A New Project: The Millenimalism Blog

Dear friends:

I wanted to tell you about a new project I’ve been working on. I’ve started a new blog designed for young people (Millennials) living a lifestyle a lot like mine: limited hours doing paid work combined with intentional simplicity, frugality and minimalism, with a net result of excess free time that can be used to pursue passions, projects, relationships, health, volunteer work, and long term international travel.

I’m calling it “Millenimalism.”

Here’s a brief excerpt from last week’s post:

“What could you accomplish if you could work at it like it was a job, but you didn’t need to get paid for it? What grand scheme have you previously dreamed of doing but put off because you didn’t have the time or energy? Do you want to swim the Strait of Gibraltar or dance flamenco in Spain or learn to speak German or create stained glass windows? Do you fantasize about singing opera or making crisp websites or baking really excellent cakes? Do you want to combat racism, or turn an abandoned lot into a community garden, or rehabilitate injured animals? Does your heart sing when you see pictures of Iceland or paintings by Cezanne?”

Check it out here, and use the box on the right of the page to subscribe and receive new posts in your inbox.

Warmly,

-Brenna

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Buying Handmade: 6 Ways to Not Be a Jerk

I’ve been making stuff all my life. When I was ten, I made those woven plasticy keychains and sold them at a neighbor’s garage sale. When I was 17 I started an etsy business selling altered T-shirts. When I was 18 I started working seriously in clay, and at 22 I transitioned to working full-time as a ceramic artist. I sell some on etsy and I have a couple of local consignment accounts, but the majority of my income comes from craft shows: weekend events where you schlep all your work to a designated venue, set up a canopy tent, and then spend one or two or three days selling before tearing everything down and heading home again.

The first thing I should say is that I love doing shows. The mad rush to get everything finished in time, the packing and loading the car, the temporary city of white tents erected in a few hours on a Friday afternoon, the excitement of the first sale, and the freedom, empowerment, and autonomy that comes from being able to hit the road, be my own boss, and make a living doing it. Furthermore, the vast majority- probably 90%- of interactions I have with customers are lovely. People, for the most part, are kind and funny and polite and excited to talk with me about my work.

And then there are those other interactions. The ones that make me grind my teeth, and force a smile, and make me wonder why I do this. The ones that make me want to throw up my hands and become a dental hygienist. The thing is, most of the frustrating interactions I have with customers don’t seem to come out of any kind of meanness or ill intent: instead, they often seem like a result of a lack of social awareness. Conversations with other artists confirm that there are a number of behaviors that are considered universally obnoxious to engage in as a craft fair shopper. So in an attempt to educate the general public, I’ve created a list of the six behaviors to avoid while buying handmade at a craft fair. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Don’t take photos without asking. I actually don’t mind if people take photos of my work. You probably couldn’t recreate the glazes I’m making even if I handed you the recipe, and I’ve worked for years to be able to create the shapes that I’m getting on the wheel. But many artists who have work that can be recreated (especially 2-D artists) will have copycats if their work is popular. Either someone will take a photo and paint something similar (one artist friend says, “it got so bad at one point that I would create a painting with a green triangle, and then [the woman copying my work] would create a painting with a green triangle.”) or they’ll actually use the photo to create prints of the work and sell them without permission or credit. That’s some seriously shady behavior, and it’s probably not what you’re doing when you take a phone snapshot of that cow painting, but as an artist, it’s hard to tell the difference. Instead of reaching for your camera, check in with the artist about it first. Usually (but not always) you’ll get a “yes” if you explain why you want the photo, e.g: “Do you mind if I take a picture of this? I think it would look great in my living room, but I need to see what my wife thinks of it.”

