Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Lobby for a Hobby

My brother remains persistent with his questions. Must be love. 

Every time I openly wonder out loud about navigating the maze that is making a living via pottery, no matter how I frame it, the response comes from the assumption that I am needing more places to sell my work. "Have you tried galleries? ...have you tried Etsy? ...have you tried open houses? ....have you tried....?"

The latest: My brother just asked if I might approach Hobby Lobby about putting a stand of my pottery in their store.

I think what it comes down to is the problem I've always had and always will have: The reality is that I probably don't need multiple markets. Multiple means of marketing are so confounding. They defeat each other, and ultimately, they defeat the one thing that means the most to my annual income: How many pots can I make in a year (and guessing the right ones to make)?

This has always been hard to wrap my mind around. Being a potter doesn't work like most businesses wherein if you need more product to sell, you simply order more. In my case, if I need more inventory, I have to make it. And whichever means by which I chose to market cannot monopolize too much of my production time.

And the other side of that equation isn't easy either. That is, if I'm perpetually out of inventory, I can't simply raise my prices (as the corporate businessman would surmise). The market is too small and the alternative too multiple and it always will be. I'm amazed sometimes that I get the prices I get for my pieces. I started as a twenty-year-old no-name with $6 mugs. I sell mugs for $42 now. But it's not like I can simply raise my prices. The market won't bear it. 

Besides, even that is a trap that's hard to navigate. That is: The price of a piece isn't what I can sell it for. The price of a piece is what I can regularly sell it for. So, sure, I can sell one pitcher for, say. $130. Knowing my market as I do, I'd say that wouldn't be that hard to do…

…But the problem is that I most likely can't ALWAYS sell pitchers for $130. The art fair market is uneven – spread as it is over a crazy quilt of demographics, geography, and quality variables. There are “A” shows and there are “C” shows. And those shows are spread out over an uneven landscape of regional expectations ($130 isn’t even beer money in NY, but it’s a week’s groceries in AL). And if you’re not guaranteed a season of “A” shows, your pricing has to reflect your dependence upon “B” shows.

So, if I want to look at, say, a pitcher as a viable "product", I have to figure out how much of my annual income I can make from pitchers (perhaps $3,000 a year?) and calculate whether or not I'm still meeting that annual goal at the current price. I have to find a price at which a pitcher will always sell in any market, and that price has to pay me what I need from it -- annually.

And if I can't make enough from the pitcher (maybe I conclude that it requires too much labor for the price I can charge) then I have to be calculating enough to decide not to make it.

All the while I have to understand that all these lines are quite blurred by the fact that the pottery itself doesn't stay constant. I have good firings and bad and everything in between. And in some markets I'm John Bauman -- known, published potter....and in other (most) markets I'm just one other potter offering pitchers on the street with 25 other potters doing exactly the same thing.

Finally, add to that the fact that it is part of my genetic coding to be more driven by significance than I am by security. That is, it’s hard for me to be calculating about what I should and shouldn’t be making. Honestly? ….if I like to make pitchers (and I do), I am likely going to continue to make them to satisfy my soul. Economics be damned. And, yes, that means I’ll have to work harder somewhere else to pay myself for my pitcher time. It’s not science. But it is survival.

In short: I keep forgetting until reality smacks me in the face that there's really only one thing that matters to my bottom line: How many pots can I make in a year? I am RARELY in need of more market -- more ways to sell my pots. I am USUALLY trying to catch up with my inventory.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Never the Twain Shall Meet

And still the conversation with my brother continued (see previous two posts):

Said another way: "I wish I were an artist/writer/musician" is just that -- a wish. It's not a hope. It has no basis in reality. It completely misses the point that if you were an artist/writer/musician, you would already be writing, p
ainting, or playing music.

Most of us Americans get tangled up in the misunderstanding that writer/artist/musician means you get paid for it. The reality is that quite possibly most writers/artists/musician either don't get paid for their work, or they don't get paid enough to make a livelihood from them.

Now, to the American mind, that can only be understood one way: If you are a "professional" you are good. if you are an "amateur" you are not good.

But without even trying I could name 20 guitar players who are better musicians than almost any guitar playing star you might want to name. And I know artists who never even show their work, though it is stellar. And writers? omg. There are so many people out in this world right now who can express themselves in written word but couldn't sell the first page.

Nobody wishes themselves into "being" a writer. They write. Some can sell that writing. Some can't.

Nobody wishes themselves into "being" an artist. They simply create. Some can sell what they create. Some cannot.

