NCECA 2015, Milwaukee, WI
Panel: “Where Have all the Studio Potters Gone?”
Mark Hewitt: Notes from the Workshop
What do you mean, “Where Have all the Studio Potters Gone?!” They are here, now, making the greatest studio pots in the history of ceramics.
But no art or craft movement lasts forever. Tastes and habits change, and so do economic conditions. Older potters are dying, times are tough, and it’s harder to make a living as a studio potter. Which makes me wonder whether there will always be studio potters? I think there will be, because there will always be people who love pots and are compelled to make them, but there won’t be as many as before, and those of us who love studio pots have a responsibility to ensure that these future potters get the best training possible.
It takes many years to become a potter, and while undergraduate programs at art schools can provide a reasonable basic training, they can often also encumber students with such onerous levels of debt that it becomes even harder for them to develop into potters.
A fledgling collaboration between East Carolina University’s ceramic department and the North Carolina Pottery Center to match students with working potters in Seagrove for summer internships attempts to build a bridge between academia and the marketplace. Such programs may better prepare students for the realities of studio pottery.
Students: be realistic about your financial resources. Do you have access to capital or land? It takes lots of money to start and operate a studio pottery. Total all your likely annual costs, and then divide by the price of a single mug. How many mugs do you have to make per month, per day, per hour, to live your dream. If you don’t like the sound of this, don’t become a studio potter.
If, despite all warnings, you are still utterly compelled to be a potter, and you haven’t done so already, blow up your TV, sell your car, give up your smart phone, don’t get distracted, and live even more frugally, and take on as little debt as possible. Study hard, practice long, and play a patient game. Read! Love the medium in all its aspects. Develop your talents and an unwavering strategy to get where you want to go, not just a strategy to get to the next party.
Go and visit potters whose work you like. If you really want to become a studio potter, offer to cut their wood, mow their lawn, update their mailing lists, babysit their kids, and clean their toilets – for free. Get your foot in the door, work hard, make yourself indispensable, be humble, and get an internship or an apprenticeship. It will cost a lot less than art school, and you’ll learn more.
Unfortunately, very few of the second generation of potters in Britain and the US (who are now in their 60’s and 70’s), take apprentices. However, I think the key to transferring skills to the next generation of studio potters depends on practicing potters taking on an apprentice or two. Teaching is an act of generosity, open yourself up and teach everything you know, from wedging to customer relations.
I’ve had 20 apprentices over the last 20 years. Six are making a living entirely from potting, six are making pots and have an extra income from a second job or from a spouse, six are either in various stages of training, or are pausing to have babies, and two are no longer potting.
It certainly helps if craftspeople have a spouse who is supportive. My wife, Carol, and I are team; she steers, and I pedal really fast.
My most successful apprentices are those who work the hardest, want to succeed the most, and do the best work. If they settle close to me, they tend to do better financially. Some are hard-driving, working-class kids; others are owning-class with esoteric motivations to succeed. The apprentices I enjoy the most are the ones who are the most willing and the most grateful. After all, the more you give, the more you get.
Even with an ideal training, whether it’s through a rigorous art school program, or an apprenticeship, or a combination of the two, it’s still hard to get a pottery built and a business started. Land and materials are expensive, competition is fierce, and the market is shrinking, but the ones who are going to make it won’t give up, and, somehow, they find a way forward.
We need more mainstream advocacy for pottery, to expose our pots to the widest possible audience, and expand our markets. Most craft organizations don’t cultivate the mainstream economy; they’d rather curry favor with the art world. Craft magazines are predominantly self-serving and have a tiny audience, and gallery representation is all very well, but wouldn’t it be nice if “Ghost” was remade, or an epic movie about the slave potter, Dave Drake? How about a sitcom set in a pottery studio? Why are there no potters in People Magazine? An exception, of course, is Grayson Perry. Take note of his example, for talent and intellect, matched with sensationalism, works.
Where you set up a pottery matters too, for places are not created equal; some make life easier for potters than others. You cannot go just anywhere and expect to succeed. Potteries need a nearby “threshold population” big enough to make a craft enterprise viable. Otherwise, you have to travel to sell work, which is costly. Certain places have strong pottery identities created over the years by scores of advocates. So, study your market, understand the cultural and economic terrain of a specific location before moving there; go where there are other potters, where people already like pots, where there is a cultural memory, build on preexisting support structures, build community. Go where there is clay.
And then be brilliant; let you little light shine, absorb new technologies, relentlessly explore all marketing avenues, and make fabulous pots until you drop.
Given our violent, polluted, unsustainable world, the idealistic, counter-cultural, anti-industrial foundation to studio pottery remains attractive. Don’t let go of pragmatic Romanticism, for who wants to live in a world without romance, especially if you can pick it up and drink from it?