How customers look at pots: You can’t like what you can’t see

So this chunk of blathering is the third installment of what was incredibly once thought of as a single post. And I’ve got one more piece that I generously split off from the end of this one! I must be insane, right? Or have it in for any potential blog readers…. I was even told just recently that any text more than a single screen in length is too long for a blog post. Not only will most people not bother with it, but the suggestion was that any post that was longer usually betrays a fundamental lack of understanding the issues being discussed.

And you know what? In my case that may actually be quite correct. I blather on like this because I don’t know the answers. I’m here just asking questions and hoping that YOU will help me figure some of this stuff out. Sometimes talking about issues brings them into clearer focus, and sometimes discussing them allows me to see things from different perspectives, adds shape to the thing I am wrestling with. And while probably everything I have to say here can seem quite ordinary and simple, getting my head around it has often taken a whole lot of work. So, many thanks to all you dedicated sufferers! Your Herculean efforts have not gone unnoticed.

Quick synopsis of how we got here: How we are trained to see things makes a huge difference. And maybe I could have just stopped there instead of blathering on for several thousand words.

But if there is a ‘nurture’ to how we see, if our education actually is important, is there also a ‘nature’? Is our species adapted to seeing in ways that our culture merely sits on top of or overlays? Doesn’t it also seem like there are non-cultural and non-personal distinctions that impress the human observer? Occasionally it just boils down to a question of getting noticed. And we have the old adage that “The squeaky wheel gets the oil” for good reason. Alarm bells are alarm bells for good reason. So much of culture is about communication, and communication requires that the audience will notice a message being given. And if the point of what you are doing is to be noticed, you don’t always aim for subtlety. Subtlety is difficult. Subtlety is often a book that we don’t pick up, much less read. Subtle often just fades into the background. Communication sometimes just means that we need to be talking loud enough.

Subtle pots are like a potter whispering in a crowded room. Unless the audience knows to pay attention (is trained for this purpose) they will be easily distracted by all that other commotion bustling about them. The noisy and the loud. And even with our best attempts at focused attention it will sometimes be hard to pick up on what is being said. And while it commits to nothing about the sophistication we can aim at, being loud, ostentatious, lurid, etc, is much more observable than the quiet, subtle, demure visuals that a majority of customers simply pass by. Perhaps those quiet pots are only really ever looked at in quiet sound proofed rooms with good lighting on top of pedestals. In isolation. By trained professional observers. Or once the customer has brought them home. Isn’t this what Warren MacKenzie is referring to when he invokes “the personal contact that is involved in the understanding of a pot that is handled and used over many times throughout the years, and only slowly reveals itself”? Sub-tle is sub-dued. Below. Buried. Beneath. It requires effort to unearth. It is the antithesis of “Pop“. When something pops it is already in your face. Subtle is rarely pop-ular.

It is a fact of our evolution that things stand out for us by conforming to a certain kind of visual impact. And our use of words only reflects that truth. Brilliant, bright, piercing, blazing, bold, showy, dashing, gaudy, pretentious, garish, dramatic, flaunting, glittering, luminous, pompous, majestic, spectacular, radiant, florid, and all sorts of other words can be used to describe the easy pickings for our powers of observation. The much harder work is relegated to words that describe things as being opaque, solemn, dull, subdued, camouflaged, reserved, suppressed, hidden, concealed, stealthy, shy, cloaked, mysterious, secret, stifled, dark, etc.

So, the truth I’m getting at here is that in a very generic way humans are naturally drawn to a species of visual data that stands out from other data. These details push themselves to the foreground. They are the conspicuous. The flagrant. And in the surrounding natural world evolution has caused a proliferation of brightly colored animals and plants for just this reason. Its not only human nature we are talking about, but basic conditions of anything being alive. Even the camouflage specialist gecko lizard who keeps me company in my yard puffs out his bright red throat when it is mating season. Sometimes being noticed is our most valuable survival tool.

So that’s part of the underlying genetic landscape. Another tangent is that human’s learn because we are specifically adapted to picking out the handiwork of other humans. We learn the world through learning language. We learn language because our infant ears and brain are designed to distinguish the sound of the human voice and to pick these noises out from the welter of audible input. In the rough and tumble of wild chaotic nature we learn patterns to build meaning around, but the hand of human industry always takes a special place in our consciousness. It stands at the root of all our conscious thought and twines itself about even our most brute and instinctive emotions.

And the result is human culture, with all its material accoutrements. And because our brains work this way, culture is easy to spot. We humans do things that are not in nature by themselves, and these are easy to pick out. We filter and organize the world into a new shape. We put straight edges on things and corners where no corner should exist. We curve and we loop. We create consistency and symmetry out of the soup of details that the world has provided for us. We invent. We decorate with images, patterns, and make representational pictures. We create meaning. We create significance. We put information that is distinctly human on all sorts of things and claim that part of the world as something separate from ‘mother nature’. We cultivate and prune. We plant our flag and make our mark. We build fences and set boundaries. And our eyes pick up purposeful landmarks much easier than random things.  Its as if that crystal of intention lodges in our perception and we have an immediate non-natural focus. We recognize the human hand, and that gives us a head start to making sense of what we are looking at.