2. Don’t hit on the artist. This is a sub-header under the more general principle “don’t hit on women (or anyone, but women are on the receiving end of the vast majority of this behavior) you don’t know in public. If you’re confused about this principle, or it seems difficult or you think I’m sitting a little too high on my feminist horse, check out this article: http://www.theferrett.com/ferrettworks/2012/08/can-i-buy-you-a-coffee/ When I’m selling at a craft show, I’m working, even though it doesn’t look like what we typically think of as “work”. I don’t come to your office and loiter around your cubicle asking annoying questions while you’re sending company e-mails, because that would be inappropriate. If you’re talking to me because you want my number and not my work, you’re getting in the way of my interacting with other people who are interested in buying from me. Which is why I’m there. On a related note:

3. Don’t waste my time if you’re not going to buy. This is not the same as “don’t talk to me if you’re not going to buy.” I’m happy to chat with you a little bit about the festival or listen to you talk about the ceramics that you’ve done or tell you more about my work with the knowledge that you’re just interested and you’re not going to make a purchase. But when you monopolize me in conversation for an extended period of time, either to try to convince me that I should make ceramic covers for tissue boxes to sell at Walmart or to try to sell something to me or to just ask me a series of pointless questions, once again, you’re getting in the way of my interacting with other people who are interested in buying from me. In addition, keep in mind that many artists, including me, are introverts, and at the end of an eight or ten hour day of making conversation and trying to be cute and charming in front of a bunch of strangers and answering the same five questions over and over again without really much of a break, we’re exhausted.

4. Don’t feel awkward about not buying something. The vast majority of people who come through my booth don’t buy anything from me. That’s totally fine and expected! My work is interesting to look at, and often people haven’t seen work like it before, and they want to check it out and hear about how I make it. Then they say thanks and leave, which is no problem. But there are some people who seem to feel really uncomfortable about leaving, like they’ve “led me on” by talking to me- the equivalent of being a “pottery tease” or something- so they resort to doing weird things like making excuses for why they can’t buy “my cat would break it!” “I’m about to move and I don’t want to buy anything before then!” or saying that they’ll be back later (some people do circle back around, but often it’s a disengagement strategy) or taking a business card to throw away later (The number of orders I’ve ever received from people who have taken a card from me at a show is really, really small). Really, all you need to do is say thanks or wave as you walk out. You won’t hurt my feelings, I promise.

5. Don’t say that the work is “too expensive”. This is a major pet peeve for me. It doesn’t happen to my face very often, but when it does I’m immediately driven to headbutt the offender and order them out of my booth. First, the term “too expensive” is virtually meaningless. Does that mean you can’t afford it? Does it mean you’ve seen similar work at a lower price point? Does that mean you wouldn’t pay the retail price, or you perceive that the piece isn’t “worth” the retail price? To me, the term “too expensive” means that the work is priced so high that it’s not selling at the rate that I want. By that definition, the work is not too expensive. Furthermore, you don’t know what it costs for me to produce my work, so you shouldn’t make any assumptions about what the cost of the work “should” be.

I once had a family come into my booth looking for a set of mugs. The woman asked for a discount, and I offered her my standard spiel: normally mugs are $28, but if you’re buying multiples you get them for $25 each*. The family spent fifteen minutes picking out four mugs, at which point the mom approached me and said “will you take $80 instead of $100?” I gave her a curt smile and declined, at which point she made a face and the selection process began again as they attempted to narrow the four mugs down to two.

Later, the dad popped his head back into my booth. “I was just wondering…how long does it take you to produce these?” Obviously they had spent lunchtime having a conversation about the price and value of handmade work. I was a bit flustered (talking about money makes me uncomfortable, and crystalline glazing is a 12 step process, so that’s a difficult question to answer) and did a poor job of advocating for the value of my work in the moment, but what I wanted to say was that it’s not just about how much time it takes me to produce a particular piece that determines the price point. The cost of supplies (clay, glaze materials) has to be taken into account, as well as the cost of studio supplies (kiln elements that need replacing, grinding wheels, silicon carbide discs, bats, etc.). Next you have to consider the cost of the show (Typically $100-$400 for the outdoor shows that I participate in) plus the cost of utilities/space to produce the work in. FINALLY, after all that, you have to pay yourself for your labor. The fact that it takes me thirty minutes, or three hours, to produce a particular piece is only one in a large number of factors that determines the price point.

