How customers look at pots: Where they are looking and how they learned to see

Good news! I discovered how I could slice my second ‘mammoth‘ post into two additional halves. So what you get here is only the next installment of a final 3 part survey [not including the “shorter version” tangent(s)].

So, according to my last few blog posts I have just figured out that not every potential customer will see what I want them to see, much less see the same things. Duh! If it only took me 20 years to address this at least it wasn’t 30. Or 40. And if it was common knowledge that I somehow missed, well, OOPS! But I will offer my excuse that I was so consumed with making my work to pay much attention to who I was selling to. Being obsessed with the pursuit of beauty was too much of a focus for it to have mattered in the past. “Build it and they will come” and all that. And maybe this sounds familiar to some of you out there. Perhaps I am not alone in this…. So, if some of this insight is news to you, perhaps it will also help point you in more sensible directions with your own work. Perhaps it will save you some painful and naive brushes with an audience that just doesn’t get what you are doing. That’s what I’m hoping this discussion will do for me at least….

Right now I see several distinctions that influence the situation. I would first off say that there are different ‘kinds’ of pottery buyers, and that these customers are best addressed in different ways. Our conversations with these different audiences need to be structured in the ‘words’ that they already understand (or are willing to learn). To some extent personal taste and education always play a role, but I would say that different venues for pots also attract customers with different agendas, different vocabularies. And the venues themselves target those differences. That was Judy’s point in the comments on the last post (Good discussion worth checking out if you have the time). Places like etsy do a better job catering to one kind of viewer, and places like AKAR do a better job with a different sort of customer and potter.

But there are so many venues these days. Perhaps some of the customers straddle several types of venue, or their interests bleed into more than one kind of focus. Someone picking up a pot at the local farmer’s market may be more interested in supporting the artist because they are local and because handmade goods are intrinsically important. The farmer’s market ethic promotes this as a world view, and handmade local pottery seems right at home there. Someone else may buy a pot simply because they see the color blue and know how well that matches the color of their kitchen. Not much else to do with the pot itself really. Plenty of pots are purchased based on the draw of their glaze coloring. That’s just a fact we all have to deal with. And this speaks to the level of commitment and education of many pottery buyers, and it certainly goes deeper than just pots. These color focused customers can be categorized more as lovers of blue (etc) than lovers of pottery. Perhaps.

Other customers will step into a place like a gallery and see bona fide Art whose value lies in a straining towards transcendent beauty and meaning. Or they may be more aware of the different traditions in pottery making. Or they may be aware of the different types of firing and the aesthetics associated with them. And fortunately there are plenty of people who have the sophistication to ‘read’ pots on a level of subtle details and the nuance of artistic intention. But this is a kind of sophistication that only comes with a particular kind of education about pots. Not everyone is trained to see these details. Others will pass by a gallery display or a booth at a crafts fair and see kitsch anachronisms and knick knackery. It sometimes requires extensive training to see all there is to see, like adding to your vocabulary requires learning new words.

And sometimes the kinds of pots that do well in these venues overlap with what does well in another venue. The setting of a crafts fair is pretty wide open, for instance, from production oriented “crafty” pots to eclectic “arty” pots. But not all kinds of pots seem appropriate for all audiences. A several thousand dollar Don Reitz obelisk would have few takers at a booth during a music festival, for example. Sometimes a customer will buy something specifically because it fits in a collectable tradition, like folk pottery and face jugs (a huge industry among potters in the north Georgia mountains close to where I live). Other patrons will search out reputable galleries or studio sales to buy a pot not so much for the pot itself as the name that is on it or the reputation of the maker. So there obviously are diverse kinds of pots and diverse customers and diverse venues for pots.

The “Famous Name” game is an interesting example of pottery buying excess. At its worst you see situations like people reselling Warren MacKenzie pots they got on the cheap just a few days after purchase. Or the mad rushes for indiscriminate (although always outstanding) pots during the last days of the Ron Meyers Michael Simon studio sales. The naked greed on display was disgusting, especially to the artists’ whose work was barely even looked at much less appreciated before being bought. And while this may not say much about the ‘reading’ skills of some of our patrons, if the artist can stomach this dark side of celebrity it also puts hard cash in the hands of many deserving potters and often represents the high point on the pottery gravy train. Such as it is…. Playing up the idea of celebrity and being collectable just feeds into this game.

So it would seem possible for potters to aim at all sorts of things that are specific to particular audiences. Its not simply one size fits all. The same pot won’t always do well in all venues, so it makes sense to understand a bit about who shops where, and what kinds of things they are looking for. Our expectations and education are intimately involved in how we read a pot and whether we even recognize its worthiness. Unfortunately handmade pots don’t have much of a history in our culture’s frame of reference. There are only these small pockets of awareness that each are centered around their own kernels of values. The majority of our culture is simply unfamiliar with the context of handmade pottery. They need some experience. They need to be educated about pots.

So part of the issue is certainly education. In other cultures pottery has a much different appreciation because handmade pots sometimes have an established place in those societies. Also, the kinds of pots that are appreciated are often specific or unique, just like a culture’s food, clothing, and architecture will embody its own tradition of values. Different cultures simply want to ‘read’ different things. What if folky ‘face jugs’ had the same cultural status here that teabowls have in Japan? What would that be like? Or imagine the Japanese going gaga over face jugs….

