Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Tripwires of Success

91. The Tripwires of Success

In Ceramics, as in any other field, no success, no stage of improvement is entirely without its negative aspects. I’ve begun to think of these things as “tripwires.” Not only can you fall flat if you fail to predict them, they act as a perverse signal that you are succeeding, that you have made progress.
For example, instructors and adjunct faculty, as well as teachers in their first year of a college teaching contract, are not asked to serve on any faculty committees. If you find yourself on such a committee (which few consider a reward) you have ‘succeeded.’ You are a college teacher of enough competence and experience to be entrusted with some part of the administrative work of your college or university. Further, your contributions to the committee will be an important part of your application for tenure. Congratulations! You are on the path to further honors and successes (and responsibilities).
In business many of the more obvious tripwires relate to taxes. At first, no one cares whether or not you collect sales taxes. The sale of student pots is much like a yard sale. Later, certain Fairs will demand to see your tax permit or state revenue officers may visit your booth. Again, congratulations. You’ve advanced from the little leagues of student sales to the grown-up world of Art as a business.
Later, you may decide that you need the help of a tax accountant. Congratulations. You wouldn’t need to spend the money on an accountant if you weren’t earning so damn much of it through the sale of your Art. Also, congratulations on getting someone else to do your taxes and on having them do a better job with them than you would have. Financially, you may well be ahead on the deal. Emotionally, you’re bound to be.
Yes, I’m an absurd optimist. But these various expenses and irritations related to success do have value, if only to signal your achievements. Furthermore, the only two ways to avoid these tripwires are to cheat or to fail.
If you wish, we can go over the tripwires of both cheating and failure. But I’d rather not.
They say that, “no good deed ever goes unpunished,” and that may be so. But if five percent (5%) of every triumph is inconvenience then so be it. Focus on the triumph and minimize your moaning about the inconvenience. No one likes a poor winner. Choose instead to take the good with the bad, in good grace, and with the clear vision that you planned for this day and these necessities. It’s the grown-up thing to do, and in saying so, I remind myself of this as much as I remind any of you.

Friday, January 30, 2009


[This essay was one of the three I submitted as a group, Essays on Clay, in 1988 as the written aspect of my Master of Arts Thesis, at the University of Iowa.]96. Failure

As a culture, we don’t spend much time studying failure, or admitting that we ought to. It’s un-American. Traditionally, our nation wins, celebrating victory with lavish glee, and sweeping failures quickly under the rug. We speak to ourselves of “the agony of defeat.” Yet within the vast realm of failure lies all the improvement, innovation, and wonder of our future. We already do those things we have succeeded at. Our future depends upon studying those things we have not yet been able to do, our failures.
Failure has allowed us to define the outer limits of our current abilities and to understand the principles underlying our successes. Scientists depend upon broad samplings dominated by negative results. Statesmen review the failures of history to negotiate political solutions. And artists generate dozens of failures for each successful work of art, scanning each inadequate sketch, or photograph, or pot, for the seeds of future innovations and success.
As an example, a potter might formulate an experimental blue glaze and find, after firing a sample, that the glaze did not turn out blue, but rather, black. In the common view, the potter failed and needs to re-consider hundreds of factors (including the glaze formula, glaze materials, mixing procedure, firing schedule, and glaze application) in order to correct the problem. However, in such a situation, “failure” presents many opportunities. Chief among these opportunities is the ‘black’ glaze itself. The foolish artist might just throw the sample away as being unacceptable as a blue. However, the sample might, indeed, be an excellent black, or the starting point for development of an excellent black.
As an artist, it becomes necessary to see not only what is not there (blue), but what is there (black). This applies to every aspect of art.
This also applies to science, as well as other fields. For instance, the 3M Company produces a handy type of notepaper which sticks to a wide variety of surfaces. Notes need not be held in place by paperweights, clamps, pushpins, or tacks. Rather, an adhesive strip on the back of every sheet of paper holds it in place. The unique feature of this notepaper is the adhesive, which is actually a rather ineffective glue. Just strong enough to hold the notepaper to a vertical surface, its bond is so weak that the notepaper can be easily removed without even leaving any adhesive residue on the surface.
To scientists, trying to develop a stronger adhesive, such a weak result constituted a failure. However, by studying their results, and thinking creatively, they saw a success in that failure. What had failed as a strong, permanent bond, succeeded as a special purpose product, of great convenience, never before available.
Not only can one type of failure become another type of success, failure can also become its own success – the old Chicago Cubs, or the 1988 Baltimore Orioles, for example. (Teams, for whom losing became a trademark, a point of perverse pride to their die-hard fans.) I think we find something inherently relaxing about learning to expect and enjoy failure.
For centuries, Japanese Tea Masters—influenced by the teachings of Zen Buddhism—have admired and cherished pots that traditional Westerners would describe as hideous failures. These pots, tea bowls and jars, are quite often asymmetrical, roughly textured, scorched by the fire, and covered with the most dramatic and irregular of ash glaze deposits. Beyond being merely ‘blemished,’ these pots have been completely altered by the stresses of the fire.
And therein lies their beauty. Each pot is an absolute individual (impossible to duplicate), documenting fully the stubbornness of the clay, the guiding hands of the potter, and the elemental force of the fire. Its imperfections bind it to all the native imperfections of the world around us. Its rugged sturdiness reflects the human spirit.
Inherent to that human spirit is the strength to endure and the courage to take risks. Doctors ‘lose’ patients, lawyers lose cases, machines break down, and so do people, but no one loses more than when they fail to examine their mistakes or to risk making more. Life can not be just ‘win or lose’ but, rather, each of us must, inevitably, fail, and learn, and try again.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Parts of the Job

40. The Parts of the Job

I first thought of this subject while emptying out the clay trap of the upstairs sink at the University of Iowa. Those of you who have never had to do such a chore should count your blessings. Those who have will vividly recall the vile stench that once gave swamps such a bad reputation, before the term “wetlands” rehabilitated their image. The only good part of cleaning out a clay trap is the shower after you’re done.
Anyway, I was kneeling on the concrete, scooping out the muck, thinking about how many aspects of being a potter I enjoy. For instance, some fellow students would complain about mixing up glazes or batches of clay. Or they didn’t like loading kilns or getting wood ready for the wood kiln, or, or, or…. I found it significant that I didn’t really mind any of those chores, chores that many people don’t particularly associate with the profession, potter.
For potters in any kind of tourist situation this narrow public perception of potters can quickly become a problem. The tourists want to see the potter working and that means throwing. Trimming pots and pulling handles might be tolerable as a substitute activity, but anything else, including firing the wood kiln, is generally found to be boring and unimportant. “When is the potter going to start working?”
Every profession has these hidden aspects which may be as much as 95% of the actual time and effort required by the job. Courtroom lawyers, for instance, spend a lot of courthouse time just waiting to be called into court. This may take hours or days, but when the judge is finally ready you had better be ready, too. And of course, the majority of all lawyers work with documents and clients without ever going before a judge in court at all. Police detectives spend a lot of time on the phone, and paramedics spend a lot of time on the inventory and maintenance of their equipment. And so it goes.
This is why internships are so valuable in a person’s education. What did you think the job entailed? How do you feel about all the hidden surprises now that you know what they are?
I was shocked when I first tried to do my federal income taxes as a self-employed sole proprietor. I knew that they would expect to be paid some money, but I did not expect the variety of record-keeping chores I was expected to have been performing all year long. The government had work expectations of me as if I had been a clerk in one of its offices. Vehicle mileage, kiln logs, studio purchases, house and studio square footages, all matter. Pick up a blank “Schedule C” income tax form and study it sometime. The need to supply these numbers are among the new rules for your existence as a “free and independent, self-employed potter.” And that doesn’t even start to cover issues like business cards and bubble wrap.
Until your business is prosperous enough for you to hire others to relieve you of these burdens you will be the one doing them. The time you spend on all the things which do not make pots will act as a drag on your productivity and your emotional well-being. You may well have to take stern measures to protect your access to studio time and your ability to produce inventory.
Of course, you may have never wanted to be a self-employed studio artist, even before my dire warnings. Perhaps teaching is your sole ambition. What do you know about the hidden chores of that profession? If your hope is to teach at the college level, how do you feel about sitting on committees? Attending official ceremonies and public functions? Jumping through the hoops of a tenure process? Listening humanely to the complaints and excuses of your students? Are there no good jobs anywhere?
Perhaps the best that any of us can do is to appreciate fully all the aspects of our jobs that we enjoy and to minimize our exposure and suffering during those parts of the job which we dislike. Everyone, in every job, is doing something similar. And if you can smile while cleaning out a clay trap, ceramics may just be the profession for you.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Colleague Time

