Friday, May 25, 2007

Dave Stewart Was a Serious Potter

Dave Stewart was a serious potter. He looked like an ordinary guy--middle-aged, slightly balding. But he was supporting a wife and three kids from his craft alone, and they were getting along. He had bad teeth--discolored for years from high fluoride in the water in Deaf Smith County, Texas (and probably his cigarettes, too)--but his smile was very real and appeared on his face at the drop of a hat. He was unpretentious. He read widely--Krishnamutri's works were engaging his mind when I studied with him--and was apt to burst out with a line or two from T. S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" in the studio. He hated going in to town for any reason, much preferring the solitude of the back country of Dulzura in San Diego County. And he was Marguerite Wildenhain's assistant every summer at her Pond Farm Pottery workshops in Guerneville, California.

He had been planning to become a dentist, and was in college taking courses at San Diego State when he saw Martha Longenecker throwing pots on a wheel (she was a new professor of art there). He came home to his newlywed wife Nyva and told her that dentistry was out, and that he was going to become a potter. She must have been surprised; but she supported his decision as he threw himself into the abyss...

This was many years before I met him. By the time I did, his youngest girl Leslie was thirteen and he had been Marguerite's assistant for nearly twenty years, a position he did not earn until well after that first meeting with Martha Longenecker! She, by the way, continued at San Diego State for thirty-five years. And Marguerite was almost eighty already when I came on the scene.

Early in his potter's struggle he would fill up the old Ford van with boxes of pots, and go traveling up the California coast selling them to shops. He'd open up boxes right on the pavement at their back doors, and shopkeepers would buy them right there and then. He'd sleep in the van, and come home when he was out of pots. That was 'fifties and 'sixties. Boy, it was different when I hit the scene! Almost nobody bought wholesale--they were tight with cash, and wanted the artist to leave their wares--unpaid for--in their shops, and would pay a consignment fee to the artist after the work sold. The lure was this: wholesale was fifty percent, but on consignment you could often get seventy or sevent-five percent of the retail price if you waited. These weren't "shops" anymore, either--they were Galleries. Oh, my. And, sorry to say, those lousy conditions of the 'seventies have been replaced today by this--get this--the galleries will just give you FIFTY percent now, no more, AND you have to wait to get paid.

Actually, Esteban's in Sedona still buys stuff outright at wholesale prices, as they did in the 'seventies. They are an "arts and crafts store," not a gallery. But there are darn few of them out there anymore. Worthington's in Springville, Utah right outside of Zion National Park (with a TON of tourists parading through, as in Sedona) also buys wholesale. I guess if you've got megavolume of sales, it still works.

About Dave. He'd gotten past the pack-it-up-in-the-van stage, and when I met him he had an annual show at his house. His invitation list was huge, and people would arrange their vacations to include the one day a year he broke out the wine and snacks, got wife and kids all working industriously taking money and packing pots while he got to chat nonstop with folks all day. The pots overflowed his studio, and were perched on rickety tables, logs, and rocks under the giant oak trees around his place.

Oh, let me digress about "his place" a second: a nice, rich older couple who owned a "house on the hill" in Dulzura with unknown acres and acres of surrounding land liked Dave, and liked his pottery. There was a small house on their property (at the bottom of the hill) with a shed next to it--probably from the 'twenties or 'thirties. They rented it to the Stewarts for $75 a month, and had been doing so for years. Nyva had fixed it up and kept it painted, the hardwood floors polished and covered with hand-braided rag rugs. Dave had turned the shed into a shop. The garden walkways were lined with pottery shards from earlier "seconds" he'd destroyed. Porches had been turned into sleeping rooms for the kids. They'd asked about buying it, but the owner laughed and told Dave he already had the bargain of the century (can't remember their names, but the wife wrote a book about recovering from her cancer using wheat grass juice). So Dave and Nyva just kept paying their $75 a month, and counted their blessings.

