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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

One Week at Home then Pennsic

Traveling for a living certainly makes things interesting. I think most people probably don't get it. I feel it's similar to the feeling people get when they are leaving for a vacation and there are still 300 details to take care of before stepping onto the plane. We just do it a lot, not as much as we used to, but still more than the average person.

We're in that space now. It's not too bad because we did a lot of planning. I am glazing and firing kilns. Ro has been scrambling to make sure things work out at The Creative Oasis as well as at home. We're figuring out what to do with the kids and the animals and trying to be sure we don't forget anything important for the trip.

All this is being coordinated with Jessa and Elliot who are also doing similar things to prepare to leave for the next show, but in their case from the last show. Elliot has packed down everything from the Kentucky Renaissance Faire and is bringing Jessa's clothing and my pottery north to the PA Renaissance Faire and then splitting the stock and then probably driving to meet Jessa and help pack up the stock she has. Jessa is currently selling clothing and Pottery at Starwood (a festival held at The Brushwood Folklore Center in Sherman NY) and then packing down and bringing that stock to Pennsic. There's a lot of packing, driving and coordinating for all of us.

The best news is we have double the available space for Pennsic this year. Last year we split a 10x20 garage tent. 2/3 pottery 1/3 clothing, plus a checkout and sewing area. It was very cramped. This time we have 2 10x20 tents one will be pottery one will be clothing with a checkout and sewing area in the middle between the two areas. We should have an amazing display.

I'm very excited to see just how much stock we have made for Pennsic. I kept thinking all I had was what we had at Brushwood and a lot of mugs waiting at home, but in reality we have MUCH more. The stock I left at home...fired and unfired, including wee bowls and shot glasses and tasting cups, scale patterned mugs, some more BIG tankards with BIG handles for BIG hands. We also have double handled much stuff!

and I had better get back to glazing...

I've been watching season one of Sanctuary on Netflix while glazing and just found out that Bigfoot, who is kind of a butlerish manservant in the show and John Druitt a teleporting, former love of Dr. Magnus (played by Amanda Tapping from Stargate SG-1) are both played by Christopher Heyerdahl. I had no idea after watching 11 episodes. Impressive.

I am such a geek!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Snakes in the Well

After a long time on the market, we're in the middle of negotiating a short sale on the Erie house. When all the tests were done, we ended up with a high bacteria count in the well and they suggested we "shock" the well. Since the count was probably high just because the water was not being pumped on a regular basis. So Our Mission was to open the well house, take off the well cap, turn off the pump, dump a gallon of bleach into the well, turn the pump back on, and leave it sit for 3 days before running the system clean. We got a big surprise. I lifted the heavy roof off the well house and Rowan said "snakes" I dropped it like a rock, probably scaring the garter snakes out of their minds..but I didn't know if I had a pissed off copperhead at my legs or not...

We had fun with the snakes, there wefre probably betgween 5 and 8 of them, but we couldn't shock the well as we had no ladder or tools and it wasn't as simple as "take the cap off and pour bleach down the pipe" We called the realtor and he said the testing company will do it for us for another $ that took care of that :) Hopefully the second test will go well and we'll be rid of it.

Back From Brushwood

Sometimes our pottery sales take us from the unusual venue of Renaissance Faires into the even more unusual venue of what we call "Pagan" events. Gatherings of folks in the earth focused religions usually liberally crossed with old and new hippies, eco-geeks and young party seekers. In either case it translates to a week of fun where a live-and-celebrate-life social order is created and we can all relax and take a deep breath even while selling and working. This particular festival was at The Brushwood Folklore Center and the festival was called Sirius Rising.

The Merchant area looks more like a tent city than a tightly wound fair of any sort, but the people buy and we can relax and enjoy the sunshine..or the rain, or the horrific storms, or whatever comes our way. Sorry for the fuzziness of some of the phone pics, but phone pics are what they are.

As you can see we roughed it...we camped in a 20x10 garage tent, with a queen size bedframe that holds an air mattress. We also brought a nice kitchen and dined well all week. Crepes, Pancakes (chocolate chili-chip with Caramel Sauce and fresh blueberries) , echildadas, Pad Thai, Portobello Gnocchi, Risotto were a few of the fine meals we experienced. Some simply delicious and others a calculated venture into decadence. I am pleased to say we only bought from food vendors once :)

The wildlife theme of the week was snails and slugs..I've never seen so many. When we packed up the garage tent I spend a few minutes finger-flicking them into oblivion..

