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Article: A Field Guide for Ceramic Artisans


This is an article about making the field guide published in Studio Potter Winter 2007
Studio Potter Magazine
Volume 36, Number 1, Winter2007/Spring 08
article written by Julia Galloway

Eight years ago, I came to teach at the School for American Crafts at RIT specifically because crafts and the making of useful things are honored, and wanting to be a professional craftsman is respected and supported. All crafts students enroll in professional practices courses: Planning a Career in Crafts, Crafts Promotional Package, and Operating a Small Business in the Crafts. I came to RIT because of these classes; I felt that the school was taking its students seriously as practicing artisans as well as art students. These courses are excellent, but I felt the ceramics students needed information more specific to their field. I developed the Field Guide for Ceramic Artisans as an addendum to these courses. Originally these Guides were a graduation present to my students, but then one student showed it to another and the word was out. I now make and sell them as a fund raiser for the ceramics scholarship fund.

To develop the field guide, I made a list of the questions and concerns I had had as a student, and that students had been asking me over the past eight years. There
are questions that come up again and again – mostly variations on “how am I going to do this when I finish school?” Working in ceramics is as much a way of living as a career; it is not a sure thing and requires tenacity and a great deal of stubbornness, it is very difficult. Each person invents it as they go along. The prospect can be overwhelming for students when they first leave school, and I hoped that the field guide would help give them
confidence during the transition from art student to practicing artisan.

The field guide is an extremely casual booklet, made on the copy machine and collated on the floor of my office, with a plastic spiral binding. It is not fancy – no glossy colored photographs or professional agenda. It addresses the normal “everyman” questions: how do I deal with student loans? How do I talk to my electrician about installing a kiln? How about zoning for a kiln? Studio insurance? Heath insurance? How to make a mailing list? Prepare
for an exhibition? Find a gallery? What about grants? What’s OSHA? How do the students realize what they do not know, and how do they simply find a direction to go in?

In addition, I asked my students whose and what advice they’d like to hear.They told me specific artists they admired and were inspired by. I made a list from their requests and then added other professionals in the field (gallery owners, people from art centers and Artist in Residence programs) to round out the interviews. I hired a recent alumna, one year out of school, and asked her to call the list of artists and ask the students’ questions. In exchange, these artists would get a copy of the Field Guide and I’d send them a mug. I wanted someone newly out of school to interview these artists as the Guide was developed for someone in her situation. The interviews are candid, direct, clear, and full of hope. Mostly the artists tell a bit of their story and offer suggestions. Some of this information is consistent, some of it contradictory, but all is honest and without pretense.

When I started researching the Field Guide I got back varied responses from my peers in ceramics. Many thought it was great. Some felt that students could find all this information anyway, and that the Guide wasn’t really needed. Others said that the best work, the best artists, rise to the top anyway. Some felt that the job of a professor was to teach, and inspire students professionally through their own career successes. In my experience art school training is just that, training to be an artist: educate the eye, teach techniques, intellectual development and art philosophies. It is a lot to ask an art school to also teach survival, how to be a maker of original and creative work and a businessman.

Today’s artisans must make the work, build or buy the facilities, develop self-promotion strategies, be philosophers and critics. They must wrestle with demands that many of us now teaching did not have to deal with when we were first out of school: web pages, gallery installation, and large student loans, to name a few. Students in ceramics today are in a bind when they leave school. They either try interjecting their ceramic work (traditional crafts media) into the fine arts community (fine art galleries and collectors). Or they move out into the tradition crafts world (crafts fairs, ACC) with traditional art school training and aspirations. Generally they have at least a year of good hard knocks.

The generally-excellent art school training in ceramics has strengthened and diversified our field, especially utilitarian ceramics. Potters today are more intellectually and historically astute and they have amazing skills in a huge variety of techniques. Contemporary ceramics today is smarter, better-made, more interesting and diverse than I have ever seen. Moving from school to the “real world” is very difficult, however, and many students cannot see their way through this transition. Art centers, group studios and residency programs are a fantastic support for recent graduates, providing the opportunity for training and experiences that are beyond art school curriculums. I developed the field guide as a small step toward expanding art school education to include practical, day-to-day survival information. Currently I am working on a second edition of the field guide, as some parts of the original are working better than others. The long web page links in each section are too difficult to type in and the web information changes. In the next edition I will add a CD-ROM that contains all the links and key words for a Google search. I need to expand the packing and shipping section with more specific information about packing small work, add information about shipping large sculpture, and address international shipping. My accountant, who specializes in working with craftsmen, has written an essay of advice about taxes that I want to include. I also want to add a section about crafts fairs, photographing work, developing a web page, and selling work online. I would also like to expand the Mentorship and Advice section to include more artists; this is the section of the Field Guide I get the most feedback on.

I am thinking about putting the Field Guide on my own web page so everyone could easily have access to the information. Ayumi Horie (ayumihorie.com) has wonderful useful links on her webpage, and I go there often for information. However, there is something different about looking through a book to find information, an actual object that gives my students something real to hold onto. It seems to give them confidence, a place to start, and
the information about how to do what is next.

The development of the Field Guide was partially funded by a modest Faculty Development Grant from the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences at RIT. It would not be as complete or interesting without the tireless efforts of alumni Tim Clark, Stephanie Leach, and Maria Kretschmann.