Monday, November 29, 2010

Hold the Dolby, Pass the Life, Please

I remember when I got my first cassette player with "Dolby® Noise Reduction". It was pretty cool. Gone was the hiss of the tape. Gone were the crackles and pops from the LPs I'd recorded into homemade cassettes.

But the polish came off that apple pretty quickly. Gone along with those vanished hisses, pops and crackles were the sounds of fingers on guitar strings, and breathing woodwind players, and sounds of picks on fretboard ends.

Dolby sucked the life right out of my favorite recordings. Perfect was, in this case, not perfect. Those extraneous noises were very much a part of the vitality of the recordings. The noise reduction that Dolby offered me came at a too high price -- lifeless listening.

Perfection, as a craftsman's goal is admirable. There's a strange balancing act. Always a balancing act -- achieving an end result that, in its perfection both appears to transcend the means of its production -- while at the same time leaving the hint of the humanity behind in the creation.

Craft has historically thrived when technology is perceived as a threat to our human expression. Man vs. Machine. The Steam Drill vs. John Henry romanticism. In this digital age when even much of our "art" is computer generated, there are still those of us who aren't ready to give up the hands-on exploration of human trial and accomplishment.

So, should thrown pottery be perfect?

Yes. In the sense of a craftsman's results coming close to meeting his intentions, yes. Perfection is a worthy goal. Control the medium. No excuses.

But just maybe that craft should also be a celebration of the idiosyncratic material -- clay -- a cussed substance that doesn't always stay where you put it, warps, shrinks, and cracks when handled poorly.

And just maybe the marks of the potter's hands as a reminder that process matters -- matters to lots of us humans -- should not be erased from surfaces, rather, be enjoyed as the part of a better whole.

It's not about celebrating imperfection or rationalizing lazy practice. It's not trying to accept a "it's good enough for..." mentality. The striving should always be there. The striving should always be evident.

I want my recordings to hiss and pop if it means I also still hear the squeak of fingers on strings letting me know that there was a living, breathing human behind the recording -- a human who was participating in the activity of filling the world with exciting, beautiful, thoughtful work.

And I want my pottery to have finger marks, double stamps, bent walls, irregular trailed lines -- not for their own sake -- not as added affectation to elicit calculated response -- but as evidence of process. I want those things that remind me that there was a striving human with lofty goals willing to risk time, talent, and not a small amount of hope that he/she'd be putting something of value into our shared world.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Doing Bluing

Carolanne asked me (in a previous post's "comments" section) how I go about creating my blue maple leaf pattern. Since few people visit the comments section of the blog, I thought I'd repeat myself here and create a post from her question.

It is a simple paper cut-out. When I first started using the idea, I tried real leaves. They worked, of course, but there were several things I didn't like about using them:

1. Believe it or not, I really didn't like the appearance of the veins leaving their marks in the soft clay. I put the leaves on while the pot is still wet -- while it's still on the wheel in many cases -- and real leaves' veins showed. The veins made the surface too busy and I was looking for a cleaner look because the thick slip was already adding lots of pattern and busy-ness to the surface. I liked it when the leaf broke up that busy-ness rather than adding to it.

2. Real leaves almost immediately curl up when coated with thick slip. A few times around the wheel and my brush was peeling back parts of the leaf and slip was getting underneath the curled edges. Paper leaves stay put. Paper leaves stick right to the wet clay and stay there.

3. I re-designed the leaf to a shape I liked better than nature's shape. It started out as a silver maple, but I "fattened" the spinyness out of that leaf -- made it much broader.

4. Real leaves were obviously seasonal, with no practical way to store them through the winter months.

The slip I use is about as thick as pudding. That makes for lots of spiraling brush marks (something I like). With the slip VERY thick, and the glaze only SEMI-transparent, what happens is a lot of interplay between the slip color and the glaze color.

I've said it before -- I don't favor glaze that looks like paint. If a glaze adds nothing but color to the surface, I'm usually not that interested in the glaze. This thick slip/matte glaze combination gives me a richer texture to the surface.

