Tony Clennell talks life, pots, and the creative industry


Yesterday was a great day here in Athens GA. Canadian potter Tony Clennell did us the honor of a visit, rubbed elbows with some local potters and pottery enthusiasts, and gave us all an entertaining and informative slide lecture. What a blast! Here are some of the images of his pots I’ve been collecting over the years:

clennell ewers2

clennell grad vases 2

tony clennell platter

tony clennell teapots



Not only is Tony one of my all-time favorite contemporary pot makers, but he’s such a tremendously great guy in person too. I was thrilled to finally meet him, and then I was enthralled by his story of being a pot maker. And to top it off he blew my mind with a breakdown of the force behind commerce in different eras, a lesson it does well to heed in thinking through our own position as commercial professionals, selling amateurs and hobbyists alike.

What he described was this: In the 1950’s commerce was driven by innovation. Build a better mouse trap and you have folks on the hook. In the 1970’s commerce was driven by its service quality. Better serve an audience and you will make the difference you need to stand out. And both of these are still important as influences and things to think about. What really blew me away was his next phase of commercial direction. He termed it “experience”. What influences today’s markets is not necessarily bells and whistles and new fangled hoo ha. Its not simply standing behind your product or serving it up in custom attentive detail. Rather, what stands out in the minds of customers is their experience in making that transaction and their experience of its connection to a larger sense of identity. And this has huge ramifications.

An example Tony threw out, and which I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing, is that when he sells a pot or two to a customer he always engages them in conversation. He learns a bit about who they are, what their interests are, and what motivates them. And a few days after the sale he sends them a postcard riffing on a bit of what they shared in that conversation. That’s it. And it sounds so simple. But when you think about it, placing that pottery transaction in a larger context of a human relationship makes a huge difference. It introduces a personal dimension, and it reflects on the buyer’s own self-identity. Something much bigger than simply the consumer of a new product or the patron being served by an anonymous staff…..

Think about it.

And this is much bigger than simply the issue of individual artists connecting to an audience. Its an issue of community and of identity. There is an enormous gulf between supporting the arts where artists are anonymous cyphers, and supporting the arts where these artists are human beings with real and personal connection to their supporters…..

I’ll leave you with that to ponder.


If you don’t know Tony, you can find him on his quirky and insightful blog here:

Me (Carter), Tony, Ron Meyers, and Ted Saupe

Me (Carter), Tony, Ron Meyers, and Ted Saupe

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


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.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Ceramics, Clay, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Tony Clennell talks life, pots, and the creative industry

  1. Lee Love says:

    ” And a few days after the sale he sends them a postcard riffing on a bit of what they shared in that conversation. That’s it. ”

    Carter, this is standard practice in Japan. Also, when you have a show in Japan, you are at the gallery every day. You served your guest (in Japan, customer and guest means the same thing) tea and sweets. The pot is just the tip of the “iceberg.” Your honored guest is also buying your expertise and you become a part of each others life. I try to carry on is way of doing business here in the States. Isn’t this kind of hospitality more common in the South?

    • gazooza says:

      A few years ago, I started sending thank you cards and a gift certificate (towards a future purchase) to all my new customers. It’s worked okay, but still most don’t return a second time.

      I hadn’t considered sending some sort of thank you or acknowledgement to returning customers, but… duh. Why not? They’re the most important to a long-term sustainable model, and sending the implicit message that I take them for granted (even if just by comparison) is a terrible idea!

      • I think Tony’s suggestion that it be a personal communication far exceeds the potential of merely the ‘thank you’ card or impersonal coupon. The example he gave was that a customer came to his showroom worried about Tony’s dog. They talked about that. And the card Tony sent simply said “Woof woof”! How’s that for the right touch of humor and personalization!

        The key, I think, is to making strides at involving our customers as members of our community. Which is also why I suggested that it connects to people’s ideas of self-identity. If you are ‘the local potter’ this probably helps, but we can do so much more to deepen those ties.

        Remember: “Community”, “Identity”.

    • So nice to hear from you Lee!

      That’s great insight on Japanese practice. Of course you’d expect a culture that has a more mainstream tradition of pottery acceptance to embrace an idea like this. Slowed down, contemplative, and meditative….. Any wonder that in the US where fast food, fast cars, impatience, road rage, and in your face extroversion are more the norm that folks would be slow to realize (quick to overlook) the benefits of more interpersonally oriented experience?

      Not so sure how the South fits in all that…. I’ve lived here 24 years now and it still eludes me…..

      Thanks for chiming in! Always great to get your insight!

  2. gazooza says:

    These eras of commerce make sense to me:
    50’s = meeting customers’ basic needs.
    70’s = meeting customers’ optional preferences.
    Now = meeting customers’ pure desires.

    As long as we’re not talking about Walmart-caliber commodities, in an “experiential economy”, the product that comes with the highest personalization and fanciest extra gloss — like shopping at the Apple store — usually wins.

    • That’s an interesting redescription! Basic needs-> Optional preferences-> Pure desire!

      I’m not sure the “pure desire” part needs to be phrased so strongly, but experience and desire are definitely linked in some ways…..

      • gazooza says:

        Yeah, maybe we can strike “pure” and just make it “desires”. In any case, I was thinking along the lines of Maslow’s hierarchy, where experiential shopping (aka fulfilling desires) is pretty high up the pyramid towards self-actualization.

  3. Pingback: “Fake it till we make it” and the downside of humility | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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