Carving Out a Future

by Brian R. Jones

As an artist who is trying to find his audience and way in the professional world, Brian R. Jones came up against several challenges that he saw as new and somewhat unaddressed by the established Fine Craft world. This lecture, delivered in Houston during the National Council on the Education in the Ceramic Arts, was meant in part to start a conversation about where we are headed, or indeed mired in, and as a call to action. 

In my short time participating in craft shows as a studio artist the starkness of the current state of the market and the uncertain future of the craft world has prompted me to ask myself over and over: “How will I be able to make a living doing this now and into the future?” My doubt was not something that I had manifested on my own, there was plenty of that, but there were also other signs that things were not what I thought they would be.

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            It never took long for a veteran crafter to talk about “how things used to be.” Usually referencing the 1980’s and 90’s, they would paint a picture of incredibly crowded venues with knowledgeable buyers who had the money to support a large number of artists. Things were great, and then it seemed like they weren’t. The Internet bubble burst in the early aughts, The American Craft Council shuttered several of its shows, and the high number of craft shows diluted the importance of the older established shows as well as what the word “craft” meant. The crowds have thinned considerably and there is a lot of down time during shows. But what caught me off guard was the lack of accountability and flexibility that the larger, higher end craft shows were willing to put forward. I could simply be projecting here. Don’t get me wrong, there are always those who make great work and are able to sell that work to the kind of people we would all like to have as collectors. The problem here, keeping in mind that building an audience takes time and effort, is that for a young crafter showing a profit after computing the costs of doing a show is difficult. The model of the large fine craft show has become stale and is at huge risks of simply not existing in the near future.  To make an analogy, craft shows are prepared for an outdated style of business, like the military is situated for a two-theater war with the Soviet Union. What was built up during the 60’s and 70’s, capitalized upon in the 1980’s and then seemingly maximized by 2000 has floundered under its lack of attracting a younger audience. For those who began their careers in the 1970’s and 80’s, their audience came up with them, slowly buying work year after year on a consistent basis, as both artists and their audience made money together. With that generation getting older, retiring, and no longer having any room to collect more objects we are left to try and make sense of a model that has run its course. Potential buyers of a younger generation don’t want to go to a convention center to make their purchases. Their attention is elsewhere and moves at a pace faster than we have been able to keep up with.

            The 2008 economic crisis has brought new issues of sustainability, evolution and flexibility into the market and the lives of makers who rely on that market to survive. The crisis has also helped to reveal individual artists’ ability to evolve with technology and use it to broaden the reach of their work.

            This lecture is meant to offer some examples of crafters, namely ceramic artists, who are pushing their careers forward in specific and thoughtful ways. While these artists use some of the same tools, like the Internet and digital media, their approaches vary significantly.  I will also present some ideas on business models that could be undertaken now to help build a new audience for ceramics and fine craft in general. My closing will be more opinion than stated fact about what is needed to be done by individuals, the craft market, and institutions to see that craft has a place in the world, on our terms, into the future.

             While “the future” is a large, ambiguous, and worrisome notion that many of us share I see the solution as taking control of one’s career and not be beholden to a single way of making a living or by what has already been established. The handmade object, as we know, can easily become an important part of its owner’s life. Underestimating that importance in the long-term will render our field helpless in the face of more change.

In 2000, after earning her MFA, Ayumi Horie saw that an online presence would be something to invest in. At that point, as some of us can remember, there were no businesses offering templates to build websites on, there weren’t too many people working as website designers, and it hadn’t gotten to the point where websites were ubiquitous. She had to build her website from the ground up, so to speak, and used her work as a template for the site. By being in the right place at the right time, the foresight at investing in an online presence, and being patient with the progression of her work and its affect on her website’s aesthetic, Ayumi Horie has been one of the first artists to really open up the way ceramics is seen online.

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 She does this by using “value added elements.” Value added is the business term for components that surround, support, and explain the product without being the product itself. For Ayumi, this starts at her website which is well managed, is easy to navigate, and is also pleasant to look at. It is a direct reflection of her work and not simply a place where images of pots are slapped onto a page. Her real value added elements are the stories that she’s able to tell, in different ways, about the work that she creates and is known for. Ayumi has a background in photography, which lends itself easily to considering a website. She also has a vision of where and how she sees her work in the world and is willing to take the time and effort away from the act of making to get that work seen. In a way, there is no difference between Ayumi making pots and spending time in front of the computer to get those pots out into the world. Both elements are part of a contemporary studio practice, which she has used judiciously and to its greatest advantage.