Nobody wishes themselves into "being" a musician. They make music. Some can sell their music. Some never give a concert to anyone but their cat.....and even that, not too often. It's hard to get a cat to stay in the bathroom with you.

Brotherly Conversation Continued (from previous post)

  The conversation with my brother continued:

I have a friend -- a literary critic and writer -- who has a term for the "significance" thing. He refers to the impetus behind being a real writer, artist, musician...whatever the creative being "obligate". I
t's something you can't not do.

I have people approach me all the time expressing their wish to be an artist. It's a weird longing. It's a weird inquiry. In a sense, you either are or you aren't. You're either already doing creative pursuits or you aren't an artist.

I didn't start making pottery because I thought it would sell. I started making pottery because it was such a rewarding creative endeavor by which I could express myself.

It was in the creating -- the making -- that it became obvious that people might also be interested in what I was making. The dog wagging the tail is to be making and discover there is a market. The tail wagging the dog is looking at the market when you don't have anything new to offer it.

I still pursue other creative outlets. I'm obligate. I need to play music. I need to write. There is no market for either. I get it that most male Americans will never understand that.

My songwriter friends have almost universally experienced this. They'll be playing a gig and someone will approach them after they've sung one of their originals. And the question asked is always something like "Is that a real song, or did you just make that up?"

It's a real divide. I get it that folks like me who can't not play music or write poems are a rarity. Most of America thinks (without thinking) that art as a career is some straight line career choice. It's usually not. It usually isn't pursued as a career. It is pursued because the pursuit itself lends meaning and significance to life.

On some level I get it. Most of us are culturally bound to the idea that the only thing worth pursuing is something to which we can affix a dollar compensation for. And so we say "I wish I could make a living by doing something cool that would make other people admire me" ....and one of those things we dream that people admire is the creative arts. That was certainly true for me.

But the "Catch 22" of the whole thing is that if you aren't already pursuing the arts because you have to, then you have almost no chance that you are going to successfully experience them for a living.

The market for commercially viable trinkets'n'things is positively glutted with foreign import crapola that can be bought for next to nothing.

No smart craftsman is even going to attempt to compete in that market that is already suitably served by the mass-produced.. If that's what a fella's bent was in the first place, they'd have likely pursued manufacturing or engineering.

City of Brotherly...Questions

My brothers mostly don't get me. They all followed more "professional" paths (one's a pilot, one's a periodontist, one's an accountant). My world seems strange to them.

Upon seeing me sharing my potter-friend's images on facebook, one brother asked me:

"I wonder after seeing some other peoples' pottery on your website .. to what extent do you have to "stay in your lane" in your designs?"

His question already betrays a businessman's "product" perspective of the pottery. Commodity. Objects for sale in a competitive market. That's the world as he sees it.

I answered:

.... On the one hand, there's lots of sharing. Something you learn pretty early on in pottery is that you make yourself an island at your own risk. Clay is taken right out of the ground and, as such, one acre of clay isn't the same as the previous acre. There are always materials problems to solve. Heck, I've lost the better part of a year's production when feldspar started being pulled out of a different section of the mine.

So, there's a great attitude of sharing among potters. If you don't share information when others are struggling and trying to solve clay problems, you're going to be on your own when you suffer your own clay problems.

With some potters there's a clearly shared influence -- like "schools" -- so that some potters' work can look similar to others'.

Additionally, glaze recipes are handed down in a very folk-traditional way. So, many of us use the same glazes. Of course, our idiosyncratic kilns make it so that the same glaze isn't always recognizable as the same.

But at it's core, most potters I know are part business man and part artist. I heard someone describe mankind as having two basic drives: Security and significance.

I think that what drives the potters I know is the significance thing. And because of that, outright copying at the level of shows I do is pretty minimal. There's not much personal significance to be derived from outright imitation.

Like the moon's light we'll shine
Many a time
But like the sun's?
Maybe once.

There are a few obvious exceptions, but most of us got where we are by being recognized as unique. That also means that nobody is going to climb the ladder to the top using the same rungs we used to get here. It wouldn't work.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Letter From Doug

Hi John,

I remember you once used the metaphor that your life so often seems like one of those tile puzzles that moms give their kids to keep them quiet and awake in church.

I get it now. Really, I do. I've been years now trying to pick a tile to start with, assuming that perhaps there is one right beginning move that will spare me the regret and consequences of wrong moves. I'm now guessing that's not the case.