65. Colleague Time

There is a condition among new parents, stay-at-home mothers (or fathers), and daycare workers, that we call, “desperate for adult conversation.” This can be particularly severe in the case of a person who has interrupted a career, or who used to be fairly social, before spending every waking hour around small children. It is characterized by a certain breathless, motor-mouth quality of speech, an awkwardness with the vocabulary of adult language, and a thorough recitation of the issues surrounding small children. Bragging about one’s own children is also a very common symptom.
I mention this because something similar happens with potters. Particularly after graduate school, the ceramic artist is very likely to plunge from a world of constant interaction with other artists (fellow students and faculty) to a lonely basement studio interrupted infrequently by conversations with gallery staff or customers at Fairs.
If your spouse is also an artist your loneliness may have some relief, but after a while, you’ll still feel more and more like a freak, working endlessly at something too strange to be of interest to anyone “normal.” You desperately need ‘colleague time.’
Whether this healing interaction occurs at a conference, a workshop, a fellow artist’s house, or at a gallery reception, you need to be among other artists. You’ll want to tell stories of technical difficulties and show opportunities. You’ll want to discuss design ideas and use long words and technical jargon. You’ll want to tell and hear old stories, and laugh, and feel like someone leading an intelligent life.
For the world as a whole, you are a weirdo. All artists are weirdoes, and if you spend enough time alone with your work you will feel pretty isolated in that “weirdness.” It takes the company of other artists to restore your sense of place within a larger, historical, and respectable community.
Being on the receiving end of even nominal professional respect will be more valuable to you than any passing praise from customers or friends. You may never want to leave the party. Unfortunately, you can’t spend all your time chatting up fellow artists and artfully describing past successes and future glories, but there’s strength to be had in these personal contacts and a workaholic’s commitment to the studio should not be allowed to keep you separate from that strength. Get out some.
What we do is weird, and tiring, and occasionally depressing. Take the time you need to gather strength from the fellowship of other artists. The things we do and the issues we face are perfectly normal, wonderful, and sensible, but only in the eyes of fellow artists who share similar burdens. Spend some time with your colleagues, whoever they may be, and give them the opportunity to spend some time with you. They, too, may be ‘desperate for adult conversation,’ just like you.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Your Three Customers

54. Your Three Customers

This idea comes directly from a Seth Cardew workshop in 1991. It's of particular relevance for people making utilitarian pots.
When you're making pots for the general public to use it's relatively easy to get caught up in all sorts of games and gimmicks with the clay, with little or no regard for what, in the long run, makes it a "good" pot. There are three people who will be making the really important evaluation of your pots and none of them is you.
Initially, your pot will be judged by the person buying it. They may pick it up to examine it, fondle it, check its weight and balance, or they may just order it online from your website based solely on a photograph. Whether they're buying it for themselves or as a gift, they're the ones who must be won over by the pot's looks and who must find the price reasonable or appropriate.
Now, depending on how you conduct your sales, this may be the only person you meet or have any contact with. If you're hoping for return business, this is the person who you must please well enough for them to seek you out to buy further items.
The second person in the evaluation process, the second "customer," is the person actually using the item. It might be the buyer, might be the person receiving the gift. They have to like the looks and the feel of the object well enough to use it and to pick it out from other similar pots on the shelf. If it doesn't encourage use, how utilitarian can it be? In your own kitchen, consider the differences between the pots you use and the ones you merely own.
Third, the pot will be evaluated by the person (could still be the same person) who has to clean it. I have a friend who shops for his next mug by putting a fist inside it. If he can't wash it easily, he won't choose to drink out of it, and however good the mug may look, he's buying them to use them.
Now critics may argue with all this and claim that this places too many restrictions on the creativity and originality of the artist. By no means. Every potter is free to make sculpture or art objects with as much goof-ball self-indulgence as they can muster. And if your work is selling and your bills are getting paid, God Bless You. But pots made for use, only truly live when they're being used, and you can't force people to use your pots. Only the pots themselves, by their own virtues, can persuade their owners to use them. As the maker, you are the one who gives your pots the qualities which will attract loyal and satisfied use.
One of my professors, Bunny McBride, studies new kinds of pots by using them himself for a full year before trying to sell any to the public. In that year he serves as all three customers; choosing, using , and washing the piece. In this way he also protects himself from the likelihood of dissatisfied customers should there be some sort of mechanical defect in the pot's initial design. He teaches himself not just how to make the pot, but also how to understand its use.
Being a good potter is not something that happens accidentally. It will help if you can bring some practical kitchen experience to the enterprise. Your customers will sometimes ask, "What do you use this for?" It's part of your job to have put yourself in their shoes and to have the answer ready. It's not enough to know how you made the object, until you also understand how they will use it you're not making truly utilitarian pots.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Wal-Mart Effect

92. The Wal-Mart Effect

I once had a woman at a Fair ask me if the three piece set (plate, bowl, and chalice) marked $45 was, “for four.” It took me a while to understand that she meant four place settings for the $45 price. Twelve pieces. I know that I replied politely, but my face must have revealed my shock and anger, because she scurried away looking hurt.
We are not competing with Wal-Mart. They don’t sell what we make and we don’t make what they sell. But their existence has had an interesting influence on the minds of shoppers. I call it, “the Wal-Mart Effect.” It’s not about price, despite her example. It’s about presentation, and the retail experiences that encourage sales.
Simply put, the more you have to sell the more you will sell. Consumers seem to be comforted by large displays. A large display makes you look more like a professional and less like a hobbyist. Further, high volume implies quality. It’s a faulty logic but it goes, “these must be good, look at how many of them there are.” Car-makers love this sort of thinking.
People are also reassured by the idea that lots of people own these things. They’ll fit in with the crowd because they’ll own one, too, and no one will laugh at them for having wasted their money on something stupid.
I’ve even noticed at the end of a long Fair, when stocks are low, customers’ reluctance to look at displays that seem too sparse. Either it looks too much like a flea market or (like polite people everywhere) they don’t want to take the last one, as if your pots were desserts at a potluck.
The lessons for me have been several. One, have as large a display as possible, without letting the customer access get cramped. People fear bumping your pots and won’t enter a dangerous looking shop. Two, try to have simple, clear-cut prices and signage. Three, even though your individual pieces are one-of-a-kind encourage your customer that you’ve made an awfully lot of those kind of pots. Four, don’t let the shelves look bare. Better to remove excess display capacity than to let yourself look “picked over.” Five, bring lots of stock. Literally, ‘the more the merrier.’ And six, be reassuring. Your customer dreads being thought a fool. Give them every clue that buying your work is a smart thing to do.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Shiny Boots Crowd

87. The Shiny Boots Crowd

Praise can be a difficult subject in our culture. Some people give out very little and others gush out so much it becomes both worthless and irritating. In our daily lives we have to endure unrelenting waves of compliments for this product or that, this person or that. At home, we often forget to give our loved ones specific expressions of our heartfelt appreciation and mistakenly let them think us indifferent to their virtues.
My mother-in-law is a particularly praiseworthy woman. In her seventies now, I actually can’t think of a time in her life when I’d rather have known her. The version I see today really is the best version so far, and that’s saying a lot.
Among her other accomplishments, she was the first woman to earn a graduate degree in Ceramics from Angelo Garzio, at Kansas State University. His background was Old World and chauvinist. She was born and raised in Texas and had too much sand to be ground down or driven off.
She has since retired from ceramics, and I think finds it amusing to have her daughter bring a potter son-in-law into the family. We’ve talked about pots a time or two and I’ve invited her to come to NCECA with me, just for old times’ sake. But she’s not interested. You see, she remembers how it used to be, and long ago got disgusted by the gradual takeover of “the shiny boots crowd.”
The “shiny boots” are the god potters, the super heroic deluxe aren’t-you-just-thrilled-to-be-in-their-presence potters. They may not have started that way and they may not have wanted such attention, but it’s been good for business and prices are up. It’s just not why she got into ceramics, nor what she values at a clay conference.
We’re not in ceramics to have our boots polished or to spend time on our knees polishing our betters’ boots. We’re here to make good pots, great ones, when we’re able. And if we can help each other achieve that goal then it’s been a good year and a good conference. I still hope to get her to come with me sometime, but it’s a thin hope. She’s a marvelously busy woman.
She still enjoys heroic pots, she just has no stomach for ‘heroic’ potters and their adoring fan clubs. I find it hard to blame her. In the meantime, our profession is weaker for her absence.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


51. Wisdom

One of the first things I put up on the walls of my graduate school studio was a piece of paper with the following statement written in black brushwork. “Wisdom lies in knowing what you really want, why, and how much.”
Our culture has only recently begun to examine the many different ways in which a person can be “smart.” Certainly we’ve all known people who seemed to have a lot of facts at their command but didn’t have much in the way of ideas. Or maybe they’ve got plenty of ideas, but all of those ideas have been picked up from other people and relate to irrelevant situations. And it’s almost a cultural cliché that self-made millionaires are not the people who were brilliant in school. They grow up learning that they will have to work hard at something unglamorous, and they do, magnificently.
If we believe only in capitalism as our cultural paradigm then money is how we keep score and wealth is the best indicator of our fitness. “Smart” people prove that they are really intelligent by also becoming wealthy. Either their abilities are worth fabulous salaries to their employers or they make wonderfully clever business investments, or both. It’s the Calvinist model of virtue being rewarded in this life without waiting for the hereafter.
This struck home to me, particularly in the years following graduate school. How smart could I be if I was also poor? In my defense, I was only poor financially. I was married with two great kids, living near friends and family, in a comfortable climate and culture. We were all in good health and eating regularly. Only financially did I feel like a failure, but this is capitalism, and money is how we keep score.
I suppose the situation wouldn’t have been quite so poignant if I hadn’t spent all that money going to college and graduate school. Ideally, I should have used those college degrees to immediately get a teaching job somewhere, anywhere. On the other hand, I’ve done some travelling. And I’ve been to “anywhere.” And I was unwilling to expend the time and money to send applications, slides, and resumes out by the hundreds in the hopes of getting a low paid overworked community college teaching job at a decaying facility in “East Jesus, Wyoming.”
I want to teach (and I have taught) but not at so high a price. I have been happier in the long run for knowing that. I have been “rich” in other ways.
Which brings me back to my quotation on the subject of wisdom. You say you want to study Ceramics? Do you understand why you want this? Sure, your reasons are complicated, but do you want this for direct, pleasurable reasons associated with the ‘here and now’ or for the imagined benefits you foresee in a rosy future? Are you choosing clay to avoid something else? Has someone sold you this idea? Are you hoping to make someone else happy by doing this?
And finally, if you truly want this, how much do you want this? What are you willing to pay? What objects and experiences are you willing to do without? Will your desire give you the strength and stamina to continue into the indefinite and unpredictable future? This could be a foolish thing to do.
Is it smart to be a potter or to want to teach future potters? Yes it is, but only if you can do so with conviction and clarity of vision. You’re going to need some strength of purpose and the path will be neither straight nor smooth. There’s still time for you to have a half-hearted career as a bank loan officer, office clerk, or salesperson if it’s really all the same to you. Perhaps your passions and genius lie elsewhere, at home, for instance, or in a bass boat.
Just take the time to understand yourself and to be smart about what you will need to live a “rich” and valuable life.