6. For goodness sake, don’t haggle. A woman and her daughter stood outside of my booth last weekend admiring a canister set I had on display, priced at $250. The daughter turned to her mom and said “Oh, this would look amazing with the tile in the remodeled kitchen!” They spent a few more minutes talking and looking around before the mom approached me and said “Would you take $200 for the canister set?” I imagined putting her in a rocket ship and blasting her off into outer space, barely managing to smile through gritted teeth and offer a “sorry, I can’t.” They turned around and flounced out.

This is the big one, people. Just because craft shows take place outdoors doesn’t mean you can act like you’re at a garage sale or a used car lot. Would you walk into a Papa Johns and say “I mean, I like the look of this pizza, but I don’t $18 like it, so if you’re willing to come down then we can talk.”? No, you wouldn’t, because that would be rude and because the prices at Papa John’s are set. Similarly, the prices in my booth are set, and when you walk in and act like I should give you a 20% discount for no reason and then bow and thank you for deigning to purchase my work, you insult me and the business I’ve worked hard to build. (Also, the complete tone-deafness implied by the “remodeled kitchen” exchange followed immediately by the request for a steep discount irritated me so much that I’m not sure I would have sold the thing to them if they’d turned around and offered me full price.)

In closing, I realize that I’m probably preaching to the choir with the majority of this blog post. Many of these tips probably seem like common sense for those of you who possess some modicum of social awareness or have ever worked a job where you have to interact with the public. Then again, I’m sometimes surprised by the seemingly socially aware people who turn out to be offenders in one or more of the above categories. Above all, just remember to be a nice person and have fun out there. Maybe we’ll run into each other someday. Just don’t expect me to give you a discount.

*Some artists are really annoyed by the “what if I buy two?” question, and don’t offer discounts for buyers interested in multiples. To me, it’s worth it to cut buyers a (small) deal if I can close a larger sale, but it’s a set policy; you’re not going to walk into my booth and successfully ask for a 20% discount.

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New Photos

This week I hired Tim Barnwell of Tim Barnwell photography (barnwellphoto.com) to photograph some of my pieces. I just got the images back and I’m really happy with them. My plan is to use them in my applications for two North Carolina craft guilds. Here’s a sample of the photos:

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10 Things I Learned During My First Year of Self-Employment

At approximately this time last year, I was finishing up a temp job working at Honeybaked Ham for Easter. After you establish a sort of baseline level of awfulness, considering that I was showing people sugar-glazed, non humanely-raised pig butts all day, it was a decent job. The people I worked with were great, it always smelled like croissants in the store, and most of the customers were excited about the holiday meal they were preparing. The pay was bad, but that was to be expected.

Since that job ended, and discounting a couple of short term jobs working with unschoolers, I’ve been self-employed making and selling pottery for a full year. That was my goal when I moved to Asheville- to make a living by being a potter. But I honestly didn’t think it would happen so quickly. Looking back over the past year, I realized that I’ve learned several things.

1. I will sacrifice a lot to have complete autonomy over my work

Being a potter in a solo studio is often lonely and always physically demanding. Especially when Blake is traveling, there have been more than a few days when my most intimate daily interaction was with the grocery store clerk who was ringing up the avocadoes and black beans I was picking up on my way home from the studio. On days when I throw big pieces, I often go home totally wiped out and spend the evening eating dinner in my pajamas while lying in bed. This isn’t a complaint- it’s just a trade-off, and one that I’ve realized is worth it to me.

2. I don’t like working with other people

I don’t like admitting this. In the era of Teamwork In The Workplace, you’re supposed to enjoy Collaborating With Others. But I don’t. I don’t enjoy joint leadership, I don’t enjoy group projects, I don’t enjoy deciding things by consensus. If I’m forced to work with others, I want someone to be the leader and tell me what to do, or let me be the leader and tell them what to do. I’m sure Blake would say that there’s some aspect of my Myer’s Brigg’s Type that explains this tendency, but I just tend to think of myself as being a little anti-social. Luckily, by running a sole proprietorship I don’t have to work with other people. Unless someone tries to commission me to make something for them, but usually when that happens I tell people I’m too busy, even if I’m not.