Life doesn't really seem to allow ample time to sort the puzzle tiles into proper sequence at my convenience. The clock is running. And the tiles are coming flying at me more like a game of tetris.
But (I think, anyway) sometimes a fella just has to start moving the tiles around until some sort of order starts to appear. Then it's work from there in hopes that you don't come to what seems like the end, only to realize there are two tiles that need to be reversed --- but that reversal can only happen by disrupting at least two finished rows.

...and you're not sitting in church...
...and the tiles are, you know, something of great consequence.

I think I finally figured out that I only have one first move: I have to sell the house and shop. Until that happens, I don't know what I have left to work with. I can make contingency plans out the wazoo, but the reality is that those plans are always based on moving targets themselves...

(I could buy this other small house if it's still on the market and I have enough from the sale of my house to complete the sale AND rebuild the kiln and shop....

....Or I could move into a mobile home if I have nothing left but Social Security and a grocery store shelf stocking job available to make ends meet).

White Christmas opens with that treacly song "What Do You Do With A General (When He Stops Being A General)?" I'm facing a reality that the romantic in me had never really supposed would happen, though I should have been adult enough all along to have allowed my inner William James to beat back my inner Walt Disney, and drag me back to the real world.

What do you do with a potter when he stops being a potter?

I always thought that someone as accomplished in his field as I have had the good fortune to become would be able to trade somewhat on his notoriety as the prospects of survival on sheer, brute productivity naturally waned with youth. I was wrong.

Reputation, skill, and experience don't count for anything if they aren't reputation, skill, and experience in a field that matters.

The clay world has been a wonderful, rewarding world in which to make a living. It is, however, largely anachronistic at its core, demanding in its production, and has a value that is ultimately tied to notions of both function and its inherently humble raw materials.

Maggie and I will figure it out because that's what people do. People figure things out. The instinct to survive is strong right up until it isn't.

I don't know if it's my inner Walt Disney or a modicum of grace from the graceless James, but I will not be selling my pottery equipment, no matter where I end up. It may end up in storage, but I will hold onto it so that I might allow myself the conceit that I am still a potter ( even if I am on a sabbatical of indeterminate length). I think that's called "hope" (I've always had trouble distinguishing "hopes" from "wishes". Perhaps that's how I ended up where I am today).

Thanks for the mix CD you sent. The music is great. For forty years we've shared those two constants -- music and pots.

Give my best to Dar, Breeze, and Crush,


Saturday, August 24, 2019

It Happened Down In Birdland

The fever of humid Hoosier summer finally broke yesterday and I’ve been enjoying the shop today with the windows pushed wide open.

Just now I had to turn off my audible book. As much as I’m enjoying the novel, the redbird in the burning bush thirty feet outside the window over my wheel is singing a song far more compelling than Leif Enger’s words. That’s saying something. Leif Enger is one of my favorite authors. But, God, how this bird can sing.

This morning the catbird stopped by for a visit. I was standing at the glass of the shop’s front door when I saw the little polyglot perched silently in the redbud branch a mere four feet and a pane of glass away. He dropped down to the sidewalk and hopped around a bit. 

I talked to him. I tried to convince him to stay. I pointed out the huge maples, the shrubs, the climbing hydrangea – all great places for a catbird to hang out. Then I confess it – I played the guilt card with him. 

“Look” I said, “I know I threatened to cut it down last year, but here it still is. I didn’t get rid of it. I saw how you liked it. You could still, you know, use it.”

I was talking about the crab apple tree that umbrellas my shop and drops fruit that makes a general mess of the driveway 8 months out of the year and barely makes up for that with a week's worth of blooming in Spring.

He was standing under it. Last year his family used it for nesting. It seemed to work out well for them. And for my part, I never had such a great selection of free music since the days of Napster.

I know it’s past catbird singing season, but I just thought if I could convince him to stay, he might start to think about this place as his regular summer home. Free music is something worth fighting for.

Monday, August 5, 2019

The By-Ways

It's become one of my favorite drives in this big country -- taking the cross-country, blue highway drive across Minnesota and Iowa.

The long way home.

Yesterday I followed the storm home (caught up with it just outside Chicago) and it gave me a light show to beat all. All the way across the prairie the sun dappled the fields with shafts of light through the breaking clouds.

If Ireland is green then Minnesota in summer must be Ireland.

There's a beautiful passage not too far south of the Twin Cities where the highway dips down into the Minnesota River valley and enters a little town called Henderson (pop. 874).