“The merit of an action lies in finishing it to the end.”
-- Genghis Khan, to his sons

Friday, January 23, 2009

Why Is This Job Open?

95. Why Is This Job Open?

There are three basic reasons for an academic job being open. First, the department is expanding in some way and no one has ever held the position before. Second, a perfectly acceptable or even much loved faculty member has left. And third, the person who previously held the position was a problem.
One of the awkward unknowns of the job market relates to the job opening itself. The potential employer provides a statement of the qualifications they are seeking. This statement may not be accurate. Sometimes it’s just a wish list, sometimes it’s created hurriedly without the full input of the search committee. And never will it state the qualities they are hoping to avoid.
Unless you ask, no one will volunteer this information and it may well govern the course of your interview.
In the first situation, expansion, the department is either adding a new hand to lighten the known workload for the existing faculty or adding a new area of expertise unfamiliar to the committee. In the first case, they’ll want a cheerful team player willing to adapt to “our department’s approach to the subject.” In the second case, they’ll want a calm masterful person who can start from scratch and has all the answers. As a new person in a new position many members of the committee will be expecting the worst and be somewhat hostile to your specialty. Knowing relatively little about your field, their questions may also be a little “odd” or uninformed. They will hire the person whose answers frighten them the least.
What frightens them? You may never get to know that fully enough.
In the second situation, if they’ve lost a saint, through death, retirement or job shift, they will be looking to replace the saint. They want more of the same successful experience. You may not seem to bear much resemblance to an elderly saint. Ask about that person’s career. Find out what they were like early on. Remind the committee that the saint once looked like you even if you currently don’t much look like the saint.
And lastly, if the school is getting rid of a problem they will not hire anyone who in any way resembles the problem.
I was on a committee to replace a fellow who had been dating a little too clumsily among his students. It was a small town college and single professors didn’t have much access there to a truly appropriate singles scene.
So, one of the candidates brought in to be interviewed pretty much flunked the process in the first fifteen minutes. I felt like telling him, but I didn’t have the heart. He was a single guy, with a rakehell moustache and an eye for the women walking by. He was the same as the guy the department had just, painfully, gotten rid of. He had no chance. Further, we knew he had an East Coast degree. That, in itself, was fine. However, he made it clear that he was also of an East Coast psychology and would be viewing life in central Iowa as a novelty or an exile and nothing more than a stepping stone to something better. Some positions are set up to be that way, this one was not.
For any of these situations, you may not know the facts until you are dangerously close to the interview. If someone meets you at the airport, interview them on the drive to the school. Give yourself your best chance at fitting in with the people who you wish to become your colleagues for years to come.
They know that choosing badly will be awkward and painful for the school, the department, the students and the faculty. They want to like you, or you wouldn’t have been invited to interview. Learn what you can of their fears and try not to resemble what they dread.
As a final depressing note, you have no way of fully understanding the diverse elements of the search committee. It is quite possible for it to be so poorly organized and so poorly behaved that they couldn’t agree on the color of an orange. Not being hired by such a group at such an institution might well be a blessing. Enjoy your interview trip as much as you can, smile a lot, think of it as practice for future interviews at better institutions, and be happy for your freedom. Some jobs are punishments. As with everything else, it’s up to you to protect yourself.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Student and Scholar

89. Student and Scholar

In his 1959 novel, “Dorsai!” the author Gordon R. Dickson makes an important distinction between students and scholars. To paraphrase, ‘a student has read some of what has been written on a particular subject, a scholar has read all of what has been written on a particular subject.’ English colleges still refer to a student’s course of study as the subject the student is reading. Authority within an intellectual community derives in part from scholarship, this professional certainty that a fellow professor’s knowledge of a subject is unsurpassed in depth and breadth.
In Ceramics, or any other studio art, we don’t really put much emphasis on reading. In the limited time available to us in graduate school we’ve got a lot of physical skills and practical experiences to go through. Furthermore, in spite of the burgeoning number of books and articles available on the subject of ceramic art only a fraction of what is written will be immediately relevant to this artist’s teapots or that artist’s sculptures. Only a supremely well-read professor would be able to direct a student’s reading time for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. It’s also a common understanding in the studio arts that excessive intellectualizing is suspect, and likely to ruin the physical creativity of any artist. The student who reads things other than picture captions may well be ridiculed or teased for doing so. The student who spends too much time reading will simply be urged to ‘spend more time on your pots.’ So, true scholarship is not likely to occur in graduate school.
No, scholarship is only possible after decades of conscientious independent work and only a very few individuals will ever achieve it. I admit I’m hard pressed to think of a dozen luminaries of our profession who might even be thought to be on that path.
It’s one of the weak points of our current university-based system. Our “terminally educated” professors have too often terminated their own educations and when toe-to-toe with the professors from more rigorously demanding fields fall short on educational authority. It’s a fight we can almost never win and the other departments know it, because it’s a fight our interests and expectations don’t prepare us for. They have brilliance and scholarship, we have creativity, artistry, and pragmatism. Administrative respect for those things comes slowly, if at all, and as a result studio art faculty often find themselves in a second rate role, dismissed as being less worthy than instructors in other disciplines.
The best tactic that I can suggest for minimizing this problem is to steadfastly resist complacency. Be active in your profession. Read, yes, but also travel. Spend time with distant colleagues. Push your own work in directions that demand research and adaptation. Solve technical problems. Read as much as you have time for, and even if you’ll never be a true scholar, refuse to ever stop being an active student.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Plus One Additional Thing

19. “…Plus One Additional Thing.”

One of the constant challenges in a shared studio space is cleanliness. Particularly in a ceramics facility where things may seem a little dirty from the first moment a student sees it, cleaning up may be pretty casual. By the end of the semester, the place is a pit and no one is making much of an effort to resist the trend. It’s unhealthy. It’s depressing. It interferes with doing good work.
I’ve tried several approaches as a teacher to get the students to clean up properly. Most failed. I finally hit upon a two-part system that seems to work pretty well. It goes like this:
“First, each student is expected to clean up every bit of mess they made, plus one additional thing. That may seem unfair, but doing a little more each time is the only way this place will ever improve. Also, each of you will inevitably overlook some bit of mess you’ve made, sometime. The ‘additional thing’ requirement allows each of you to help cover for those very understandable mistakes.
“Second, class is not over until the clean up is over. No one is permitted to leave early without the teacher’s permission. You’re all in this together. When the room is clean then class will be dismissed.”
Of course in a room where more than one class meets or where more than one teacher sets the standard students will quickly complain about the messiness of the room at the start of class. As a teacher, you can speak to the other teachers but you may have no influence over them. All you have is your influence over your own students. To them you can say, “It’s a cruel world and we can’t control the weather either. Maybe, over the course of the semester those other students will notice how nice we’ve been leaving the studio and shift to our example. In the meantime, this is about the studio conditions we are prepared to work under and what we’re going to do to create those conditions. Let’s not waste time talking about it, we’ve got pots to make.”
Perhaps this serves as a metaphor for our culture at large. When we claim to be virtuously cleaning up our own messes we are invariably wrong. Always, there is something we have missed and the world is that much the worse for our having been here. Only by correcting more than our ‘fair share’ can we really have any hope of improving things.
Once you’ve set the standard you’ll be amazed by the results. And the standard you set for beginning students will be the standard they keep for life, measuring all future studios by it.
Whether cleanliness has anything to do with godliness or not, it has everything to do with productivity, morale, and professional longevity. I hope that using this system will help you to improve yours.