One of the highlights of this particular festival is the end of the week bonfire.This year they constructed a huge wooden dragon and burned it on top. It was really fun, but the merchants were all busy watching for falling embers onto their tent roofs. We had a few close calls, but between vigilance and a little sprinkling of rain before the fire everyone survived unscathed.

Overall the week was very relaxing, I bartered for a 90 minute massage and the weather for the first two days was lovely if a bit cool. Thursday and Friday and Saturday were overcast most of the time and the temperature was in the 60's during the day and high 40's at night BBRRRRRER. Good thing we had a fair amount of delightful antifreeze, like Magpie Meads. Magpie makes fantastic mead, a honeywine infused with fruit. I highly recommend sampling a bottle if you live within a state he can legally ship to. Rowan and I both love the Black Raspberry with Blueberry as a close second.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A day to remember

I feel very accomplished. Some problems with my supplier put me about 1 month behind of my production schedule and the biggest shows of the summer start within a couple weeks. I got my act together in a big way this week, I produced over 200 pots including about 80 wee bowls and another 20 shot glasses. Bowls, goblets, bottles tankards and mugs. Here's what I faced and finished.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Follow up

What a day and night. We just finished loading two kilns and I threw 40 mugs this evening after spending the day finishing the flasks, assembling the goblets and wedging 100lbs of clay for mugs and mixing a glaze..

I am grateful for Rowan. After putting in a really hard day at the Oasis, she came home and rallied me to finish what I had to do and worked side by side with me until we were done.

We had a canine visitor today..this lovely little lady wandered into the yard, all mellow and good natured. We have NO idea where she came from, so rather than let her wander out onto the streets and get hit, we called the local police and they delivered her to a local vet who will look after her until the owner comes looking. She was very sweet..and I think quite elderly..gray from her head to her feet.

And speaking of animals, this is Tuna Fish the Cat, waiting at the line..the border to the studio. She knows she isn't allowed in, so she waits right at the door when she thinks we are looking and wanders in when she thinks we aren't. Smart Cat.

A moment of reflection

Last year at this time we were returning from our Honeymoon in Ireland. What a beautiful peaceful time that was. It took me nearly 4 days to slip into vacation mode and I think I managed to hold on to it for about a month after we returned. I swore upon returning that I would find a way to be able to do it again, if not Ireland, then a least a real non-working vacation. So far this year I have not been able to do it. Life throws so many little complications at us.

I am finding it difficult to believe it is July. This year seems to have been a constant struggle. Not a lot of down time and I think I need some..though my failed responsibilities are pressing down on me pretty hard right now. I have a few unpaid bills, not too many, but they are weighty. I have been working hard to bring stock up for the next couple weeks worth of shows, including Pennsic, which is the biggest event we do all year. I've been looking forward to it as something of a lifesaver. If it performs even half as well as last year we'll be all caught up and perhaps a little ahead. If it performs as well as last year we'll really get ahead.

So here is what things look like for us. This week has been a lot of throwing and trimming and adding handles. I did 80 wee bowls, 30 tasting cups, 10 goblets, 20 XL tankards with handles big enough that even the most giant of men should be able to get their whole hands into. 8 ginormous soup mugs, they'll hold about 25oz. I did 7 flasks/Costrels which need to be finished today. I need to mix 2 glazes and glaze a load of work for Sunday so I can ship some of it out on Monday before we leave for Brushwood. I also need to do a bisc kiln before I leave so the work I made this week will be ready to glaze when I get back next week. I should also throw about 100 mugs over the next two days so I can bisc them before I leave and glaze when I get back.

Now while I am doing this, Rowan has been in The Creative Oasis every day keeping it organized and staffed. She's been trying to fill in the gaps in the schedule we will have when we go to these events. There are a few big holes we just haven't figured out how to fill.

On top of all this preparation, It's Arts Festival week so we have upwards of 200,000 visitors coming to town. I'm going to try to take advantage of this by opening our sale tent this weekend, see if I can make a few more sales before I pack it all up and drive away on Sunday.

Then kids are all working extra shifts this week, so they are scarce, but fortunately they'll all have great paychecks.

At some point there will be a vacation.


Oh Ireland I miss you!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Blog EntryMaking a livingJun 27, '09 12:32 PM
for everyone
A few days ago another friend asked me how I make a living as an artist.. so I started jotting down a few ideas about what has worked and is working for me. Not that I have it all wrapped up. Results may and do vary. BUT I'd love to hear others opinions and counter arguments to what I suggest...I think the bigger compendium of tips, tricks and stories available the more likely someone just starting out will have the ability to stay in business.

