Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Messing with Mud in an Old Village Hall

I was wondering about calling this post "realities", but may leave that title for one in the future.  Currently, maintaining an insulating layer of unreality is a useful day-to-day skill!

We take a kick wheel, 40 or 50kg of hand wedged clay, and some pots to Palmerston for the A and P show.  We set up in a corner of a village hall, with wood turners demonstrating on one side of us and trestle tables of prize winning pots of jam on the other side.  In the center of the hall competition flowers and vegetables stand to attention, some are bedecked with coloured ribbons or cards if they have won a prize. Children's art decorates the wall on the far side of the hall, and a display of photographs by the local photography club occupies a "Stonehenge" of metal stands.  The wood turners also have a table of turned and carved work. There is a strong group of wood turners in Palmerston, and it is good to see a craft group that is flourishing. 

The hall is fairly old, with a wooden floor, wooden walls, and wooden ceiling.  Our surroundings are mostly brown.  There is only limited natural light.  It is not grand, not very exciting, but it is OK.  In fact I quite like village halls, they have their own atmosphere; there is a sense of history about them, of half remembered past events, of village shows, dances, civic meetings, maybe even the odd wedding reception and wake. 

Bowls, bowls, bowls......
I work on the wheel for the day, and throw more than 40 small bowls and a few goblets.  Laura talks to people about our work, and deals with any sales.  It is good to have her there.  If I am honest, I really am "out of sorts", very tired, and probably need a few days to quietly rest (and still do....), so I am not at my most charismatic and cheerful.  I do find I am able to relax and just concentrate on throwing simple forms, and this is actually therapeutic.  Healing through work.  Healing through repetition, and simplicity.  When I start kicking away at the Leach-style wheel, I wonder if I will be able to continue for very long, but the day disappears with me making pots from about 9.30 in the morning until sometime after 3 in the afternoon without a break as such.  

Bowls, well... here I am making a goblet.
Mostly I cone up a few kilograms of clay, then center a large door handle sized ball on top of the mass of clay.  I make an opening with my thumbs, and the clay transforms quietly into a bowl with my fingers lightly thinning, compressing, and drawing the clay to its final size.  One advantage of working from a hump of clay is that it lifts the bowl to a height that people can more easily see. The height of the clay also ensures that I sit more upright, rather than slouched over the wheel like a kiwi incubating an egg.

If you look carefully, you may see two stilt walkers in the top center of this photo.
And..., we're off... slowly....
We have rather a slow start, with sales totaling NZ$8 after the first couple of hours (that's US $6.67 at today's exchange rate).  Mostly people are outside enjoying what is on show there.  There are equestrian events, vintage tractors, stilt walkers, food stalls, all sorts of things for people to do and to see, and, frankly a hall with cut flowers, pots of jam, wood turning, and a balding fellow making small bowls out of sticky clay, probably doesn't have the same magnetism!  As I treadle my wheel and squeeze and cajole clay, I do wonder if I have been foolish setting up our stall inside the hall.  

Wood, noise and cold, cold steel...
Every so often one of the wood turners demonstrates on a lathe.  The harsh rasping hiss of wood being shaved by sharp metal tools attracts little clusters of onlookers far more effectively than my rather quiet process.  One moment the hall looks empty, and then there is this little gaggle of humanity gathered in a half circle, with the wood turner at his lathe before them like a High Priest sacrificing some unfortunate animal.

A rare moment when the wood turners used foot power in stead of electricity.
Barney Barton, a great encourager of other wood turners, at work on a pole lathe.
Mothers, children, and "hobbies"....
Occasionally people stop and look at what I am doing. Mothers with small children in tow, or in prams or strollers, sometimes watch and give a commentary to the child as to what the strange man is doing.  One commentary goes rather like this...  "See, that man is making a pot out of mud. Look it is turning on his wheel".  (The child stares glassily at a point to the right of me, maybe he is starting to register that there is a table with pots of jam nearby.) "When the man has finished the pot, he will cook it in the oven".  (The child begins to pull on his mother's hand.)  "Making pots is that man's hobby".  

The child drags its mother towards more succulent things, and I am left with the words "Making pots is that man's hobby", stirring in my mind as I center another mass of clay.  