“Leave it better than you found it.” -- Boy Scout proverb

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Right to Complain

21. The Right to Complain

Everyone has the right to complain. It’s fundamental. For some people complaining is how they make the air move in and out of their lungs. In our culture even rich, beautiful, healthy people complain. It’s almost inhuman to never complain, and yet … in general, we’re not very good at it.
Ideally, a complaint would act to point out a problem or deficiency in such a way as to help correct or improve the situation. For this to happen the complaint would need to: 1) understand the scope and cause of the problem, 2) direct this information towards a person or institution capable of changing the conditions creating the problem, and, 3) offer practical suggestions for implementing such changes. Very few people complain with anything like this level of thoughtfulness. As I said, many just complain because it feels good to complain. It may even be emotionally liberating because it relieves the complainer of any responsibility for inadequate results and makes them seem more praiseworthy for persevering under adverse conditions.
I’ve even known people who complained so much about their jobs that eventually it became clear that one of the fringe benefits of that job was that it gave them so much to complain about. They would actually have been less happy in a ‘better’ job. They needed to earn their money by suffering for it.
Not my psychology, I can tell you, but those people are out there and listening to them moan and groan can be quite a pain. But I’m not complaining.
In the fall of 1999, I taught a Ceramics I class that met at 7:45 a.m., Tuesday through Friday. I didn’t set the schedule, I just followed it. Now, at the time, I was also working full time at a scholarly press from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., Monday through Thursday. So, very early in the semester I made the following speech to my students.
“This class starts at a quarter to eight in the morning and as the semester wears on some of you are going to want to complain about how difficult it is to get up that early or to be to class on time. Fine, you’re entitled to complain. I just want you to know that just about any time you see me for the rest of the semester I will have been awake (and working twelve hours at another job) since four-thirty the previous afternoon. So, feel free to complain. Just don’t complain to me.”
I suppose that that’s my philosophy about most complaining. If there’s a situation I can help to correct, by all means, tell me. Between us we can find and implement some sort of correction. Otherwise, tell your troubles to someone else. Either I don’t want to be weirded out by the perverse difficulties of your life or mine are worse and you’re just being annoying.
I don’t think less of you for complaining or wanting to complain. I just don’t see much entertainment value in it for me.
Now, some complaints involve very real and pernicious dangers. Issues of physical safety or sexual harassment can be made more difficult when the cause of the problem is a teacher or an employer with power over your life. Most institutions have complaint procedures in place to protect you from retaliation but going through the process can be its own form of punishment. You must still protect yourself somehow. Complain to the offender if you can. Otherwise, tell the most powerful person you can trust, even if it’s an administrator from a different department. And prepare yourself to leave should that prove necessary. Sometimes distance is your best protection.
At this level, remember, you are not just complaining to protect yourself but to protect subsequent people like you. Do not perpetuate the problem through your silence. Assert your right to complain and thus to help solve the problem.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Million Dollar Employee

71. The Million Dollar Employee

Several years ago, when the salaries of professional athletes and movie stars first started to escalate dramatically, I was taken by the unspoken truths of these high stakes negotiations.
First, salary is not based on either need or effort (or often, results). Rather, salary is a business decision (made with or without emotion) centered on all-around value to the business. For instance, when Elizabeth Taylor joked that she would be willing to play Cleopatra “for a million dollars,” the producers thought it over, agreed, and picked up well over a million dollars in “free” publicity from a stunned and excited press corps. She in no way lifted 100 times more bricks than a $10,000/year hod carrier, or spoke ten times as many lines as a $100,000 actress, but in terms of the business of making the movie, she earned the million dollars. First insight: salary relates not to work done, but to overall value to the enterprise.
Second, salary can be very psychological. Would she have refused to perform the role for $990,000? What is it about that missing $10,000 that is so powerful that it could have wrecked the deal? As much as we hear about an athlete’s value “on the open market,” this sort of thing is never as obvious and direct as an auction. If he thinks he’s being well-paid, he is. But some rookie gets a better deal somewhere else, and instantly his salary is somehow insulting. Often people’s salaries are only dissatisfying in comparison with someone else’s. Particularly harsh when they obviously don’t do as much work as you do (see above). Second insight: you’re only rich until you meet someone richer.
And finally, the stakes vary. We are really very simple creatures and we don’t like complicated numbers. Can you imagine offering Michael Jordan $35,895,485/year to play basketball? As if an extra hundred dollars would be too much, or thirty-five less would be too little. We like round numbers, but the poker chips vary in value. For Michael, the chips are a million dollars each, and let’s not insult him (see above) by thinking otherwise. For a lot of lesser athletes the chips seem to be one hundred thousand dollars each, but they still get a double handful every year. And so on, down the business ladder, past ten thousand dollar chips, past thousand dollar chips, past dollar an hour chips, all the way to the nickels and the dimes. (Yes, I think we can agree, if your pay raise involves pennies, you are being insulted.) It’s down here that the economy is truly demonstrating its federally proclaimed ‘low inflation.’ For the team owners, the movie-makers, and the pharmaceutical companies, the stakes are always escalating. Still, any expense which returns a profit is a justifiable expense.
Of course, people make mistakes. The eight figure salary to the superstar whose movie flops, the two million dollar advance to the author whose memoirs fail to sell, the two hundred thousand to the research scientist whose results prove insignificant, or the eight dollars an hour to the janitor who fails to keep the place clean are all deals that might have been brilliant but turned out to be bad business. The stakes vary, but the principles do not.
When we agree to be someone else’s employee each of us agrees to work for a known amount of money, insulting or not. The trick, it seems to me, is twofold. First, to live within those means in a way that keeps us relatively cheerful about both today and tomorrow. And second, to be valuable. To work in a way that makes your presence essential and your salary a bargain. To make it profitable for your employer to pay you more in the future.
For state employees, or employees working under collective bargaining agreements, pay raises can often seem arbitrary, inadequate, and unrelated to actual service provided. Merit raises in certain situations may act to reward those who have been most effective in their jobs, but there are no guarantees. The fact remains that for each employee, in every occupation, the money (and the raise) is either enough or not. You are free to seek employment elsewhere, or to become self-employed and take your income (insulting or not) directly from your customers. A raise is designed to encourage you to stay, because having you stay is a convenience to your employer. It also conveys respect. And if it weren’t for practicalities like food and shelter, the only thing wages really do is convey respect. Be careful not to demand more respect than your efforts are actually worth.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Shop Books and Journals

[As I have mentioned below, the bulk of my posts are from a collection written five years ago. Today, my kiln log sits at 986 firings. I'll probably send the kiln company a photo of the results from the one thousandth firing.]

23. Shop Books and Journals

Many beginning art classes urge or require students to keep journals. It can be a confusing assignment for students who have no experience with this sort of thing and honestly don’t know what sorts of things to put into a journal. Others, out of laziness as much as anything else, ignore the journal assignment until the end of the semester when they are forced to laboriously forge months’ worth of insights and observations in a gesture of creative desperation.
I can’t say that I ever was much of a student diarist. I mean really, so you saw some flowers today. Big deal. And yet since that time, over the years, I’ve managed to fill almost a dozen such shop books and journals. I’ve become addicted to them. I call them, “my brain on paper.”
Early on, I filled my journals with sketches of pots, glaze recipes, and the specific glaze histories of individual pots. Later, in graduate school, quotations, sketches of pots that might-have-been, brilliant tidbits from visiting artists, a system of science fiction calligraphy, and a smaller, quicker substitute for Chess.
After graduation, the journals evolved into shop books with sales figures, commission details, customers’ addresses and phone numbers, as well as brief chronicles of specific Fairs, journeys, and birthdays. Increasingly, sales totals, types of pots sold, and commission details began to dominate the record-keeping. With time, I started keeping a second, separate book for commissions, and a third just for the names and dates of people for whom I’ve made birthday bowls.
At the kiln I keep the latest in a series of kiln logs, documenting over six hundred and eighty (680) firings for this kiln alone. In the van, the mileage and expense log resides permanently.
All these books preserve numbers and ideas that I have found useful, even essential, months or years later. Memory alone can not meet this need. Further, I’ve even come across a time or two when I really wished I had a few sketches of flowers to refer to, just to get through a particular decorative crisis. You just never know what you’ll be needing further down the road.
Publishers have produced a wide variety of books to educate and improve ceramic artists. The journals you create through the years are the definitive textbooks on your own evolution and development as an artist. In times of doubt, re-read them carefully and you can not help but rediscover just who you are and what your art is really about.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


25. Siege

This is for those students who expect to have some trouble moving smoothly from an undergraduate degree into a graduate degree program. It’s how I got into graduate school and I’m not necessarily proud of it, it’s just what proved necessary.
To get into a graduate school program you must have an undergraduate degree, twenty slides of your work, and three letters of recommendation. Without belaboring the details, you’ve picked a school and either didn’t get admitted or know you won’t so haven’t applied. You need either better letters of recommendation or better work. (If you haven’t completed an undergraduate degree, you’ll need to get to that first.)
For myself, I had a degree from a good liberal arts college (Grinnell College, in Iowa) but I had been a sculptor, had been limited to 42 credits in the Art Department, and got into ceramics late. Further, my letters of recommendation were from good teachers who were not very public and not personally known to the teachers at the graduate school. But really, I needed more skills and better work.
Many universities will admit part time ‘non-degree seeking’ students on a low priority basis. I returned home from college to live cheaply with my parents and enrolled at the local university in one ceramics course per semester, including the summer sessions. I got better and learned many of the lessons reflected in my other essays. I also learned that the program I wanted to get into was at the University of Iowa. So I moved to Iowa City and enrolled in one ceramics course, again as a ‘non-degree seeking’ student.
Because I was only taking one course I was establishing in-state residency which would lower my tuition burden when I later enrolled full time. Further, I could be employed (however inadequately) and still get a lot of work done at school. This latter is particularly important because not only are you learning about the department, they are learning about you. Whatever your skill level, you must be seen to be cheerful, tidy, and energetic.
I moved in January and applied for graduate admission for the next Fall, not expecting to get in. For one thing, the graduate studios were over full and the professors did not want to add anyone to the press. Nonetheless, I had declared my intentions.
The following Fall I was also turned down. The limitations placed upon me by marriage, parenthood, and poverty (ineligible for financial aid), as well as the low priority of my non-degree seeking status made it difficult to create impressive enough work. And so I persevered. I also told my professors I would be applying again for the next Fall.
That Fall, with letters of recommendation from University of Iowa faculty and over two years of non-degree seeking “audition” work at Iowa, I was admitted “conditionally.” If I didn’t look the part after one semester, my admission would be revoked.
I blossomed. Having my own studio space made a huge difference and I was ready to do well. I manhandled a motorized Randall kickwheel upstairs by myself because I was unwilling to wait a day for help. I quickly made a two part sculptural piece eight feet tall and shiny black. By November, my conditional status had been lifted. My overall GPA improved every semester and I earned the MFA in the normal three years expected by the program without any further difficulties.
Yes, it would have been much easier to have earned a 72 hour BFA from a prestigious Art school and eased straight into graduate school to the sound of angels singing, but that was not my life. My first studio art class was as a college sophomore and my mentor was a stone-carver. The things I had to learn and the transitions I had to make took time and that is what siege is all about. Siege worked for me because I knew quite clearly why I wanted an MFA and how much I wanted an MFA.
It’s not the same as just wanting to make pots or wanting to earn a living making pots. If those are your goals there are simpler, less time-consuming, and less expensive ways of achieving them. You must understand your goals and expectations. It’s difficult to know when the virtue of tenacity has become the vice of stubbornness, when pride has become arrogance. If you try to use siege to get into graduate school perhaps it’s best if you think of it as, “the long audition.” Good luck getting the part.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Roderick Effect