Making a Living

What I have learned so far...

I am often a little confused when friends of mine tell me how much they admire the fact that I am making a living as a functional potter. When I hear it, my mind races to “BUT I’m not!” but in truth, I am, it just doesn’t always work the way I have it planned. The end of the year numbers say my sales sustained my life, but cash rarely flows, it dribbles in or comes in a flood. I’m working on the problem to create a rapid flow but it is still a work in progress. Which is of course where my instant reaction of “BUT I’m not!” comes from.

I posted some advice on someone else’s blog a few weeks ago some words I meant to be encouraging about respecting your own work by raising prices, developing a price range, keeping a mailing list, and in general making a plan for financial well being. In these comments, I mentioned emergencies happen sometimes and I was having a sale that weekend specifically because I had a BIG electric bill coming due. I received a less than friendly response or maybe it was just short because she was so frustrated with her situation. It comes down to “if these ideas are so great, why do you need to have an emergency sale?” So I had to explain… 3 vehicles broke down at the same time…I have representatives who owe me money for sales who are having a hard time paying because they had emergencies happen too. I don’t feel like most low to medium income families would have fared much better. Very few people have actual accessible reserves.

In any case yet another friend has asked me how to get started, how to make a living at art, so I thought I would write down all the things I have learned and picked up over the years of building the business. Maybe some of it will work for others too.

I want to note that I started out dirt poor, no one to back me, no reserve cash. I spent my last college grant on a pottery wheel. I have lived on less than 8K a year when I first started. Now I am struggling to support a family of 4, narrowly succeeding and the business is growing. It’s my goal to succeed by a wider margin, pay off my debts, afford healthcare and start to make investments for the future. I feel as if I am now on the right track, but it takes time to make changes and grow a business, and so I go, day by day, trying to work smart, then hard and remember to take joy in the small successes and not let the potholes in the road become the gateway to the pit of hell.

The Medium

First, I feel functional pottery has an advantage over sculpture and painting in saleability just as jewelry has us all envious for sales and transport. BUT there are ways to be successful and it comes down to marketing and how you present yourself to your buying public. Currently the US Census website’s population clock says there are 306,742,105 people in the United States and 306,742,105 in the world. All you need is 1/10 of 1% of the people in the U.S. to believe in your vision as an Artist and you would be rich beyond your dreams. There are plenty of people out there to market to. There is a way to follow nearly every dream. However when it comes to salable art I feel it must be understood and accessible by the general public. I feel that the market for “Art for Art’s sake” is small and very few people can compete there. For instance, it’s difficult to sell a person a painting when the theme is an abstract interpretation of violence against women. On the other hand Marsh painters have it pretty easy, lovely peaceful beach scenes, not cutting edge, but we’re talking about making a living, not art for arts’ sake. Ultimately each artist is a business owner with a product. You have to think about your audience. If you live in a coastal area, your audience wants more marsh paintings than you can imagine. I am not an advocate of making a thing purely because it sells. The heart of an artist is rarely commercial and anyone fresh from art school will rebel against the idea of creating products to market to the masses. They want to create and have people fall in love with their creations and make money from it. A young and hungry artist will suffer for a long time just to gain that basic acceptance and confirmation that other people share your vision and taste. There are ways to make money from your art without too much suffering by just thinking of your art as a business first. These are the lessons I’ve learned over the last few years...and I have been struggling at this for around 16 years. Implementing a plan turned my life around and made what I do easier to manage. All the kinks are not worked out yet, but where I couldn’t imagine paying rent a few years ago, I now have a mortgage and own a vehicle I can count on.

Yes, it is production

In order to sell art for a living, you have to constantly make art. Not like you do in school with a piece or ten coming out once a month, but prolifically. For a functional potter this means thousands of pieces, for a painter, it may mean only a few paintings, but hundreds of prints in a variety of size. How many? Ultimately the bottom line has to be in the black. When the bottom line shows black in projected sales and expenses, that’s how much you have to make, market and ultimately sell. My experience is that a new potter will make what they want to and hope people like it. You have to do better than that. Forethought is an absolute necessity. A functional potter has to meet the needs of the community that supports them. The better you meet these needs, the stronger the support you will receive from them. The questions are what does your community need? And how can you let them know you have it?

