Thursday, June 25, 2009


There is a discussion rolling around on the blog-o-sphere prompted by Ron Philbeck's recent post. There are many great viewpoints there that are worth reading in the comment section of that post. I am going to ramble a little bit here about how I feel about the value of handcrafts.

I first started making pots in my sophomore year of high school in Minnesota, 1997. I was brought up in a relatively conservative religious home that valued community and service. Though my views on faith and religion have changed, my core values remain the same. So it's no surprise that Warren Mackenzie's philosophy had an instant grasp on me, it finally put a purpose behind an activity that was up to that point ambiguous as to it's social relevance(I understood the "high arts" but the purpose of craft had eluded me.) Objects that are beautiful, that communicate and provide daily service...there was something that I could get on board with. This is still the foundation of why I make pots today.

There have been comments that art and craft are for the elites in society, art is for the privileged that can afford it. While this unfortunately seems to be the case for art, I strongly disagree that it is(or has to be) the case for hand crafts. Many of my customers (I despise the word patron) are middle-class folk who don't make much more than I do. Does the fact that upper-class people have the ability to regularly purchase such objects somehow elevate their importance? I don't think so. I'm not intending to class-bash, my pots are priced to be accessible to all people, but I'm not going to treat people any differently based upon how much they are going to spend with me. Often times for the middle-class a nice mid-priced pot is as much a serious financial splurge just as a $5000 painting is for an upper-class person, so clearly they demand the same level of respect.

In Warren's more productive years he was making about 7000 pots per year and he was able to sell every last one of them. This enabled him to sell his pots very inexpensively and still be able to make a decent income. There are not many potters aside from serious production potters that work at this volume. So WM's pricing scheme is unrealistic for the modern potter. I could easily make 5000+ pots per year but I can't sell that many, there is no demand for it right now. I currently produce 1200-1500 pieces per year because that is the volume I am able to sell. If I were able to sell 5000+ pots per year would I price my mugs and yunomi for much less than I do now? You bet I would, and I wouldn't think twice about it. Clearly price does not equal value, they are 2 separate entities. Price is a means for making a livable income, value is what it is worth to the user, not to the maker. For me the most important thing is getting my pots into as many hands as possible for the lowest possible price. Ego has no place in the handcrafts, if your ego drives the price of your work it will eventually show and you will ultimately fail. I used to sell my basic mugs for $15(I've recently gone up to $18) and I receive some serious criticism from other potters at shows for selling my pots too cheap. I always just shrug my shoulders and say that's what they're worth to me. My expenses to run my studio are dirt cheap, I live a very simple lifestyle and don't need a large income. Should I have to conform to your pricing structure because it costs you 5 times as much to produce your work? No way, that's not fair to me or my customers. If your expenses are so high or you have a much more expensive lifestyle then that is your choice. I make a decent amount of pots that I sell for a decent price and I make a decent income from it.

I am not a believer in the $30 mug, I would never pay that much for a mug, they're not worth that to me, even from my favorite potters. I would however pay that much for a yunomi, in fact I've paid a lot more than that for some. That particular form has a lot more value to me, but mine will always be priced the same as my mugs because I do believe it is silly to charge more for something that is the same size and can be made faster than a mug, though there is a much higher level of skill involved, perhaps the reason for me placing a higher value on that item.

There are also those people who think that if you're work is inexpensive then you must not value it too much. I don't know what I can do to change their minds but this is clearly not true. I value the opportunity for my pots to enhance or possibly even change someones life(hey, pots changed mine.) This is what it is important for me, not how someone perceives my pricing. If you value my work for more than what it is priced at then that is fantastic, that is what I hope for. Every pot that we own and that we use is worth much more to us than what we paid for them, this is the whole point, isn't it? If you are looking for investment value art...well, you best keep looking.

My ideal has always been to make the pots that are in my heart and if they sell...great, if not then I'll do what I need to to get by. You can easily tell the difference between potters who crank out the pots to make money and those who make honest pots that are of value to them. I'm not in this business to get rich, I made much more as a carpenter than I do making pots and teaching combined. But truthfully my life is much fuller, richer and holds a lot more value as a potter. Pottery has the chance to impact lives, not in a blatant "art saves lives" sort of way, but rather in a way that opens up your perception to the beauty that surrounds you in your everyday life.

I hope that I haven't offended anyone. The beauty of humanity is that we all have a different take on life, we all value different things. You are more than welcome to further this discussion by leaving a comment.

Speaking of value....The Deep Roots exhibition comes down in a few days. Last chance to get some sweeeet pots.



Sue Pariseau Pottery said...