3. It’s important to distinguish yourself in a saturated marketplace

As someone told me when I first moved to Asheville: “you can’t throw a stick in this town without hitting a potter.” Sometimes it seems like half the population of Asheville makes pottery for a living, and when I moved here my work looked a lot like everyone else’s. There’s a particular style that’s very popular here: traditional appalachian pottery. As soon as I realized this, I knew I needed to do something different. I was really interested in crystalline glazing, and when I found a crystalline glazing apprenticeship I knew right away that I wanted to transition to only making crystalline pottery. I quickly went from having my work look like that of several hundred other local potters to being one of only two or three crystalline potters in town. As soon as I made the leap, my sales increased dramatically.

4. I love selling

Don’t get me wrong, I hate hard selling, the kind you find in a used car parking lot. But I love the thrill of the sale: of pricing my work, and taking it to shows, and chatting with people about the process, and sitting in the same chair for ten hours and taking two bathroom breaks and a quick moment to eat some falafel from a food booth while someone watches my stuff. I didn’t anticipate enjoying that, but I do.

5. Not having a paycheck is scary and motivating

There’s something in me that really likes stability, and that’s something you don’t get when you’re making and selling craft. In a given month, I never know how much money I will make (though I can often make reliable predictions based on current inventory and past experience.) Sometimes that’s stressful, but it also makes me work harder than I probably would if I had a guaranteed paycheck.

6. I got lucky

I stumbled upon crystalline glazing, and upon a particular palette of colors that happened to be popular. I solved some of the biggest problems that most people have with crystalline glazing (such as chipping and base breakage) by lucky accident. And I started making canister sets (my biggest seller during months when I’m not doing shows) because someone asked me for one. Many people will tell you that it’s almost impossible to make a living selling things you make. I’m not one of those people, but I also realize I got several lucky breaks along the way that made this easier than it otherwise would have been.

7. It’s good to be aware of trends

Emerald is really “in” right now, did you know that? By keeping track of what’s happening at fashion week, what’s trending on etsy, and what everyone’s talking about on Pinterest, you can tweak your work in small ways so that it remains in vogue during different seasons. For example, I have a lovely brown glaze that I’m not really using right now, but I’ll probably beef up my production of that color in the fall because it will be more seasonally appropriate.

I’m not saying that you should jump ship on your fused glass work to start making Chevron bead necklaces, but if you’re aware that bold geometry is really popular, you can incorporate that into your current work- or even just change the way you “tag” it on etsy.

8. This is a seasonal business

Summer shows are profitable. Pre-Christmas sales can be insane. And January through March is a tough season to weather, because everyone’s cut up the credit cards that they maxed out over the Christmas holiday and buyers are trying to be conservative. Putting money aside like a mad squirrel in the fall and winter will see you through.

9. Being self employed is awesome

Yes, sometimes I have to go in on weekends to unload a kiln or trim some pieces that are getting too dry, but I can also take off on a hike in the middle of the afternoon with no planning or forethought, just because it’s a beautiful day and I feel like it. I set my own hours, I answer to no one, and I’m rewarded for good work or good ideas or increased speed by increased profits, which is a carrot I don’t mind chasing.

10. The work changes while you’re working

I can sit down with a sketchbook and big plans to come up with a new teapot design, but that’s almost never how I end up with new work. Instead, I make a form over and over again until something shifts, or I see something in a new way. Then something new happens, and most of the time I hate it and the piece gets used as a glaze test. But every so often something shifts and it’s like the same piece but it’s evolved into version 2.0, and then I keep that form for a while, until something shifts again.

Every so often I begin with a radically new idea. This week I’m making wall clocks that I hope to crystalline glaze. But it will be through making a bunch of wall clocks that they’ll change and become better- not through sitting and thinking hard about the perfect wall clock.

That’s what I learned this year. I hope you found it useful. As for me, I’m ready to take these lessons and start in on year two of self-employment.

 

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Peach Pie

My brother Logan turned 20 yesterday, and he requested that I make a pie for his birthday.  I bought some white peaches, which are definitely not in season here in North Carolina- I think they were imported from Chile. They were hard as rocks, but I stuck them in a brown paper bag with an apple and some avocados for a few days, and by the time I needed to make the pie they were ready to go.