After I'd studied with Dave for two years on a once-a-week basis, and had gone on to try my luck as an independent potter in Prescott, Arizona, he and Nyva had discussed an offer that came up which changed their lives a lot: in San Diego there is an "Old Town," renovated adobe buildings in the shadow of the Presidio, a Spanish fortress on a hill overlooking the magnificent San Diego Harbor (for a good description of really "old" San Diego in the mid-1800s, read Dana's "Two Years before the Mast"). Within Old Town was the "Bazaar del Mundo," a wonderful assemblage of shops and restaurants. The Bazaar's owners had a vacancy coming up in a hole-in-the-wall shop right next to the main entrance, and wanted Dave to sell his pottery there.

The Stewarts realized they really didn't have much saved for retirement--it was all day-to-day. The kids were leaving the nest soon. Danny, the oldest, was heading for Cal Poly at Pomona to study landscape architecture. Gail was soon to be married. Bottom line: they took the offer. Dave stayed home in Dulzura and made pots like crazy. Nyva, Gail, and Leslie took turns manning the shop eight hours a day, every day. It was a forty-five minute drive each way to get there. But they did it. And they did this for several years. I don't know what the rent was, but this time they could take in 100% of the retail. And, with a bloody great amount of work by the whole family, they did put aside enough for retirement. Dave finally stopped making pots a few years ago, and he and Nyva have since moved into an apartment in Imperial Beach (Dave's bald now and doing oil paintings).

For you potters out there, note one conspicuous absence: I don't know that Dave ever wasted his time going to "Arts and Crafts Fairs." With the exception of time on the road in his Ford talking directly with shopkeepers, Dave spent his time MAKING POTS, not selling them. Today, you need to shell out big bucks to go to these fairs; you need to shell out for fancy tarps and tents, and of course the big van to carry all that. Can you make money? If you man the show yourself, when do you have time to be an artist? In this arena, I can see only one option: be VERY good at pottery. Be VERY good at slicking yourself up through brochures, a list of prizes you've won, etc. Be accepted at the THE Laguna Beach six-week long summer art show! Pay a huge amount for electricity, tent, the whole shmear to be there for six weeks (including an RV to sleep in). Accept Master Card and Visa. Hire others to sit your booth. Be prepared to make the same thing that's "in" over and over again. Be of the temperament to still love yourself after tagging your work with exorbitant prices, and have a straight face when you talk your customers into believing your stuff is worth every penny. In this one instance, at this one show of shows, doing an Arts and Crafts Fair is probably worth it.

Otherwise: again, be VERY good at pottery. Go to Sedona. Go to Worthington's. Go to New York, San Francisco, maybe Atlanta. Find the places with unbelievably high traffic, and find the shops--NOT the galleries--which will buy your ware wholesale. Accept the wholesale prices: it pays to have someone else be the shopkeeper, and NOT to have your stuff on consignment, having to keep track of it all the time. Believe me, your time is worth a lot--and you'll fritter it away every moment you're not on the wheel. And how do you think you can BE a good potter if you're not constantly improving yourself on the wheel?

Today, once you've established wholesale outlets, you can ship stuff to them instead of showing up in your van. You can send them pictures via email. You can try to sell stuff via website, but something as hands-on as pottery will be difficult and time-consuming to sell--except to existing customers.

So, another "otherwise" to Art Fairs: as Dave did, sell from your own studio once a year. Be part of a studio tour or not, that's a different story. Be patient. Tell all your friends to come, make nice invitations. Keep a record of every person's name and address who ever bought a pot from you. Make it an annual event. Have refreshments. Have someone help you with the cash box and wrapping pots so you can schmooze.

IF good fortune smiles on you as it did on Dave through the Bazaar del Mundo offer, be prepared to have multiple trustworthy people helping you out. Pottery is not the high seller as it was in the 'seventies. People expect more. There can be NO LEAD in your pots--Dave worked with lead, and it wouldn't fly today. One of his students, Peter Deneen, says he works with lead and gets it tested regularly, and has no problems. This IS possible, but people are still leery and it takes time and energy to convince them. Easier to skip the lead, though some beautiful glaze possibilities will be lost to you. Your work must be flawless. You must be dedicated and tireless. But, if you can get a shop--your OWN shop--IN THE RIGHT PLACE, you can fly.

