Another year comes to a close. New beginnings abound. Especially at the start of winter in Vermont when it is so often cold and dark, it’s a time for reflection, wrapping up projects and thinking ahead. I’m taking stock of all I’ve accomplished in the past year and thinking about my goals for the coming year.
In my pottery business, I am always intending to write more blog posts and to be more active on social media. These things don’t come naturally to me. It is one thing to be a maker (form pieces from clay, glaze it, fire it, photograph it, box it up, and ship it); it is another thing to write about it and tell the story.
I feel pretty passionate about my work and running my own business from home. I was able to turn a favorite hobby into something that sustains me and brings joy to others.
So my resolution for the new cycle is to share more about what I do and how I got to this point. Just saying that makes my heart race.
There are so many steps involved in making a piece of pottery. One of the most important but often the most difficult is glazing. It is art, chemistry and physics and I believe a bit of magic. It is a part of the craft that often feels separate for me from the clay, and it is a bit scary too. I never know quite what I am going to get, and the opening of every kiln load is a surprise. I have learned to roll with the punches, because that is a part of the process. Often in the same kiln load I will have wonderful and terrible. I may open to find one or more of the most beautiful piece and other pieces may have cracks and drips that leak onto the kiln shelves which then requires scraping and on occasion, putting the shelf into the pottery grave yard.
There are so many choices to make when glazing. Just to have a collection of glazes takes a lot of experimentation and testing, as not all glazes fit with all clays. If one shrinks more than the other, the piece breaks. And there is temperature to consider, as glazes mature with different amounts of heat.
Today is a glazing day. The studio is nice and warm from a glaze firing that is still in the kiln cooling, so that is a big bonus on a chilly and gray November day in Vermont. The pieces that are in the kiln now were either orders or things that are easier for me to glaze. Today I am faced with the pieces that require more artistic choices. These are the pieces that I must get into the Zen of my work and channel my visions, because what is on the piece at the glaze state looks nothing at all like what will come out of the kiln after it is fired!
Queen Anne’s Lace is one of my favorite wild flowers, and I often use it in my botanical pottery pieces. In Vermont, where the growing season is short, the Queen Anne’s Lace is starting to go to seed. Though there has been plenty of time to work with this plant, my summer was quite full running Clay Play Camp and doing a myriad of other things, so I am feeling squeezed to make the Queen Anne’s pieces that I had hoped to make before their season ends.
Just as its name suggests, this plant is both delicate and regal. Like a queen, it has a certain strength. It doesn’t blow over in the wind, or bend with heavy rains, and its white flowers stay proud and white before curling up to a strong boney frame that lasts through the winter months, poking out of the snow so you can remember the warmer days behind you and those yet to come. In the summer it grows in fields and on roadsides, volunteering itself with ease. Yet, when you go to pick it, it doesn’t break free from where it has rooted itself very easily. I must remember to collect it with clippers in tow and a bucket of water to place the picked flowers in. For if the Queen Anne’s Lace is without water, it quickly shrivels up into a wilted mop, and its white petals become dust.
In Victorian times, flowers and plants were assigned meanings, and remembering this symbolism in modern day is still popular. I enjoy thinking about these meanings when I work with a particular plant. In the secret language of flowers, Queen Anne’s Lace is a symbol of femininity and represents perseverance in love. It is a prolific plant which spreads its seeds in the wind and is even considered an invasive plant in some states. Originally a native plant of Europe, Queen Anne’s Lace was popular in the during the reign of Queen Anne. It is also known as Wild Carrot because it is related to the carrot, but it is actually in the parsley family!
Queen Anne’s Lace has medicinal uses. The seeds have been used to help clear out urinary stones, and the roots which are like carrots, have been used as antacids. A poultice of roots can be used to relieve itchy skin.
Invasive or not, I love the wispy appearance of this plant despite its true tenacity.
There are so many aspects to running a ceramics and pottery business, and taking photos of my work is one of them. I have tried many techniques over the past few years, and I continue to make tweaks to my systems for ease and better quality. My photographs are by no means professional quality, and I still have a lot to learn, but I can do it myself.
The best part that I notice over and over, is that when I do a photo shoot of my work, I find myself falling in love with each piece. Looking at each item closely, trying to show how it functions and convey what makes that piece special is kind of magical. It makes me excited to get back to clay and make some more. Since I specialize in one-of-a kind work, and I sell a lot of pieces on line, I spend a lot of time photographing and editing photos. Lately I have been wondering if I should start making more multiples, but that is another story. So for now, I photo and edit constantly.
Back story and my current system for taking photos:
Once upon a time, I went to a workshop on how to take photos of your artwork. It was a fascinating class, and I came away from it equipped with knowledge and ideas. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the budget to support all of the professional photography equipment that I learned about. My photographer cousin gave me directions on how to create the budget version lighting system, and I tried. My husband, the engineer, got really excited about it too, and he tried to make me a light box and worked on various lighting solutions. All of our attempts added up to crappy photos, so I went back to what I had been doing. Below I address three main points: light and background set up, camera, photo editing.
