Sarah Jaeger is a studio potter in Helena, Montana. She received a BA (in English literature) from Harvard and a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute. She was a resident artist at the Archie Bray Foundation from 1985 – 1987 and the recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Montana Arts Council. She was a United States Artists Target Fellow in 2006, and in the spring of 2007 she was one of the artists profiled in the PBS documentary Craft in America. She has taught at Pomona College, the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has given workshops at schools and art centers nationally. Her work is in public and private collections and, most important, in many kitchens throughout the country.
My situation might be a little different than other peoples’. I went to school when I was in my early thirties, at the Kansas City Art Institute in an undergraduate program. I already had an undergraduate degree in English literature. I didn’t start out to be a potter or an artist of any kind. My decision to be a potter evolved slowly, after college throughout my twenties. I went to Kansas City in January of 1983. I was there for five semesters, one semester in the foundation department, two years in the ceramics program, to get a BFA. I had chosen the Kansas City Art Institute for the program and for the instructors. Ken Ferguson and Victor Babu and George Timock were teaching there at that time. Before I went there I had already been making a living as a potter for a couple years, selling at craft fairs and local galleries. I lived in Denver and in those years, the late 70s through early 80s, there were lots of people doing that. But I got to a point with my work where I felt it wasn’t going anywhere, and I thought that, if this was really what I was going to do with the rest of my life, I needed to go back to school. The work level wasn’t good enough and I felt like I had exhausted my resources. That’s what propelled me back to school and Kansas City Art Institute was the right program for me. The attention paid to pots was huge there. Ken and Victor both had started as potters and pottery was a focus of the program, but at the same time there was a huge diversity of student work in the program, which I loved. The Nelson Atkins Museum was also right across the street and that was a tremendous part of my education as well.
I was 36 when I got my BFA. I considered graduate school, but decided not to go for a number of reasons. I had borrowed money to go back to school, didn’t want to borrow more, and I knew that I didn’t want to teach, and I was tired after the 2 ½ years of school. I was confident that I wanted to be a potter. That was in 1985 and there weren’t that many grad programs where it felt like somebody making functional pots was going to get what they needed. So I came to the Archie Bray Foundation instead which turned out to be a really good thing to do.
What was most difficult when you’ve finished with your bachelors?
Because I had made my living selling pots before I went to school I thought I could pick it up pretty quickly when I got out. During the time I was in school I did not make pots to sell at all. I put all that aside because I wanted to focus on making the work grow and being able to take risks. In a way the hardest thing was getting out of school broke. During the time I was in school I went back to Denver over the breaks, where I had a job in a law firm proofreading and doing research, and I worked there the summer after I graduated, which allowed me to sock some money away. I thought that within a few months of starting at the Bray everything would be rolling, and I’d be making a living as a potter – but of course it didn’t work out that way. Getting started is so hard and it’s different now than it was 28 years ago – certainly not any easier. So I waitressed for a couple years and then had another half-time job. There was about a five-year transition period before I was making pots full time for a living.
I wish that there was a formula to tell people how to chart their course. I don’t know that one person’s course will work for anybody else. I do think it’s useful to hear people’s stories because we all draw comfort and can glean things from different people’s strategies. I wound up settling in Helena although that had not been my initial plan. I grew up on the East Coast and I thought I would go back there after the Bray. I made several trips east to meet potters and look for a place to settle, but nothing grabbed me and I didn’t have any money for that kind of move, which was a big challenge. So I helped a friend in Helena build a kiln and I rented a little garage near the kiln that had been converted into a studio. That was a transition time, 1988-89, when I was thinking about staying and not knowing what else to do – and then the garage went up for sale. At that point I decided that I had to buy a place of my own so that I would have a permanent studio space. It wasn’t even so much that I decided that Helena, Montana, was the best place for me to live as it was just that I was here and needed a predictable place to work. At that time a person could buy a house for $30,000 so that’s what I did. It was a dump but there was a little garage in back that I could convert into a studio space. It was close to the kiln that I had built, so I could make pots, bisque and glaze them in my own studio and then borrow a pickup to haul the pots four blocks up the hill to the kiln. I did that for six years after I bought the house and then bought out my kiln partner, took the kiln apart and moved it to my house. So finally in1995, 10 years after I finished at the Bray, I had a studio, my kiln, and my house all in the same place that I owned. If I had known beforehand that it was going to take me that long I might never have started down that path; I’m glad I didn’t know. Once you are on the path you do what you need to do. I was so lucky to buy a house so inexpensively because I could live cheaply and, as I said, it was a dump but provided what I needed for my work. I then gradually made improvements as I could afford to do them. It turned out to be the best decision I possibly could have made and it has worked out really well. I don’t take credit for strategizing it from the outset.
What advantages or disadvantages do you see for artists who are just starting out now?
I started out before the digital era and that’s been a huge change. The whole communication piece is totally transformed, and I think it really helps people sell their work, though I sometimes I wonder if we’re all just talking to each other rather than to the market. When I started out, I had to shoot slides, send them off to be duplicated, and then make up portfolio sheets to send to galleries, with postage paid return envelopes that never got sent back. It was slow, cumbersome and expensive! That part is so much easier now.
