Table of Contents » Chapter 4 : Employment » Chapter 4 : Alternatives to Academia » Chapter 4 : Alternatives to Academia – Potter’s Story

Chapter 4 : Alternatives to Academia – Potter’s Story

Questions and Suggestions about Starting a Business:
Potters Story

essay by Laura Zindel

Why (How) did you start your own business?

Starting my own business was not really a choice, being an artist was not really a choice either. I think you start out, go through a series of experiences that make it an either or situation. You choose what makes you feel powerful. I have had many jobs that I liked and a lot that I did not like. The ones that I liked gave me a sense of autonomy that I became addicted to. I liked it when my ideas and direction contributed to the success of something that mattered. I have followed the breadcrumbs… as a certain salty old sea dog once told me to do. Fate, luck what is this thing? There is a universe of wise people always around who tell you things, filter what you will.

A few suggestions.
1. Register your business name with your state of business.
2. Buy a URL business name and/or your own name.
3. Photograph and copyright your work
4. Register your trademark in the countries that you want to do business.
5. Find a business attorney and a business tax accountant to help with the above.
6. Work with someone that can help you make a business plan. We have a small business development corporation in our town, find one in your area and ask what they offer small business getting started.
7. Become a part of the Chamber of Commerce in your town, they can help with insurance and other resources.
8. Insure yourself and your business.
9.Take yourself seriously.

How did you come to develop two lines of work (dinnerware & handmade)?

As always I listened to my customers. We made a line of handmade tableware and my people wanted something that they could eat of of everyday. Our handmade is earthenware. I could not imagine making enough plates or mugs to satisfy my customers without turning into a factory, so I turned to a factory. I found Niagara Ceramics in upstate NY. There are not many factories left that produce china in our country and I found their story very compelling. I also found that the fact that they would deal with me compelling. It isn’t easy working with a factory, especially if you are perceived as a potter, and a housewife that is a potter. These are perceptions that I had had to overcome as a person. What makes me different than a housewife potter that wants to make a bunch of plates with a big company? Money mostly, but there are other things too. How to overcome a credibility problem?

Perserverance is the only answer here and money. These were the same problems with getting good ceramic decals for our line as well. We went through so many companies along the way. Companies that just made really bad decals, ones that could not translate the designs well, ones that got tired of our complicated needs and to finally a company that cares about what we do and supports us. In the end what I have learned is that my perseverance has led to relationships with these companies that at first did not have any reason to take me seriously.

1. Research companies that you would like to work with.
2. Find out what the set up charge and minimums are.
3. Ask for samples, references, pricing and shipping costs.
4. If possible go to the business and meet the people that you will be working with. Realize that you are putting the quality and time frame of what you make in someone’s hands and you are giving up a lot of control.

What suggestions would you give an artist starting out?

The first thing anyone needs to know about making money from their art is that you have to not care about making money from art. When I taught, my students parents would come to me and ask me if I thought that their kid was good enough to make a career from the education that they were so generously providing. To this question I have had one response, “If your child feels like their only option is to pursue a career in art because they feel that this is their one and only choice then you should back them up”.

Don’t start your career thinking that art is a great way to make money. It has it’s rewards for sure…but if you think that the real reward is money… look into another career, it is not for you.

At least for me as a young person, I really did not see a way out….I knew that I would either be a waitress my whole life or make a go of it. At RISD I was a photo major for a week, I thought that it would be exciting to be a photo journalist and I could get paid a salary from a newspaper to take pictures and travel. After a week I realized that I would have to first learn how to develop photos in a darkroom and switched back to ceramics. I knew in my heart that ceramics was my first love and the bottom of the food chain in terms of making a living…I just could not bring myself to do anything else. I could have gone to a liberal arts college and become a lawyer and taken art classes as my family suggested but it was never really an option for me. As luck would have it I had a father who believed in me and getting into RISD helped solidify his support. I never had to take those math or writing courses, and my SAT’s were pathetic.

Start with what you are passionate about and the rest..(meaning work) will not seem so bad. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from those that can help you. Financial, emotional or otherwise, you will need it.. Surround yourself professionally and personally with as many people as you can that support your goals by being role models.

