What a difference a year makes! It has probably been about a year since I last wrote a blog post and much has changed. When I began my pottery odyssey six years ago, I had no template into which to fit my learning arc. Before the moment I chose to become a potter (and it was a moment, a split-second decision, while walking across a park), it had never entered my head that this was a route I might take. I had never touched clay, I didn’t know any potters, I didn’t know what it meant to be a potter. My only reference point was the manufactured ceramics that I used at home as a child growing up. Looking back now, it seems a strange decision that I took! I was going to say that it came out of nowhere but no idea or decision really comes out of nowhere, even if it appears that way.
I wanted to work on a wheel because I wanted to make multiples of things but that was pretty much all I knew at the beginning. The first thing I did was to sign up to an adult education 10 weeks’ pottery course at my local community arts centre, Hive, here in Bradford. I made some slab built bowls and realised immediately that I wanted to be on the wheel. Along with that pottery course, the other thing that I did was start this blog, which has charted my progress and failures, thoughts and inspirations over the years. It meant that I started to photograph my early pots for the blog. Six months later, I was happily surfing the internet looking for pottery-related activities and came across the site of the British Craft Trade Fair (BCTF). I had a look around and signed up for the newsletter. Two hours later, I received a phone call from Margeret Bunn, who runs BCTF, offering me a stand at the next fair. I had two questions: how much was it going to cost and when was it? £500 and in six weeks were her answers. Well, what was I going to do now that I had been offered this opportunity? My logic at the time was, if I wanted to make a go of it, I needed to throw myself in at the deep end. So, I did. My range included five pieces, the largest of which was a cereal bowl.
This chance encounter with the BCTF was the bow that fired my pottery trajectory. As I said before, I had no template from which to construct a business model, I didn’t know what the options were. So, I fell into trade. Also, I felt strongly that I was making tableware and, therefore, it needed to be used and to be affordable. There is a video of me somewhere online espousing the need for every day, affordable ware. In a previous blog post, I wrote about how Bernard Leach is partly to blame for this erroneous assumption that handmade pottery should be cheap. That is what he promoted and a lot of people fell in behind him. The fact that it took his workshop in excess of 20 years to turn a profit, and, even then, that was down to his son, David, didn’t stop people from questioning his business nous.
Pricing is such a difficult question. Trade means that, say, for a £24 mug (retail) I would get £10 wholesale. So, for every mug sold at a public fair, I would need to sell, pretty much, 2 and a half mugs trade for the same price. Take a plate as another example. Plates are notoriously hard to make. Many potters don’t make plates, others that do make them with flat bottoms. This means that when making their plates they will push the clay out on the wheel to make their flat plate and then they will leave the bottom of the plate as it is straight off the wheel head, untouched, or they will tidy up the edges of the bottom underneath with a small amount of turning. My plates, on the other hand, are fully turned underneath, giving them a beautiful, sculptured finish, with a lovely, clean white circle traversing the underneath. It, also, takes weight out of the plate. But this adds time to the making process – time in the turning itself but, in addition, hidden time in the looking after the clay during the drying process to make sure that it is in the optimum condition for turning. I have learnt, usually the hard way, that the condition of the clay at each moment in the making process is vital when it comes to how receptive it is to being worked. But that is only the half of it. When it come to glazing, the turned foot needs to be precisely waxed to keep away the glaze, then, once dipped in the glaze bucket, neatly wiped to preserve the clarity of the sweep of the line. I have been selling my plates for £34 to the public, when I sell them to trade I get £14. That is a lot of time, effort and skill going into a plate for £14. Many times, I was told that my prices were too cheap but when you are starting out all you see are your making flaws and failures. I didn’t have the bravado to say that I should charge what I think people will pay. What happens, then, is that to make up the income you take on more and more trade orders. For three years, the workshop schedule was booked up 14 months in advance. That is a very hard thing to manage as there is no leeway whatsoever, every day is scheduled and if you miss a day or a week, or more, then that creates chaos in the diary. It also means that you can’t factor in anything spontaneous or unscheduled. It is total rigidity. I found it extremely stressful and the working hours increased exponentially. The more work that I took on, though, I just about started to make the beginnings of a basic income.
I am now six years on and I can see the strides that I have made in terms of my ability as a potter, the quality of the pots that I am making improving. The improvements are in all the details: the way the foot is turned, the weight and balance of the pot, the waxing of the foot and galleries to leave a clean finish after the glaze firing, the quality of the turning – the handles, the rims… The looking after the clay, so that as it dries it is in the optimum condition, glaze consistency to create the required surface finish. I feel so much more confident in the finished pot and the processes that have gone in to make that pot. I now know what my pots are, what makes a Dove Street Pottery pot. I, also, know and appreciate what is involved in the process of making each pot from the initial lump of raw clay to the finished glazed piece. Each piece is lovingly and laboriously cared for. And I hope this shows itself in each pot.
I thought that the answer to growing a pottery business was to make more and more pots that were on the cheaper side. Now I am not so sure. On my own, and with rather limited time this year in the workshop due to family circumstance, I cannot make the quantities that I was making. But I don’t want to either. As a single potter working alone, the number of pots that I can make is limited, resulting in each pot being lavished with attention. This, coupled with the opening of my eyes to the value of what I am making, has meant that I have increased the price of my pots. The price increase is a leap from where it was before but I feel that this is a true reflection of the cost and value of the pottery. I feel the cost of the pottery should reflect the skill and labour that has gone into each piece created by hand, and the aesthetic quality, too. Each pot is created as an object of sculptural beauty absent from tableware that you can buy on the high street. That aesthetic beauty, that functional beauty, that pleasure located in touch through finger and lip is what I strive for every day.