I remember feeling isolated in a lot of ways that one doesn’t feel so much now. The Archie Bray was a much smaller program when I started so the local support group was smaller than it is now, too. I was able to build a local clientele, in part I think because I make very straightforward functional pots and I can make enough of them that the prices are pretty low, relatively speaking. I have a loyal local market after all these years of being here and in addition I send a lot of work out of state. I think the fact that my work is so obviously practical and affordable ensures that people know what to do with it.
How do you find galleries and places to exhibit? How do you know they are right for you and how has that changed since you were first making?
When I was starting out I sent out those slide portfolio sheets to galleries all over the place, but from the outset it seemed like the galleries that did the best with my work were ones that approached me. Early on I entered a lot of juried shows, as a way to get my work out in the world where people, including gallery owners, would see it. I don’t think that’s so important now, with so much available to be seen on the internet. Obviously now the on line presence is essential, both for galleries and individual sales. The fact is about two thirds of my income comes from sales directly out of my studio not through galleries. When I started out I didn’t realize it was going to work out that way. In my case I think it’s because my pots are really functional, they’re not terribly expensive, and by now I’ve been doing this a long time. Since the beginning, I have had have two studio sales a year and I have always had a permanent show room where people could come any time to buy my work. In Helena, because of the Bray, a large number of ceramic collectors or people interested in pottery come through here and want to visit studios. I get a lot of people like that and it really makes a difference. Now, with the Internet, a lot of people find me online through one thing or another even though I don’t have a sales website. My preferred strategy is to promote direct sales and I don’t work too hard to have any new galleries. Galleries with which I have the most rewarding relationships tend to be clay centers like the Northern Clay Center, Santa Fe Clay or The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, where there’s an educated clientele. Those have been the best places for me to work with over the years rather than commercial galleries.
How important is location to your work?
There are a lot of great places in the world to live. The fact that Helena is a small town where what I call “the daily hassle factor” of life is pretty low means that things that matter to me immediate and accessible (I don’t spend any time driving in traffic!). The fact that the Bray is here is central. Aside from bringing customers, it brings so much richness to my life to be able to see the revolving group of residents and visiting artists. It’s an ongoing ceramic education all the time, 10 minutes from my house. Last week I went to Tony Marsh’s talk and it was fabulous. I had never met him before and I had not seen that much of his work in person. I’ve been thinking about his talk all week. I’m just really grateful to have that element in my life. Over the years I’ve gotten to know many friends and colleagues, and to see so much great work, at the Bray. It’s been a great source of a professional network and conversations about work. You need those conversations about work your entire life, and when you’re working on your own they can be hard to come by. You have it at school whether you want it or not, but when you leave school the only thing that most people will say is ‘oh, that’s nice’. It can feel like you’re in a vacuum. I have been fortunate to meet a few people through the Bray with whom I feel I can really talk about work and get good feedback. It’s hard to find those relationships of trust and if I were in a more isolated place, I might not have that at all. In all of those ways the Bray has been a nucleus.
What about the greater Clay community in Montana, how has that effected you or your work?
The translations to work are pretty indirect but there’s that cliché that Montana is just like a big small town because the population is so low and people don’t mind driving long distances. We are really fortunate to have these different Clay Centers now and the two Universities with vibrant revived programs and energy, the Bray in Helena and a thriving Red Lodge Clay Center. They are all energy nuclei that radiate out. We have started to have a Montana Clay gathering each year which is helping create a sense of community and shared energy, and (thanks to Julia Galloway) has a terrific website. It is not uncommon for people to come from some distance to openings or artist talks: Julia Galloway is a prime example of somebody who will drive over the pass to go to a talk at the Bray, and Josh DeWeese drove up from Bozeman for Tony Marsh’s talk the other night. This sense of community provides a tremendous feeling of support and antidote to isolation.
How do you stay connected with peers outside of Montana in the ceramics community? Do you stay connected to any other art realms besides ceramics?
Connection to other media doesn’t happen in any organized way. For the most part, my friends are clay people or else they’re not artists. I have not jumped into social media, so I don’t use that tool as a way to connect; e-mail works great for me and it takes enough time as it is. I’m fairly resentful of the amount of time I find I’m spending on my computer. Since I’m not super techie, when anything goes wrong and I have to spend more time it makes me crazy. To the extent that I have that luxury (ignoring social media) because I’ve been in the field for 30 years. If I were starting out now I would definitely do all of the social media stuff. I have had some national exposure to mass audiences which continues to help: I was on a PBS documentary in 2007 and I still hear from people who see it, as it re-airs pretty often. Those viewers frequently become customers. Last year Ceramic Arts Daily did one of their instructional DVDs with me and little trailers go up on their website pretty often, and that has been good exposure. I don’t do my own website. I hired a really good designer this summer (2013) and finally got it updated. The new version went live about a month ago. It’s like night and day from my old website and it is already proving to be a very good tool. I’m going to work with the designer to keep it up to date because it’s just stupid not to do that. I’m wading into technology if not diving.