82. The Roderick Effect

Among the variety of studio spaces I’ve used since getting out of graduate school, I spent a year working out of a friend’s two car garage. Not ideal, certainly, but it was the best I could do at the time. Now this garage, where I also had my electric kiln, was ten or twelve miles from my house. Not a horrible commute, but a bit far to go just to switch an electric kiln from medium to high. So I would phone my friend and he would walk out to the garage and turn up the kiln. Most of the time.
Some mornings I would show up at the studio and the kiln would be as I had left it (on medium), switched off by the timer. The problem was my friend, “Roderick”. Whenever I called to ask him to turn up a kiln, I was interrupting a rich and complex life I could not know much about. At the moment the phone clicked back into its cradle something clicked in his mind, too. That click said, “Where was I?” And he would resume his life.
It would be convenient (and malicious) to blame this natural self-centered ditziness on Roderick, but later, similar situations with my wife showed the problem to be more universal. The phone would go “click” and she would return to her previous activities. I would eventually return to the studio and the kiln would be as I had left it...on medium.
The fact of the matter is that whatever their good intentions, people focus on their own problems and can be easily distracted from their stated willingness to help you with yours. [We think the “click” of the phone may also be a factor.]
So, now I ask, “can you turn up the kiln, please? I’ll wait on the line and you can tell me how it was.” We both smile, think fondly of Roderick, and the kiln gets turned up. Because the phone call is not over, the task is not over. End of task, then end of phone call.
This is not something to get angry about or to let spoil friendships (or marriages). This is just modern minds at work and the best we can do, either asking the favor or delivering it, is to adapt politely.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Culture Vulture

37. Culture Vulture

I first encountered this phrase “Culture Vulture” in a conversation with Duane Slick, a Native American artist from New Mexico who uses a lot of text in his work. We were talking about Tony Hillerman and the success he’s had writing novels about Navajo policemen. It brought up questions about cultural rights and creative profit. When, indeed, are we as artists (of any race) being parasites and when are we being enslaved or coerced by the marketplace?
The American Southwest has such a powerful culture, blended of Native American, Latino and “Wild West” elements that it saturates its local markets. For potters, the Carolinas have a similar cultural dominance with Jugtown and “old-timey” themes dominating. I first encountered this phenomenon at a private, special interest Fair near Phoenix. The group studies medieval European culture and I happen to make pots strongly influenced by English, German and Italian pottery. “White boy” pots, if you will.
The people walking past my booth were confused by my pots. Almost literally a “what is it?” attitude prevailed among these people who, though actively studying the Middle Ages did not recognize the pottery forms of that period and were confused by their dissimilarity to local (Southwestern) pottery.
My question to myself was, “could I sell non-Southwestern pots to Southwesterners?” On a crude level this is a matter of selling “white” pots to “white” people who don’t even know that there is a “white” cultural history in ceramics. Dominated by cultural influences from the Orient and Native America, many students of ceramics suffer from the same problem. When Japanese wood-fire is the height of “cool” how uncool is 16th century German saltware?
Does globalization entitle us to an equal share in all cultures and an equal market in all venues? Rarely are we learning our profession from our parents and rarely are our cultural horizons limited to our regional tastes, but regional stereotypes and ethnic chauvinisms still apply. And so, what is the solution? How do we learn from culture without being seen as stealing from it? And how do we balance a cold-eyed realism about what will sell with our idealism about the objects we should be making?
Initially, it’s important to understand our own ignorance and its dangers. I used to decorate some pieces with fanciful Japanese calligraphy. People would ask what the characters meant. I would answer, “Oh nothing, I was just having fun with the brush.” Until it occurred to me that the characters might actually have meanings and those meanings might be rude or inappropriate. I stopped, except for a little stamp with the carefully researched Kanji for dragon.
Then too, if you think of yourself as a citizen of the world, entitled to all the benefits of globalization, live that way. Truly blend your diverse influences until you have created a new whole particularly reflective of you. Choose your sales venues to match this, as well. And finally, consider the inadequacies of our individual cultures. Few of us live in monolithic local cultures capable of supporting us emotionally and financially. All our cultures “leak” to some extent, letting bits of the outside world in and influencing that outside world subtly. Anyone who focuses exclusively and narrowly on a single cultural aesthetic, whether that of their youth or some distant social group, may simply be answering their own calling, however mad it may seem to outsiders. It is not for us to either condemn or praise such a narrow effort. Perhaps it is enough just to admire good pots without a fetishistic focus on the circumstances surrounding their creation. It may well be more important to understand the many ways in which our own choices are being influenced by outside forces we consider too lightly.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fear of Success

5. Fear of Success

Many ceramics students, particularly older ones, have what we refer to as “adult syndrome.” This is a general unease with anything they’re not naturally and immediately good at. It’s based on the misconception that while children are expected to be learning and to have a lot to learn, adults are “adult” in part because they’re done learning and already know everything they need to know. Being a student requires humility and the courage to be seen failing. Being a child is exhausting and scary and a lot of adults would just as soon not re-live any of those feelings.
I must admit that I’ve had a few outbreaks of adult syndrome myself, but at least I can recognize it for what it is and resist its inherent cowardice. What’s harder for me, and perhaps others, is my fear of success. This stems largely from the various experiences with success we all have as children. If you grow up shy, being thrown into the limelight for any success, however briefly, may feel more like a punishment than a reward. And if you are at all lazy, the added responsibilities that come with success are also a punishment. Every task you succeed at seems to lead inexorably to further, more difficult tasks you may yet fail at. Failure becomes the inevitable consequence of any series of successes. Spectacular success can only be followed by spectacular failure.
I wonder about these things when I consider my own life and career and those of my students. How do we adapt our thinking to allow us to endure both the risks of failure and the undesirable consequences of success? Can success be dissected to reveal its benefits and defects?
In general, I cope by redefining success at each progressive stage. For instance, earning my bachelor’s degree was a big deal for me, particularly doing it in the normal four years and with a double major. But even while I was celebrating and being congratulated I knew that fellow graduates had already been accepted into graduate schools and law schools. Graduation may have been a success, but that success did nothing to obscure the existence of greater successes elsewhere.
Having the essay, “Service,” published in Ceramics Monthly was a thrill and the sort of success that is completely optional, completely independent of other people’s desires or expectations. But I certainly understood that other writers had accomplished a great deal more, and that I might, too.
In some ways, the trick is to be able to look past your current challenge to the one beyond it and to see your immediate successes (or setbacks) as simply a stairstep on a greater journey. It takes a degree of self-awareness and calculation to know just how high each step is and how long our legs are, too. And when one path fades away or ends in a stone wall, it will require a certain amount of spirit to shift one’s focus, to explore to the right and to the left, and to try new approaches, no matter how much they make you feel like a child again.
Success does have its negative aspects, but with practice I think one can learn to predict and manage them. Remain calm. Refuse to quit, or to sabotage your own efforts. And try not to let other people define success for you. For them, it’s only talk and opinion, air moving past their lips. For you, it is your life, your sun in the morning and your moon at night, your face in the mirror, your unspoken regrets, your personal sense of authority.
This is life. Individual results will vary. Try to live courageously.