I'll talk about Dave's glazes and his forms more at another time.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Everyone Has Plan B Days

Everyone has Plan B days. It is a matter of integrity, but also--I suspect--a matter of gaining maturity, to recognize a Plan B day as such, to admit it to oneself, and to drop Plan A without irritation or embarassment.

This morning I had it all planned out, ha ha. The weather being not so good for tennis on my tennis Wednesday, I figured I'd spend a great day in the pottery making large bowls and plates. By noon, however, I had two medium-sized bowls of barely-acceptable form, three saucer-sized plates, a couple of cereal bowls and (in desperation) a reasonably good mug. Plus, several goofs that would need recycling. For me, in two hours, this is terrible work.

I packed it in. Plan A (well, maybe tennis had been the real Plan A) wasn't panning out after all. Didn't even clean up after myself, just covered the eight miserable little beggars with plastic and left the shop. Walking the quarter mile back to the house, I thought I'd scrape some more flaking paint off the front door jamb to prepare it for primer (I've been working on the same door for two years now). The damp weather was mild enough to work outside an hour or two. It would be mindless, but how could I screw up?

However, I decided to put that level of mindless labor off until this afternoon--if I've got energy left then. On a Plan B day, you should go directly back to bed, do something mindless, or try yet again to do something "satisfying" (but not as ambitious as your first objective) before the whole day is shot. I decided to blog. At the point where my aging mind hits the wall, then I'll see about scraping paint. The pattern here is to assess your limitations and re-prioritize your activities.

I still have no idea why it was such a poor day on the wheel! But, I don't have to have an explanation anymore as much as I used to. I know that a month ago I sat at the wheel and churned out eight really nice dinner plates, followed by eight really nice lunch plates. With only one goof. A remarkably good day--and I had no idea why it was such a good day, either. Actually, I had a great day on the tennis court last week, as well. Everything clicked. And I know that I will have days like that again in the future. It's taken me a lifetime to believe that, but it's true. I ain't finished off yet--there's still plenty of Plan A days to look forward to.

I'm sure both women and men have days like this--it's not just PMS. I just want to point out that, once you know you're having such a day, you can move on to Plan B and skip the raging irritation or the embarrassment or name-calling at yourself ("Idiot!" "Jerk!" and so on--yes, I know you do it, too), or the panic that you'll never be able to accomplish the good stuff ever again.

So what do you do when you've got to stick with Plan A on a Plan B day? Your boss needs the final report NOW, or the pot has been promised to be delivered on a certain day? Well, that's when you have to tough it out and perform. And it hurts to be on overdrive, yes. There's integrity, too, to keeping promises made. So yes, there are days when Plan A must not give way to Plan B--days where you've just got to suck it up and bear down hard, spend the extra time, focus, and finish the job.

But, I hate days like that, I really do! I hate that feeling of forcing. No amount of grim satisfaction at accomplishing Plan A under Plan B duress has ever made up for the loathing I have for being in that situation. And, since I've been a person all my life who frequently found I had an unexpected Plan B day on my hands, I'm someone who decided at an early age to avoid making too many plans, overcommitting my time. I prefer spontaneous days. I prefer self-employment. I do NOT do "commission work" well as a potter. Sorry, you who have nice Plan A lives, for me the threat of waking to yet another Plan B day has been quite real, pervasive, and intimidating. And, since I have been a person of some integrity, I've cut myself off from many possible futures that involve the hassles of commitment. Because I'd much rather NOT promise to do something at all, than to promise to do it and NOT come through.

So, for example: I envisioned this blog to be cohesive, chapter by chapter--full of anecdotes, to be sure, but leading to a conclusion supported by nice, well-rounded essays on pottery and artistic integrity. But what have we got here? Summer's almost here and I would rather be potting than writing. There's a two-week journey to Vancouver, BC to visit the in-laws coming up. I've had to spend extra time herding my computer through the pitfalls of a new anti-virus software, plus being the bug-reporter (on the phone for two and half HOURS) to the satellite internet provider Wildblue (seems like they had system problems that they hadn't noticed until I called).

What we have here is a "creative" attempt. It's interesting, but often tangential. Nothing will finish. I will just blog away without deadlines and without apparent direction. Perhaps I will go fix myself a cup of Rooibos tea and return when I