            Ayumi’s work is sweet and gentle and good to use. It lends itself to a certain openness and sense of humor. Pots in Action, a segment on her website, is a simple and effective way to market her work with these elements in mind. In essence, Ayumi has invited individuals who own a piece of hers to document it, easily done these days with iPhones and digital cameras, and then upload the image to her. The image is then placed in a portfolio page, which is juxtaposed by a map of the United States that pinpoints where each person was when the photo was taken creating a community around Ayumi’s pots. This tool illustrates the story of the owner’s relationship with the work and then again as a story of the community around the country who are interested in sharing their experience together.

            She is able to work with storytelling in a video format as well. Time lapse videos of Ayumi in the studio making cups and bowls that also include her dog Poncho gives her audience an insight into how her work is created while adding another level of cuteness to the mix. In another example, Ayumi’s match striker video shows the object being handed from person to person, each using the pot for their own way. For the uninitiated, these videos might be enough of a novelty to push them over the functional cliff from where they will hopefully never return. For the initiated it reaffirms our belief in the handmade and in some cases might help us to remember that what we make has a life outside of our studios. It also raises the bar for us who are makers to push the ways in which our work is seen and shown. Ayumi is often ahead of the curve as far as technology is concerned and we should take this as a signal to run with what she has started. Storytelling around the object is only going to become more prevalent and important as a way to connect to an audience and sell work. I hope to see other makers using technology in such a thoughtful way in the near future.

            Meredith Host is a studio potter who lives and works in Kansas City, MO. She has been a full time studio potter for the past four years. Meredith is able to do this by diverging from the work she has spent developing in and out of academia by creating other work to pay her bills. While not a new model by any means (plenty of artists have created other work, or bread and butter pots, that sell at a greater rate than their “real” work), she has been able to harness a few elements to make it work.

Meredith Host

Meredith Host

            Meredith, quite by mistake, began her business, Folded Pigs, while in graduate school. She wanted to make easy things that would sell at a lower price to make some quick money during a pottery sale, and she utilized self-printed iron decals on secondary restaurant ware to make this happen. Still employing affordable and dependable restaurant ware, Meredith’s decals are now high-resolution images, usually with humorous content relating to zombies eating brains (she was ahead of the curve on the zombie thing) or play on words: “Bone Appétit” to match an image of a pelvis bone. It is digestible work requiring little emotional energy that Meredith is able to “leave at the table” once her working day is over.

            The ease of creating decals in a home office or studio with iron based printer ink has made it simple and straightforward to put an image on a pot. The cost of plain, red iron decals is only as much as the paper it is printed on. They can be fired onto a pot at a low temperature, ensuring that cost for firing won’t be prohibitive. These types of decals are dependable and once the technique of applying the decal is mastered, easy to manipulate and train others how to do as well. Businesses now offer custom colored decals, and the effortlessness of pasting any clearly printed image onto ceramics has changed the aesthetic landscape, for both better and worse.

            Meredith has packaged Folded Pigs as an etsy business. Her work fits the etsy aesthetic and her timing to put her work on that platform was right on the money (around 2006-2007, before it became such a powerhouse). She has also been involved with the DIY/indie craft world. Both operate in the same vein: handmade objects (although this is sometimes not the case) at lower prices (thereby pricing out a lot of other makers and setting the tone for what is an acceptable price for a handmade object. This, in turn, has consequences for everyone but that’s another lecture.) As I just mentioned, Meredith fell into this line of work by accident, but it should be noted that those of us trained in an academic setting could follow her example and produce work specifically for the etsy and DIY crowd. The tight job market and the frustration of being employed away from the studio gives this avenue of working credence and makes having time and support to do one’s “real” work possible.

Careen Stoll is a Portland, OR based potter who makes thrown and wood fired functional ceramics. Recently, in the interests of both branching out and making herself more viable and visible to her ideal customer base, Careen has made an agreement with a Portland area grocery store chain, New Seasons Market, to sell her mugs. New Seasons can best be described as an area grocery store chain that focuses on local, organic produce and meat while still leaving room for conventional produce and dry goods. They are a growing business that caters to a local clientele that places a high value on ecological consciousness and buying as directly from the source as possible.

As an artist actively working within her local economy, Careen utilized her relationship with a young Portland business, Mudshark Studios, which specializes in making molds for individuals and companies. By employing their ability to make several objects in a short amount of time, Careen was able to lower the cost of her mug to meet New Season’s price point. Careen has designed the mugs, which are then slip cast, bisqued, and glaze fired at Mudshark.

