These Challenging Economic Times

July 30, 2008
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While there have been times in my career that have certainly been economically challenging, I think that what we are experiencing now on a global level far eclipses anything I have experienced previously.



While there have been times in my career as a ceramic artist and potter that have certainly been economically challenging, I think that what we are experiencing now on a global level far eclipses anything I have experienced previously. As our world becomes flatter, we need to approach ceramics and pottery making from a very different point of view. While no one of these ideas is that revolutionary or radical, they provide a common sense approach to our industry.

I am not an economist, but I attempt to see things from a global or macro perspective, where everything matters: our lifestyle, our business, our relationships, our daily activities -- all of the micro elements of our lives. All are severely impacted by petro-politics, petro-dollars, the economy of our country and that of others. It is all related and intertwined. We are no longer immune from what happens in the rest of the world.

The galleries, craft and art events, and wholesale and retail marketplaces that were once mainstays of our own personal incomes are impacted as well. With gas hovering around $4.00/gallon, we would do well to examine how we market our wares. Far from a treatise on global politics or money, here are some thoughts on how we might weather the current and evolving storm and be healthy survivors, not grim statistics.

We need to understand our carbon footprint.
Like it or not, we are consumers and users. Our pottery businesses do have a carbon footprint. We use petroleum-based products either directly, such as natural gas or propane, or indirectly, such as electricity and processed materials. We cannot not fire our work, but we can certainly look at how we fire it and try to lessen our consumption of resources.

It is possible to derive a great deal of information from our utility bills and see what we are paying for a BTU of natural gas, a gallon of propane, or a kilowatt hour of electricity. We can determine the best method of firing and make changes in our ware and methods of firing to become more efficient. We can look at our kilns and furnaces and choose to insulate or re-insulate them better. If we are using fuel-burning kilns, we can make changes or update our burners with the goal of a more stoichiometric combustion using excess air burners. If we are using electric kilns, insulation can be added to the lid or the kiln itself, as well as that gap between the lid and the top of the kiln. Perhaps more importantly, we can look at our firing schedules and alter them, even radically, to fire in a shorter schedule while adhering to what we know to be necessary to successfully fire our ware.

We need to change the paradigm of how we produce our ceramics.
As consumers of processed and prepared materials, what we buy from our vendors has seen a dramatic surge in pricing. While we can certainly be better or more frugal consumers of our clay and glaze materials, we do need them to produce our ware for our income. Sure, we could buy less, but then we would need to buy more frequently, making more trips to our suppliers or having them make more deliveries to us. Either way, we still increase our footprint.

If possible, buy larger quantities and develop a recycling program within your studio that maximizes the quantity of recycled scrap clay and glaze materials. While most of us do this, it never ceases to amaze me the number of potters that throw out their trimmings and do not have a scrap or “mystery glaze” bucket that can be used as a liner or interior glaze. A bit of glaze chemistry knowledge can go a long way when making the empirical adjustments that result in a useable glaze. Some might argue that there could be issues of this mystery glaze combination being an unbalanced glass, but I think the advantages of having a scrap glaze bucket far outweigh not having one.

If you can use a sediment trap on your sink, all of those captured materials can be recycled. Clay boxes and the plastic bags that contain the pugged clay can also be creatively reused. If you use commercially prepared glazes, their containers can also be reused in the studio.

We need to re-think and re-shape the paradigm of how we work in our studios.
What we make and how we sell it deserves to be looked at with a good deal of scrutiny also. If our work is not selling as quickly as it has in the past, what can we do to redefine our approach to ceramics to make the work appealing to a greater population base? While I think that there still is a strong and healthy market for functional ware, the competition in galleries, stores and on the art/craft fair circuit is fierce.

Customers’ tastes are also changing. Sales are also slowing down. The price of gasoline prompts rethinking of which shows to participate in and which geographic markets are still strong. Do you have to go to market or can you drive some of the market to you? Can you have a retail venue in your studio? Being a seller as well as being a maker not only provides you with two jobs that are physically demanding, it requires a different mindset.

While this may certainly come as no news to many involved in our industry for some time, it is important to learn many skills: making and designing work that is fresh, appealing, and sellable; selling and driving the market to your studio or your gallery through sales, internet sales, kiln openings, etc. We cannot depend on what we have known and accepted previously.

Bill Maher says, “New Rules,” and he is so correct. I really hate to use such contemporary vernacular, but our game -- our industry -- has changed. And it will continue to change. If we want to continue to be players, we need to have new rules: rules that we create, modify and change.

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