I make a lot of mugs these days.
It’s not because they’re particularly profitable; in fact, they’re my biggest loss leader because they’re so time consuming and the perceived value isn’t as high as some of my other work.
I don’t enjoy making them, either: they’re simple enough that I can pretty much throw them in my sleep, and they need to be uniform, so there’s no room for creativity.
So why do I keep plugging away, churning out dozens at a time?
I make them because they’re easy to sell and this is my full time job. They combine beauty and function, which buyers love. On top of that, the price point is low enough that people who couldn’t afford to buy my higher end work on a whim will splurge on one.
I have a couple of other products like this: mini bowls and ringholders, mostly. I think of them as my “production pieces”, and I’ll often sell high volumes of them when I’m working craft shows, because they’re so affordable.
Because I move through this type of inventory quickly, I end up spending a lot of time in the studio making these pieces. This can feel tedious; it’s certainly not why I became a potter. I feel creatively fulfilled in the studio when I’m pushing an edge: experimenting with a new form, trimming a lid to make it fit just so, carefully modulating my breathing to get the neck of a bottle vase just right. But instead, many weeks I end up spending the majority of my time making handle after handle after handle, a little assembly line of mugs ready to be fired, priced, and sold.
Other artist friends complain of similar fates: jewelers who spend all their time making stud earrings, wood workers who end up selling pens, glass artists who make the best money selling Christmas ornaments. Work like this is the bread and butter of many of our product lines, but it can be challenging to spend all of our time making work that doesn’t leave room to grow as an artist.
I remember when I first started throwing pots. I would walk into the community studio where I worked and savor the smell of clay, considering carefully what I wanted to make that day. Whatever I decided, I was always trying to make something better than I had made before: to take a step forward. I always had a tingling sense of possibility: that today might be the day that I broke through and made the best pot yet.
It’s hard to hold on to that feeling when the thing you love most becomes your full time job. It’s not that I never feel that way in the studio anymore, but it’s easy to lose track of it after years of working hard to build a business and make a living. The freedom and the joy come wrapped up with the knowledge that you need to pay the rent, and it’s easy to end up feeling like a one person factory.
So what’s the solution? How can we hold on to that feeling of possibility that we had when we first became makers? How can we get back to first principles, to the reason we started doing this to begin with?
I’ve found that continuing to do the work of pushing edges is essential for my creative well-being, as is setting boundaries around the amount of production style work that I do.
Maybe that means that I sell out of mugs at my next craft show and miss out on a couple of sales. Maybe I end up with a surplus of bottle vases and eventually sell them at a discount. To me, that’s worth it if I can walk into the studio and feel like I’m happy to be there, or go home and sketch out a new shape that I want to try, or make a pot that feels like the best one yet.