Well said Brandon!

juana said...

well said, brandon.

i am also of the "pots to the people" philosophy. i consider myself just a beginner with the conviction that i will have my hands in clay for a very very long time. i have just had my first 2 serious, semi-professional sales, and pricing was painful. it became a little easier when i decided i needed to price the pots with my consumer-of-pottery part of the brain. i have supported my local potter for as long as i have earned a dollar in this town. i also live a simple life, but pottery is one of those luxuries i have been willing to splurge on.

potters need to support their local buyers to be able to obtain their support.

as a potter, i really wish, firmly wish, that i can continue to make many many many many many many pots, and i hope they get to contain nourishment and beauty for as many people as possible; and i hope i can continue to afford the luxury of acquiring pots to hold and look at and to fill them up with good things to eat and drink.

i love your forms and enjoy reading your blog. keep it up!

Gabe Sealey-Morris said...

I agree in principle - I wish that it were possible to make pottery for everyone, or that we could create a world where it would be possible. One of my closest friends is a radical organizer who genuinely believes that the corporate structure of our economy can be broken and our economy can be local and participatory. I'm not that optimistic.

Before the Industrial Revolution, every object in your home would have been made by a local artisan, it would have cost a high but fair price that reflected its material value, and you would not have had much of it.

Because of industrial production, though, the basic material necessities are cheaper and available in mass quantities, which means that anything expensive and rare is now a luxury. In egalitarian America we don't want to admit that reality though, and so we pretend that luxuries are necessities. All you need is one cup, one plate, and your hands to eat with. Hell, you don't even need the plate - eat out of the pot you cook in. Any more is, by definition, a luxury.

Realistically, there is no place in the industrialized world for local artisans providing basic needs. Ikea, Target, Walmart, et sl have that covered. It's a noble wish to be an 18th century artisan, or to provide objects of beauty and utility to the middle class (not to the poor?), but at some point, we have to get real - and that point is not in determining "value," but in putting a price tag on something beautiful and unreproducible.

Gabe Sealey-Morris said...

I think maybe my use of the word "elite" has been misleading too. By "elite" I don't mean the fabulously wealthy, people who collect fine art and will endow it to MOMA when they die.

Those of us who live in the arts or academia, who live in progressive towns or neighborhoods, forget that the majority of the country lives a different sort of life. If you have more than a few years of college, if you shop (even a little) at Whole Foods, if you know what station NPR is in your area, you belong to an elite - the elite of middle-class white privilege. You don't have to be white, you don't have to be middle-class - middle-class white privilege is a state of mind, of taste, of desire, of how you determine value.

Most people DO NOT live in this bubble. The vast majority of people in this country shop at Walmart and make a working-class wage not because they have chosen to do something they love that does not pay well, but because it is all they qualify for. The fact that we have the choice to be potters at all means we belong to an elite.

Most people who drink coffee are going to buy their mugs at Walmart or steal it from Waffle House. That leaves a small percentage of people who could potentially be buyers of hand-made pottery, and most of those people buy their pottery from Ikea and are not interested in buying hand-made. They don't need education - they've made a logical decision.

So that leaves our buyers being an even smaller percentage of a small percentage - the people who can afford hand-made and have cultivated a taste for it. And any small group of people who have the privilege of making such decisions is, by definition, an elite.

brandon phillips said...

Clary illian said that pots are made by the privileged for the privileged. I agree with both this statement and what you are saying but...I don't believe that it has to be this way. Perhaps this is a romantic notion? Sure, but what is wrong with that?

The privilege that these folks have is the education to know what it is that they are looking at and be able to afford it. Sure enough your college educated middle to upper class folk are going to be the ones who fall into this classification. This is where education comes into play. When I talk to people about pots it's not so much how I make them as much as it is why I make them.

I understand that if you're struggling to get by then these things isn’t necessary. Paying the bills and taking care of your family is. But let’s look for a second at luxury and privilege. How many Americans own computers, cell phones, televisions, closets full of clothes, cars, etc.? Of all these objects maybe a car is the only one that is arguably necessary. How many lower class (not impoverished) people own some or all of these things? I'll go out on a limb and say the majority do. The argument that pots are an unnecessary extravagance (this part is true) that only the "elite" can afford is clearly not true.