I am not sure if I like what I do being labeled a "hobby", but it does pay as badly.  Probably worse.  Maybe it is better for this young child to be brought up with the belief that pottery is only a hobby option, and not the thing that a person would do for a living, because, there really isn't much of a living in it..., well not around here anyway.

"Do you do sales..?"
I think we get another sale or two after midday, small things, and I am thankful to those who buy the work... heck it would be nice to at least cover our expenses for being at the show!  I overhear someone asking Laura if we ever "do a sale"... , I am glad that the person is talking to her and I do not have to answer.  Our prices at the show go from $8 love hearts, through $15 tiles, to $20 mugs, $25 bowls, with some items being $50 - $65, but..., surely we have something that is affordable for most people.  I don't know how we can make prices lower.  

In a quieter moment, I remove a layer or two of clay from my hands and eat a little lunch that Laura has made, then clamber back on my wheel again (has anyone ever told you that operating a Leach-style wheel is a bit like riding a camel, you are so high up on them).  

Talking about our summer weather....
Later in the afternoon the lovely summer weather comes to our aid.., the wind gets up, there are occasional small spatters of rain, the grey clouds thicken and lower, and it becomes distinctly cold.  Some stall holders outside call it a day.  Close to the hall, a group of highland bagpipe players start up a lament, and wind battered people decide that having a look at something indoors might be preferable to a lingering death outside with mournful pipers to play them to the hereafter  (That was naughty of me, I actually really like the sound of pipers playing, and we have some good ones locally).

Adding it all up.....
We make a few more sales as numbed fingers open purses.  Just before we start to pack up, a young couple arrive at our stall and buy a rather nice NZ$65 (US$54) bowl that has only recently come out of the kiln.  This is one that I nearly did not take to the show, as it was near the top of the price range that I thought might sell at the show, (and of course I failed to photograph it).  This bowl was an experiment really, I tried layering several of the glazes that I have been testing recently.  Some good things went on with lacy patterns forming as glazes boiled through one another in the firing, and I want to make more with this approach. With this sale our daily tally reaches NZ$190 (US$158), out of which has to be deducted hire of trade stall and trailer (take out another NZ$40 or so (US$33.40)....  So, the day is not a great financial success, but definitely a lot better than it might have been.  

There were a number of lessons to be learned, and I know that we could have sold more had we planned and prepared for the event more.  We need to attend to the presentation of our stock, the selection of what we show, and find ways of making our whole stall stand out and invite people to take a look.  We also need to think more about where we set up.  When demonstrating I think that I should also throw some much larger, "dangerous", pots, and take more risk.  Whilst I can't make as much noise as a wood turner, a spectacular failure or two might actually do more to draw a crowd than the sight of someone throwing small bowls.  It is all about confidence, experience, and self-belief... or learning to fake such things!

Sorry that we did not manage to take many photographs of the show, I did not manage to get out and about at all once I got behind my wheel, and Laura only managed a very brief dash outside with the camera rather late in the day when the pipers were piping and the light was dreary.


Linda Starr said...

Oh I know the feeling well, travel expenses and all the work setting up for a show and being there all day; it's very tiring. The cost of shows here is expensive, sometimes not worth going. I found having my work at eye level seems to help otherwise folks tend to walk past too quickly. I noticed when I changed my display not too long ago with less work and group colors together I sold more than in the past. I've gotten more comfortable talking about my work the more I go places. Folks seem to love hearing about what inspires me. Gary has given me some hints too, he is so comfortable talking with people, a real natural. The hobby part though ugh, oh I put up a sign at one show saying ceramic artist, that seemed to curtail hobby enthusiasts. When I had my lavender farm I just loved it when folks came and bought nothing in my gift shop after an hour long tour and as I walked them to their car, they said said are you retired? I said, no just tired. Ha.

gz said...

Having two of you there is neccessary! Sounds like a good day despite everything.

Tracey Broome said...

First of all, about ten years ago, I was in a hall watching an older fellow throw a pot on the wheel, with my little girl in tow, I looked down at her and said, "one day I am going to do that". I went home, signed up for a class, and look where I am now! You never know who's watching Peter :)
I have done many shows like this, made even less money than you at some of them. The show I did last sumer where I made less than $20, I met a very nice couple who loved my work but didn't buy. They came to my studio during the holiday show and bought lots. These demo events are just that, people are there for the show, not to shop. I don't think it even occurs to them that they could actually buy something. But they might remember you and come back another time. I look at shows like that as my marketing expenses :)

Peter said...