But in today’s era of multiculturalism and cross cultural dissemination even pottery now aims at broader influences. And if this makes things very interesting and exciting for those of us making pots it doesn’t always carry an appropriate, educated, or financially generous audience on its coat tails.

The Mingei tradition from Japan and Korea, for instance, had a huge influence on what some potters started to do here, and this changed how some of us began to look at pots. The courage those potters displayed in exploring this ‘new’ aesthetic was heroic because there was no ready market for what they were doing here. Showing these kinds of pots to an American audience was unprecedented. But that’s just one example. Imagine how the first American audiences looked at the first crusty woodfired pots to come from American anagama wood kilns. “Crusty ash? Where’s the beauty in that?” Hard to figure out if your only experience is of decorated glazed ware. Right?

In Japan there are dozens of words to describe different patterns and details from a wood firing. But this sophistication rests on the shoulders of centuries, even millennia, of appreciation. Just what do we expect in a mere several decades? That all Americans will have become sophisticated about wood fired pots? That Americans will actually be able to ‘read’ a wood fired pot the way it is ‘read’ in Japan? Is it so hard to imagine that an American customer and a Japanese customer can look at the same wood fired pot and not see the same things? Nuance not only comes from education but often also from a real need. From cultural circumstances that are deeply ingrained. Like Eskimos having dozens of words to describe snow or desert dwellers describing the many varieties of sand. This sophistication is deeply rooted in cultural practice, and here American potters seem to be clearly disadvantaged.

So perhaps asking our audience to appreciate certain nuance and subtlety is occasionally going to be a hard sell. We simply aren’t always prepared for it. Our culture provides the framework of what we have learned and why, and this influences what we can see and how we think about it. Our values are often inextricably mixed up with a cultural outlook, and something innocuous in one culture’s setting can be make or break in another. Take this example that Ben Carter just posted last week: “In addition to numbers, colors are filled with cultural associations. In China a bride can not wear blue because it is rumored to bring bad luck to the marriage. This color prohibition continues into pottery. I had an instance where someone commented on my work, “Don’t use that shade of blue. It’s bad luck. No one will buy it.” The concept of luck is taken very seriously in China.” Or from his post today: “My next group (of pots) is geared towards a Chinese audience. Practically this means I make everything much, much, much smaller. I’m making teapots that my fingers can barely fit in and they are still large compared to pots used for green tea. ”

Just how profound and deep seated are our own visual and cultural prejudices, I wonder? The things that separate one kind of venue from another? The difference between ‘Art’ and ‘craft’? What are the things that a gallery tries to promote, or a place like etsy, or a roadside folk pottery? Just where do each of us potters fit in this scheme of things? And how do we try to make it work for us? Just who are we aiming at and what do they want to see? Its not as simple as “build it and they will come” is it?



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: Where they are looking and how they learned to see

  1. Lee Love says:


    I agree education is of primary importance. We are really lucky here in Minneapolis. MacKenzie educated tens of thousands of people, and his students continue to do so. While very few of his students became potters, every one of them developed a better understanding of functional pottery. We attended Northern Clay Center’s 20th anniversary celebration. NCC is another reason for the deep appreciation of pottery in our region.

    One event was a sale of “recycled” pots. We put in a dozen pots from our own collection, that were very nice pots, but we donated them to make more room for new pots. There were many fine pots at this sale from around the country, going at low prices. My wife Jean found a pot I made in Mashiko made of unglazed Ko-shgaraki clay. I made it in Mashiko and it was a pot I shipped to NCC while I was living in Japan. The pot is an anthropomorphic form I stole from Canadian Potter John Reeve: an oval bowl sitting on four feet. I was happy to have that back. I understand why a person might have trouble appreciating this pot: the outer surface is a little bit rough and it is an unusual form. You can see it here:

    I saw a great Mike Norman Flying Piggy Bank leave the sales room in the arms of somebody. Mike is sort of “Ron Meyers meets whimsy.” I ran into Peter Leach, who was the potter who was the first Director of NCC. He was holding an armload of his own pots. He told me, “My wife says I should have held onto more of my own pots.”

    I am doing Art At St. Kate’s on Saturday. My primary reason isn’t to sell pots. I do it to meet people and share what I know. I had to send a quote and photos out for a project our local art crawl is sponsoring. This is what I sent:

    “I make and use handmade functional pottery as an antidote to the modern tendency toward the use of things made by machine, things made without heart or beauty, for the mere goal of profit. What makes human beings unique? Not our ability to make things—insects can do this; nor our ability to reason—in the near future, machines will be able to do this. What makes human beings unique is our ability to recognize and cherish beauty. My goal is to make things for everyday use that allow the users to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n, take a breath, and observe the natural beauty that surrounds them.”

    • Thanks Lee! I agree that there is so much we can be doing to help educate the public. And we should all be so grateful that there are communities like the one you describe. I think what you say is a potent argument for the real benefit of having pots taught at the University level (I got kind of tangled up in that in the comments to the last post).

      I like the idea of donating pots and other ideas for putting pots in the hands of the un(pottery)educated. One of the ideas I have is that a part of my huge surplus of pots can go to my regular customers for free if they will pass them on to people they know who might not be aware of how cool pots can be. Perhaps the best way of making the uninformed want pots in their lives is to put them there. That’s my plan at least….

      Love your statement too. That was really well said!

      Thanks for chiming in!

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