The fact of the matter is the majority of people do not value handcrafts, and while that is not financially beneficial to you or me, it is okay. To the average person a mug is not worth $18...or $90 for that matter. Value or appreciation for handcrafts does not come about because of where you are in life. It comes about because you were in the right place in the right time and there was something that struck the right chord with you. I come from a home that had a strong appreciation for objects that other people had built, what I call the handcrafts. Neither of my folks are college educated, they were middle-class at best and could care less about the art world. They (and I) appreciate the tactile irregular quality of what is produced by hand vs. the slick perfect and cold quality of industry. This was never forced down my throat but presented to me in the way that they lived. So when I discovered the value of handcraft at the age of 16 it was a very natural thing for me. Most people do not have this opportunity so we educate them. And you are right, most people do not care about handcraft, it is not a priority nor of value to them. But there are many people out there for whom it is of value or it might be and they just don’t know it yet, these people extend through all age, social classes and levels of education. The average working Joe probably does not have the time to peruse the local art fair, or maybe because of previous distinctions made about who can appreciate art they feel out of place because they don’t completely understand it. So this gives rise to that fact that only “privileged middle-upper class” people can adequately appreciate and purchase these objects. When the nice upper-middle class couple comes by and wants to purchase a $250 platter to beautify their home, I’m there for them. When the average Joe is there with his $20 left from his paycheck to purchase a luxurious coffee mug to add to his quality of life, I’ve been there before and I’ll continue to be there…with change.

man, these discussions are really creeping into my potting time....

Gabe Sealey-Morris said...

Ha - I was just telling my wife the same thing - why is everybody wasting their time writing when we need to be making something?

The problem is really one of history. For most of human history, art was for the privileged, craft was for everybody's everyday use, and the two were clearly separated. It remained that way even in the 19th century - William Blake, as an engraver, was considered working-class because he made "derivative" work for mass publication, whereas a painter was an artist because he made unique works.

But now, because of technology, the separation is becoming stickier. The items that were once craft are now mass-produced, and objects made with obsolete technology or methods (pottery, quilts, hand-made carpentry) are somewhere between craft and art. My point is, we can't live in limbo without a lot of professional anxiety - we have to pick some designation. The designation "art" makes most sense to me.

Gabe Sealey-Morris said...

And I totally agree with what you say about being raised to appreciate quality. My grandmother was a quilter, my father is a carpenter, and I was taught to appreciate those things as beautiful, well-made examples of an art-craft. But even as I was sitting under my grandmother's quilts, I was told she practiced a "dying art." What that really meant, I know now, was that is was a craft (when she grew up on the farm, making your own quilts was how you kept from freezing in the winter) turning into an art (my grandmother could never believe people would pay $200-300 for a quilt. What would she think now - I just recently saw a quilt at a craft fair selling for $1200).

I agree. But I don't want to be too romantic when it comes to selling our own work.

cindy shake said...

I so agree with you about ego, Brandon. It was interesting to read your side and view of how one Potter prices and views his work, though I'm not sure you share a majority view. Whitney Smith's (This Artist's Life) and Heather Knight's (Heather Knight Ceramics) Blogs - have had some sparky dialog on value and pricing.

Probably a very important point is whether an artist's income is only coming from the sales of their work and not being supplemented by another job like teaching. Pricing and philosophy may have a different view entirely.

brandon phillips said...

that is another interesting point cindy. I most definitely am in the minority!!! But that is ok, I have a system that works for me.

Both of those gals make much more labor intensive work than I do, they're expenses are far higher than mine, they work differently and sell differently so they're going to have to price differently.

heather, for example, states that she works 80 hours a week for nothing...well she is clearly not doing something right. i believe that her pots (time-wise) are worth much more than she is selling them for. i'm guessing that she also wholesales a lot of her work. that can kill you if you're not keeping an adequate profit margin. i posted about how i deal with pricing and how many pots i make here:
Something that I didn't mention there is that I sell locally as much as possible. Approx. 25% of my sales this year have been local. My profit margin quadruples when I don't have to send my pots off somewhere or travel to a show.

i took a course in college called art marketing, one of the best classes i've ever taken. (i also was associated with the business club in high school, geek, i know) because of this i am well aware of my market, my overhead/profit margin, and many other various business aspects that allow me to be in control of my business. I'm not flailing around like many other artists wondering where the money goes. I know exactly what happens to every dime and I am in control of it. I don't talk much business on my blog because it's boring and not entirely relevant, but I feel that it is in this case.

I teach part time and am paid a not so fair amount of money for it. I make less hourly teaching than I do making pots. But i love teaching. The thing that a lot of people don't realize is that when I am teaching, I'm not making pots. I've made pots full time and lived off it, I could do it again, but like I said I love teaching. If I weren't teaching I would have 30-40% more time to make pots and do that many more shows and I would probably make more money than I do now. I sell almost every pot that I make and if I had the time to get to more venues I could sell more work. So in many cases the "supplemental" income argument is not valid. If you need supplemental income because you're making the pots but not selling them...well that is a different story.

I hope I didn't give the impression that everyone should price their pots the way I do. I have a certain philosophical belief that clearly influences the way I price my work. In order to be able to do that I work very fast and very efficiently. If someone only makes 500 pieces a year and wants to net $40000, assuming 1/3 for expenses($60000 sales) thats $120 average price per piece. My yearly total expenses to run my business are $3-4000(this includes doing shows) to produce and sell 1200-1500 pots.