“Failure can be managed, but success can be a most difficult thing to control.” -- Robert L. Fish

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Big Ones Sell the Little Ones

64. The Big Ones Sell the Little Ones

One winter I happened to go to the annual Christmas sale held at the studio of Professor Bunny McBride. Among other things, I spotted several very large platters, each priced at four or five hundred dollars. I asked, innocently enough, “Do you sell many of those?”
He admitted that he did not but asserted that their presence increased the sales of smaller items. He explained. Customers can’t help but notice and admire the big platters. Many of them fantasize a bit about displaying something like that on the wall of a kitchen or dining room. They are drawn to its complex beauty and getting closer and closer eventually read the price tag. “Oh.” It’s not that the price is too high. No, the price seems right. It’s just that the price is too high for them. So they look around and buy something smaller, cheaper, that reminds them of the big wonderful platter. And who knows, perhaps in the months and years to come, when they look at the smaller piece they bought they may just be seeing the larger piece they admired so much.
Over the years, in my own studio, I’ve discovered an additional benefit to the big pieces which hardly ever sell. Large pieces, when well done, can serve as a proof of your mastery. Big pots are just impressive. If most of the pots in your sales inventory are fairly small, say coffee mugs, pitchers, and kitchen bowls, it may be increasingly difficult to feel impressed by your own work or to impress your potential customers. You may begin to feel like just an average sort of potter who only makes “safe”, unchallenging pots. Even if you never have the kiln space or customer base to make your living selling really large pots, it’s psychologically good for you to know that you have the skills to make them when you choose to.
For your own self-esteem, as well as the esteem of the general public, display a few large (high priced) and terrific pots among your regular inventory. Show off a bit. Notice those among your fellow artists who have already learned this truth. Give the public (and yourself) extra reasons to find something ‘awesome’ in your work. And who knows, someday one of your small pot owners may return to you with the money for a big piece you never really expected to sell when you made it. It can’t happen until you make the pot and offer it for sale. Good luck.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Watching Workshops

[Thank you to the people who attended my demo workshop at Brackers Good Earth Clays last Saturday. The day went by very quickly and that's usually a very good sign.]

49. Watching Workshops

In graduate school, in particular, I noticed a tendency for my fellow graduate students to get pretty complacent about actually watching visiting artists at work. Sometimes the visitor was boring, or they were doing something we’d seen countless times before, or their work just didn’t seem to bear much significance for our own work. I sometimes felt quite badly for the presenter, but what can you do?
For myself, I long ago came up with a “two pearl” standard. I try to always have a notebook handy, to make sketches or jot down quotations, and I watch. I watch with the patience of a hunter waiting to spear a seal through a blow hole. And usually my patience and attentiveness are rewarded. The artist will say or do something, something original, or significant, or inspired, and like a precious pearl falling out of their mouth it will fall to the floor. Sometimes it will remain there awhile so that the self-absorbed types chatting by the donuts have time to wander over and notice it. But just as often the pearl just keeps on rolling until it slips under a table or chair, out of sight, gone except for the trail it left in my notebook.
If I get two such pearls per workshop I count myself even. All the waiting has been paid for. Less than two is a problem, but every now and again I’ll get page after page of fabulous treasures. Seth Cardew gave a workshop in 1991 that had me filling pages in the notebook and writing other things down for days afterward.
It’s important to write them all down. Certainly some moments will just stick in your mind forever, such as when Don Reitz (then in his late sixties) showed us the design he was creating on a fifty pound platter by tipping up the entire wheel onto one leg! But reading back through those old journals I find many things that might otherwise have been lost. I also find the sources for things that I have lived by for years. It can be a fun read.
It’s not easy for either the impatient or the self-centered, but watching workshops can be a marvelous treasure hunt. Learn to enjoy both the suspense and the discovery.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Artists' Statement

60. Artists’ Statements

As one might expect I have a generally liberal arts approach to ceramics and the teaching of ceramics. Too much of what a potter does they do alone for them to have serious gaps in their abilities. The need to create an artist’s statement is a notable part of this and students should have to practice producing them.
Have you read many artists’ statements? Even the ones which have been fussed over for weeks and carefully proofread are often smarmy, meaningless jumbles of cliches. I’ve actually told my students that they simply could not use the words “nature” and “dynamic” in writing theirs. I probably should have excluded “synergy” and “spirituality,” too, but since they were new to the discipline that didn’t prove necessary.
I also varied the artist’s statement assignments as to length, voice (1st person ‘I’ or 3rd person ‘he/she’), and spontaneity. The first day of class the assignment was, “3rd person, less than fifty words, you have ten minutes, please write legibly.” Cruel, you say? This was also an unexpected moment of stress from my own life, and before a far more critical audience.
I was dropping off a piece for a charity auction and was asked, “Did you bring an artist’s statement we can display next to the piece?” A reasonable enough question, but I hadn’t planned for it. “No, but if you can get me a pencil and paper I can come up with something now,” I replied like it was no trouble at all.
Some people argue that the work should explain itself, that words should not be necessary and are too often used to justify or defend weak objects. I might well have refused to provide a statement, trusting to the eloquence of the object itself. But this was an auction whose participants didn’t know me or my name and were unlikely to gather the relevant information about me other potters would find evident in my pot.
Further, in the great contest (or series of contests) that is life, here was a large gathering of fellow artists, each with their own statements carefully crafted and open for comparison. How could I miss such an opportunity to compete, knowing as I did how mediocre the majority of the other statements were likely to be. For the poor staff who had the task of transcribing all those statements onto display cards the task must have been especially painful.
Mine I did as a personal ad, since I was explaining myself, not the pot, nor my relationship to the charity. “DWM, 37, father of two, seeks financially-empowered action-oriented patron for mutually beneficial exchange of assets. Overly serious inquiries should lighten up.” Or something to that effect. The staff praised it as one of their favorites. They certainly needed a break from all that “nature, spirituality, and consciousness.”
If you are afraid of words, or have been punished for the sentiments you have expressed in the past, you may need to make a special effort in this area now. Other people will inevitably wish to know things about you and the conditions of your work. Even if you respond with just a bare fact sheet some response will be necessary. And, after all, you are the world-wide expert on the subject of “you.” Think about the degree of privacy that you require and the level of curiosity appropriate for each audience. The statement you include for a job application or a NEA fellowship proposal is not the same as an off-the-cuff bit of humor intended to ease the mood at a local auction. Proofread carefully and seek outside opinions if you have the time.
And, please, when you read the statements of other artists do not consider them all to be role models. Everywhere we go there are people teaching us what not to do by their own flawed examples. Always seek to do better.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Maintenance Cycle

11. The Maintenance Cycle

Every ceramics program I’ve ever observed, every pottery for that matter, suffers from a maintenance cycle. This is the roller coaster up and down related to the physical state of the building, kilns, and equipment used to make pots. As a student, this cycle can make or break you.
Every school wants to be able to brag about the fine facilities available to its students. They will cheerfully tell you about square feet, numbers and types of wheels, slab rollers, extruders, and kilns. But they don’t tell you what condition those things are in. Kilns, for instance, have useful life spans and a kiln that is either too new or too old won’t get your work fired.
Ideally, the physical well-being of a ceramics department (or that of any other art department) wouldn’t fluctuate much. Some things wear out. But if they are replaced promptly the strain on students and faculty can be kept to a minimum. Unfortunately, that is rarely how it works, particularly at public universities.
I remember one such university program which had just installed a row of new motorized kick wheels and a ten thousand dollar gas car kiln. Sadly, the initial firing showed that the new kiln overwhelmed the existing exhaust system. It sat unused for years until the state legislature approved the funding for a new twenty-five thousand dollar ventilation system.
The scenario had been a typical one. After years of gradual decay, with the teacher and students laboriously struggling to keep things working, the talented teacher left. The departmental administration was forced by his departure to face the issue of their now vacant and clearly embarrassing ceramics area. They dutifully searched for a new instructor and sweetened their hiring offer with the funds for new equipment. Thus, aside from the ventilation system delay, the ceramics area had been restored. Administrative attention (and finance) could then shift to other departments and other embarrassments. As long as, “Ceramics is still doing okay,” the school can save money by ignoring or under-funding its ongoing needs. At some point, perhaps when the next search committee meets to hire a new ceramics professor, the area will be seen to have (once again) become an embarrassment and funds will be mobilized to combat the decay.
This is one of the most important reasons for visiting a prospective graduate program. Don’t just count the equipment, study it. Ask a lot of questions about the local administrative conditions and timing. How old is the building and are there any plans to replace or renovate it? What was the most recent major equipment purchase and how difficult was it to arrange? How often do new things get bought? Which kilns fire perfectly, which need a lot of fussing, and which don’t fire at all? What sabbaticals are scheduled during the period you hope to be in school? Are repairs done by the students and faculty, or only by university maintenance workers?
This maintenance issue cuts two ways. On the one hand, you’re in the program to make pots. Anything that eats up your time, or worse, ruins those pots is a problem. On the other hand, because every pottery situation runs into these sorts of problems going to a perfect program with flawless everything teaches you none of the psychological, mechanical, and problem-solving skills you will need to thrive in the real world. You will be helpless when you leave all that perfect equipment. The ideal is, of course, somewhere in the middle where you learn to repair and build the equipment you don’t absolutely need anyway. While the stuff you absolutely had to have never gave you any problems.
You are in school to learn, but don’t let shoddy management, inadequate funding, and the constant need for repairs teach you to hate. Talk to the faculty. Talk to the students. Understand the situation before you apply and, as always, act to protect yourself.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Region and Identity

80. Region and Identity

[This essay was written while my wife attended graduate school in Kent, Ohio. We have since returned to our home in Lawrence, Kansas. Employment may require us to move yet again.]