What do you feel has influenced your work stronger, success or failure?
Failure and mistakes are what make you ask questions and I think the only way you move yourself forward is if you’re asking questions. It’s often the bad firing or something that doesn’t work that forces you have to take it apart and figure things out, what you need to change to make it work. For example, one of the most useful things that ever happened to me when I was at school was a really horrible firing. It was my second semester in ceramics and I was working with Victor Babu. He was a porcelain guy but I was working with earthenware and just starting to explore decoration. I had made a body of work and scheduled a critique with Victor. When I unloaded the kiln it was just terrible, nothing was working. It wasn’t the kiln that screwed up, it was what I was trying to do wasn’t working. I was so discouraged, and when Victor walked in, he looked around and just said ‘well my dear you have a lot of information here’. He was right. I did have a lot of information. He helped me see that it was a matter of figuring it out, examining it, decoding it, and then figuring out where to go from there. That’s the failure/ adversity piece and when you have to do that it isn’t fun, but it is the productive way to move ideas forward.
My own work develops slowly and I don’t tend to start with an idea or concept, rather I tend to start with an idea for a form, and that evolves through process and the materials. Because I do make my living from my work it could be really easy to just make the work that sells, and I think about the challenge of how do I keep moving the work forward, keep it alive, keep the energy fresh, and keep asking questions. Sometimes when something sells really well there is this pressure to keep making more of that and I certainly have types of work that sell better than others, but nothing of mine is so overwhelmingly popular that I have too much of that pressure. But a bad firing, even now, is a good kick in the pants.
How do you divide your time between the studio and maintaining your quality of life and making sure you spend enough time with your puppies?
As you can see here I have a puppy who is very demanding. The other one’s a bit more laid back, but if this guy is pretty hyper, and if he doesn’t get out for hikes pretty regularly he becomes insufferable. That’s kind of a built-in need to get out of the studio – otherwise they drive me nuts. Certain times of the year I feel more balanced than others. It’s easier to have balance in my life in January than in November, when I’m getting ready for my holiday sale (which generates the income I’ll live off of during the slow winter months). There are certain things I’ve been really devoted to like exercise. I had some back trouble when I was in my late 20s and early 30s and I realized, if I didn’t take care of myself, I would probably not be able to keep making pots as I got older. My solution to that is to go to the gym at six in the morning 4 or 5 days a week, because then it happens before I do anything else. I found that if I leave it until the end of the day, I skip it because I’m in the middle of something in the studio and don’t want to stop. I’ve made some systems like that for myself: crazy dogs and 6AM gym classes that are a good reality checks. I’m also on a board and I volunteer. In a way it makes me even busier but I feel that it’s important to have a multidimensional life, and it connects me with my community in meaningful ways. Some people might not think that it’s balance. Some people might think that’s making yourself even more crazy busy but that’s how I’ve chosen to do it. As I said, it creates diversity in my life and I use other parts of my brain. Some of this may be temperamental, but I find that things I used to stress about don’t always stress me out so much anymore. I have been lucky, things have tended to work out, and I have come to trust that things will generally work out, even when a deadline is looming. Sometimes I just let myself walk out of the studio to cut the grass or to pull the weeds or whatever, and I know the work will still get done. It’s hard to have that confidence at the beginning but you learn it the hard way.
In your opinion what’s the greatest challenge facing emerging artists or new potters just entering the field as professionals?
I think it’s the cost of getting started. I do feel so fortunate that in 1989 I could buy a house for $30,000. My mortgage payments were $269 a month, and that gave me a lot of freedom even if I did not have an ideal setup. When I was at the Bray the studio there was pretty crummy. It was not a great facility, but my fellow residents were Akio Takamori and Liz Quackenbush, just amazing colleagues. Being there was a great experience and tool; my work grew so much in those 2 years. Now the Bray has great facilities and I sometimes hear residents say ‘I’ll never have it this good again’. I wonder if that is a good way to feel at the beginning of your career? In a way I’m glad to have learned that you can make really great work in a crummy studio with a crummy kiln. I still have a crummy kiln (it’s old) but it works OK and it’s paid for. I encourage people to think about making work with minimal facilities and tools. Maybe that’s a better option that taking on huge debt to have the perfect studio. What do you really need to get your work made? Don’t let anything get in the way of that, just keep doing it. Tenacity, just don’t quit. If you really want to do it, find a way to make it work. You don’t have to have a Blaauw kiln, as nice as that might be.
Do you have any other advice for emerging artists?
There is so much great work being made. People are so accomplished and there is such a variety of ideas. There is so much good energy in the field right now: just stay in touch and be aware of what’s going on. Take heart and encouragement from that because it’s exciting to be a part of. Counter to that: don’t forget your ceramic history. I have a large wall of ceramic history books that I use as resources. Stay as educated as you possibly can on contemporary and historical ceramics. Try to keep your mind open and ask questions.