Careen Stoll

Careen Stoll

            The political consequences of actions such as these should not be underestimated. The emergence of locally and handcrafted products are signals that a growing segment of the population and businesses are willing to put their money where their mouth is. They espouse the engagement within their local community on multiple economic and social levels and they are willing to pay for it. The participation of a more communal existence and witnessing the affects of supporting a local economy will hopefully change the way that people view big box stores (and all of the resources that they consume), the importance of a handmade object (connecting with the maker and having an object that has a history), and the positive affect that supporting a local economy has as a whole. By compromising on the way her work is produced, Careen is able to use New Seasons Market to illustrate this cause and hopefully introduce a whole new audience to handmade pottery.

            The idea of a neighborhood, or even geographic location, as a definitive element in one’s creative and economic life is not as important as it once was. The Internet is the great flattener; it brings us closer, with greater speed and transparency than ever before. This also means a lot for online business, as we are all aware. There is an opening for a model than can include artists living across the country who want more control in exhibitions, to not have to split 50/50 with a gallery, and who want to have more of a voice in their part of the craft landscape.

            A co-op could offer several branches of involvement in the discussion about functional ceramics. Active members would organize and edit online exhibitions amongst themselves on a regular basis, rotating from member to member without splitting sales 50/50 with a gallery. Small percentages would be taken out to help pay the bills. Exhibitions would change out monthly or bi-monthly with that show’s organizing member managing any sales, and getting help from other members in regards to things such as press releases, outreach on social media, and documentation.

            An offering of criticism as well such things as podcasts and videos of interviews between members and demos of processes could also be included as a way to promote the online exhibitions and keep audience members coming back to see what else is being presented. This is also a way for members to be intellectually engaged within the field, rather than simply showing pots on a website.  

            Another advantage of this version of business is being able to package members in small groups for in-the-round exhibitions in different regions of the country, group demos, and as visiting artists. The co-op could send out proposals to craft centers and universities, and if enough interest was created, could have a “demo tour” around regions of the United States. Live streaming of these events could also be part of this segment, with remote audience members able to log in from the co-op website, watch the demo, and be a part of the discussion.

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            Full disclosure, I am a part of a co-op not unlike the one that I am describing called Objective Clay. Objective Clay was born out of the most recent Utilitarian Clay Symposium at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. The presenters, of which I was one, had a chance to talk about their shared experiences selling and showing work and the idea of banding together to try engaging an audience through online and social media quickly came about. The broad range and high quality of work as well as the intellectual curiosity and rigor of its members gives Objective Clay a strong place to being speaking in its own way about contemporary ceramics.

            Events that are consistently presented in intriguing spaces will catch the eye and bring in an audience. The environment is not just a place where something happens; it is part of the event. As we have seen with Alleghany Meadows’ ArtStream, an attractive mobile gallery that is in a space for a few days, or perhaps a long weekend, can spur the public’s attention and a sense of exclusivity and participation is born.     

            When Alleghany Meadows started the Artstream Nomadic Gallery a decade ago, he helped to add another aspect of business to the mix: engaging the public on a street level. This idea hasn’t really been built upon or spread around that far, despite Meadow’s success and ability to help market ceramics in a novel way.

             Someone could follow Alleghany’s lead and rehab an Artstream trailer. If that same someone wanted to go farther they could purchase a shipping container. It could be repurposed to include walls that would hinge up to act as a ceiling where lighting can be installed and also to designate a perimeter for display. A few years ago Urban Outfitters built their own version of this kind of space and employed it at large music festivals around the country.

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            The unit could be placed on the back of a semi trailer and then moved to its next location. The crate is also its own box, so to speak. Everything can be self-contained and stored securely in transport. With the closeness of major metropolitan areas in the Northeast this type of business could go on tour up and down the Eastern Seaboard, building up word of mouth while also utilizing digital technology to push its brand through apps like Instagram. Unlike the ArtStream, which focuses exclusively on ceramics, this version of outreach could be more inclusive of other craft media to better reflect the scope of what is currently going on in contemporary craft studios. It would also illustrate how different craft objects can work in a space together. This is also a good way to spread the risk a bit. Some work sells well, like jewelry, and helps keep other work, let’s say pottery, in the space by covering the cost.

            This type of operation would obviously need a significant amount of start-up capital and organizational resources behind it. I see this model working for larger concerns or institutions that have the resources to pull it off, like the American Craft Council. An organization working toward building a younger audience would be able to use this kind of outreach and go directly to their public, into places like Brooklyn, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Raleigh, and seek out their potential customers on their own turf.