And as I remarked in a previous post, you can’t like something if you can’t see it. And if you don’t like it you won’t but it. So, in a sense, being noticed is the first route to finding customers. Once they are aware of you they can decide whether they like what you are doing or not.

Next up: How to make use of this information, and a bit of advice from Michael Simon.

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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7 Responses to How customers look at pots: You can’t like what you can’t see

  1. Judy Shreve says:

    This is not necessarily my opinion but I heard from a couple of different people in (different) conversations over the last few months that folks who draw or paint images on their work sell more work – for higher prices. And the other snippet was that only other potters like ‘brown-pots.’ Does this follow your thoughts on being seen? I think you’re talking about being seen in a crowd (of other work) and/or being seen even individually when you are whispering with subtleties in your form/design.

    But I do truly believe – when someone is deemed ‘collectible’ – anything they make seems to sell well.

    • Hey Judy! That’s pretty close to what I have to say in the part that I lopped off the end of this post! Not necessarily that decorated work sells for higher prices, just that more people want to look at them. The result of course being that they usually are easier to sell. I can think of plenty of examples of sales events where marginally talented throwers will have done some garish decoration or put a bunch of crushed glass in the bottom of their pots and will have outsold enormously talented and experienced potters with more subtle things going on. But that also has a lot to do with the type of venue and the expectations of the customers drawn in (the point of my post before this one). Of course the exception (as you noted) is the collectible potter whose reputation alone is enough to put pots in homes. At least, as long as the customers who appreciate this inflated importance are on hand.

      And since you sort of preempted the theme of my next post I’ll just go ahead and give away the punch-line: If you want your work to sell better, perhaps even with collectors, it makes sense to draw the customer’s eye with some decoration. So yeah, the brown pots end up mostly being potter’s pots, the faces that only mothers could love. And the humble potters making them can only sell to other artists and potters, or the minority of folks out there with sensitive sophisticated souls, while the collectible potters can sell them to collectors through sheer force of reputation.

      Of course all that is generalization, but in the broad strokes it proves true more often than not. I think….

  2. Representing the garish camp, I think there is really a market for everything and you just have to go out and find it. I live in Louisiana and while I have a nice following of folks that show up to my sales wallet in hand, the deep south (excepting New Orleans 🙂 is rather traditional in its taste and more traditional and/or subtle does pretty well. Selling on-line, I can count on one hand the number of sales I make in LA, MS, AL. I ship a lot more up north and to the west coast. I’ve come to realize that people at the local shows like my pots but can’t picture them in their homes as part of their decor. They buy a fun or cute mug, but not so much the showy vase. That’s fine though. It’s my challenge to find my market. It’s a good thing I like to make mugs 😉

    • Yeah, isn’t this a fascinating topic? Finding your market, knowing what venues have what expectations, all that stuff is so much effort to figure out. And regional differences throw a whole other wrench into the situation.

      I would say that ‘traditional’ is not exactly the same thing as subtle. Those pots may quite often be simple or plain, but that’s not why most customers are interested in them. Or so it seems. ‘Traditional’ is its own market category in some instances. Like the folk pottery made in GA and NC. Those are huge industries, but they also are specific types of pot. And the audience frequently appreciates them for being in this category above and beyond their appreciation of its subtlety. ‘Traditional’ is even collectible in some instances.

      But just to reassure you (as if you ever needed that from me), I have no problem with ‘garish’ if it belongs on a pot that stands up well without the deco. If the raw pot is good, it will generally stay a good pot, what ever the decoration. Generally. Of course you still can ruin good pots with bad decoration…. I guess the issue I have is pots that don’t stand up well without the deco, as if the maker is ‘saving’ bad pots by smearing a bright glaze on them. But I would never accuse you of falling into that practice. I happen to like YOUR pots. And I love what you had to say about them back on your May 16th post on “Making peace with cute”. I’ve got no beef with ‘cute’.

      At the end I am just hoping that more and more potters will push themselves to make the best work that they can, whatever that means. I get disappointed when it is obvious that the potter has given up improving or just doesn’t know any better, especially when this happens at a remedial level of craftsmanship. But that’s just my personal wishes for the future of pottery. I also recognize that not even the artists themselves are the best judge of how well a pot will fit in someone else’s home. So there are no undeserving pots as long as someone wants to give it a home. I just hope for a future where both potters and our audience will be better educated, more sophisticated, and that we continue to raise the bar. Setting the bar low is in no one’s long term interests. Short term financial gain, well that’s a different story….

      I think you will like my follow-up post on what Michael Simon has to say on the topic of decorating. I’m still trying to digest just what this means for my own pot making….

      Thanks for chiming in, as always!

  3. hee, hee. didn’t realize those emoticons would show up as bright yellow little faces or I might not have done that 🙂
    Drat. there is it again 🙂

  4. I’ve noticed the smileys 🙂 or frownies 😦 or winkies 😉 turn up automatically almost all the time on WordPress. Kind of funny. There is probably a setting that can be clicked on or off.

    You’re right. Traditional is not same as subtle. While there may be room for overlap, traditional tends to like its subtle in shades of blue. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I like blue too 🙂

    Will stop back to see what Michael Simon has to say.

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