Gabe-I hear what you are saying and definitely agree to an extent. But alas, you are a realist and I am a romantic so we shall have to agree to disagree on certain issues! There are many traditional crafts that are no longer available to the masses. Quilting and most woodworking are good examples.
I think that is perhaps part of why I hold steady on making my pots readily available for those who have an interest in such things.

-Rob, Simple Circle Studios said...

I saw both Ron's post and your response before, but just now had time to sit down and read through everything (well, almost everything). There is an awful lot of discussion going on about this, and I think that is good! Sure, everyone is going to have different methods and ideas about how stuff should be priced. Talking about it, though, helps potters understand why they price how they do and may help customers understand as well. Personally, I tend to agree with you, Brandon. I want everyone to be able to afford my work, not just the upper class folks. Everyone should be able to appreciate good, quality, handmade products, not just people with a lot of extra money. I frequently get comments at shows about how low my work is priced. And my wife is constantly telling me I should charge more. But if you figure up cost of materials, time, etc, I am charging about what the pieces are worth. Just because someone enjoys the work, places a personal value on it, and would pay more for it does not mean that they should have to pay more for it.

Linda Starr said...

Hi Brandon, I've been reading Ron's, Lucy's, Whitney's and Heather's discussions about pricing and value. First off I am so glad you have decided to keep teaching instead of potting full time. I think teachers like you are so important to those like me and others who were looking to learn all about ceramics from teachers serious about ceramics. I also think the fact you are also a potter and not just teaching can be a definite advantage to students. Much of my college experience was obtained from instructors who are not potters. Yes they have a MFA they got maybe 30 years ago. An MFA doesn't mean you are a good teacher. Also you can be proficient at making ceramics and still not be a good teacher, but that's another story. My teacher's focus was on the "art" but not the practical part of pottery. I also think instructors who are not making work and striving to improve many times have something lacking in their teaching abilities and what they can convey and teach the students. Sometimes they can get stuck in a rut and only want to stick to the same old thing, not encourage students to experiment and branch out and try new things.

Linda Starr said...

I've been reading along about who can appreciate art and what their educational or cultural or artistic or family background has been in their lives and whether they will want to obtain a piece of art, whether they will spend the money on a $18 mug or a $120 plate and in some ways I agree, but in many ways I disagree. I grew up in a working class family where no one was artistic or craft oriented, although my mother liked music and liked to read. My grandparents on one side were farmers and the other were working class folks in the city. I can't think of an aunt or an uncle who made anything with their hands art or otherwise. My grandmother made quilts and crocheted out of necessity. I think I learned to appreciate art from reading and wanting to learn. The schools I attended didn't have art so I took art in summer classes because I wanted to learn about it and I loved drawing and making things with my hands. Later I put myself through college and always went to museums and galleries for fun. I have come to ceramics late in life and now that I beginning to sell some of my work I have a chance to meet the public and talk with them. I live in a very rural cowboy (the real cowboy and rodeo types) and a farming community. I get chance to talk and meet many of these folks. By and large many don't appreciate my lavender farm, my flowers or my ceramics, but many times there are those among the community that do appreciate the art and want to learn about it and do want to have a little something special in their lives. They shop at Wal-mart and the thrift stores, heck I do too - times are tough here - probably more than 18 percent unemployment in this county and other counties nearby with 40 percent unemployment, but they still appreciate the art in what I make. I can see it in their eyes and how they touch the ceramics or rub their hands on a piece. Maybe some can't afford it - even a $10 little bowl or a $15 vase, but I know they would love to have it and if they had it they would truly love it and appreciate it. I have also seen the folks with plenty of money not willing to spend the money or want me to reduce my price. The poor folks would never think of asking me to do that - because they know how hard it is to come by money and they can better appreciate the hard work which goes into making something with their hands. I agree there are folks out there that will and can appreciate art and handmade, maybe they do when they see it, or maybe they do when they hear all about how you (I) make it and then come to appreciate it. They know it's hard work to rope a calf, they know a well made saddle is worth it's weight in gold and when they hear about what hard work and what thought goes into making a piece of handmade pottery then they can and do appreciate it probably much more than we know. And so art is not just for the elite, art is for every man - look at the native american pottery or african pottery or aboriginal art or carved walking sticks or whaler's scrimshaw, they didn't have to decorate their utilitarian objects, they weren't in an elite class, and yet something in them said to create art and to make the utilitarian piece just a little bit more than just a useful thing. I believe art distinguishes us from the animals. Animals use tools but humans decorate their tools and make them art.

doug said...


reading your post made me very proud to call you my friend. you have come so far from college days. i remember when you first came into class your freshman year just a shy little guy who made awesome pots even then.