The Potter’s Life: Deeply Invested
from The Potter’s Life: Deeply Invested, Ceramics Monthly, June/July/August, 2008
Silvie Granatelli in the studio
The first time I touched clay was at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1966. From that moment on, my life revolved around figuring out how to make a living with ceramics. In the ‘60s there were not many contemporary examples of studio potters, but Ken Ferguson, my professor, made his students aware that being a professional potter was a real possibility. At that time, the many things I didn’t know were a blessing. I thought everything was possible. After graduate school I worked in several communal studios in and around my native Chicago. Then, in pursuit of a fully unified combination of life and work, I made my way South.
As a young potter, my central goal was to make a seamless balance between my studio work and my domestic life. I wanted very much to live next door to the studio and make my living through my hands. After many fits and starts, I ended up in Floyd, Virginia, where I set up a studio. To earn my income, I spent the first twenty years of my career doing craft shows and selling wholesale to galleries. I also did workshops, which greatly supplemented my income.
It was initially difficult to figure out the perfect balance between the options. The upside of craft shows was the direct interaction between my audience and myself. Because of this intimacy, craft shows were a great place to see how people reacted to new work. I had to sit next to my pots and look at them in a 10’ by 10’ booth for sometimes as long as five days. It wasn’t hard to figure out what was working and what wasn’t. Selling pots at a craft show is like handing everyone your heart on a plate with a knife and fork. It can be a very vulnerable experience.
The real downside of doing craft shows was the amount of time I had to spend away from the studio. In that regard, selling pots wholesale was a boon, allowing me to stay home and work. But the equation worked only if I could manage to spend the right amount of time filling orders while still sustaining a large enough percent of my income. Filling wholesale orders had its drawbacks, too – I realized I just had to make too many pots!
Of all my income options, traveling to teach workshops was perhaps the most gratifying and fulfilling. While standing in front of students, I was able to further articulate my ideas, work on new forms as demonstration pieces and visit wonderful places. The experience also put me in touch with other artists with dynamic intellects and powerful vision, whose company I greatly valued.
Swan handle pitchers, 5″ tall.
Over the past ten years, I have developed a new and more stable source of income by working closely with a group of craftsmen who live in my community. Together, we started 16 Hands, an art collective whose main approach to selling work is a self-guided tour of our studios. Through this tour, held twice a year, and through year-round sales in my studio gallery, I am able to generate most of my income. To make up the remainder, I still do workshops and participate in shows at galleries around the country.
In hindsight, I realize it was fortuitous that I settled in a location where the cost of living was affordable. I own a home and property near a small river in southwest Virginia, and I have health insurance and a retirement account. Health insurance is expensive for the self-employed. In fact, it is my largest yearly bill.
I am also frugal and conscientious of my spending habits. I don’t take out loans to pay for more equipment, additions to the studio, or advertising. Instead, I take on small teaching jobs, workshops, or make special order pottery. I also save 20% to 30% of my yearly income, which has provided a cushion to work from. I consider this money fluidly available for use throughout the year. And if it is not used, at the end of the year I invest it in something I need. I do my own bookkeeping but hire an accountant for taxes, a habit I’ve kept from even my poorest days. This financial plan has held me in good stead for years, allowing me to travel and cook gourmet food, two of my favorite pastimes.
I’ve been fortunate to undergo my professional maturation surrounded by a group of potters in Floyd, VA and the surrounding area. Happenstance has brought us together, connected by like-mindedness and mutual respect. When I moved to Floyd and began my career as a studio potter, I never knew how important these relationships would turn out to be. Now, after years of helping each other with technical problems, sharing trips to craft shows, and giving each other advise on both business and personal life issues, I can’t imagine a life without our close-knit community of artists.
If I have a business philosophy, it begins with the fact that I chose this life for a reason and I am willing to invest in it deeply. I take my work and my life seriously, and I believe this attention has given me a useful perspective and solid foundation. I’ve also learned that investing in myself helps other people take me seriously as well. As a potter, all you have is your pots, the way you present them, and yourself. If you want to succeed, you have to seriously consider what it takes to get the presentation right. I have a web site, business cards and well-designed brochures advertising the 16 Hands tour. These advertising tools help make my work visible to the public. And, perhaps most importantly, I never say no to an opportunity that might help me grow in my field. In fact, there have been many times when I was in way over my head, (especially when giving presentations that were not demonstration oriented), but I never walked away from any of them wishing I hadn’t participated.
Over the past 10 years, I have developed an assistantship program. Through this program, I give young potters a chance to witness my own process, as well as my business acumen, and to test out a potter’s life before they make their own full investment. They work with me for two years and during that time, they learn what it takes to develop an artists intuition, to refine the rhythm of a potter’s life, to develop a body of marketable work, and, finally, to start selling their work professionally.
Breakfast/lunch sets, slip cast porcelain
As much as I love pots and collect them, I don’t actually derive most of my inspiration from pottery. I travel a great deal, spending time in the outdoors and, perhaps paradoxically, the inside of museums (which, of course, house so many representations of nature.) In all of these places I draw “things.” It could be the form of a flower that reminds me of a bowl, or the pastern (that part of the horse’s anatomy above the hoof where, the leg is especially thin and tenuous). The tension of the natural world is inspiring to me – sensual and delicious. And I always hope to find ways to use it in the pots I make. My life is also deeply connected to food culture, which is a direct source of inspiration for me. Dining and food presentation, the body of a fish, red peppers in a salad, color, texture – all aspects of the way we appreciate the look of food before we sink into the taste – inform many of the pots I choose to make.
Ultimately, I have a lot of ideas, but to give meaning to my work I have to think and read a great deal. I have to pay close attention to all aspects of the work that comes out of the kiln, to learn where it might lead me next. The pursuit of my vision is still nothing less than a fabulous adventure.
This pursuit is one that, while not losing luster, has maybe grown a little slower. After 40 years in the studio, I realize how the body gives out. Things – tools, bodies – just wear out when you live a physical life. In fact, if I had one practical piece of advice for a young potter, I would advise getting a pug mill early in one’s career. At this stage of my career the studio looks a little geriatric. I do a great deal of carving on leather hard clay and trimming with a sureform tool. In order to keep my head erect, I use a hydraulic banding wheel table on casters, allowing me to easily move the table up and down while working on a form. My chair, also on casters, lifts up and down with the touch of a fingertip. My two potter’s wheels are set at different heights, one for throwing and one for trimming. Also, whenever I am stiff, I hang from a pull-up bar wedged into a doorframe, which loosens my shoulders and spine numerous times a day.
To me, the combination of the need for physical strength, emotional investment, and intellectual acuity to achieve success in pottery is always a challenge, but it is one of unlimited reward. I want to be able to make pots for as long as I can, and will do whatever it takes to keep my studio life viable. I have never been bored by pottery, I still hunger for new exploration, and I look forward to watching new ideas spring forth into real, tangible shapes. Before 1966, I never imagined a person could make a living working all day in a studio surrounded by clay. Today, I cannot imagine my life in any other way.