When life gets hard enough that I need to go somewhere pleasant in my mind, it will probably be to Henderson on a summer morning when the fog is still covering the low ground around the city park by the river, while the 150 year old brick main street rises above.

Henderson's Andy Taylor will have a Minnesota accent, but the same slow, deliberate style. The humor won't make me laugh. It will make me smile. And that for a very long time.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Hold the Dolby

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.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Me & David

Me and David*
*David is and always was unaware our our 30 year "collaboration" and may or may not have approved. ;)

Sunday, June 2, 2019


This is a pretty good metaphor in picture. There's been no bigger encouragement in my life of creative endeavors than my sister, Jackie, pictured here letting me out of an antique Wells Fargo trunk.

I'm guessing it's fairly unusual to have a sibling as such an encourager.

I mean, our siblings are the ones we grow up with. Our siblings know our weaknesses better than anyone else in the world does. They grew up sharing the medicine cabinet in which we hid our Clearasil, they saw our tantrums, they smelled our gym clothes.

Similarly, our siblings look out at the world from a same shared perspective that sees all the accomplished, smart, talented, creative people in the world and measures our collective selves -- our family -- not quite as accomplished, smart, talented, or creative. If you're one of us, you must be as ordinary as we are.

Our families see the errors by which we learn. It's hard to see past them. We don't see those same errors that were the avenue to success in the accomplished others.

But somehow Jackie heard the 6-8 year-old me tooting melodies poorly on dad's harmonica and she was the first to buy me a Yamaha chromatic harmonica of my own.

Somehow Jackie heard the 10-11 year old me stumble through Paul Simon and Peter, Paul, & Mary songs on a borrowed guitar and heard enough good to think me a guitarist worth listening to.

And when the only way I could cope with the rhymes and words and thoughts that crowded my mind as I worked at the wheel was by typing them into a blog, it was Jackie who first called me a "writer". And then she even compiled some of my early musings into a book.

So, yeah, the image of her letting me out of the trunk is apt. It's a good metaphor. I wish everyone could have a Jackie in their lives who sees more good than bad in them, who sees something worth encouraging and nourishing in them, who would tell them that no matter what else the world was saying about their creative offerings, there is still at least one person in that world who sees great value -- and who opens up the trunk for them and unleashes them on the world.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

It's A Wonderful Life

I took a break from making these to go across town to the art fair and say hi to my friends exhibiting there.

While there I bumped into Mark. I see Mark once every ten years or so since we both graduated from college back in the '70s. Odd that in a town as small as ours I don't run into him more frequently.

Anyway, every time I see Mark I'm prone to wonder about how things might have been. See, when the potter who gave me my start back in '76 was looking for an apprentice to help him out, I wasn't the first student he called. Mark was.

When I see Mark I always wonder what I might have become if Mark had been more interested in making pottery. I might be a rich stock broker or a famous musician today.

Damn you, Mark.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Sun Magic

If you spend a lot of time in the woods as I do, you've probably at some point observed a phenomenon I witnessed this morning.

It was early morning, so the sun was just over the horizon, but it was a curiously burning orange ball. I could see the sun if I looked to the east and found a break in the forest. Mostly, though, I couldn't see the sun for all the trees surrounding me.

It was also just late enough in the morning that the sky overhead was a combination of open blue and slightly overcast gray.

As I walked through the woods, almost everything in my field of vision was lighted cool -- reflecting the blue and gray of the sky above.

But -- and here's the phenomenon I'm talking about -- as I rounded a bend in the trail, deep in a surround of heavy underbrush was what appeared to be a glowing-orange campfire blazing.

It wasn't a campfire. Obviously. But what it was was a small spot of brush that was being illuminated by the orange sun I could not see. Somehow, through one small tunnel in all the tree's umbrella and past all the underbrush, the sun had found a way to light up one small bush in the middle of the darkest part of the morning forest.

There should be a name for that phenomenon. I'll have to come up with one.

Anyway, curiously that sun is still orange at midday. I'm guessing there must be something huge going on to the west that has cast debris way up into the atmosphere. That's what this color sky usually means.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Honorable Work

The world's gatekeepers have lost control of the gates. In some ways an argument could be made that they served us well. In the examples that come to mind wherein one didn't get to be a gatekeeper without some special understanding of the thing he was keeping in or out -- either by education or seniority or some other meritorious route -- we were treated to a comfortably homogeneous menu from which we could pick the already culled servings. If we look at the best offerings on the menu, we conclude the gatekeepers did their job. If we look at the worst offerings, though....