Instead of a light box and professional lighting, I photograph by the natural light of a window. I used poster board as my background for several years, but have recently upgraded to a photo paper background. I have also moved my station to a permanent set up on a table instead of getting up and down off of the floor and constantly rolling up my paper each time between photo shoots. (The pets in the house always think that the photo paper is the best place in the house to walk, of course!)
I learned in the photo workshop that I should use a “real camera”. Again I tried, but I like things that are REALLY simple. When I take photos using a “real” camera, I also have to use a desktop computer to load the photos and edit them. Unfortunately sitting at a desktop to load, organize and edit photos does not agree with my personality type. We have to be true to ourselves, right? So I continue to use my iPhone to take photos, and I have fully come to peace with that. Fortunately the camera on the phone keeps getting better and better.
For editing photos, I kept hearing about a popular software for the desk top computer. I tried it, but it felt too complicated and laborious for me with the multitude of photos that I have to edit. I just can’t sit in front of a computer for that long! So I went back to my happy way on the iPad. I use a photo transfer app to shift the photos from my iPhone to my iPad, and I have created albums in my iPad such as “to edit” and “ready to list” for my work in progress. It is so easy to do a transfer, as all I need is wifi- and no cords. To do the editing, I use the app called Snap Seed. I like the portability of the iPad for editing, and I am just so much faster and adept at using the touch screen.
A few simple tips:
Pick a bright day that is not too sunny. Sun reflects off the pottery glaze and makes big glare areas.
Set up an area with a background that allows you to show off your work. I have stuck with white, though I have tried a few other backgrounds. Why? My work has a lot of color and variation, and the white background shows off the pieces the best, in my humble opinion. I am glad that I invested in photo paper because it is much wider and longer, so I don’t have to worry about the edges of the paper as I did with poster board. However, I went for years using inexpensive poster board, so that is a good inexpensive option if your pieces are not too large.
Take a lot of photos. Take them from every angle, and turn the piece around. Prop it if you need to catch the light in different ways. Find things to put around your piece to show how it fits into the everyday world. Take time to fall in love with your creation so that others can fall in love with it too.
Be honest. Don’t disguise defects. Don’t over edit. Allow your piece to speak for itself. With that said, one of the hardest and most challenging things for me is to make the photo of the piece look half as beautiful as the piece itself. My work almost always looks better in person, but then pottery is so tactile and three dimensional, and it is very difficult to represent in a 2-D format.
Winter took a long time to come this year, but as sure as ever, it is here at last. For me the cold means closing down my studio, and moving everything into my basement until the temperatures are mostly above freezing again. In Vermont, that usually means late March or early April. Though I have a heat source, I cannot keep the barn warm enough to risk that my precious clays and glazes won’t freeze. Even with the heat on, there comes a point where I just can’t be warm enough in there to work anyway. Clay is cold and damp as it is.
So even though it was a muddy Christmas, and we were able to barbecue instead of ski, I was not complaining at all because it meant that I could keep making pottery in my studio. This was the furthest into the winter that I have ever been able to keep working, and I was happy.
The winter is when I can take stock, regroup, plan my future, do all of my clerical work, and dream about what I want to make next. I usually find myself making a few things in the basement, but in a 200 year old farm house, it is not the most pleasant place to work.
Even though I am a hearty Vermonter and go outside nearly every day for long walks, I kind of endure the winter, and I long for the days when I can pick fresh plants and flowers and make more botanical pottery pieces.
Every morning the day seems so expansive with so much time ahead to do everything. Then the hours slip away and into days and even months. Where does the time go in a full life?
We all know how time can tick on ever so slowly when we have to do something that we don’t want to do. But when there is so much we want to do, there is never enough time to get to everything. For me, every day is kind of like that, because I enjoy doing so many things. I am organized and efficient, and even when I am relaxing, I am usually doing something. I can almost always reflect back on my day and recognize my accomplishments. I took a walk, I cleaned, I cooked, I went to work, I paid the bills, I gardened, I connected with a friend, I talked to my mom, and generally I have
crossed off a whole lot from my to do list of personal goals. Yet often when the day ends, there are certain things that I just don’t manage to get to even though it has been on my list for months. Writing on this blog is my best example of this. I have wanted to write, and I have written many blog posts in my head as I have been walking the dog or doing other things, but then I never find the time to take my thoughts out of my head and put them here. So today and from now on I am going to change that. Writing hopefully will become like brushing my teeth. I don’t even have to put it on a list to find the time.
This is the time of year that I am racing against the cycle of the growing season coming to an end. I use fresh plants to create my botanical ceramic pieces, and the plants are starting to die. A killing frost is in the forecast for this upcoming weekend. All during the growing season I collect plants from my gardens and from the woods and store them in buckets in my studio. Right now, the studio is filled with buckets of all kinds of ferns, herbs, and woodland plants that I collected this past weekend on the Appalacian Trail in the White Mountains. In time the plants in the buckets will die too. And so, I am racing against time that is often beyond my control. And it is all good.