I’ve been making pottery for five years, and I knew when I started that this was how I wanted to make a living. I’ve been working hard towards the goal of being a self-sufficient potter for several years.
Until recently, I was working part time jobs to pay the bills and making pottery on the side. Then, this spring, I took the leap and successfully became part of the masses of the self-employed. In this post I’m going to outline the things that I did that made that transition possible.
First, I realized that the market for the type of pottery I was making was completely saturated, and I adapted. While I had initially been making traditional mid-range fired stoneware, I arranged an apprenticeship to learn crystalline glazing and eventually developed a line of functional and decorative work utilizing crystalline glazes. These glazes are tricky and time consuming with a high loss rate, but I stuck with the method and eventually learned to create consistent results.
Second, I began applying to craft shows. I found out about different shows through word of mouth, and I took all the costs into consideration up front. The show in Blowing Rock was inexpensive and had a good reputation, but I would have to drive two hours to get there and do the show alone- was it worth it? In the end, the only way to find out if a craft fair is a good venue for your work is to get in and do the show, and that’s exactly what I did this summer. I lined up six craft shows and sold at each one. None were terrible- some were so-so and others were great. Next year I’ll scrap the so-so ones, repeat the good ones, and try a few new ones.
Part of participating in a craft fair is designing a great booth. I tried to ramp up my booth design a little bit more after each show, and by the end of the season I had a booth that I was proud of.
I’ve developed a small online presence in the form of a website, a facebook fan page, a mailing list, and an etsy shop. My website is extremely simple- a wordpress theme that I modified myself- but it contains all the relevant information, and it directs you to my etsy page where you can purchase my work. I’ve also created a website discussing the philosophy of self education in the visual arts.
Selling handmade art is an extremely seasonal business, and so I’ve set up more than half a dozen sources of pottery income to combat this problem. I sell at shows in the summer, ramp up my etsy business in the winter, accept every commission I’m asked to do, create belly bowls for pregnant women, sell cremation urns on a website, make breadpots on a commission basis, wholesale to a retail gallery in Oregon, and have my work represented in three local stores. That way, when sales in my etsy shop tank in the late summer or my craft shows end in the fall, I still have money coming in from other sources.
The idea of getting my work represented in local stores initially intimidated me. Here’s how I did it: I literally called them and said “Hi, I’m a local potter and I’m interested in having my work represented in your store. What is your submission process for artists?” In each case, they said “oh, we don’t really have one. Just bring some of your work by and talk to us!” I did that, and in every case I had my work on their shelves that same day. It was easy.
I’ve also made sure that I offer a variety of different products at a variety of price points- from $5 to $250. Right now I’m making canister sets, teapots, mugs, vases, pendants, mini-bowls, cremation urns, belly bowls, and lidded jars. It’s very difficult to make a living selling $15 items- you have to be doing really high volume sales- so I want to sell mostly on the high end but have the low end stuff available for people who want to own a piece of my work but can’t drop $75 on a vase.
As my work has developed, I’ve continued to increase my prices until I’ve found my optimum price point. This can be difficult for some artists, especially women, but it’s essential for running a successful business.
Many people argue that you should figure out how much you want to be paid per hour, multiply that by the number of hours you spend creating a piece, and then add your overhead costs to determine your price point. That’s a great starting point for determining whether you have a viable business model. If I did the math and realized that I needed to charge $100 for a mug (let’s say I was really slow and it took me 6 hours to make each one) then I would know immediately that my business wasn’t going to work (unless there was something REALLY special about that mug).
However, if I do the math and realize that I only need to charge $10 for a mug, and I know that I can sell them for $20, then I need to increase the price to $20. That way I’m able to spend half the time working and make the same amount of money.
Undercharging your customers often makes them think that you don’t value your work, or that there’s something wrong with your work. Charge what you are worth- and what you are worth is whatever the market will bear. By increasing the price, you decrease demand (fewer people will buy a $20 mug than a $10 mug) but increase your per-hour profit. However, increase the price too much and you decrease demand too much as well. It’s better to sell ten $20 mugs than one $100 mug. It’s a balancing act that requires some experimentation to find that sweet spot.
Those are the ways that I’ve been successful at bringing in money as a potter. The other side of the coin- the way I spend that money- has been equally important.
As a general principle, I make this lifestyle work by living very inexpensively. I’m currently living in a group house, and before that I was living with housemates. All the members of the household split the utilities and internet bill. We don’t have cable TV or a landline. I eat or drink “out” rarely, buy my clothes secondhand, and make good use of my library card. The only place I really spend a lot of money is at the pottery supply store.
That’s all I’ve got for you. If you’re already creating a unique, high-quality handmade product, I’m confident that you can use these suggestions and your own ingenuity to do the same thing I’ve done and work full-time making your art. Living in Asheville would help, too. Maybe you should move in with me! (Details about that in an upcoming post.)