We Can't Be All Things To All People

One of the unintended consequences of doing street fairs and craft showcases is that you realize how specific your audience is. Thousands of people pour through your booth. Some folks stop, pick up a pot or two, tell you they like your work and then move on, others never make it across the threshold. This can be a bit demoralizing.

We all want to be liked and as an artisan I try to make work that I think most people will find appealing, but what you start to realize is that your work is NOT for most people. It's for a specific audience that appreciates your vision and aesthetic. The more I've realized this, the more I've begun to market my work to that particular audience. Let's face it, I'm not Fiesta Ware or Wedgewood, nor do I want to be. I'm not knocking either company, they make beautiful mass-produced table ware, but I'm not interested in working at that scale.

The pots I make have the artisan's hand in them. My work is about clean, dynamic forms with minimal decoration, they look their best when being used, not sitting on a mantle. Many of my friends and customers will tell me that it's not until they use the piece that they truly begin to understand its beauty. That is as it should be. I believe great pots, not unlike great people find their beauty in purpose.

Pottery is Not a Dirty Word

The other day I was looking at my website and suddenly felt insecure about the title of my business. I thought, Kelly Pottery, damn, maybe it should be Kelly Ceramics, then people would take me more seriously. Then I came back down to earth, (the place all this mud comes from) and meditated on the difference between craft and art, or to put it another way, the difference between artisan and artist.

In the 70's and 80's there seemed to be a shift in the ceramics community, especially in the academic realm where it was no longer enough to be a potter. Students were encouraged to make "art pots". This wasn't all bad. There are some incredible ceramic artists who make pots, many of them my good friends. However, the unintended cost of the creation of the "art potter" was to undermine the credibility of the traditional potter. In a way we betrayed ourselves by falling prey to the constraints of the art world. 

As a ceramic student, I was always asked to explain my work in the context of art history and contemporary aesthetics. I was never asked to place my work in the context of craft history. Being young and a bit malleable (no pun intended), I started making pots that fit into that criteria. They became more abstract, less functional and eventually I just started painting and stopped working in clay all together. I liked painting and had some success with it, however the potter in me was put out to pasture.

My heroes in pottery have always been the Mengei potters, Shoji Hamada, Kawai Kanjirō, Warren MacKenzie, and Leach. As a young potter I didn't understand their common philosophy. Had the ceramics department at my school taught Yanagi's book "The Unknown Craftsman," I might have had a chance of seeing the dignity and humility of being an artisan. It has taken me many years to come back to where I started, with what I hope is a little more wisdom. I'm not an artist, I'm a potter.


"It is my belief that while the high level of culture of any country can be found in its fine arts, it is also vital that we should be able to examine and enjoy the proofs of the culture of the great mass of the people, which we call folk art. The former are made by a few for the few, but the latter, made by the many for many, are a truer test. The quality of the life of the people of that country as a whole can best be judged by the folkcrafts."

The Unknown Craftsman - A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Sōetsu Yanagi, Kodansha International, New York, 1989

The Dark Before Dawn

I rode to work (the day job) early this morning. The sun hadn't come up over the Cascades yet and the streets were empty. The air was warm and the smells of early spring permeated my bike route. I felt gloriously alone in a city set to take off, all those alarm clocks ticking closer to their mark and the people rolling and beginning to wake.

I realized that this is the same feeling I have when I'm working on a new body of work or gearing up for a show or sale. There's a quiet, solitary time before everything springs into motion. I love that period, when it's just me and the work, where all my new ideas are still secrets. It's an intimate relationship we potters have with our work, it even sounds intimate when we talk about shaping a form. We use words like belly, shoulder, foot and lip to describe the curves and anatomy of our pieces.

This morning was one of those rides where I knew I was moving in the right direction. I could feel the sun, even in the darkness.

True Wealth

When setting out to make a living selling pottery the last thing that usually comes to mind is getting wealthy. Let's face it, there's good reason for that. Artisans face huge competition with cheap products made overseas in exploited labor markets. We live in a society that too often values speed and price over quality and integrity. Selling pots can sometimes feel more like selling a socio-economic philosophy.

I dropped my hours a couple weeks ago at my day job. This is unlikely to make me more money, it may not make me more economically stable, however it will make me more free. It will give me more time to dedicate to being in the studio, more time to be the kind of father I want to be and more time to do what I was meant to do, throw pots.

To me, time equals wealth. Someone who possesses his or her own time is a wealthy person. For me that's working in the studio, sitting with my kid having an afternoon snack or going to the coast with my family when the weather is good, not when I can get the time off. There are countless people who have money but don't have wealth. I'll forgo the money for the time.