquoise glaze, always.

    • You know I love that glaze! And it is so much less temperamental than the ones I’ve been using lately. I think you may be right, and its time to mix up another batch. Thanks for reminding me! Great suggestion!

  2. Tracey says:

    Carter just keep in mind that YOU have to like what you are doing. Don’t dumb down your work for people who are too ignorant to understand it. The thing is our public school system is failing kids miserably in art education and the general public is basically ignorant of what quality is in every aspect thanks to the Walmart syndrome. I just did a show with the unfortunate name of Hog Days, (it was a kind gesture by the Arts Council to make up for a real art show that got rained out) and the people there had neither the income nor the knowledge to buy something nice. I have gone down that road of trying to make what I think people will want to buy and it doesn’t work. But when I make things I love, I can sell them anyway, because of my love and excitement for the work. I’m not so sure your sale was slow because of your work so much as because of the fact that no one has any money right now. This economy is rough. Just keep doing what you love and share your love of your work when you are selling it, people will buy the love!! And yes I read the last post, just got called away and didn’t have time for a thoughtful reply!!

    • Thanks for the encouragement Tracey! The sensitive artistic side of me is totally with you on that. And I think you are right that I am probably misreading a lot about why my sale was so poor. But I still think I could be doing this smarter. In the end I do have to like what I’m doing or I might as well be working at Burger King. But I also have to put food on the table, and I can at least try to make it easier for customers to like what I’m doing. Displaying the love for what you are doing is certainly part of that, but there are other clues that are much more obvious. That’s what I want to talk about in the next post. I haven’t totally decided what’s next for me, but I don’t feel nearly as naive when it comes time to bang my head on the wall of another dismal sale. Thanks for the pep talk!

  3. Judy Shreve says:

    Carter – I read yesterday’s post – but like the shortened version better 🙂
    I think there are probably multiple answers I could give – the economy is bad – but some clay folks – deemed ‘collectible’ aways sell and for a high price. Why is that and how did they become ‘collectible?’ Another question for another post.

    So I’m going to focus on one area I think potters could improve. One problem potters have and will continue to have is how we present ourselves – we have to do away with the art vs. craft argument. The buying public is confused.

    I think we would be better off promoting ‘artful-craft.’ A very beautiful/artful table can be set with functional craft. We potters have allowed ourselves to be considered 2nd rate because we aren’t artists — well who says! We are a different kind of artist. We need to be proud craftsmen and market ourselves as unique makers of ware — have museums, galleries mount exhibits – tableware exhibits. Not art on the wall or on a pedestal – but actually bring in tables and set with handcrafted ware. We as potters need to raise that bar – and demand to be showcased! I think we spend too much time competing with other clay artists in juried shows — shows that only other potters look at.

    Let’s don’t ‘aim lower’ – let’s spend some time working at showcasing our unique work in a better format. Some folks won’t ever get it unless you show them. How does a beautiful serving dish displayed on a pedestal or displayed among lots of other pots show what it’s capable of? — I think we should insist on our work being displayed better. A gallery would never consider stacking 2-dimensional art against the wall — it needs to be displayed how it is used.

    • Amen sister! Most of what you are talking about here I am planning on addressing in my next post, so I’ll keep it short here: I think you are absolutely right that ‘collectible’ potters stand out and always seem to sell, but I think they do so only because they are aiming specifically at a market that is not as susceptible to dips in the economy. Mom and pop down the road won’t fork over $95 for a mug. Its a different audience. So my point is that each audience may need to be addressed differently. People that shop at galleries are just different from someone casually browsing etsy. Its not a level playing field and we are mistaken to treat it as being that simple.

      And I don’t think the general public gives a hoot about the whole art-v-craft debate. That only seems to matter for the academics and other establishment types like high end galleries and museums, and the potters who want to get in those doors and the people who want to buy ‘collectible’ work. I don’t think the general public spends enough time in high end galleries to know what the artistic innovation du jour is. People just don’t expect to see pots in high end galleries, and they would have a hard time understanding why they would show up there. The problem is that the attitude of belittling pots trickles down, but for the most part I don’t think folks really care. They just don’t get exposed to quality pots as much as I’d like.

      I think you are right that we should frame a better context for how the public sees pots, and I like the idea you have. The problem will be that we have to break all those bad habits of the establishment or work outside of their infrastructure. And also that potters everywhere will need to band together to promote ourselves this way. We are so spread out and isolated. We can’t even rely on academic training to start young potters out in this sensible direction. There just doesn’t seem to be very much that organizes potters into a viable community. Mostly we are content to scrape by as long as we personally can put bread on the table. And when we can’t, we despair or get ‘real’ jobs instead.