Because the slip is so thick, I often have to wait until the pot is a bit dryer. If I don't, the pots are likely to collapse with all the added moisture of the slip.

Also, because the slip is so thick I have to peel the leaves away (usually when the pot is a little softer than leather hard). If I don't peel them away, but instead try to fire the leaves off, what happens is the slip stays intact like a cicada shell. It has to be broken off the surface in order to be glazed. That doesn't work (where's that emoticon with the rolling eyes?).

Peeling the leaves away while the clay is still somewhat soft also allows me to see where to carve in the stems. It also allows me to actually distort the clay a bit with that carving.

If I ever get my video skilz up to snuff, I'd like to take a swing at illustrating how I do my slip-feathering-in-a-ground patterns...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tea For More Than Two

Late last night I finished the bodies for some future teapots -- finishing them will be today's labor. If you look closely, you can see the upside-down lids over on the warecart by the wheel. I'll start by throwing a chuck on which to trim and shape the tops of those lids.

Finished, they will look something like these couple from earlier this year. I'll decorate the teapot bodies while they're still soft -- I like to get a bit of distortion when I use my stamps on the sides.

I don't do the blue maple leaf until the next day because all that extra slip usually collapses those thin walls. Next I'll throw spouts and attach them. Next will be the back handles.

If you look beneath that shelf of snowmen (again, on the warecart) you'll see some pear shapes. Those will end up being teapots as well. Oribe leaves on millring red bodies. I've tried time and again to do shino pears (like the three small ones below), but cussed stuff that shino is, it defies having lids that match the bottoms. As it is, I already make a tiny coil of wadding to fire the lid on the bottom so that the lid won't fuse down on the base during firing.

I spent the morning replenishing the pots on Etsy after another stellar couple of days of online sales. Here are just a few of the pieces I put up today. They're mostly green because my porcelain pieces (the ones I do in red/gold) are still in the bisque kiln. Hopefully, I'll get those fired in the next day or two to get some extra variety uploaded.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Busy Days On Etsy/Blog to Finnegan Blog

Dan, regarding your Etsy impressions.....I had EXACTLY the same impression.

Anyway, I think it was two or three years ago that someone posted a link to etsy on the NAIA forum. My first take: I was totally underwhelmed. I didn’t see much work there that….well, I didn’t see much work there that even a charitable jury would accept into the average art fair.

Maybe it’s my age or the length of time I’ve been doing this for a living (33 years) or maybe just that I’m irrationally, undeservedly arrogant (<--prolly that one), but I didn’t want the association with what I saw as “that level of work”. But that summer I really started to feel the need again to fix my website for marketing. I had the sense that my Fall schedule wasn’t something I could have confidence in to get me through the Winter. Still, I had no clue as to how to do what I needed to do.

Some people were telling me “Oh, it’s easy. Just put “Buy It Now” buttons on your website”. Others were telling me that putting a shopping cart on the website was no big deal.


It was a big deal. And a dead end. Again.

But I started looking at other potter’s sites. I’d spend a few hours a day for a while just going from site to site and traveling down rabbit hole after rabbit hole. Then I googled up the site of a potter acquaintance who (as I remembered it) didn’t used to have a site -- at least not when I was first building mine. “Hmmm” says I, “Richard’s got a site now”. And when I clicked on the link on his site titled “Pots to Buy” it took me to an etsy site. Well, probably because it was Richard, but mostly because I went from Richard’s site to the etsy site, it suddenly dawned on me… …there really was no need for my customers, or the public-at-large who may be following links to and from my site, to ever know (or make any association with) anything of etsy beyond my page there.

My fears (unfounded ANYWAY, as it turns out) of people making qualitative assumptions about my work because of the other work on etsy were allayed.

So I immediately opened an etsy account. But I had show commitments and really didn’t have tons of inventory (as I saw it then) to upload right away. And St James Court Art Show was great that year – causing me to put off uploading even longer.