I rolled out two pie crusts, and placed one in the pie dish.

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I cut up the peaches and mixed them with sugar.IMG_4635

 

I collected the peach juice and reduced it in a small saucepan

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I sliced the second crust into strips and made a lattice pattern.

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I braided some dough scraps and adhered them to the crust with an egg wash.

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Then I baked it on a pizza stone to make sure the bottom didn’t get soggy.

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Cake Decorating

I finished my cake decorating class last night. Below are a few pictures from my final two cakes.

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Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Downy Yellow All Occasion Butter cake, with Orange Liqueur flavored Swiss Meringue Buttercream and strawberry filling. Basketweave with shell border done with American Buttercream.

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Cornelli Lace

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Rose Levy Beranbaum again, flavored with Lemon Extract and Lemon zest, per someone’s special request. American Buttercream, flavored with Lemon Extract and lemon juice. Orange flowers made from Royal Icing. Ruffle border with star garland and rosettes, flower cascade.

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Pear Tart

Today I made a pear tart. I blind baked the tart shell, made from a Pate Sucree crust, then I added almond cream and sliced pears and baked it again, then I made a pear reduction glaze and glazed it. I’ve got some friends coming over in about 20 minutes to eat it with me, and I’m going to serve it with whipped cream and a little cinnamon. I got the concept from the Joe Pastry blog, and the Pate Sucree recipe from the Bouchon Bakery cookbook.

 

Here are some pictures:

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Homemade Poptarts

Currently uploading some new etsy listings and prepping for flower night at my cake decorating class, but wanted to upload a quick and dirty blog post of this week’s baking project. Made some Pate Sucree from the Bouchon Bakery cookbook, cut some pieces out and filled them with jam. Got the idea from the Joe Pastry blog. They’re nothing to write home about, but way better than Kelloggs. The Pate Sucree is incredible, and it will be featured prominently in next weeks blog post.

Here are some photos:

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Doughnuts

The recipe for homemade doughnuts was the first thing I wanted to bake in the Bouchon Bakery cookbook, but I’ve been putting it off because they looked hard and I was intimidated by the process of deep-frying them. Last weekend I decided to take on the challenge.

Here’s the risen dough after sitting overnight:

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Rolled out:

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Cut out:

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Proofed:

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Fried:

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Filled: (made an American buttercream with a little bit of raspberry jam, which was delicious.)

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Frosted:

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They were easy and awesome. Totally worth the effort. Heading down to Florida to visit my grandma this weekend, so I won’t bake anything. Just started a cake decorating class at the local community college, so I should have some pictures from that soon.

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Cream Puffs

I’ve been trying to bake another recipe from the Bouchon Bakery cookbook every weekend. This weekend I made cream puffs. They’re a little bit like filled doughnuts, except not fried and filled with pastry cream instead of bavarian cream or icing.

This cookbook recommends filling silicone molds with the dough and then freezing them so all your puffs are the same size. I didn’t have silicone molds, so I used muffin tins. I piped extra dough onto a cookie sheet and froze that as well.

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This recipe also introduces another interesting variant: they recommend making small circular cookies from butter, brown sugar, flour, and almond meal that get placed on top of the puffs while they bake to create a sweet and crunchy top. Here’s a picture of the cookie disks after being rolled and cut:

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Next I mixed the pastry cream, cooked it, and chilled it.

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After the dough had frozen completely, I popped the puffs out of the muffin tin, placed them on the cookie sheet, and topped them them with the cookie disks.

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When they came out they looked like this:

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The small ones worked better than the ones in the muffin tins- they were so big that they collapsed in on themselves a little bit when I took them out of the oven. Finally, I filled them with pastry cream (plus a few with ice cream and a few with whipped cream).

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They were a big success with both of my parents. I enjoyed the one with ice cream in it, but I found the pastry cream to eggy, as I often find custard based desserts. If I was to make these again, I would freeze them after baking and fill them with vanilla ice cream before freezing them again.

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