For years I’ve been intrigued by the issue of regional identity in the arts. What does it mean to be a California potter, or an Ohio potter, or a North Carolina potter? If there are genuine local influences and patterns of work how consistent is their effect? Are we just generalizing from a poor statistical database, a few stereotypes?
I once got into a discussion with Mark Hewitt on the subject, wondering in his case how long it took for him to be identified as a, “North Carolina potter.” You see, Mark is English, born and bred, and at least part of his education in ceramics took place at the Cardew Pottery at Wenford Bridge in extreme southwestern England. He is, as they say, “not from around here.” And yet his mail goes to his home in North Carolina where his work and friendships have blended in “quite nicely, thank you very much.” They are proud to have him in North Carolina, accent and all, and he is happy to be there.
In the days of family potteries, one’s regional heritage was a simple consequence of one’s childhood upbringing and little else. These days, Academia can cause us to move around the country quite a bit. If you go to college in one state, graduate school in another, and take a teaching job in third, say Texas, are you instantly a Texan artist? The NEA Fellowship selection panels will think so.
My parents are academics and, though born in California, I’ve lived in Latin America, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Iowa, Kansas, and, most recently, Ohio. Am I now a different artist here in Ohio than I was when my studio was in Kansas?
Certainly I’ve met different artists, been to different museums, seen different workshops and made new types of pots. The weather is different, as is the local culture. The essays of this collection have almost entirely been written in Ohio. When the responding letters of praise or complaint get written, they will likely get addressed to me in Ohio. Is Ohio now different with me in it?
Perhaps there really is an underlying issue of “belonging.” Where do you belong, and are you there yet? Perhaps Mark Hewitt belongs in North Carolina. I can think of another artist who, for three years, did not belong in South Carolina, though that was where her mail reached her. She now resides happily in Florida. For many of us, location does not really matter as long as we’ve got the tools and the time to work. The rest will struggle, strangers in strange lands, inappropriately stereotyped, waiting to find the true region of their identity.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


7. Hoops

One of the most common complaints of college students everywhere (and art students in particular) is of all the seemingly arbitrary ‘hoops’ they have to jump through to earn their degrees. Part of the gripe, I’m sure, is that those hoops often seem to test for mere obedience rather than any skill or creativity. In some cases, that may be.
There are three broad categories of requirements that irritate college students. The first are the requirements set forth by the institution for admission and degree completion. The second are those requirements created by the particular academic department for course distribution, undergraduate prerequisites, portfolio review, and normal progress towards a degree. And the third are the individual assignments and expectations of particular instructors in specific courses.
Now I could tell stories and give examples but that might give the impression that I share the students’ complaints. Certainly I’ve moaned my way through a variety of hoops, but like the weather, hoops don’t go away once you’ve earned your degree. Everyone has to work within limitations of some sort. The most obvious limitations for the postgraduate ceramic artist are the practical constraints of time and equipment. Richard Notkin, speaking at an NCECA conference, spoke of his first studio following graduate school. The interior volume of his kiln was an eleven inch cube, and it took him three months to make enough work to fill it. The audience laughed when they heard this, as if they thought him lazy or incompetent, and he rightly took offense. His works are quite small, elaborately detailed, time-consuming to create, and quite worthy of the international praise they’ve earned over the years. He took a limitation (size) and made it a strength, a triumph of imagery.
Beyond the constraints of your personal studio you will discover countless other barriers to absolute freedom. Do you propose to sell your work? In what venues and to what audiences? The originality of your creations may demand elaborate efforts on your part to get that work shown and sold. More conventional work might be simpler to market. Regardless of marketing efforts, you will also have records to keep and taxes (income, sales, self-employment) to consider. (All hoops.)
Even without the external constraints of business there are your internal boundaries as an artist. You will always have the limits of your own imagination and physical skills. What you dream of can not always be accomplished and what you can not dream of will never be attempted.
The news is not all bad, though. First, the requirements of colleges and universities (and their individual departments) can be predicted. All those administrative hoops are written down in the Graduate Catalog and the “Departmental Requirements for Degree Completion”. Do your research. Maybe the program that looks good from a distance looks goofier up close. Try not to evaluate these requirements with too lazy a spirit, but take the time to know what they are. I have been required, on separate occasions, to take a Historiography class and what I thought was an unnecessary Drawing class. Both proved to be very helpful. They were “good hoops” and I’m glad that I was forced through them.
Note: Ask other students about the particular professors teaching required courses. Certain types will abuse their power when teaching a captive audience in a required course and you should plan that semester accordingly.
Second, many working artists find the challenge of “coloring inside the lines” stimulating. By having set limits to the scope of a particular project they can throw out all the distractions which do not fit the problem. They also have deadlines and know that, love it or hate it, the whole thing will be done and over by such-and-such a time. Further, when they succeed, with style and originality, on this narrowly encompassed challenge, they know that they have accomplished something truly wonderful.
Yes, hoops can be annoying and some schools should probably be avoided if their requirements are too numerous and too odd, but no education (no life) is completely free of limits and constraints. Examine those constraints carefully, understand them, and do what you can to blossom within them. Understand too the problems you create for yourself through the patterns of your own thinking. Expect to be a problem-solver not a challenge-avoider.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Being Around Bad Pots

33. Being Around Bad Pots

In some ways the person who put up with me the most in graduate school was Keith Williams, a fellow student who started one semester before me, graduated at the same time that I did, and occupied the neighboring studio space for the entire three years of our program. He had been a public school art teacher before coming to Iowa and he was the most focused of us all in his postgraduate ambitions. It was his plan to be a college ceramics teacher, and I’m happy to be able to report that he succeeded admirably.
As I mentioned, he had taught before and had some idea of what he was getting himself into, but that did not keep him from the occasional profound revelation in the course of our education. One day, the two of us happened to be in the kiln room on some chore that took us both near the ware carts with their heavily laden shelves of lumpy greenware. Looking at all those Ceramics I and II pots he let loose a deep and pitiable sigh. I asked, “What’s wrong?”
He replied, “It just occurred to me that I’m going to spend the rest of my career around a lot of bad pots.”
We’re not talking about ‘bad’ as ‘naughty,’ here. This is ‘bad’ as in misshapen, lumpy, disproportionate, inept. We’re talking about all the entirely predictable failures of wave after wave of indifferent undergraduates, struggling to acquire the physical and judgmental skills necessary to make any kind of object worth owning.
I nodded my sympathy and agreement.
My own undergraduate ceramics teacher, Merle Zirkle, once told me that she needed just one good student every two years to emotionally sustain her as a teacher. More was better, of course, and she had something of a flurry in the early 80’s. But there had been droughts, too, and they were both dangerous and debilitating for the spirit of a teacher.
It’s hard to be unerringly encouraging around ugly objects and unpromising students. And yet you must be. That is the role you’ve chosen and trained for. It’s not a role that’s destined to bring you much glory and if teaching is where your current ambitions lie perhaps you should re-evaluate the potential consequences of your success.
How deep are your wellsprings of cheerfulness? How gentle are you in the face of obstinate incompetence? How many ways can you explain a thing for those students who have trouble with the first two approaches you’ve used? How will you cope with the loneliness of being the only competent ceramicist in the studio (or perhaps, the entire town)?
What will sustain you in the presence of all those bad pots?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Photography Contest

18. The Photography Contest

In ceramics we make complex three-dimensional forms with luscious and intricate subtleties of texture, color, and tone. These objects have weight and balance and often interact with food and drink in delightful and clever ways. Unfortunately, these are not the successes that will drive your career. The shows you get into, the schools you get into, and the jobs you get into are all the result of photographs.
It’s a photography contest. People even alter the direction of their own work so that it can be more easily understood as a two-dimensional image. They’ll tweak the lighting and focus so that the photograph looks better than the actual piece. They’ll spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars paying professional product photographers to create the images we see on the magazine covers. I have nothing good to say about it and no solution to offer for it. We are three-dimensional artists and we suffer.
One day, in graduate school, our professors were brave enough to show us the slides they had each used to get into their respective graduate schools. This was work of the early seventies being shown to students in the late eighties, and we all had a good laugh. They had been lucky. The people judging their work, judging them in effect, had looked past the flawed settings and techniques of the photographs, past even the flaws in the work being photographed to see the value inherent in the direction of their attempts.
Today I fear the photographs of our work are being judged only as photographs without regard for them as windows into a more important reality. Further, digital cameras and image manipulation software will test the ethics of our profession more and more. Who among us will have the nerve to question why the slide looks better than the piece? Or to say that a photograph has been ‘color compensated’ inappropriately?
At the International Woodfire Conference [Iowa City, Iowa, 1999] a small breakout group on the subject of ‘folk potters’ argued light-heartedly about just how to identify a folk potter in these days of global influence and marketing. The next afternoon, while someone struggled with an uncooperative slide projector, I leaned over to Kim Ellington, a Carolina potter who had been part of the discussion and said, “I think I’ve got a definition of a folk potter.” He looked interested. “A folk potter doesn’t have to know anything about slides or slide projectors.”
For the rest of us, photography is how we communicate our images, and complaining about it will not help. Spend time, spend effort, spend money, but do what it takes to keep the flaws in your photographs from distracting people from the virtues in your work. It’s all we can do to protect ourselves from the tyranny of those two-dimensional arrays of colored dots.
If it helps, think of the pot and photograph of the pot as each seeking to achieve the same result, the approval of another human being.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Practice Pots