      I would love to educate the public. But you can’t convince them of anything if they are not in the conversation. And how do you convince them that there is such a thing as quality when in venues like etsy every hobby potter with a year of experience can slap a colorful glaze on something and outsell professional potters with decades of experience? And there is nothing wrong with a person buying what pleases them, but this doesn’t always serve to educate the public. And when this relative beginner can sell what they are making right now, then what incentive do they have to change? What incentive do they have to improve? Obviously its good enough for the marketplace, so can’t they feel satisfied with what they’ve done? And this, of course, is why I am so terrified of potters being kicked out of Universities. There are just too few environments where beginning potters can learn and be held to standards. Educating ourselves and the public have to go hand in hand, I’m afraid.

      So its a difficult question. And I’m not sure I know the answer. More venues. Better showcasing. Better communication. A more cohesive potting community. Higher standards among potters….

  4. Judy Shreve says:

    Carter – My point about art vs craft is from the potters point of view. We have to value our work. So many times I’ve been in a classroom/workshop setting when the ‘teacher’ says don’t think of your work as ‘precious’ – it’s just a pot – so we learn from the beginning not to value our work or to take it seriously. Sometimes I think those that have reached ‘collectible’ status – never thought about their work in that way. They priced it high from the start and then the public is led to believe it is valuable.

    I have a HUGE issue with selling my work on etsy – for one I think it’s really difficult to buy a piece of three dimensional art without holding it, feeling it – really seeing it. I also think those who want to sell their work at a higher price or consider themselves ‘professionals’ should remove their work from the crafty venues. I see etsy as a home town small craft fair – where the church ladies’ are selling doilies selling next to you. I think if we want to raise the bar, we need to sell our work from our own websites, trusted art fairs/shows and galleries. I tried etsy for a couple of months before I realized that it’s just a craft bazaar. Are we so desperate to sell our work?

    And to have our pots considered part of the conversation, we need to sell in venues that talk our language. Don’t change your work – change your venue. I’m not talking about improving – or talking about a beginning student – but a serious functional potter needs to work at his marketing and find the spot that his work is valued.

    I don’t know how to form a cohesive unit of potters. I think various guilds are trying. I don’t think enough universities teach functional craft anymore. We should use the internet or Potter’s Council to start these conversations. But your point is well taken – that as soon as someone has made a successful piece, they put it out into the marketplace and I don’t have a clue how to separate seasoned work from beginning work — would love to hear more of your thoughts on this.

    • Yeah, agreed! We potters need to show more pride in what we are doing and to take ourselves more seriously as creative artists. The “pottery can be serious fun” post was supposed to be me exploring that. Sort of. What we do IS important, and I never shy away from saying that adding beauty to the world is always a noble act.

      That is really fascinating to wonder if the whole ‘precious pot’ condemnation plays into our feelings of second class status…. I myself only trot it out as a teaching tool that gets beginning students (especially) less focused on the piece of clay in front of them and more focused on what they are learning. The negative of the ‘precious pot’ attitude for beginners is that they can spend an hour trying to ‘save’ a crummy lump of overworked clay when they could have been making ten more pots. If you are learning, the next pot will probably be even better than the last, so it makes sense to not obsess about it so much. I would hate to feel like my students were coming away from that lesson feeling that what they were doing didn’t matter, so I always get them to focus on the fact that making better pots means improving, and you only improve by gaining experience, and you get much more experience from making ten pots than trying to salvage one uncentered, water saturated lump of clay that has most of the plastic particles washed out. What you can learn from such a compromised piece of clay has only diminishing returns. I hope that advanced students and professionals have learned to have more self confidence in what they are bringing to the world….

      That is an interesting perspective on the etsy phenomenon. I would have agreed with you 110% two years ago, but I have since discovered that some really good potters are now selling from etsy stores. Sure, you have to sit right next to the amateurs with flashy glazes, but that is the beauty of an open market. Anyone can sell there, and who is to say some amateur’s pots don’t fit in some person’s house better than a Ron Meyers or a Michael Simon pot? Its not up to us to decide. But the truth is also that this IS a thriving market place where people from all around the world can find your pots. And because so many people get their impression of pottery from looking at etsy maybe it is even more important for good potters to have shops there so the mainstream audience is exposed to solid professional standards. How can we hope to raise the bar if we don’t show this HUGE audience what good pots are like?

      So I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it means potters are desperate if they are on etsy. Perhaps I am, but I’m sure others are not (wink!). I just think it is important for potters to explore as many venues as they can. To only opt for the traditional gallery settings is limiting ourselves to only the people who already get it, and I’m afraid that is a prospect that only has so many dollars to go around. If we are all competing for those people’s attention just how thin will each of our slices of the pie be? I just think we are better served by expanding our audience to include as many people as possible. Educating the public to want good pottery means we have to put pots in the hands of people who may have never eaten from a handmade bowl, drank coffee from a handmade mug. We have to bring these people along with us, not turn our backs on them.

