It’s April 2011 and I’m sitting in an internet cafe in a small town in northern India, scrutinizing a blank two week stretch of real estate in my google calendar. I’ll finish staffing at an Oregon summer camp for unschoolers in late July, but my next engagement, an alternative education conference in San Diego, doesn’t begin until the middle of August. Flying home to the east coast and then back seems foolish (and would cost hundreds of dollars) but I don’t want to simply “hang out” for two weeks at a stretch.
A few dozen rupees buys me another hour of wifi, and I continue poking around, looking for something that piques my interest. Before long, I stumble upon the website of Dale Donovan, a crystalline potter living and working in Corvallis, Oregon. I’d been fascinated by crystalline glazing since first laying eyes on it at Craft Boston the year before, and I knew the lore surrounding it: that it’s one of the most difficult and frustrating glazing techniques, with a requirement for precision and a high loss rate.
I quickly draft an email to Dale, explaining my ceramics background and asking if he’d be willing to take me on as an apprentice and teach me the technique while I’m in town. In exchange, I offer to help out in whatever way he needs in the studio, from cleaning to wedging and pugging clay to organizing. I fire off the e-mail and go back to poking around online, assuming nothing will come of it.
Less than 48 hours later, he writes me back to say yes.
In the subsequent months, everything clicks into place. I throw and bisque a bunch of pottery and have it shipped to the west coast so I can crystalline glaze it during the apprenticeship. A local friend offers me a house sitting job, helping me cover my costs while I’m in town. Finally, an unschooling family living just a few miles from Dale’s house graciously offers to let me stay with them. They even lend me a bicycle to get to and from Dale’s studio.
During my time in Corvallis I bike to Dale’s house every day, stopping along the way to devour handfuls of wild blackberries that grow by the side of the road. I do hard manual labor in the studio: disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling the studio’s pug mill, and then pugging hundreds of pounds of moldy, rock hard clay and clay trimmings. I also clear box after box of extra pots out of the studio gallery, cleaning and organizing it until it sparkles. Dale owns an antiquated CD player and exactly 5 CDs; I listen to Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits album roughly twice a day.
At the same time, we’re throwing and trimming pots, trying to make enough to fill a kiln and run an assortment of crystalline glaze tests. When the pots come out of the bisque kiln, Dale looks through some recipe books, selects a dozen or so recipes, and sets me up with a balance scale, a series of jars, and a variety of bags full of silica, zinc, frit, titanium dioxide, and various colorants like cobalt and copper. I have never mixed a glaze before; I have no idea what I’m doing. He demonstrates, telling me that it’s not difficult, just tedious; I catch on quickly and soon I’ve filled all the jars with 500 gram batches of precisely measured glaze.
By the time I bike home every evening I’m exhausted but happy, and I leave the apprenticeship with an understanding of the basic principles of crystalline glazing. When I arrive back on the east coast later that month, I promptly start developing my own palette of crystalline glazes, and within six months I’m able to quit my day job and transition to selling pots full time.
This wasn’t my first apprenticeship; the year before I had organized a similar arrangement with a potter in Cambridge, Massachusetts focused on creating functional pots for baking bread. In both cases, my ceramics knowledge and skills grew more rapidly than I had ever experienced before. Working side by side with someone more proficient than I enabled me to quickly master concepts that I would have struggled with if I had simply read about them in a book. Couple that with the fact that both of my mentors were working potters (not professors or hobbyists) who understood what it took to run a business making pots, and you’ll understand why I believe apprenticeships can be one of the most effective ways to acquire new skills.
While not all fields lend themselves to the apprenticeship model, you might be surprised by how many do. While hands-on careers like woodworking, plumbing or welding have a history of offering apprenticeships, you can design apprenticeships in almost any field simply by finding someone who’s willing to take you on and train you. I picked up the following tips during the process of arranging my apprenticeships; they should help you create your own in an area of your choosing.
Tip #1: Find a Niche
Up until I began working with Dale, I had been making and selling traditional stoneware pottery in Asheville, North Carolina- a craft mecca where “you can’t swing a cat without hitting a potter” as I was told when I moved there. The work I was making was nice, but it wasn’t so different from the hundreds of other styles of traditional stoneware in town. When I arrived back in Asheville after my apprenticeship, however, suddenly I was one of the only crystalline potters in town. This niche greatly increased my sales almost overnight, and it also enabled me to charge a premium for my work since I had almost no direct competition.
Soon after I got home I worked to make my work even more one-of-a-kind by designing and marketing a line of crystalline cremation urns through etsy and a local high-end urn website. The upscale nature of the urn market meant I was making higher price, lower volume sales, which enabled me to focus more on perfecting and polishing each piece.
Tip #2: Be Gutsy
I scored my apprenticeship with Dale because I was the only candidate on the table. I didn’t have a particularly impressive resume at the time: no BFA from a prestigious institution, few references, and very little formal training. If I had applied for a formal apprenticeship or internship program and been considered alongside dozens or even hundreds of other applicants, I’m sure my application would have gotten lost in the shuffle. However, because I was willing to put myself out there and ask for exactly what I wanted, I created a valuable opportunity that I didn’t even have to compete for.
Tip #3: Pitch the Benefits
When I sent that very first e-mail to Dale, I made sure to emphasize what I could offer him. I listed my skills, making sure to emphasize my work ethic and my willingness to complete unenjoyable or tedious studio tasks like wedging clay, mopping floors, or cleaning the sink trap (a chore that every potter will tell you is his least favorite). I think I even offered to run off annoying telemarketers. Essentially, I made it very clear that it would be to his advantage to have me around- that our arrangement would be one of mutual benefit.
(I also flattered him a little bit- potters don’t often receive a lot of recognition for our skills, and I figured he would appreciate having someone around who was impressed by his work. I was right, as it turned out.)
Tip #4: Work Your Ass Off
Once Dale and I started working together, I made sure to follow through on my offer. I went above and beyond, taking initiative when I saw tasks that needed doing and suggesting ways that I could help out. (This was how I ended up cleaning and organizing the gallery- it wasn’t something that we had discussed before I arrived, but I saw how much I could improve the state of things and he was happy to let me tackle the project.)
I wanted to make sure that when we finished working together, Dale felt like it had been worth his time to have me around. I think I succeeded; he continued to act as a resource after I went home, and he also wrote me a great letter of recommendation.
Almost five years later, I look back on the experience as a defining moment in my path as a potter, because it was the catalyst for my transition to working in clay full time. I don’t plan to make pots my whole life, however; when I decide it’s time to move on to something else, I’m certain I’ll seek out another arrangement like this one in a new field.