We now live in a time where we can put creative products out to a world and leapfrog right over the gatekeepers. Josh Turner has done that with great success. He just started youtubing as a 13-year-old sorta prodigy and his videos caught on. People have been successfully self-publishing ebooks. The success rate is low. Josh Turner is one in a billion.

But really, exposure is the name of the game. There are still gatekeepers, but you're not going to get past them. Really. You aren't. Maybe you already know that. Maybe you know your song isn't pop enough for a recording studio to offer you a contract. Maybe you know that your book isn't of broad enough interest (maybe you write about pottery ;) )) for an actual publisher to take you on. Maybe you aren't going to get your paintings in a reputable NY gallery.

The real gatekeepers still need to make money and you're not their ticket. The only way you can prove your worth to them and the market is exposure. And getting exposure has traditionally been a humbling, grovelling activity. 

For some reason it seems to make some of us feel better to ridicule both the grovellers and the ones trying to give them a hearing. Maybe such ridicule is a reflexive rationalization for our own lack of facing that conundrum head on.

Sometimes that ridicule comes framed in the soft language of "Oh, I don't need validation."
Well, while that one's being painted, color me skeptical.

Maybe what I'm saying is that the gatekeepers aren't gone. They still exist and they still matter. But the system is tiered. And your only hope for getting to the gatekeepers is this grovelling for exposure. Not many are discovered anymore. Most people grovel. And I think such grovelling is honorable. It's striving. It's trying.

 So, God bless the open mic host.

And God bless the songwriter who walks through the door with a song to share. He's not seeking fame. He doesn't want to feel important. He wants to feel real.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Speaking In Tongues

Pottery seems to be a bit like speech. It comes in many different languages -- even different families of languages (just as language has Romance, Semitic, Indo-European families). And those languages sometimes break into dialects and accents with their distinct colloquialisms and conventions.

That's not particularly illuminating. It's obvious really.

What's interesting to me is the degree to which, just as I might enjoy the sound of a language without understanding a word of it, I can enjoy the look of a pot without fully "getting" it.

I can't do a convincing British accent, though I understand the words. Okay, I usually understand the words. 

But, unusually, I can affect a reasonably good French accent, though I don't understand a word of it.

But it's nearly impossible for me to produce a pot I don't understand....though, I don't fully understand the pots I make.

Thursday, May 16, 2019


There’s a laugh we blurt out upon being surprised. And there’s a laugh we do to keep from crying. We know that one too well. But there’s even a laugh that springs unbidden from revulsion. Much of modern comedy goes for that cheap one and counts on our confused emotions to keep us from sorting the categories sufficiently to realize we’ve been had. We’re laughing, right? Must be funny then, right?

Maybe. But maybe not really.

Dar was on a trail in the woods and Breeze and I were about 20 feet away on a parallel trail when I heard her loud, “Eww!!! “…followed by an uncomfortable laugh. Then she hollered, “Come here, you gotta see this!”

So Breeze and I cut through the brush and made our way over to Dar’s side. She was looking down at what appeared for all the world to be the hind end – butt and tail – of a pine squirrel that had managed to only get halfway into a hole of safety before getting smashed flat.

That’s what it looked like.

Upon rolling that squirrel half over with my shoe, however, I realized that it was ONLY the hind end of the squirrel. Some owl or hawk had been dining on the squirrel high above and had dropped the latter half to the ground. Serendipity had arranged the optical illusion of the burrowing squirrel sticking half out of a hole.

Later this same morning, while walking three abreast on the paved portion of greenway that parallels the creek just before it flows into Winona Lake, we were startled by the loud flutter of two mallards – a drake and his missus – that cleared our heads by only a few feet as they flew past us.

And just as quickly as we saw them fly past, we watched as they pitched into the creek twenty feet away. In quick succession – one, two, they hit the water. And they did what I’ve never before seen a duck do. They hit the water diving. 

The creek was high, flowing fast, and opaque with silt as it had been raining for days. We couldn’t see the ducks as they dove beneath the muddy surface of the water, but split seconds later the drake popped to the top.

The missus didn’t.

I kept watching. Waiting.

Still the missus didn’t surface.

I reluctantly walked away. Nothing could be done. But our walk had us circling back. A half hour later there sat the drake in the same spot creekside. Waiting.

Try as we might with prose, poem, or song, we could never tell a story as desperately sad or cruel as nature herself tells.