But when November rolled around I decided to start working on the site. I had sales almost immediately. And here are at least a few of the most gratifying discoveries:

1. The sales came, not by linkage from my site, but directly from the etsy site. So not only was etsy not deserving of my arrogance and condescension – they’ve put together a real market -- and a tremendous internal marketing mechanism.

2. And because the sales were coming from etsy – not from prior customers – I’ve now made sales to areas of the country where I’ve never done art fairs. Of the nearly 100 sales I made in my first month with etsy, most of the pots were shipped to BRAND NEW CUSTOMERS. I've now passed 670 sales and most of them follow that same trend.

3. I found myself making out shipping labels to people named “Brianna” and “Alecia” and “Cara”. In other words, the very demographic that we seem unable to DRAG to art fairs. Younger people. Yay. Hooray.

I have a much different philosophy about how I intend to keep up my etsy site. So far it seems I’m right, even though I’m going counter to what my friends tell me they like in a site. My friends tell me they want a no-muss, no-fuss site with minimal copy to read through, and point and click buying.

I go along with the ease of point and click buying, but I don’t agree with minimal copy.

I’ve always felt that there were several built-in advantages to selling via art fairs, not the least of which was trading on each other’s gravitas. In other words: when someone who might not know pottery sees me at the same art fair set up next to Steve Kostyshyn’s incredible baskets, or Jerry Smith's marvelous landscapes, or paintings done on the masterful level of an Eddie Corkery, or drawings like Don Coons’, the assumption falls to my advantage. The art fair implies to the public that I am quite possibly a craftsman of the same level as those masters (whether true or not).

The other strength of the art fairs is the face-to-face meeting of artist and patron. We get to tell people – beyond just what we are selling – a bit of who and what we are. And I’ve always believed strongly that that was a VERY important marketing factor. I think that for the past thirty years, the art fair patron has been buying what we’re selling, yes – but also buying a little bit of our “story” too…. ”I got this from a guy who does the coolest….” …The art fair patron LOVES a good story to go along with their purchase.

I don’t mean B.S. I mean our real stories.

Sometimes we forget just what a wonderful dream we live out by making our living with our wits, skills, imagination, clay, glazes and fire. It’s magic, I tell you.

When we go off on our own into the ether of the internet, there is no such strength in numbers – nothing giving a point of reference to either my quality or even some hint as to who I am. And there’s no story inherent in a picture of product. I believe strongly in building up a winsome marketplace via my site. I believe in telling my story.

And beyond the initial sale, I think the strength of the internet market is in coming up with SOMETHING about your site -- your story -- that will make one potential patron not only buy, but send a website link to their entire forwarding list with a subject heading…”You ought to see this website! This guy’s got the coolest….tells the funniest…” Whatever you’ve got that you think will move at the speed of light from one email address to another to bring them back to your site for more – more product, yes.

More story? … yeah, that too.

So, yeah, I risk embarrassment by going out of my comfort zone and writing creatively to a bunch of strangers. I’m on a high wire without an editor. It’s scary, and perhaps I’ve embarrassed myself without yet knowing it.

But so far it seems to have worked too. And, yes, it’s been a lot of work. Lots of hours writing and re-writing. Lots of hours shooting photographs that aren’t supposed to appeal to an art fair jury (subject for another rambling, boring post – it occurred to me that jury slides are not good marketing tools). But there’s been a great response. And so far it's kept up for more than two years.

Etsy weaknesses:

1. You can’t do the simplest codes in your copy – no italic, no bold, no underline. No nothing. In this day and age that’s inexcusable and unnecessary for a site that should be expecting the expressive descriptions that today’s market demands.

2. No linking outside of etsy. That means if you have published articles in periodicals, or a book, or anything else that might help you tell your story to your etsy audience, you can’t link to them.

3. No reverse linking to your own website. I understand etsy's perspective. But it’s limiting enough that it will quite possibly cause a number of successful artists to leave to develop their own sites because of the editorial inflexibility of etsy.