            I want to return to the beginning of this lecture, the part about how older craft artists who I’ve come into contact with would wax nostalgically about the way that things used to be. Life is mostly showing up and hoping for the best, but an approach as artists engaged in business should be transformed into something more resilient, more involved, more political. But I wonder, in the midst of digital technology and the ability to connect with an audience and with other makers, if we can’t start to organize ourselves for a long-term vision of what we think craft should be. We need to take a lesson from Republicans, who, over the past 30 years, have been able to turn the tide of how politics, lawmaking, and debate are viewed and how citizens decide to vote. While I do not agree with the Republican platform I do admire their commitment to the long view and changing things slowly over a long period of time. There is no reason why we cannot be canny and shrewd in regards to redefining the importance of art and craft for future generations. Most would say that the economy is something that happens to us or at us, depending on where you are in your career and life. We should make the attempt to help swing the odds in our favor as an entity focused on educating the public and supporting artists.

            How do we kindle interest in those unaware in what we do? I would say that we need to create a narrative about our work that fits in the lives of others.

            Other organizations have done this, and are doing this, with great success. The example that I will cite is the growing organic food industry. In regards to functional pots the similarities are close: consumers of organic produce believe in its health benefits, that it tastes better, that it is better for the environment, and that organic food helps to support the local economy.

            Now, take the words “functional pottery” and insert them into this equation and we come up with the same answer: people who buy handmade pots believe in their benefit, that they are better than industrially made pots, that buying from the artist is both better for the environment (just think of the carbon footprint of pots from China) and also helps support the local economy. From 1980 to 2000 organic food sales grew from 78 million to 6 billion dollars. Do we have the chance to help ourselves increase our own profits even a fraction of that amount? Or even a fraction of a fraction?

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            Organic farmers, along with entities like Whole Foods, have done an excellent job selling the story of the food (some call it education, others marketing). How many times have you noticed the little cards by the butcher counter that give a brief description of the family who raised the chicken that you’re taking home for $10/lbs.? Our audience loves to come by our studio sales to get a taste of the “potter lifestyle” and see “where the magic happens.” Social media, deeper social media like YouTube and podcasting, can help to do this work for us. They can help tell the story of what happens in the studio or how the potter got to where they are. Think of it as studio sale outreach. We cannot expect the audience that we want: younger, with an appreciation for what we do and the means to show their appreciation, to come to us the way that they used to.

            Despite the fact that potters have been at the forefront of social practice and the locally sourced/local economy fad for hundreds of years we do not have the marketing teams that Whole Foods can afford. Much like Wal-Mart has done with their encroachment on the term “organic,” we are beginning to lose ground, more ground, with the terms “craft” and “handmade.” Last year, Martha Stewart introduced her American Made Awards, honoring innovative small businesses that “embody” Martha’s creativity. This award also helps Ms. Stewart to shape what people think about when they think of “American made craft.” It’s not something set in stone, but more ambiguous so as to better fit the Stewart Empire’s marketing and accounting structure.

            We are falling behind by not injecting ourselves into the conversation of what quality is. People are willing to pay $300 for a pair of jeans made in Nashville or $3.99 for Washington grown Honeycrisp apples but balk at a $40 mug. We need to tell our stories better, become more savvy with technology, and to stop expecting things to be like they used to be.        

            Using Ayumi, Meredith, Careen, and Alleghany as examples help to illustrate what individuals can do on their own is useful to figure out where to go next and how to build on what we already have. As important as those ways of working individually are, I believe we need to take more accountability as a field for our future. This is business. Education, craft shows, even a single potter depend on the bottom line for their future. Our advantage is what lies behind that bottom line: a love of making and connecting to others through art. There seems to me to be no reason that we can’t use the latter to strengthen the former.

            From my perspective, the craft world is at something of a crossroads. Built and supported by Baby Boomers and now crumbling under its own history, the fine craft market is ready for a change of leadership. There is a younger generation making excellent contemporary work who don’t fit in at the fine craft shows or the DIY ones. They are in the middle, trying multiple ways of getting their work out there, slowly building their own market, but based on the old one. 

            We need to begin to take control for ourselves, keeping in mind, in the words of Garth Clark, that we should not be concerned with opinion, but with achievement.

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Born and raised in Upstate New York, Brian R. Jones attended the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University where he studied ceramics and printmaking. Upon earning his BFA in 2001 he attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a special student. In 2005 he enrolled at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, where he earned his MFA in ceramics. From 2007 to present, Jones has exhibited widely in the United States, established a podcast (the Brian R. Jonescast), and has begun a studio career in Portland, OR.