Where have all...

 the Potters Gone?


By Mary Ann Steggles

In 2011, studio potter Valerie Metcalfe and founding member of the Mostly Stoneware Gallery in Winnipeg, Manitoba, talked to a student of mine about her concern over the number of young people wanting a career in studio ceramics. She wondered if there would be anyone to replace the coop members as they retired. Tony Clennell sitting outside in the warm sun of a November day in the Niagara Green Belt of Canada chatted with me about the decline in studio sales in one of Canada’s busiest tourist districts. Increasingly students remarked on their lack of skill in throwing and firing kilns that would help them establish their own viable future in studio ceramics. Throughout these conversations, I began to notice a decline in enrollments in basic ceramics courses. What came out of my reflections on these conversations and facts was a question, ‘Where Have All the Potters Gone?’To try and find answers to why the numbers of professional potters appears to be in decline, I sent out 300 simple questionnaires. The first question asked how long the person had been making ceramics. Other questions probed whether or not the person was able to make a living from their studio work or if it had to be supplemented by teaching, workshops, etc. I asked if they had noticed a decline in their ability to earn a living and to what they would attribute such a decline if it were true. I also asked if they had noticed a change in young people entering the field of ceramics. Of the 300 questionnaires I sent out, 279 responses were received from potters around the world. This article summarizes those findings first presented in a talk for the Manitoba Craft Council in March 2013.

In Canada, 9/11 was one single event that brought harsh times to those potters whose studios prospered from cross-border trade. Cathi Jefferson of Duncan, British Columbia told me that immediately following 9/11 the income from her studio sales dropped to less than half of what it had been historically. The sad part is that it has not returned. 9/11 with its increased border security between Canada and the US was, however, not the only event or change that hastened a decline in earning power. The introduction of required identification such as passports impacted the discretionary spending of former US customers for Canadian studio ceramics. Families who would have crossed the border at Buffalo/Fort Erie to enjoy a day in the Niagara Green Belt sipping the local wines, purchasing pottery and seeing the Canadian side of the Falls stopped coming. The cost of the ten-year passport for all members of the family was prohibitive. Add to this the 2008 economic downturn and the Canadian dollar being equal to the US $ and you have a serious impact on potters.

In Australia and New Zealand, other factors contributed to a decline in potters being able to make their living full time from their craft. The most notable was the trade agreements between New Zealand and Australia with China that allowed cheap Chinese imports to flood the markets. Alan Lacovetsky noted that more than half of the studios in New Zealand went bankrupt because of the introduction of these wares. In Australia, the number of professional potters is declining. The cultural economist, David Throsby in his study, also noted this trend in a study ‘Do You Really Expect to Get Paid?’ conducted between 2001-2009. Throsby’s study was aimed at any occupation that could be part of a professional arts career. Like myself, however, he noted an increase in individuals entering the ‘design’ field. This, of course, is of great significance. The numbers of art colleges or universities in Australia offering courses in studio ceramics (as opposed to sculptural or architectural) has declined significantly. No longer are there part-time positions to help those potters hit by cheaper Chinese goods survive. Many have had to abandon their practice or find other income to support them while they continue to pursue their passion.

There are, of course, other factors. Australians, like Canadians, have noticed a considerable decline in youth entering the field. Jennifer Collier from Australia, states, ‘In the last ten years most primary and secondary schools have lost their clay teachers as they have retired or died and they have not been replaced. And now the tertiary institutions here in Australia are rationalizing their courses and clay is one of the ones to be dying out.’ Peter Knuckey, a potter who lived in New Zealand, had a studio in Kyoto and who now lives in Melbourne, looks back to a time when he supported himself fully from his studio work or commissions. Nutley’s comment ‘But that has all gone now’ underscores even the decline in production by historic pottery factories as well as small studios. Knuckey clearly states what so many others wrote to me, ‘Young people don’t have that discipline to drive themselves into practice and learning the craft that is needed before they can truly express themselves’. Knuckey confirms what Tony Clennell and Robin Hopper from Canada believe – that schools are often not the right places to learn a craft or acquire the discipline to succeed. To counter this problem, Lisa Hammond has started the ‘Adopt a Potter Trust’ in the UK. Their website notes what most of us already know: it takes years to train to be a studio potter. The site further acknowledges that art colleges have trouble in offering any meaningful courses in throwing to those who want to make functional wheel thrown ware. The ‘Adopt a Potter Trust’ is intent on securing a future for individuals who want to become studio potters. Hammond is right. Art colleges not only do not have the time but they also may not have hired the right individuals to train studio potters. Len Cook from Australia believes that ‘Students today want a quick fix’ citing the desire for instant gratification and a big income against the years of apprenticeship that Hammond, Clennell and Hopper recognize is required if studio pottery is to succeed. Cook also notes the ever-increasing costs of setting up studios, purchasing land, and workplace health and safety issues that have often wiped out interest. I would like to go a step further. Many art colleges pride themselves on having the latest equipment and technology for their students to use. In academia it is seen as an ‘advantage’. An $80,000 computerized kiln made in Holland where a student never sees a flame and where a sophisticated computerized programming system limit the human contact and understanding of how atmospheric kilns work does not assist anyone when they leave academia and have to set their own studios on shoestring budgets! Hiring individuals who might be apologetic about the production of domestic ware but who claim to be Professors of Ceramics is another concern. Students in the audience revealed that they will be graduating with a 4 year degree with their focus on ceramics but they cannot properly throw a pot! Is it their fault for not spending twenty extra hours in the studio per week all those years? Do they not have a professor who can actually teach them to throw? The answer is complicated but it is clear those instructors capable and willing to train young people in the creation of handmade domestic ware is in decline. In the 1980s when our university had instructors like Bob Archambeau, Robert ‘Irish’ Flynn, and Charlie Scott, the demand to study flourished. Classes were full. Students came from across North America. The ‘majors’ in ceramics rivaled that of painting. Last year we graduated two. This year there are a few more but this is more because of a decrease in credit requirements than any renewed interest.

