PPP: Walking the Balance Beam

March 1, 2002
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For many of today’s potters, the pottery business is a constant struggle between making artwork and making a living—but the rewards often outweigh the challenges.

Tom Turner puts finishing touches on a pot.
Unless you’re a hobbyist with a full-time job in another field or have the luxury of an inexhaustible bank account, you’ve no doubt struggled with the concept of trying to be both creative and financially successful. According to Tom Turner and his wife, Gail Russell, co-owners of Peachblow Pottery in Lewis Center, Ohio, balancing art and business is a challenge shared by just about every potter. And they should know—between the two of them, they have over 70 years of experience making and selling pottery. Both have their master of fine arts degrees and are highly acclaimed in the world of contemporary art pottery. Their work is featured in many books written in the U.S., Canada, England, Spain and Taiwan, and their pots are in public and private collections throughout the U.S., including the Smithsonian Institution.

Yet despite their experience and their success, the dichotomy remains. “How do we produce our best art and still make a living? That’s our constant challenge. And there is no easy answer,” Turner says.

Gail Russell enjoys her time at her potter’s wheel.

The Importance of Education

According to Turner, finding the right balance between work and art varies for each individual. “It’s really just the nature of the business that everyone has to learn his or her own way,” he says.

But, he adds, education—both for the potter and consumer—often plays a key role in achieving success. “My advice to anyone else in this business is that they need all the training they can possibly get—a BFA, an MFA, and if they can get some business classes that would also help,” he says.

“They should also talk to as many people as possible who are in the business,” Russell adds.

Both Turner and Russell began their careers with an extensive education. Turner received his undergraduate degree in art from Illinois State University in 1968, and earned his master of fine arts degree from Clemson University in 1973. Russell earned her bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Evansville in 1976, and her master of fine arts degree from the University of Illinois in 1981.

But their education wasn’t limited to their classrooms—both Turner and Russell independently studied other pottery that they admired. Russell spent a year traveling throughout Western Europe and studying British potters, and also spent some time working in Mayan Indian villages in Mexico, near the pottery center of Ticul, while Turner studied and collected 19th century pots and spent time with a number of southeastern folk potters. Many of these influences can be seen in their pottery.

Turner and Russell have also spent a great deal of time sharing their knowledge and experience with students and other potters. Turner established a ceramic art program for the College of Architecture at Clemson University in 1971, and since then has taught at leading craft schools throughout the U.S., including Penland, Arrowmont and The Archie Bray Foundation. He has also taught over 125 workshops. Russell taught ceramics at the University of Illinois as a graduate student, and also taught at the University of Evansville and the Delaware County Cultural Arts Center. According to Turner, the couple is frequently asked by local colleges and artists to teach classes, but they don’t have the space. They do, however, often host tours of their studio, with in-depth explanations of their processes, as well as demonstrations.

But it isn’t just the potter or would-be potter who needs to be educated—it’s also the consumer. And according to Turner, today’s universities aren’t doing an adequate job of making people appreciate handmade pottery. “Universities pretty much quit teaching the art of the potter a number of years ago. As a result, they also quit educating buyers. Many of our buyers have tried to make pottery, so they appreciate the feet and form, and the lips and glazes, but we’re seeing less of that because many of the universities have switched to sculpture instead.

“The best pots that I can make, I want them to stand the test of time. I don’t want them to be valuable just in 2002— I want them to be good in 100 years. And I want the people who buy my pots to appreciate that level of quality,” he says.

Although both Turner and Russell would like to see universities integrate more pottery into their programs, they have noticed that in many cases, local art centers are stepping in to fill the void. “We’ve been seeing a lot more art centers cropping up, and in every art center that we know about, the clay classes pretty much keep them in business. They’re all very full, and that’s great news,” Russell says.

Additionally, first-time buyers of high-quality pottery often come to appreciate handmade pottery simply through visiting Peachblow Pottery’s studio. “Often we’ll get new customers who might not be used to buying a high-quality handmade piece for a little more money, so they might start out with something small. But over the years, as they visit us and learn to appreciate what we’re doing, they kind of step up little by little and begin buying larger pieces or a more special or one-of-a-kind pieces. It’s nice to see that happen,” Russell says.

An 8 x 8 in. porcelain bottle vase, made by Tom Turner. The vase was decorated with an oxblood glaze and lithium zinc crystals and fired to Cone 9 in a reduction atmosphere.

Catering to Customers

Of course, having an educated customer is just one aspect of making sure your pottery sells. According to Turner and Russell, you also need to make sure that consumers know about your pottery—and that you’re making products consumers want to buy.

