I make a lot of work. In fact, it’s really hard to pigeon hole the type of pieces I make. I love throwing on the potter’s wheel, but I equally love handbuilding pieces. They each have their own desirableness. Throwing is magical and creating the different parts of form can be mesmerizing. Handbuilding is immediate in that I can put decoration in as I go and usually have a finished piece that I only need to come back to clean up. I do a mix of mostly functional, useable work with a scattering of sculptural forms. I also make work to sell direct to folks at my gallery, at shows and on my Etsy site and I make work to sell wholesale to galleries and gift shops. So it’s quite a mix.
As I have gotten more involved in the wholesale business I have learned some valuable lessons, but most of them through hard knocks and “experience”. One of the most valuable ones is “Don’t put it out there until you are ready to make it over and over and over.” One would think this just had to do with how well you liked the piece. WRONG!
These are points I realized that I had to consider about the “over and over and over” aspect:
1. Can you duplicate it easily? This encompasses technical skills but also easily obtained materials, accessible clay, where it will have to fire in the kiln. To give you an example: I make trays that have maple and ginkgo leaves in them. I had to figure out how to preserve the leaves so that I could make the trays when the leaves weren’t accessible. This included some weird experiments in drying leaves, using glycerin to try and preserve them and having lots of mouldy bags of rotting leaves around the studio. Finally I fell into the solution of freezing the leaves, which works really well but I had some tricky months before this idea came along.
2. Can you make it quickly enough? Yes, doing something over and over acclimates the muscles to repetitive motions so that you do not to have to “think” of all the steps, but it can only shave off so much time. There is a limit to how fast you can go, similar to an athlete finding they could reduce their time only by very small increments. Eventually it gets to be milliseconds that get shaved off your best time.
3. Can you do it by yourself or will you have to call in help? This one is tricky for me. I still want to make everything that I sign my name to by myself. However, if I had an order for a 1000 minibowls, I would need to get someone into the studio to help in some aspect. I have looked at ideas like someone cleaning the studio, mailing shipments, rolling out clay, unloading kilns and cleaning greenware and all these do not detract from the individuality of the work I make. Directly related to this is the next point.
4. Did you predict all your costs of materials and time in your set price? Of course, all the above points play into this one but if you must hire someone to help you with completing orders, then you have significantly reduced your profit margin on your piece. I used to price pieces based on an idea of what I thought someone might pay or might see value in a piece. Most of that was based on retail experience. Now I know that the first jumping off point is “What can I be happy with at 50% of the retail price?” Happy includes materials, making time, degree of difficulty and the over and over and over point. I can guarantee that you will grow quickly tired of making work that has a high failure rate or that you feel you are not getting fair exchange for. Been there, done that.
5. Can you wrap and ship it efficiently and safely? That means not making pieces that have really thin, fragile attachments and not making really tall, skinny, heavy things unless there is a way to get them delivered intact and unharmed. I learned early on that hand delivering work was one of the most inefficient, time consuming and costly things I could do. If I want to include an item in my wholesale line, it has to be able to be shipped and in a container I can easily obtain and charge enough to cover shipping costs and time. This remains a work in progress for me because shipping continually changes and public attitudes about shipping have been directly affected by large companies who can negotiate due to large quantities. Free shipping is a term I both hate as a maker and love as a consumer.
6. Will it stand the test of time? To me this means “Is it just an item of trendiness or is there a design that will withstand changing fads?” That usually goes back to how well I like it personally. There is way too much effort for me as an artist to devote to creating something new that I don’t really like or see value in personally. Very subjective, I grant you. An example for me would be requests for covered casseroles. I don’t really like to make them, I don’t use them. Instead I would prefer to pour energy into covered jars, which I love to make and can explore with decoration. I also use them extensively throughout my home.
7. Can it be easily reproduced by someone in a factory somewhere? I try to make work that would be a problem for a mass production factory to churn out. It started out that I really enjoy a certain amount of detail and decorative work in my pieces but I came to recognize that I was uncomfortable walking into a big box store and finding work similar to mine or other artists I knew, at rock bottom prices. I have noticed how ideas get copied easily due to the global network of communication and I want my work to stand out from mass produced work. I want my glazes to be distinctive and decoration to be original and all to work together as a whole. That doesn’t guarantee that my ideas won’t be copied but I try to make it more difficult when I can. However, this has a close relationship to all above points and you must balance them somehow.
The photos of the pieces are a new work that is in the experimental stage and I am playing with colored glazes that overlap one another. The next stage will be changing the background color and seeing if the bird colors look ok. I have been confident in selling this in my studio and retail sales but am still figuring out if it will make the transition to wholesale work. The multilayered glazes take a really long time to apply and I don’t know yet that I want to commit to it. Hope this gives you some idea of how ideas and technique come into play with the reality of being a producing artist..