      So I hope we can turn all of these marginal venues into real pottery prospects. Won’t it be a shame if galleries do poorer and poorer, our opportunities there diminish over time, while amateurs over on etsy conduct a thriving business? I would rather raise the bar at etsy than have to make all my income fighting other quality potters for a narrowing place on some gallery’s pedestal. With all the gallery closings that have happened over the years I wonder if there is more money spent on pottery on etsy than there are in all the galleries combined. I’d love to see the stats on that…. All I’m saying is just don’t throw away too many options. And the etsy community needs to see what good pots actually look like.

  5. Judy Shreve says:

    Eating lunch – quick response — I think if you frame ‘precious pot’ with ‘make more pots to get better’ when teaching beginning students is fine, but I also think as functional makers, we tend to think that we can always make more – cups, plates, etc. Maybe it’s that way of thinking that keeps us from putting too much value on each piece.

    I agree – somewhat with your Etsy analysis — but do you see Ellen Shankin, Jeff Oestreich, LInda Christenson, Victoria Christen, Val Cushing — I could go on – but are they selling on Etsy? My point was we need to separate the crafty/bazaar work from serious work. I don’t see any difference in Etsy than setting up a table at your town craft fair and hoping people will pay what your work is worth. I think – yet again – potters have taken an easy route – not one that will help them. Etsy seems like a way to sell cheap pots. When I look at Akar — that’s a format we should encourage more of. Those pots sell for what they are worth. Potters need to work towards getting more Akar-type visibility. If we all take the Etsy route, we’ll all be stuck selling $12 mugs.

    • My first thought would be that those big name potters usually don’t need extra venues for their pots. When I go visit Ron Meyers he has every pot that comes out of his various kilns immediately routed to the gallery or show they will go to. He always has more demand for his pots than pots themselves. I just think that once you’ve made a name for yourself there are established venues for getting your work in the hands of people who will pay big bucks. The gallery limelight. We smaller fish have to scramble around in the alleys and dark corners to earn our crust.

      The fact that big timers don’t usually do etsy just means that they don’t need to. But I can’t say the same thing for myself. Big name potters are like an inner circle of our profession. Galleries only really want the work of people who are established, and this means that the rest of the potting professionals need to look elsewhere. Big name potters don’t have to look elsewhere because they are the ones that galleries want to represent. That’s why you see so many of the same potters recycled in shows around the country. The same names in almost every event. And we play into the hands of this fame game almost unintentionally. Those famous guys are like our heroes. The icons of our profession. When our fellow bloggers play ‘name that potter’ in their kitchen cupboard its always the same cast of characters. We celebrate celebrity. Its not as if there aren’t other excellent working potters out there.

      And I would also say that keeping up an etsy store is actual work that big time potters can’t be bothered with. When galleries and high profile shows are already clamoring for your pots you can’t waste time on busywork. Between photographing several different angles of each pot, writing unique descriptions etc, there is so much extraneous effort involved in an etsy store. I’m sure every working potter would be much happier just handing off the latest batch to an eager gallery who will work hard to sell every piece, and occasionally pay for the work up front. I know I would.

      One of the perks of having earned a big time reputation is that you are treated like royalty. You get to move comfortably high up on the food chain while the rest of us on the outside work day jobs to help put food on the table. And I’m not saying that those people don’t deserve it. Those guys work much harder at what they do than I do at my marginal practice. Its just that in the rarefied air you have a different access to paying customers than other potters do. You get to dine at the high table on gold plated dishes while the rest fight for scraps underneath the table. Its not a level playing field.

      I think if you’ve made it big already you just don’t have to worry about some of the issues that us small fish need to deal with. There is a built in base of people who will want your pots: Collectors with money. It would be great if all of us could sell work like the big guys do, but that’s not the reality. And this is why so many of us treat the “big time” as our holy grail. It represents the top of the food chain and the biggest seat at the pottery gravy train.

      But I think it is utopian to expect that the galleries could handle all the work of all the qualified potters. Gallery customers are a limited supply. Dedicated collectors even fewer. They only have so many dollars to spread around. And that’s why we need to explore other opportunities. There just isn’t enough room for all of us on top of that gallery pedestal at the same time.

      But I will say that I DO know how you feel about this. It does seem like we are diluting the sense of quality by rubbing elbows with folks that are not trying very hard to be the best they can be. Most etsy artists are not interested in improving. But I truly think potters are the only ones worried about that perception. I think at the very least what we are doing is raising the expectations of just a few more folks out there who would never have known the difference in quality otherwise. How else can we hope to educate the public? Not everyone who shops on etsy will walk into a gallery store front and see truly professional pots first hand. This may be their only exposure. We need to be there to help them learn.

      But there already are some decent sized fish swimming the etsy waters these days, and that’s why I think it is too early to turn our backs on it. This is good exposure for real quality in pots. I’m sure both of us would rather see more seasoned talent and less amateur work, but just because there are relative beginners selling work on etsy doesn’t mean we have to reject it. That would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And even if there are only a handful of perfectly ripe apples in the barrel and the rest are unripe or old and mealy, I think it is a mistake to dump the whole lot out. If I can sell a handful of pots to people as far away as California, Maine, Texas, and Florida, and make a few hundred extra dollars a year, well that helps, right? And the weird thing is that some of the first pots I sold on etsy had been sitting on my shelf for years and I was able to get far more than I can charge locally. Seems like win-win if you can put in the hard work.