What is the most interesting part of your day to day?

On a really personal level the best part of my day is when the phone calls and e-mails are behind me and I can put on my headphones and listen to my latest obsession like “Sons of Anarchy” and draw and design my latest obsession. On the other hand I honestly like the part of my business that brings me in contact with people, so without the day to day phone calls and e-mails with my clients I feel lost and not in touch with what actually drives me…to please the people that work so hard to sell my work. I have never disliked the business side of working with people, they tell me about what I do, in really practical terms and I strive to respond to it with respect. It would be impossible to do what I do without their enthusiasm. Don’t fool yourself into believing that your own business lets you be “free to create all day”. If you don’t like working with people, pay someone to do it for you. Your customers will know if you don’t like them.

What is the most frustrating day to day?

The most frustrating part of the day is the constant problem solving. There is always a problem when you work with a living material. It is what we call in our studio the “voodoo”. My training and yours teaches your above all things that you are a problem solver. There is no blue print for what we do. If you work with base materials they are always going to change and challenge, you have to be able to roll with that and embrace this fact. Think of yourself as a problem solver even beyond the science of what you do. I used to think that these things could ruin me….but I have learned to be more forgiving and less hostile and it lets me sleep better.

Narrow the scope of things that can go wrong by simplifying your methods. If you do production you have to be able to figure out where the problems start and then be able to solve them. If you work with 10 different glazes and two clay bodies… your margin for error is very high. We have one clay body, three glazes, and the decal firing. We do the same thing everyday and yet things still go wrong.

What did you do when you first left school?

My first job was as the director of an art center in Connecticut. I was the only salaried person in an organization that was run otherwise by volunteers. I did everything from booking the classes, maintaining the studios, organizing the art exhibitions to painting the walls and cleaning the bathrooms. I was mentored through it by an amazing woman that taught me at this young age to do all of this. I Iearned so much about what it is to bring art to a small community. At the same time I started my first business selling my work because I was given free studio space. I then went on to graduate school, residencies and finally setting up my own studio. I put in many years selling my work in retail shows

Get some experience beyond the studio. It is important to know more than just how to make art. It is important to know how to do things for yourself. Learn how to use basic power tools. Learn how to present your work in a context that suits what you are selling. Do not hesitate to hire people to do things that you are not good at. (For me it was photographing my work, bookkeeping and anything that needs to be designed on a computer.) Explore your options for selling your work in different venues. Gallery, solo and group exhibitions, studio sales, retail shows, wholesale shows, website, Etsy, icensing… They are all different and you will like some more than others, try them all. Work for someone that does what you want to do. Get to know your community….the definition of community is broad so figure out those you want to be a part of. Your needs from a community change as you do, recognize your need for change.

What do you know now that you wish you knew then (when is then – like when you left school I guess)?

I knew right away after graduating that I should have gone right back to school for a degree in Industrial Design. All my ID friends knew how to get things done. It had nothing to do with discipline, they could just have an idea and their training taught them how to get it made. When you specialize, like i did in ceramics, it limits you to a certain range of skills and ideas within that genre. It has taken me a valuable amount of time and thinking to remove myself from the religion of the skill set that I was trained and to rid myself of the bonds of what I can only account for as a set of morals that I was taught. I gave myself a pass at a certain point to do things the easiest way to my end. I think Julia is asking me here to give you that pass in the ceramic profession. It is important to have the background and the history that allows you to go out and forge a new path in ceramics thoughtfully…but never limit yourself in terms of what industry can provide.

Questions to ask yourself:

What part of your work do you enjoy doing and what part is tedious or just so time consuming that it keeps you from doing what you are really good at?
What part of your work will eventually tax your body until your can no longer do it?
Are there other methods to get a result that does not compromise the design?

CV: BFA Rhode Island School of Design, MFA University of Massachusetts, Studio Assistant to Michael Cohen, Residency at the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works and Anderson Ranch, Instructor at City College of San Francisco and the Academy of Art in SF

Laura and her husband Thorsten Lauterbach work together with a small group of artisans at their production studio Laura Zindel Design in Vermont.

– L A U R A Z I N D E L D E S I G N