Here is a list of considerations:

· Do you have a product line? If not, develop a basic product line and then change it as your customer base grows and their needs are defined. The buyers dictate what you will make. Your income needs will dictate how much you produce. You will want to have at least twice your expected sales available. Full displays are more inviting to people than sparse displays. Just two years ago I changed my whole approach to making stock for the shows. I realized that much of my stress was from having to rush to fill a table and I never seemed to be able to pump out enough at the last minute to actually fill the table consequently I had huge gaps in my stock and my sales were low and I was stressed for the last two weeks leading up to an event. So after consulting and discussing the problems with my wife and a dear friend who also represents me at sales events, I made some changes when things normally slowed down for me I kept it in high gear...producing like I had shows coming up the next week and I managed to get way ahead on production of my best selling pieces. At my wife’s insistence I implemented an inventory system and had the various reps report back to me not only a dollar amount, but a detailed inventory list so I would know what was selling and would need to be restocked. A basic business idea, but I didn’t do it before… It has worked out very well. Not only is there very little last minute rushing, but I started the year with an amazing surplus of inventory (20K in January) and have consistently added to it throughout the years as it sells because I am consistently working. Now as I get ready for the last half of the year I am finding time to not only produce my verified sellers, but add new items to the product line.

· How much do you have to sell in order to make a decent living? I mean not just enough to pay your production and show costs and buy dinner on the way home. I mean a living, where the business is paid for and there is profit to pay household bills, buy groceries, pay for the kids’ school lunches, health insurance and make payments on the huge vehicle you will need to get to and from shows reliably. I find that I give up about ½ my retail whether it is in materials, consignment fees, entry fees, gas, equipment upgrades, tools I consistently only keep about 50% of my sales so when I project that I need $25,000 to meet my obligations without sweating, and if I can do more than that there is a possibility of savings and investments. I know I need to create about $50,000 of pottery that will l sell, no questions asked. Most young potters I know can’t conceive of that. They are used to the college requirements which focus on creativity rather than productivity. If your focus remains on pure creativity, you must enter academia. Students coming fresh from college don’t know the true value of what they do, nor the true cost of living. I taught my son the value of money by teaching him how many mugs something costs. At first we did it with full retail price, but as my thinking developed we switched to 50%. Now he’s got a decent grip on how much his $23 worth of gas really costs...a little fewer than 2 regular mugs. His insurance costs me 5 big bowls a month. And now that he wants to work away from home he’s learning about minimum wage and the amount of taxes taken out of a paycheck. That $23.00 in gas costs him 5.5 hours of work after taxes. So how much work do you have to make to meet your financial needs and obligations? It's important, Figure it out. Make a budget, figure out what you have to sell to meet it, and then figure out where you’re going to sell it.

· Pricing. In pottery there are two schools of thought. One is you need to keep the work priced low so that it is accessible to everyone who wants it. The other says you should take the maximum amount the market will bear. I am somewhere in the middle. I found that over time I was making so many mugs at $12 a piece that I couldn’t keep up. Mugs dominated my sales, so I raised the prices, slowly over a couple years and found that my sales didn’t go down…but now I was getting enough money for my efforts in producing over 600 mugs a year that it wasn’t so much of a burden. Now my production in the 5 styles of mugs I do is closer to 800 and I get a minimum of $20 and as much as $50 for pitcher sized ones.

· What is your market? Are you going to do craft fairs? Music Festivals? Galleries by consignment or wholesale? Stores and shops? Can you manage your own shop? Sell from the home? Internet? All of these have their advantages and disadvantages, some cost more and some cost less. Just as with a financial investment, I recommend a diverse portfolio. There are times when arts fairs get rained out, if you are counting on that income exclusively you could be in big trouble. Make sure you have several sources of income working for you at the same time. Thinking ahead and making more than I need has opened up time to do special projects and special wholesale orders without falling behind on the bread and butter items.

I sold at Art fairs for the first few years, and then I found myself making less money and stressing out more, so I switched to something different. Currently I am selling at many Renaissance Fairs and some private medieval events sponsored by The Society for Creative Anachronism. Often there are two or move events scheduled on the same weekend. And I have 2 galleries that carry my work. I want to add some more so I can count on enough income coming in that I never have to schedule an emergency sale again. My last emergency sale was done in my own backyard. I recently moved to an area where I am allowed a home based business, so I have frequent sales throughout the year right out of my house and yard. Once you do it a few times and get used to it, you can have a sale at the drop of a hat. Tent up, tables out, sign in the yard and clean the living room. Hang out on Facebook and wait for the dog to announce visitors in the driveway.