      Here are some of the relative big names selling on etsy: Gay Smith, Kristen Kieffer, Marty Fielding, Ayumi Horie, and at one point Sequoia Miller had pots up too. But of course this is not going to be their major emphasis. They have other and better options as well. We all do for the most part. Etsy just seems like a healthy alternative if you can take advantage of it. And don’t forget our fellow bloggers Ron Philbeck, Michael Kline and Brandon Phillips to name a few. And check out some of these potters’ work too: Jon Arsenault, Ryan Strobel, Tom Jaszczak, Nathan Bray, Justin Lambert, and Will Baker.

      Anyone else out there reading this please chime in with your votes for the top talent in etsy stores. Its not all beginners and hobbyists anymore, is it?

      And don’t forget the whole etsy discussion held over at least three or more blogs last November. Here’s Ron’s post as an entry point into that discussion. “Etsy: from Dan to John, now here

      • Judy Shreve says:

        Carter – I hope that Etsy becomes a fabulous place to sell pottery. I think it’s the perfect venue to purchase work I’m familiar with and don’t have access to — and please don’t misinterpret what I said. I feel those who are successful selling on Etsy should be celebrated for blazing a new trail for us. But I still think it works best for someone who has a following.

        I was responding to your original idea about getting our work to the right audience. It seems Etsy is all over the place with quality of work. I think it would be better if we could encourage more AKAR formats where the work is juried. AKAR also does a good job of providing different shows that allows your work to be in the right ‘conversation.’ I can be somewhat assured that if I purchase a piece, it will be well made.

        I know that it’s almost impossible to rally all the functional potters out there – but it would be great if we could somehow work together to raise the bar for online sales. The Etsy Mud Team does a pretty good job. My biggest concern with Etsy is there is no system of standards for work sold on Etsy.

        • I am totally, totally with you on this. The absence of ‘gatekeepers’ on etsy just gives the general public the impression that its all the same acceptable quality work. And that’s why amateurs with bright glazes can do so well. There is no way to tell them apart unless you already have a sense of what counts as quality. At least at galleries and juried shows there is the presumption of standards. At least, that’s the way its supposed to work….

          But I have to also say that quality is not always the driving force in these venues either. And that’s sometimes why the same set of characters tend to appear in all the same shows. Galleries also seem to give you a seal of approval based on how impressive your credentials are and on your reputation. Sadly, that doesn’t always translate to the best pots. Take that Yunomi show a few months back. I thought only a handful of pots were all that interesting. In fact I thought some of the pots were embarrassing.

          Maybe that was more my personal taste talking, but there is such a phrase as “resting on your laurels” for good reason. And being the “teacher’s pet” also goes a long way to overlooking serious flaws, doesn’t it? And with a strong publicity machine or marketing campaign even folks like Gee Wiz Bush can get elected President, much less semi-talented potters become famous. What is the point of recognition if it didn’t have at least a few perks?

          So I do think you are correct that right now the best conversation about pots is happening in galleries, but that still doesn’t make it what we should aim for. Just being better than etsy doesn’t automatically put it in the service of all good potters.

          The gallery gatekeepers don’t always let the best work through, do they? Sometimes they just need to recognize you to let you pass. They can just wave you through while the rest stand outside waiting in the slow lane. I’m not saying that this is always the way it happens, just that it sometimes does, and that this is simply part of the gallery process. This was impressed on me at one point when Ron took one of the local potters with him to meet some of the folks running galleries. This is a really good potter who deserves recognition, but without Ron introducing her she would have been wasting her time. At least that’s the message I got. And I just love that Ron took the time to give this artist a hand up. But that means that the conversation happening in galleries is not always such an open affair. Its almost like they teach you a secret handshake and you are in. For life maybe. Like getting tenure.

          I’ll have to check out the etsy mud team to see what they are up to, but I seem to remember that when I first heard of them they didn’t set the bar very high. I’ve been dreaming up schemes that will address this issue on etsy and have resorted to listing some of my ‘credentials’ under the ‘materials’ section for each item. I put “20 years experience”, “pottery MFA 1997”, “taught by Ron Meyers”, “taught by Michael Simon”, and “taught by Linda Christianson”. I feel kind of shabby and lame putting that stuff there, but how else will folks know that I didn’t just learn my craft all on my own last year in my basement studio or taking classes at the community center once a week over the past few months?

          This is such a great discussion Judy! Thanks for pushing me to think about all this stuff!

    • Great link Tracey! It covers many of the issues I intend to address in that next post and reading it only makes me more nervous about the kinds of things that people can aim for as artists and still make a living. But that’s the issue I’m dealing with I suppose…. I’ll list the points that I think are worth discussing according to how the author organized it:

      6 simple tricks to make money”

      1 – Different venues have different audiences.