75. Practice Pots

I’ve been self-employed as a potter for over a decade now and, as will happen in any manufacturing process, I get a some breakage or spoilage in my work. This can happen at almost any stage in the pot’s creation, but it’s always a disappointment to me. I want every pot I start to turn out wonderful, lovable, and more to the point, available to sell.
One day in particular, I was loading one of my electric kilns with the large mugs that are the mainstay of my business. This was the first firing, the “bisque,” in which the dried clay has all the physical and chemical water driven out of it by a relatively low (by potters’ standards) heat of 1900 degrees Fahrenheit. I carried the mugs on a board up from the basement and out into the backyard where the kiln lived in its own shed a little way from the house.
I remember balancing the long narrow board on a sculpture stand near the shed, thinking to myself that I should be careful of that balance. But I was tired, and working hurriedly, trying to get a lot done before an upcoming Fair. I opened the shed and prepared the kiln, grabbed a pair of mugs off the left end of the board and put them carefully into the kiln. I returned, grabbed another pair, and as I stepped towards the shed, I heard an odd little sound. I turned back towards the mugs, still holding one in each hand, and watched the twenty remaining mugs slide gracefully down and off the right end of the now tilting board.
It seemed to happen in slow motion, but without the slightest opportunity to make it stop. Oddly enough, the pile of clay shards on the ground grew large enough and tall enough, that one of the final pair of mugs survived unharmed, cushioned by the debris below it. Nineteen mugs in all destroyed. The lost hours of work, the lost inventory, the financial loss at a time when every penny counted just devastated me, standing there stupidly, still with a mug in each hand. I could have cried.
But it was just clay. Just time spent. Apparently they had been pots I’d made just for practice, at a time when I didn’t think I needed any practice. They had been a lesson in the price of haste. I picked up all the pieces to recycle into another batch of wet clay and finished loading the kiln with other pots I had on hand. And though I’ve yet to have any other slip quite so expensive since, every now and again I am reminded by a “practice pot” that I still need to slow down and pay attention. Everything we do teaches us something if we only take the time to notice.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Shelf Life

86. Shelf Life

I have, on several occasions, made it clear how grateful I am not to be selling either bananas or paper products. My loss from spoilage is low. I need not fear an unexpected rain shower. And my pots enjoy every prospect of enduring for centuries. In the parlance of retail, pottery has good shelf life. Handmade pots do have a shelf life, though, and it can be important for a potter to understand the aging process of inventory.
“Fresh” pots, of course, are those just out of the glaze kiln, preferably of a new design. You’ve never really seen them before, whatever you thought they might look like, and your excitement about them is contagious. The “fresh” pot is often the easiest to sell and many notable potters have harnessed this advantage by hosting “Kiln Opening” sales.
A variety of systems are used for this but the principles are generally the same. By whatever means, potential customers are notified that the sale will take place on a given morning at the potter’s studio. The crowd, including the early birds, are made to wait while the pots are removed from the kiln, organized on tables or the lawn, and priced. Here the artist may remove some pieces as being too good to sell and shift others to a seconds area. When all is ready the crowd is released. Sometimes each patron is limited to one initial purchase to allow everyone the opportunity to come away with something. Eventually, the potter runs out of either pots or patrons. It’s a brilliant system, if a bit hectic, and it’s much simpler than boxing pots for transport to other venues.
Most pottery, however, has to wait a little while before being sold. That’s quite all right since they don’t go bad. They can, on the other hand, go stale.
A “stale” pot is generally one that you have packed and re-packed for too many Fairs. Usually, they’re the oddballs, the ones that don’t blend in with your regular inventory. Maybe it’s been priced wrong. Maybe it’s been seen by the wrong people. Maybe it stinks. Maybe it’s just unusual.
The danger with an old oddball, whether you’ve left it in a gallery or continue to drag it to Fair after Fair, is that customers may recognize it as old and unloved and lower their opinion of you as an artist for continuing to drag it around.
In my own case, I increase the risk of this by signing and dating all of my pieces. A piece with last year’s date on it may be perfectly understandable, particularly in the first half of the new year, but a pot two or three years old will draw questions. Perhaps rather than field those questions you would prefer to give the pot away or make it one of the pots you use at home?
Work in galleries is a little less date sensitive but galleries need fresh work, too. Every gallery has return customers and the gallery wants those customers to be excited by works that weren’t there during the last visit, particularly new work by familiar well-loved artists.
This can be tricky for the artist who is tempted to shift unsold work from location to location so that it always seems new in its current location. You shouldn’t forget that work is in a gallery precisely so that customers can return to it over and over again, gradually deciding to spend the money to buy it. Moving it because you feared it had gone stale might be a mistake if there was a customer whose interest in it had been slowly ripening.
Talk to your gallery staff. They want to sell your work and they know who their customers are. If they want to establish a reputation as a place where work doesn’t linger they’ll tell you.
Some pieces just take time to sell. I’ve seen wonderful oddball pieces go unnoticed and unloved for months, even years. And then, for no predictable reason, a customer will come into the booth looking at nothing else but the oddball. They simply must own it and by then I’ve probably made the mistake of lowering the price.
Art is not ‘one size fits all’. Sometimes you just have to be patient to match the object with its owner.
I should add, in closing, that there is a segment of potters for whom ‘dated’ work is not a problem. These are the people for whom ceramics is largely just a manufacturing business. It is quite possible to make a living producing the same pots, year in and year out, without noticeable stylistic changes over the course of decades. Shapes, glazes, and decorations are all problems that have been solved to the satisfaction of the potter and the potter’s challenges have been reduced to production and sales. For them, a ten year old pot looks the same as a ten day old pot.
It’s easy to criticize such potters for no longer having any ‘fresh’ work but such pots are much more convenient for the customer who bought place settings ten or twelve years ago and needs to replace a few broken pieces today. Who’s to say that mastery lies in innovation rather than consistency? When is a craftsmanship devoted solely to the pursuit of novelty unworthy of praise?
Craft or Art? Now there’s a stale subject!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Pricing Your Work

77. Pricing Your Work

At some point in your evolution as a ceramic artist you are going to think of selling something you’ve made. Perhaps your Ceramics Department holds a Christmas Sale, or maybe someone has simply fallen in love with one of your pieces and offers to buy it. The subject of price will come up. At first it’s not really much of a business calculation. You’re a student, after all, and business doesn’t really have much to do with it. Maybe you really need some money. Maybe just the idea of selling your art is the reward. Whatever your reasons, your initial prices are bound to be fairly low. That’s fine, but eventually you’re going to have to really study the issues surrounding price. I’d like to skim through a few ideas for you now.
First, price really doesn’t bear much relationship to cost. If you work inefficiently, use unnecessarily expensive materials, and have a high breakage rate, that doesn’t mean you can price your coffee cups the same as other people’s teapots. It means you need to correct those problems and bring your costs down. People are buying pots, not sob stories.
Second, people need to understand your prices. For instance, “Why does this mug cost more than that pitcher?” You may see more value in the mug than in the pitcher but why? Is the mug extra fabulous? Maybe it should be set aside to enter in shows or sell through a gallery. Does the pitcher have some sort of non-fatal flaw? Maybe you should label it, “As is,” or “Second.”
Third, it’s better to sell a lot of pots slightly under-priced than only a couple overpriced. There’s a truism from Japanese baseball, “It’s better to hit four singles than a home run and three outs.”
Fourth, customer demand counts for a lot. If you sell out at a Fair or Gallery Show, your prices were too low. Period. If you sell little or nothing, either your prices were too high, or you showed your work poorly, or you showed it to the wrong audience. Study your audiences carefully. Switch venues.
Fifth, if you price things too low people get suspicious. They look for hidden flaws and, failing to find them, they veer off. Would you buy a two dollar a quart brand of vodka?
Sixth, price by type and size, and perhaps, decorative intensity. People understand that large costs more than small, intricate more than simple. Find a benchmark piece and price, then work up or down from there.
Seventh, time costs. How much is it worth to you to stay up half the night individually pricing each pot? Why not have a standard cup price and a few legible signs that can be read from a distance? Also, whether or not you price to the nearest five dollars, in whole dollar amounts, or with the classic “…and ninety-five cents” ploy, how much time are you going to spend processing each purchase? That third or fourth customer in line might just change their mind, set the pot down, and leave. Sometimes the situation calls for a leisurely approach, but be prepared to rush gracefully, too.
Eighth, who is your competition? If the other potters have prices similar to yours you’ll probably be okay. Again, it’s more about not confusing the customers than anything else. On the other hand, experience may have helped them choose their “price points,” and you might as well gain what you can from their experience.
Ninth, be realistic about your inventory. I don’t really think of myself as being in direct competition with other potters. My mugs, etc., are unique and draw buyers without regard to the work (or prices) of nearby potters. Still, a better potter deserves to get better prices for their work. If that better potter is also under-pricing you, you’re in trouble. Lower your prices, or sell to different audiences, or learn to be happy with your current level of sales.
Tenth, don’t get desperate. Customers are easily frightened and have been trained in our culture to have purely emotionless buying experiences. They can detect that you are desperate for the money to make the rent, or get your vehicle repaired, or whatever. The scent of doom around you will drive many people away before they’ve even had a chance to really look at your work. Be cheerful, friendly, and light-hearted. Fake it if you must. Likewise, never give the impression that you don’t want to be bothered. Polite people will leave you alone.
Eleventh, presentation matters a lot. Do what you can to look like a valuable person who makes valuable objects. I once observed a gallery clerk in Santa Fe benignly selling a very expensive rug to a German couple. They had questions for which he had few answers, but he looked expensive himself. He fit the part of a person selling expensive art objects. His looks made the rug seem worth the asking price.
I’m sure there’s more, but the point is, price is not simple. Selling at all is not simple. Selling something that you’ve worked hard to make can be horrendous. Start observing the process before you’re in the thick of it yourself. And stay cheerful. After all, the day of the sale is your payday. Do everything you can to make it a good one.