4. You can’t change the order in which your images appear on your etsy page. If you don’t think ahead as to what might look good together – in good layout fashion – you can’t change it if the overall appearance of your page looks less than it could be if you could but change the images around to put your favorite foot forward.

I'd encourage you to at least give etsy another look. Or not. Your call -- you know how you want to sell.

Friday, November 19, 2010

What Got Me Musing

...last night

I was waiting on a kiln that I knew I wouldn't shut off until after midnight. Meanwhile, I was doing one of my favorite decorating techniques and figured I'd try to capture some of that technique on camera to blog about later. Then I found that I kinda liked one of the images...

...and off I went musing.

Thankfully (it seems from the comments I received) those musings turned out to be channelling the thoughts of lots of other potters and craftsmen out there who seemed to be coincidentally sharing my late-night workshopping. Thanks for reading and for all the kind comments.

Anyway, what I was doing to that pitcher is torching some of the excess moisture out of it so that it wouldn't collapse...

The pitcher's vertical stripes I create by squeezing thick-but-liquid slip over the pitcher and allowing gravity to do its thing -- creating nearly perfectly straight lines.

But I throw my pitchers with walls thin enough so that their weight won't diminish their function. I figure a 2 quart pitcher will gain 4 lbs when filled with liquid. That's enough extra weight that I think it's the potter's job to make the pitcher itself as light as possible.

But a thin pitcher wall means not much structural strength when at the wet clay stage. And when I add the extra moisture of slip to the outside, those thin-walled pitchers collapse every time.

Every time, that is, unless I torch the sides and allow that excess moisture to leave as steam.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Late Night Potting

Maybe, after many years of being tangled in the midst of it, you remember that the choice of a craftsman's life comes down to what attracted you to the arts and to the biz of making stuff and the biz of selling that stuff you make in the first place.

And it might have something to do with whether you are (as I) a hopeless romantic about the incredibly cool processes that many of us go through in the production of our work...

...the smells of linseed oil and turpentine, just cut wood, OM4 ball clay (it smells like chocolate)...

...the visuals of incandescent lit, late-night workshops, floors littered with sawdust or clay shavings, kilns belching two foot flames out of ten foot chimneys, pouring molten metals, or glass pulled from glory holes...

..blistered or cracked and dry but skilled hands that can take materials of next to no value and turn them into something that could -- generations from now -- still be treasured...

...hands guided by eyes educated, not just to see what others miss, but also to convey interesting ideas from that which is less obvious...

...the pleasure derived from slaving night and day, sweating for all you're worth, risking everything you have so that you might master the nearly impossible ... just so that others might enjoy your "gift".

Different thinking people on the road less traveled.

That sort of thing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pitcher Night

With Breeze supervising, I spent last night working on some pitchers -- trying to get caught up with things I'd sold faster than expected between etsy and the North Carolina show. I love making pitchers. Especially when things is workin' ...and they was workin' last night.

I aim for a sense of volume, a true, extremely simple shape, and a distinctive rim and spout unit. This one is in Coleman porcelain. I just got the handle on it...

These two are stoneware. I'll use my bisque leaf stamp on them later today (they've been under plastic overnight and are still pretty sticky)...

Here's a row of porcelain ones...

Then I woke up this morning and logged onto the internet, only to find out that Michael Kline over at the Sawdust & Dirt blogsite and pottery was working on pitchers too...


Thursday, November 11, 2010

Been A While

I need to get caught up here. October was an incredibly hectic month. I fought (and won so far) to keep a junkyard from moving in next door to me. I got ready for a show sooner after my big St James Court gig than I ever had before, and did a GREAT show in North Carolina this past weekend.

All that stuff will require some keypad time. Meanwhile, I will post the following observations....


1. Both flocculation and thixotropy can make clay and glazes either easier or more difficult to work with. It depends on the project, the process, and where you are in it.

2. Just because a dog knows where a mole lives doesn't mean that he can dig that mole up.

3. Banjo rolls don't sound the same on a guitar because or unless what are the bass strings on a guitar are replaced with treble strings and tuned higher.

4. Banjo rolls taste terrible