      2a – Sometimes the presentation is more important than the actual work for getting into shows. So its a case of quality not always being the deciding factor. “Good art badly photographed will always get rejected.”

      2b – Designing work that has “visual impact” is important.

      2c – Designing work that “has a focus with a strong artist’s identity” is also key.

      3a – “Make what customers want…. Make art that people want to own and your sales will increase.”

      3b – “A bit of trend research can help you get to the core of what people are buying and will help you make art that is easier to sell. ”

      3c – “Of course, an artist is entitled to make anything they want or to make art for art’s sake. But if you want to sell it, you need to consider the market forces or you will end up with a huge inventory of your own work.”

      4 – How you describe your work is sometimes more important than the work itself. If you can make an impression by talking about your work people will be better able to make sense of it and be more willing to buy it.

      5 – “The best way to a better business is to make impressive art and learn to talk about it so it impresses the customer.”

      6 – A list of gimmicks that will make an easy impression of the public.

  6. Kevin Carter says:

    Let me start off by saying that I always appreciate your posts, Carter, you provide much food for thought, and discussion. At a time when it seems others have abandonded their blogs altogether, you are still fighting the good fight, as are select others, including Tracey Broome.
    Now that I have that out of the way, here’s a question for you:
    What does what other people make, their status (MFA, BFA, “hobby potter”) what the public likes, and buys, and what gallerie owners,collectors, and critics think, have to do with YOU?

    • Thanks Kevin! Your question is a good one, and the answer probably gets lost in all the small details. What I think all this stuff has to do with me is that I am trying to figure out how the situation works. So I can do a better job of selling pots. I seriously wonder how I fit in the scheme of things: What avenues are open for me and which ones are closed? And why do things work out that way? How can I make sense of the situation I find myself in?

      But, for that matter, how does any potter fit in? Am I alone in needing to figure this stuff out? We all have to deal with the same issues and compete in the same marketplace, but its as if we are completely on our own, learning all this stuff one at a time through our own trial and error. We don’t have enough of a sense of community to have all this information at our fingertips. There simply isn’t a good enough infrastructure for potters to learn this. And I think this is a crippling situation not just for me but for all potters trying to find their way (and perhaps for the future viability of selling pots in a world where we are already so poorly understood).

      For instance, an academic education SHOULD be giving us all these tools to deal with the outside world, but from my own experience, and from what others tell me, that is far from being the case. And this is much harder these days when pottery is not even being taught very seriously in most University departments. Emerging potters now mostly have to look elsewhere for their education. But where to look?

      Community art centers (like where I teach) are just not set up to properly deal with stuff like this either. When I first started teaching there I was known as “The Slave Driver” because I took my teaching so seriously. What I didn’t understand back then is that almost every single student is there NOT necessarily to learn but to do other thing. Like socializing. Doing something crafty with their hands. Blowing off steam from a hard day at work. Because their sister signed them up for the class. Because friends are taking it. Etc. So MY question is how we intend to educate future potters and the audience that will sustain professional potters making a living? Doesn’t this effect me?

      But to answer your question, I feel the absence of a real sense of community is affecting not just me, but all potters. And if there is a problem in how the public is being educated about pots it is a problem not just for me but for all potters. Sticking our heads in the sand won’t help. Learning it all on our own is never going to be easy. But if it IS important its an issue worth talking about. And perhaps the more people who talk about it the closer knit our community will be, the less isolated we will become. Doesn’t that benefit all potters?

      And personally (and perhaps especially as a teacher) I am delighted that anyone decides to pick up clay and make things, not just professionals. Isn’t the human imagination amazing? And I’m talking about all skill levels. I’d much rather that the world has millions of beginner pots than that it not have them. The world is a better place because so many people are having fun with clay. And all that zany wonky work is someone’s attempt to bring new beauty into the world. How can I find fault with that?

      And as far as what the establishment thinks, I believe that their opinions are hugely influential in our world. If High End galleries actually wanted to sell pots don’t you think more University teaching positions would go to potters, and making pottery would be emphasized in more classrooms? How do you feel about our diminishing opportunities?

      To me it seems depressing that at the University where Ron Meyers taught for so long, in the 14 years since I graduated there has only been one other student to finish their MFA making pots. Even potters entering the program leave making sculpture. Now potters just aren’t admitted anymore. Don’t you think there is something wrong with this picture? Doesn’t this poor opinion of pottery effect all potters out there? So YES this has something to do with me. What about you?

    • Hey Kevin, I’m back again!

