Location, Community, and the Nomadic Potter

The term “Modern Nomadic Potter” has been floating around for a while now, but I just realized that I am one of them. A somewhat new and ever-growing phenomenon, potters today seem to be untethering themselves from location, often bouncing from job to job, residency to residency, all over the country or even the world for years, perhaps decades during the establishment of their professional careers. I have recently reached the threshold, when people ask me where I’m from it feels like a trick question – I don’t know what answer they are looking for.

I was born in New Mexico, lived in California, grew up in Wisconsin, went to Indiana for grad school, taught in Kentucky, moved to Montana for a residency, worked as a technician in Vermont, and am now about to move to Montana again for two residencies in two different parts of the state. Although I like the thought of settling in Montana, I doubt that will happen. I have no idea where will be next, whether that will be the place I settle, or when I will move. This might seem crazy to some, but at least in the circles I’m running in, this is not the exception but the rule. I have some friends who have been on a tour that makes my marathon seem like a walk around the block.

The old business model for a potter to establish themselves was rooted in local community. A potter would set up a studio in the town they were from and sell their work to friends, family, collectors and enthusiasts in their area. As quality of work improved and homes in the area became saturated with their pots, potters would expand to regional and then national audiences.

Although I am sure some potters still start up this way, my experience (and the experience of a lot of young potters I have met recently) has been the exact opposite order. Establishing a career while living in several states per year means that the most logical first step is based on a national/international audience, an audience that you can rely on for regular purchases no matter what part of the country you happen to be living in at the moment. Maybe someday I will settle somewhere and then I can start doing local shows to meet people in my area and establish a local following that is more personal and direct.

From my perspective at the moment, shows and galleries that limit themselves to a regional set of artists feel a bit counterintuitive, bordering on anachronism – a reflection of a past world where pots made in one region seemed to share a root system. The place one is physically located now seems to have little to do with what the pot looks like. I couldn’t tell you what a California pot looks like versus a Vermont pot or a Minnesota pot. These are three potters who’s work I enjoy. It would almost seem as though they came from a shared tradition in their aesthetic, however they come from diverse backgrounds and are as geographically dispersed as you can get in this country.

Sunshine Cobb, Sacremento California


Marty Fielding, Middlebury Vermont


Mark Pharis, Minneapolis Minnesota

Through cross pollination occurring in schools and residency programs around the country and the ease of researching pots from all over the world via the internet, our vernaculars have become disseminated, homogenized, and nationalized. The individual aesthetic trumps regional tradition. I will readily admit, though, that this is written from the perspective of someone who is nomadic, perhaps if you are actually living near where you grew up or have been settled somewhere for 20 years, location has some sort of meaning. Maybe you know something I don’t. (Actually, I would love to hear some perspectives on this topic in the comments section…)

Establishing my career was absolutely dependent on forging a national collectorship from the onset. Central to my plan was the establishment of a webpage with Ecommerce functionality. I chose Etsy as my Ecommerce engine for it’s low cost and ease of use, but found it to be much more than that. I found that there are millions of people out there(growing by the day) who are fully committed to buying handmade work directly from the maker. They might not be pottery specific, maybe they logged in to buy handmade chocolates and fell in love with a pot by accident. There is a massive yet tight-knit community there. Artists help other artists sell work. Customers promote their favorite makers through the treasury system. Makers get to know their clientele on a personal level and can forge long-lasting relationships, just like you can in a local community. To my surprise, it seems to have everything a traditional community has, but it’s location is Earth as a whole, and it feels like an endless ocean of possible connections. It makes New York City look small. It seems that through Etsy I have found the support of a community just like a geographically rooted traditional potter would have, but the crowd is bigger than the biggest city, and will follow me no matter where I move.

Comments

  1. carter says:

    Wow Jeff! This is a great post! I have followed your etsy career for the year and a half I have known about etsy. I always thought that your pots stood out in the level of craftsmanship and overall design, and I was delighted to find a fellow professional who has been able to use the site effectively. Good job!

    This post has struck a chord on a number of levels with what I’ve been thinking recently. Your observation about the audience you were targeting from the outset is what I see as the defining circumstance. What I’ve come to believe is that the folks who come to my studio sales are almost never folks that shop for pottery online, and that they hardly ever walk into a gallery to buy pots. I also get the sense that my online shoppers often get their pottery online and not so much in person. And it also seems that the folks who buy my pots at galleries are hardly ever the same folks who shop for pots online and have never really made it to my studio sales. It is interesting that some collectors now seem to look online as their primary source for buying pots. But I guess galleries being online meshes pretty well with the accessibility of sites like etsy.

    Of course there is some overlap, but it makes sense to recognize just who we are selling to and how different the expectations can be. Right now I sell a majority of my work locally and most of it from my home studio sales. This customer base appreciates that it is their local neighborhood potter, and in general supports the arts and things that are handmade. This is a much different attitude from collectors who require name recognition and reputation to give the work value. And as you suggest, this can often mean traveling around to get to the jobs and residencies that will put your foot in the right doors. So I can appreciate the direction your career has taken and applaud all the hard work you did to get where you are. I sometimes wish I were not so settled in my community and rooted to the home I own….

    One last observation. I think your appraisal of pottery styles is pretty much right on in the big picture, but I always thought it was interesting that when a potter from Michigan came to work here in Athens GA he found that much of the pottery was more similar than it was different. And none of us on the inside could see that! I think we were mostly all focused on what sets our work apart, and the outsider’s view could better see what drew it all together. I think it would be difficult to get serious about making pots in Athens and NOT be influenced by Ron Meyers and Michael Simon at least to some extent.

    Thanks for sharing that great post. I loved reading all your observations.

  2. [...] Campana writes about his personal journey as a nomadic potter.  He explains that traditionally, a new potter would create a local following and then expand [...]

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  4. heather says:

    Hey Jeff,
    This is a great post. I’m just in the process of putting together an artist talk for a ceramic museum that I’m going to be speaking at in June and was trying to sort out how to talk about how my generation of ceramic artist differs in terms of a ‘business model’. I grew up in a town where we had 3 resident potters who carved out entire livings for their families just by selling pots to our community of 2000 people and outlying areas. I still go back there and marvel that some of this generation can still make it without an email address, zero web presence and only 2 studio sales a year. (It kind of seems so simple and idealistic, doesn’t it?)
    While I haven’t done the whole ‘potter on tour’ thing quite the way you have (having a family has me rooted a little more to my home), I have likened being a potter to being a musician before. I think analogies like this make more sense to describe what it might take to carve out a career out of ceramics these days. And having work on Etsy has been huge in terms of visibility and being part of a creative community. It will be interesting to see where pinterest fits in- already seems to be changing where people find my work.
    Thanks again for your insight. Would you mind if I quote a couple of lines from this post in my talk- with credit to you of course? No worries if not…

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