Speaking of Facebook. Right now it is the hottest social network out there and it is a growing to dominate the adult market. It used to be used primarily by teens, but now it’s also used by many adults. I love it and find it invaluable for marketing. Why? searches out your friends and family for you by employment and school listings. These people are the core of your sales potential. Add everyone you knew even if they were not really close to you. After 5, 10, 20 years people have changed and they might just end up your new best customer as well as forge a friendship no one knew was possible back in the day. They’ve already got a piece of your story. “I knew this person when they were in High School, now look at the amazing art they do” People who know you, even as a casual acquaintance are predisposed to wanting something you created. There is pride in knowing someone who does cool things like Art for a living. The best part of FB advertising is that is is viral. If I post a picture of my new work on my FaceBook page and 10 of my friends comment on it, then it is posted on their friends pages too. Everyone who is connected gets to see it. It’s the best type of public exposure, friend to friend, word of mouth via electronic media. FB also offers very well targeted advertising. For Instance, I am currently showing at a Renaissance Fair in Kentucky. So I post on my fan page a link to the renaissance fair website, then take out 2-3 days of advertising, targeting couples, specifically women between the age of 22 and 50 who live within 50 miles of the fair. I choose a nice picture of a pretty piece, set my budget ($5.00 a day) and wait for the the targeted people to click onto the Fan page and become a fan. Then they see the pieces are available at the fair and perhaps they choose to go. If they choose not to purchase at the fair, I now have a way to contact them and let them know fresh pieces are now available at the online sales site.

· What are your costs? Materials costs are incredibly low for a potter if you buy in bulk. I buy 1 ton at a time and go through 3 tons a year. Usually time is your biggest expense. After that it is commissions. Gallery commissions are between 30% and 50%. I believe 30% is too low for a gallery to adequately represent you and stay in business. I believe 50% is wholesale and any gallery charging 50% had better be doing excessive volume for you. Most places will be 40% and it seems to be the key for a long term successful business and is very fair to the artist. Although I have heard artists complain about galleries and their high commissions. Bottom line is, it is worth it. Galleries handle the sales, they man the store, they dust and rotate the work, they pay the electric bill, they are the agents who bring you and your customer together. Most importantly they allow you to be in your studio making more. Time is precious, you can make so many more dollars of stock in the time you would have spent marketing or at a show than it costs you to have a representative either at sales or in galleries.

· How are you going to manage your time? One of the biggest problems I have faced and keep getting questioned about is time management. There are often pressing distractions that keep us from our studios. The kids need something. That pesky non-profit arts organization needs you for something else. The groceries, dishes, housework all press on you for time. The trick is remembering regardless of your self-employed status, you are employed and your inner boss expects you to work 40 hours. You can be flexible to a point. Art is a job you have to take as seriously as any other job. You have to go and your productivity has to be high. It’s not for the boss, it’s for you. If you fail to produce today, 3 months from now you will feel the pinch. One of the problems people face is always waiting until the last minute to finish their work and look for events to participate in. When you are an artist you need to think 6 months to a year ahead. Have your promotional materials ready, have your stock made, have your applications in and on your calendar marked.

· Your customers and relationships. Let me sum it up, keep, nourish and cherish each one. One piece of art is rarely enough and when it is seen by friends of customers you often have a case of viral marketing. Word of mouth is powerful and personal. Your customers are people who share at least some of your artistic vision. They are more than just a dollar. They are years of support for what you do. Most customers want more than the art, they want a little piece of the artist. You’re selling a piece of your story with every piece of art you sell. Make sure you have a little bit of story to give to them. A brochure, something to give the customer a connection to you. Take names and addresses, make a connection. Send them a thank you email, a birthday card, an artist’s update. Do anything to stay in touch. Show your gratitude. Don’t be afraid to give something away as a thank you for large orders or offer a discount on the next purchase.

How to sell your art: Person to Person. You’ve got to be willing to talk. Show them a little of the story that comes with each purchase. I often see Artists of every medium sitting beside a booth void of customers reading a book. They rely on the potential customer to make the sale for themselves. Which sometimes will work, but often you need to add some human touch. I’ve found that being active and greeting people -saying “Good Morning” making eye contact and smiling will often make a walk-by browser take a real interest in what’s in your booth. The other thing is that people who are in your booth at all are predisposed to buying, your job as a salesperson is to validate their inclination. They may waver based on funding, but they’re already interested. Start a conversation, find out why they’re interested and give them enough “Story” to validate their purchase for them.

It’s not everything, but it is a start. I hope some of these ideas help. As I have implemented these ideas into my plan, I’ve seen my sales increase every year, even in these tough times!

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