      I just remembered that I had an illustration of what I mean by community in the comments on that “Could you make that for me?” post. This is what I had to say:

      “So I hope we can convince ourselves and each other that we are not alone, that we are in fact part of a larger community with very similar interests and very similar circumstances. We can help ourselves, but we can also help each other. Part of agreeing that you belong to a community is that there are things that effect all of us. Some one member of my community has something go wrong, well that happened in my community, that happened to one of us. So every time a Ceramics teaching job at a University passes over a qualified potter applicant and goes to a sculptor I feel let down. Every time a potting student goes to grad school and comes out making sculpture I feel sad. Every time someone asks a hardworking potter like Ron to make some other potter’s work I feel disrespected. These things may be happening to other individuals but they are always happening to one of our own. The question is whether we are going to sit there and take it, turn our backs on the problem, cower in shame, shake our fists in frustration, or are we going to do something about it?

      William James had a great illustration of efficacy. He described a passenger train being robbed by outlaws, maybe just a handful of men with guns holding dozens of passengers hostage. And no one making a stand against them only means that the few win out over the many. Everyone is afraid to be that first person to stand up and to be shot down, so nobody does it. Because they act only as individuals they all suffer. But what if everyone stood up at once, or even an equal number to the outlaws, or just a few? And that’s what I’m getting at here. We are not alone unless we keep acting as if we are. And maybe not all of us are meant to stand at the front of the line and verbally call the bad guys out. But we can all stand up and be counted.”

  7. Kevin Carter says:

    As usual, you’ve raised a number of good questions and points.
    I question if making pottery should have entered the University in the first place. Why is a degree necessary to make bowls, cups, plates, jars, ewers, etc? I don’t have to tell you that most pottery throughout history (99.7%) was made by people who had little/no training, or learned through apprenticeship. You and I just happen to live in a time when it WAS common to find this subject taught at the uni level, but maybe it was mis-placed to begin with.
    Anyway, do people travelling through the university system, obtaining BFAs adn MFAs, have a lock on creatiivity, aesthetics, technique, motivation? As Jerry laughingly said to George when he found out that George was going to be hired as his latex salesman: “…I don’t think so!”
    Many artistic advancements have been made by talented amateurs, dabblers, near dilettantes. THis was also true in the sciences, many scientific advancements were made by amateurs. Why is this so, because I think these people had real interst and commitment, which will outlast “Semiotic theories of Postmodern Aesthetics in the Heterogenous antiquated regionalities of my living off government grants” anyday.
    You’re not included in that last barb.

    • Thanks! And agreed about academic pottery not being ‘necessary’ to make good pots. And also agreed that there will always be committed talented aspiring potters to take their place at the table of creative professionals. In fact, I have two students from the community center right now that have the talent, and at least one of them has the drive to try to make it work. My fingers are crossed about the other one. She just committed to getting her own wheel and electric kiln a few months ago, so she is taking her first baby steps as we speak.

      But I just wonder if by looking at individual cases we sometimes miss the forest for the trees. Isn’t the issue bigger than just this or that artist and this or that artistic innovation? What about the field of pottery? Isn’t there such a thing as an environment where pots are made and sold? Isn’t there a climate in which pots are purchased? Isn’t the forest BIGGER than just this tree or that? Doesn’t it make sense to look at the health of the forest as well? Isn’t there a difference between being shortsighted and having the bigger picture in view? Just how does that play out for pottery? Personally, I wonder if there will be fewer professionals in this future without academic potters, and I worry about what the standards of quality will be. Is it always a good thing to cut down so many trees? Doesn’t it sometimes turn to erosion or the proliferation of weeds? I’m just trying to get clear on what the consequences will be? Won’t there be consequences?

      As far as pots being taught at the University level, I don’t see what is so special about painting or sculpture that they should be taught in Art Departments and not pottery. The only real difference seems to be that these other art forms are endorsed by the establishment of high end galleries and museums, whereas pottery only fits there in exhibitions of ‘Ancient Art‘. Isn’t it funny that the Art of ancient cultures is sometimes defined by their pottery but in contemporary Art pots have been swept aside? Are people not still making pots? Are the pots being made today not some of the most exciting and glorious creative visions ever done in clay? Kind of hypocritical if you ask me. But then you should never expect academia to be run on a rational basis. And of course Galleries and Museums are businesses at heart, and small mugs will only ever be cheap art to them. Hardly worthy of or justifying pedestal space….

      The truth is probably that for their own sake none of these artistic practices deserve to be in academia. At least, perhaps, not in big ‘research’ Universities. Isn’t that research ethic responsible for the “new for the sake of being new” mentality? Isn’t that part of the sickness that infects much of contemporary Art these days? (And I’m not saying that contemporary Art isn’t sometimes interesting or important, just that it is often operating at the extreme end these days, and seems to serve a smaller and smaller elite audience every day. I’m just not certain that that is in the best interest of Art as a whole. Its like we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.)

      Maybe a more reasonable academic home would be in smaller Liberal Arts Colleges…. The way Art gets taught in almost every department at big U’s I’ve had a window on makes it seem kind of ridiculous at times. The frequent petty bureaucracy and down right ugly and insensitive teaching methods are a travesty. Not to mention some of the pompous clowns that stride through the hallways as if they are the next Picasso. And I’m not just talking instructors here….