Hi Linda,
Thank you for your thoughtful comment and ideas. The displaying at eye level and grouping colours sounds like a good idea. We are currently thinking of making a portable display stand, rather than relying on tables, and we will also look at improving our signs and information to say who we are. It is all learning isn't it, and preparation!

Hi Gwynneth,
Two was definitely much better than one in this case, and made all the difference I think between us selling something, or not selling anything at all, especially as I was demonstrating on the wheel. I know that some potter superhumans manage to throw and manage sales at the same time, but... !

Hi Tracey,
Thank you for your thoughts on this, they are much appreciated. I guess I always do hope that there might be some little spark ignited in a person who looks at a wheel demonstration, that certainly would make it worthwhile for me, (and I am happy to say that one of the adults did come back especially to watch and to ask interesting questions, which was a joy to me.).
Our main hope for the show was that we would encourage some more people from our area to come and visit our studio, and some did take our card.
On the day, the money side of it was important for us too, any sales are. Over all I think we were very fortunate to have sold what we did, and I know that with some work and planning we could improve on it.

Michèle Hastings said...

i understand your comment about making more noise than the wood turner... the NH Potters Guild does a demo and pottery lesson booth at a large craft fair. we are neighboring a glass blower who gives demos. when he isn't working we are busy. when he is giving a demo our booth clears out!
i always like to think of some shows as good advertising... as long as the fee isn't astronomical and you aren't losing a ton of money.

Peter said...

Hi Michele,
Goodness, a neighboring glass blower... now that would be "fun"!! Whilst I worked away on bowls at the show I did dream of inserting pyrotechnic devices in my pots to cause more of a spectacle... a maritime distress flare in a bottle in the middle of the wheel, now that would get some attention!! I think the pottery fraternity are going to have to come up with some attention grabbing gimmicks for craft fair booths! Suggestions anyone???

Julia said...

We are lucky because we are in a good location to sell direct from the studio. The shows are so expensive and so much work, it is much nicer to be able to host kiln-opening sales or combine pottery sales with a farm stand throughout the summer. Do you have a good location that would let you advertise to bring customers to you?

Angie said...

Firstly I am sorry you are not feeling 100% ...I do hope you feel yourself soon.
It always surprizes me what people expect at that sort of event ... about 10 years ago i was into making simple bead jewlery and decided to have a stall at such an event. We made display stands and took tons of stock in suitcases on wheels ...and went by train. We priced it all cheaply so we would make just a little profit on each item and it would tempt people to buy. The stall was full of admiring visitors but after we paid our stall and travel and the actual cost of the beads etc not a penny profit was made ...for standing and being jolly for 5 hours ...setting up and pulling down for 2 and traveling for 4 ...did we do it again ....NO.
For you as its a living ,one could count it as advertizing. xx

Peter said...

Hi Julia,
We are able to sell direct from the studio as well, which is a huge asset as this does make what is "impossible" have a slight glimmer of possibility! We are on the Main South road to Dunedin, which is our nearest city of just over 100,000 people (if I remember my stats rightly), it is probably hard to convey to people outside New Zealand just how thinly populated we really are, and how few potters find that they are able to make a living of any kind here. Most of the good, experienced potters that flourished in the 70s and early 80s gave up long ago and pursued other ways of making ends meet. Some do manage to find a place of sorts making small, bright things, and a few market their work at the "high end" through a very few galleries that still deal in "ceramic art". All very tough though, and our materials costs, equipment costs, power and freight are very, very high.

Hello Angie,
Good to hear from you. The less than 100% thing is really just a nerve jangling tiredness from not having a real break of any kind from all this for a very long time. It is just one of those things. Ah, I see you are a fellow sufferer/warrior of craft stalls!! It is difficult "being Jolly" and all that when people aren't buying...., was it Nero who played his violin as Rome fell around him, maybe he was "being jolly" too!!??? (probably not, I didn't do history, but it sounds good!). Occasionally I fantasize about doing a Basil Fawlty and see if being badly behaved is a better way to sell..., it could be more fun! xx