In many cases, Turner says, where you live determines what types of products you’ll be able to sell. “We sell coffee mugs all the way up to large pieces, ranging from $10 to $600 each. And I think that’s relative to this market. We chose to live here, and these are the types of pieces that the local people are looking for. If I just wanted to make all $600 pieces, I wouldn’t sell enough.

“Our products might sell better in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, but we don’t want to live there. So we have to deal with that,” Turner adds.

Potters who want exposure to markets in other cities can develop relationships with galleries and attend art shows, and both Turner and Russell have had a great deal of experience with those venues. But difficulties with these arrangements include packaging and shipping the products and having to split the profits with the gallery or show host.

For that reason, the couple decided to begin retailing all of their products from their own shop when they moved to Lewis Center in 1986. According to Turner, the shop is open just about every day of the week, whenever one of them is home. “It’s evolved to where we’re now selling the majority of our pots here, and we want more of that,” Turner says. “If we can sell all the pots we can make here, then there’s no reason to go to the shows or ship to the galleries. It’s really more enjoyable to sell out of our own gallery.”

“Generally, there are also more pieces to choose from,” Russell adds. “And most people like to come and see how and where the pieces are made.”

“People want to see what we’re all about,” Turner says. “They see our home, they see the studio and our gardens. Gail keeps bees and I’ve got a little wine vineyard. They buy a total package. We sometimes say that they buy a piece of us when they buy one of our pots, and seeing where we live adds to that,” Turner says.

But with the added convenience and pleasure of selling from their studio has come a greater need for the couple to market themselves.

“We don’t get a lot of walk-in traffic, so we have to encourage people to come here,” Turner says. “We have open houses twice a year where we send out a direct mail invitation to around 1800 people on a mailing list that we’ve compiled over the last 15 years during other open houses. Additionally, Gail has continued doing local shows, which also brings more people to our studio. We are also investigating a little bit more advertising to get more people coming here.”

Their marketing efforts have been successful—the couple sells almost every piece they make, averaging around 1000 to 1200 pieces per year each, and most of the pieces are purchased from their own gallery. But like everything else, marketing remains a constant challenge.

“Making pots is the joy—we love it. Marketing is the difficult part of the business. We’ve survived all these years, so it’s not that we’re not doing it right. It just hasn’t gotten easier,” Turner says.

A 4 in. high x 11 in. wide wheel-thrown porcelain bowl, made by Gail Russell.

Wearing a Number of Hats

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of running a pottery business is finding the time to tackle all of the various tasks that need to be accomplished. On Turner’s business card, his title reads, “owner, president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, shipping and receiving, and janitor”—a humorous but truthful statement that captures the busy lives both he and Russell lead.

“It’s hard to find time to get concentrated work done, even though we’re here seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Having to wear all those different hats makes things difficult,” Turner says.

“People think we just sit at the wheel, but we probably don’t work at the wheel 10% of the time. There are business issues, and then in the process itself there are so many steps—it’s not just being at the wheel. There’s the office side of it—letters, slides, phone calls, e-mails, packing and shipping. And then there’s the marketing aspect. We’d like to start tapping into the Internet to sell some of our pots, for instance, but that’s just another job to add to the limited time we have available.

“Additionally, the pots control you,” Turner adds. “If you have pots to trim, you have to be there to trim them. You might work Saturday and Sunday and then take Monday off to run errands. There’s a tremendous freedom and flexibility, but you’re also chained at times. There are a lot of dichotomies here, yin and yang.”

Given all of the challenges, it’s easy to see why pottery is becoming somewhat of a lost art. Making a living as an artist is almost an oxymoron. How can you fulfill your own creative passions while trying to sell to customers who may not appreciate your art? How do you find time to improve your artistic abilities while earning enough money to pay the bills? And why would anyone want to put themselves through the day-to-day struggles of the pottery business when they could just as easily find another career?

Perhaps it is because the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. There are the joys of being your own boss and setting your own schedule, and the pleasures of creating art and influencing future generations. And there is the satisfaction of knowing that you are living your dream.

"We are driven to be potters—we love the process and it’s truly a labor of love," says Turner.

“We have the best of all worlds,” he adds. “It’s not easy, but it’s as wonderful as it is frustrating.”

For More Information

For more information about Tom Turner and Gail Russell, contact them at Peachblow Pottery, 2425 Peachblow Road, Lewis Center, OH 43035; (740) 548-7224; or visit http://www.peachblowpottery.com.

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