      But along with the bad there is occasionally some good done there. So I wouldn’t say its a total lost cause. I guess that if any creative discipline deserves to be taught at the University level, why not pots? But the pressure at big U’s for instructors to ‘publish or perish’ makes them pawns of big galleries and museums, and we know how welcome pots are in those places. With that kind of pressure the focus is hardly ever on teaching or things that are in the student’s own interest. But this is a problem for every discipline, not just Art. In the Liberal Arts setting at least the assumption is that the purpose of an education is to help create well rounded human beings. And surely the study of creative disciplines is a part of that, right? (You probably missed my little ramble in that direction, but if you get the chance you might enjoy reading my post from this past February.)

      I would say that the danger of us letting the academic route slip through our fingers is that so many people get the chance to be exposed to pots when pottery is taught there. And exposure has to be an important issue, right? I would say that probably 50% of my students at the community center were first shown a potter’s wheel in the basement of some University. Some of them were even pottery minors, or art education majors. How many of our customers once took classes at their undergraduate school? How many professional potters once did? Doesn’t having this opportunity make a lot of people more educated about pots than they otherwise would have been? Isn’t that education a good thing? And without the possibility of learning about pots in a university will there be enough other opportunities to pick up the slack? Will as many people find pots and making pots without that resource? (I can guarantee you that I would not be making pots)

      How many hundreds of thousands of students are enrolled in Universities each year? And when Pottery is taught, there is at least a chance that the person who couldn’t get into the painting class will be able to take a wheel class instead. They might not go on to become professional potters, but they will have experienced pots firsthand, and have a respect for pottery that most others will never get. And that doesn’t even include the friends and housemates of pottery students that are exposed to pots. Or the socialite hipsters who go to student art show openings, scrounge the food table and mingle with artists as they soak in a few beers and some art. In later years when they are working as bank executives and want to buy some art for their homes won’t it be a good thing that they knew potters and learned about pottery at school? It just seems like a huge missed opportunity if we turn our backs on it.

      In an academic setting there is always the outside pressure of a grade that holds a student to a certain level of commitment and standards. Without that, the only people learning to make pots being held to professional standards will be the dozen or so apprentices scattered around the country. That’s a really small number. The rest will have to learn on their own or be coddled in community centers, but they will never get the outside pressure to excel. Some will have the internal fortitude and determination to figure out what a high level of craftsmanship means. Folks like Sequoia Miller and Mark Shapiro. But the majority will become like the sellers on etsy who feel no need to improve when they know they can sell the stuff they are already making.

      Is there such a thing as ‘professional standards’? Should there be? Is it important for at least some of us to aim high, to set the bar at a high level? How is that supposed to happen if the only criteria is “What sells is already good enough”? Not all cups are created equal, are they? Is there a difference between a beginner’s pot and that of a trained professional? I’m not asking what that difference is (because that is often debatable) just that there IS a difference.

      And how many potential potters fall by the wayside because they never got the encouragement of good instruction or the discipline of working for a grade? Don’t we sometimes need outside help to sustain us, to push us to work harder and to aim higher? Its just so much harder to do it all on our own. All I’m saying is that this is a future that frightens me. I would rather have more truly talented potters than fewer. I just don’t see much hope outside of pottery being still taught at the University.

      I will leave you with a thought. You are totally correct that 99.7% of pots throughout history have been made outside the influence of academia, but I just wonder if the incredible work being done today would have been possible in its absence. What if Warren MacKenzie had never taught in Minnesota? Would we have had a potter named Michael Simon? Wasn’t he in school to be an architect or something? Mark Pharis? Sandy Simon? Linda Christianson? What if Franz Wildenhain had never had Ron Meyers as a student? Even folks like Sequoia Miller were only inspired to make pots because they were exposed to potters who DID go through the University.

      What if all that incredible work of all those incredible potters had never been made because they never got the chance to be exposed to pottery in school? What if each of these potters had decided to do something other than make pots for a living? We might not realize it, but in this alternate universe there would be this tremendous hole in the creative ability of all practicing potters. All that inspiration and fascinating Art would never have been born…. Would you be as excited about making pots today? Would your chances of making a living be better or worse? Would more people care about owning pots? Because, lets face it, you can get it much cheaper at Walmart, right?

      All I’m asking is what will happen when no one makes pots at Universities anymore. Won’t that be a bad thing? The plant that is pottery only looks so good and healthy right now because it HAS been nurtured at the University all those years. Will it struggle and perhaps wither when that influence is totally cut off? Do we even understand what things are nourishing and what things are poison? Just who is looking out for this plant? Who is there to protect it and shield it from harm? There are plenty of haters out there, but who has the best interests of pottery at heart?

      The model for pottery as a self sustaining profession is on perilous seas at the moment. Its like some of us are asking if we can do without the mast or the rudder when those are some of the things that are partially responsible for getting us this far in the first place. It may look pretty safe to the folks tucked away in the Captain’s cabin, but up on the deck there are high seas, and down in the hold the bilge pumps are working furiously. I’m not yet yelling “mayday!” or “Women and children first!”. I’m just trying to get the lunatics off the lines where they are sawing into the mast with mad frenzy. I’m just trying to wake up my fellow crew members who are somehow oblivious to the dangers. Are you with me?