Many, such as Valerie Gordon from Australia, summarize the findings of my study and what others have observed. Government cutbacks for ceramics courses have meant fewer teaching opportunities. High school education in the arts has seen teachers with larger classes and less time to teach. Economic downturns have meant that galleries and sales outlets have closed or are taking such a larger % cutting into any profits the potter might make. Jim Etzhorn from Alberta, Canada also states, ‘So many amateurs compete for the same dollar that it is much harder to make a living and most of the buying public doesn’t understand quality’. Those sentiments reverberated around the globe. Many potters, however, welcome those individuals returning to school or taking workshops after working in a job necessary for their survival but one that never fed their passions or made them happy. Tony Clennell gives workshops throughout North America that are full of individuals passionate about clay but who never had the chance earlier in their lives to do what they really wanted. Valerie Gordon notes a changing market, rising costs of materials, and the overall devaluation of ceramics and other handmade items. She also notices what many educators do. There are fewer young people studying or considering ceramics as a way of life. ‘For the young making a living and career from art/ceramics is not ‘cool’ or ‘sexy’ whereas most desirable careers are associated with the potential to earn good money or be in IT or on TV’.

Amid all the negativity, there are also some prominent examples that may offer us solutions and hope for the future. I have already noted ‘The Adopt the Potter Trust’ and the recognition that proper apprenticeships can be meaningful especially when art colleges are potentially incapable of providing the training necessary. The EU placed a huge tax on imports from China because they understood that not only would the floodgates of the 3 C’s – Cheap Chinese Ceramics – impact their studio potters but also they could potentially close the remaining industrial manufacturers in Europe. The tax was 86.8%. Young persons intent on making a livelihood are using technology to aid in their own promotion. The University of Manitoba Ceramics Club recently hosted the American ceramicist, Ayumi Horie. Horie does not apologize for self-promotion. She has set up a website, she networks with friends and colleagues, and she takes on supporting international causes like the Japanese tsunami to promote the handmade. Tony Clennell has closed Sourcherry Pottery in Beamsville, Ontario and has gone into partnership with his uncle’s family pottery, Pinecroft, in Aylmer, Ontario. Pinecroft is the oldest surviving studio pottery in Canada and will be celebrating its 65th anniversary on June 22, 2013 with workshops by Ron Myers and music by Valdy. Gallery directors who might have been told fifteen years ago to not ever exhibit ‘pots’ are, in the post-digital age returning to an understanding that the inherent beauty in something well made can enrich lives. There have been two notable exhibitions in Canada (amongst many others) recently that recognize the debt paid by Canada to British studio pottery. The Gardiner Museum in Toronto ran the exhibition, Connections: Canadian and British Studio Ceramics and the Belkin Gallery in Vancouver recently published the catalogue for an earlier exhibition, Thrown. British Columbia’s Apprentices of Bernard Leach and their Contemporaries. Recent publications include The Last Sane Man. Michael Cardew. Modern Pots, Colonialism, and the Counterculture by Tanya Harrod. And last, but not least, one of the most promising young Canadian studio potters, Robin du Pont, who earned his MFA at Utah State University with John Neely has been nominated for the 2013 Royal Bank of Canada Emerging Artist Award in Ceramics.

In the 1950 Law for Protection of Cultural Properties, the government of Japan recognized individuals as Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties. This person was given a living wage for the training of apprentices and the exhibition of work in order to transmit it to future generations. Since then other countries such as Australia, France, the Philippines, Romania, South Korea, and Thailand have established programmes of recognition. In Canada, we had the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Crafts. This was eventually taken over by the Canada Council and merged with the Governor-General’s annual awards. The effect was to rob it of its individual stature and special visibility. We need to remember why Japan first sought such a designation and not forget that it was a time when that country feared losing its own cultural identity and traditions in an age of industrialization. Studio pottery is under threat in many parts of the world. How can one person help? Stop buying ‘Cheap Chinese Ceramics’! Start an ‘Adopt a Potter’ movement in your area. Next time you are looking for a gift make it one that is handmade and beautiful. Educate the public on quality. If you are a student who has just taken a workshop and who wants to recover the costs of their materials, don’t undersell your work – it puts your instructors and those who need to make a living out of work. Demand support for the teaching and training of young people. And last, but not lest, make sure that ceramic association gatherings around the world do not fall under the spell of ‘architectural or sculptural ceramics’ at the expense of the studio pottery movement. In closing, Tony Clennell reminds me that ‘There is more money in the living room than in the kitchen’. Even when he makes 28 lb. vases and pulls a lip and puts a handle on them, it becomes kitchen ware and he is asked what they can use it for. ‘When I answer orange juice, they look at me rather stunned’.

Robin Hopper has graciously provided me with a very important quote to end this article:

The dual worlds of realistic studio-potter education and the continuum of functional or domestic pottery for general family use are at a point of extreme crisis OVER MUCH OF THE WORLD. It is not too late to effect a reversal in the status quo, but it will take a massive vote of confidence and a concerted effort by volumes of believers to make it happen. Is it worth the bother? IT CERTAINLY IS!


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