  8. Kevin Carter says:

    I guess I have to say that I am not with you as far as pots being taught at the University level, I do not feel it is necessary, nor, for that matter, is the teaching of any art, for Art to remain viable. Art, as you point out, is so obtuse and theoretical as taught at the University level, that it is almost meaningless to anyone not privy to the running “inside joke.” Art, as it is taught these days, serves one purpose, and that is to perpetuate the Art establishment, and the Art system. Get your BFA, then get your MFA, then become a tenured art professor, so that your students can get THEIR BFAs, then MFAs. so THEY can go on to teach more BFAs, then MFAs, then they can go on to teach more BFAs, then MFAs, etc. As to creating meaningful art, which the public at large would find interesting, or (shudder) enjoy, that is the last thing they are interested in. “The public is too stupid.” They are just like some club or gang, with only their members allowed to know the real story, the secret handshake, the secret hand sign.
    Proof that the University is unnecessary to creating art can be found by looking at the dramatic ascendency of “woodturning.” A craft that thirty years ago was confined to practical types in rural backwaters, it has been brought into exhibitions, galleries, and museums at an astounding pace. The practitioners of this new art are entirely self-taught, or were taught by their father, mother, uncle, etc.
    Most turners were/are hobbyists, at first using their avocation to escape the grind of daily jobs, then
    were able to parly their passion into an art.
    There is not a single prominent woodturner today that learned their craft and art at anything approaching a college level, and save for one, Mark Sfirri, no one teaches at the college level.
    (Notice I wrote “college” level, because Sfirri teaches at a community college, not a University. I might be wrong about there being other teachers, but there are precious few.)
    The individuals that drove this revolution (haha) did so of their own volition, motivation, desire, they did not have a professor dangling the grade carrot in front of them, which guarantees nothing anyway, only that you can parrot the ideas of the teacher back in a suitable form.
    These turners took what was once an entirely utilitarian craft, used to make furniture parts, bowls, goblets, etc, and through dint of hard work and imagination, created an art form that is gaining more respect, and appreciation every year, from all the institutions named above, and from the public at large.
    Another example can be found in grafitti art, which is about as far from a serious college education as you can get, yet has yielded tremendously creative, driven, and talented people.
    Also, there is the recent burgeoing interest in “Ousider” art, art created by shut-ins, tramps, prisoners, mental patients, et al, who, of course, aren’t college trained.
    Art doesn’t need to be taughtat the UNiveristy level, (if indeed it can be taught at all) to grow and thrive, and eventually, be accepted.

    • I have to say that this has been a fascinating conversation, and I thank you for pushing me to think more deeply about some of these issues. You had a lot of really good points, and I see I will have to think some more on this stuff. So thanks for chiming in!

      As I say, I’m trying to make sense of all this myself, and it just seems like there are important questions that need to be asked. Some people want to take a torch to the University and burn it to the ground. Maybe you and I will be among the first ones to light a match. And maybe that will have good consequences. Maybe it will be a weight off our backs. I don’t know. Sometimes you have to purge in order to become clean. Sometimes you need to cut off a limb to stop the cancer. I guess I’m just more hopeful than some. And it seems like an awfully big gamble to take….

      I would like to think that in a not so distant future academia can get itself back on the right track. As I have said many times before, I’m a dreamer and a chaser of soap bubbles. And maybe this rehabilitation requires starting from scratch, undergoing radical reconstructive surgery. But just maybe there are rare and beautiful and talented flowers that will be crushed in the demolition. The question, I guess, is whether any of them are worth saving. Or maybe just bulldoze the whole thing and don’t look back. Perhaps I’ll sit down with you at the end and roast a few marshmallows on the bonfire.

      But I have no idea who you are or even what kinds of pots you make. How will I know where to find you amid the choking dust and smoking embers? I tried to search for you on Google with “Kevin Carter pottery” and “Kevin Carter Ceramics” but didn’t get a result. I’m just trying to figure out what your background is on this whole ‘pottery’ and ‘academia’ thing. Your convictions are so strong there just has to be an interesting story behind them.

      Are you a potter yourself? Were you an apprentice somewhere? Do you work in a production facility? Are you self taught? Were you ever exposed to art in school? Are you making a decent living just from selling pots? Your own pots? Production pots? Historical reproductions? Do you have other sources of income? Are you supporting more than just yourself from the money you make selling pots? Can you afford important things like health insurance just from your pottery income? And who are some of your favorite potters? Is there a particular genre you are drawn to? Is your appreciation very wide open or is it more specialized? Do you collect pots yourself?

      I just don’t know what your insight into the questions you asked is, but I’d love to hear it. Thanks again for the thought provoking conversation!

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