Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How I became a full time potter

Early Years

At some point in the 1960's, when I was a kid, my mother took some pottery classes and she was quite taken with it. Eventually she had a studio in the basement with a kick wheel and a small electric kiln. While she always encouraged me to explore with clay, my main interest as ten year old was playing with the kick wheel and a complete fascination with the kiln. One day Mom wanted to show me how dangerous the kiln was. She opened one of the peep holes and put in a small piece of newspaper, which immediately caught on fire. "See how dangerous this is, Owen?" she said. I'm pretty sure I said yes, but thereafter whenever she fired the kiln I would get out small pieces of newspaper, take out one of the peep holes, and catch them on fire when she was not around. Of course it never occurred to me to thoroughly clean all the bits of burnt newspaper from the floor, and I had to resort to mumbling "I don't know" when Mom would confront me with the evidence and ask if I had done this. The concept that the house might burn down as a result of this, of course, never entered my mind.

In time my mother was able to quit her job as a legal secretary and work with clay full time, at one point building a good sized wood firing kiln which she filled with wonderful pottery made in her studio, which was at one point in time a chicken coop! I recall making and selling a checker set for three dollars when I was 9 or 10 years old. It seemed entirely too much effort and work at the time compared to the money I made. Looking back now, I suspect that at that early age my initiation into the financial rewards of pottery had just taken place!

It seems that clay runs in the family. My great-grandfather was a potter in or near Vertelka in western Ukraine in the mid to late 1800's.

I Get Into Clay

In 1987 I moved from Toronto to Southern Oregon. A couple of years later I took a community education pottery class at what was then named Southern Oregon State College (SOSC). The teacher was Jim Romberg, who is well known as a fine raku artist. He was a wonderful facilitator, and allowed his students to have access to the pottery studio any time of the day or night, so long as we did not interfere when he had a credit class in session.

While going through a painful divorce, I devoted my time outside of work to bicycle racing and pottery. (While I no longer race bikes, cycling remains one of my passions, along with photography.) As my skills with clay grew, what were first gifts for friends and family became sales. Encouraged by the sales, I started doing street fairs, and had some success with them. At that time, I learned how to make as many different functional pottery items as I could, from mugs (of course!) to teapots to dinner sets and more.

I moved to Bend, Oregon in 1994, taking a job with the local school district in the printing department. Naively thinking that every college that had a clay studio would be as open as the studio at SOSC in Ashland, I was very disappointed to learn that the hours of studio access at the local community college were very limited. I asked around and was able to rent studio space at the Blue Spruce Gallery, which was an outstanding pottery gallery and sadly no longer exists. But at the time it was wonderful, and I sold some of my pieces in the gallery which was encouraging. One day the former owner of the gallery, Mike Gwinup, was in the studio. I had been thinking about buying a small used gas firing kiln for $800 I asked Mike if he thought that was a good price. "For $800 you can build a real kiln", he said. When I pressed him further on the concept, since I knew absolutely nothing about kiln building, he agreed to help me with the project. At the time, I had one of the best landlords a potter could ever have - a landlord who thought it would be cool if I built a propane firing kiln on the concrete slab that once was a garage, near the alley at the bottom of the yard. So, Mike would give me a list of things to do, I would do them, he would come over and inspect what I had done, and if it was done properly he would give me another list of things to do and we would repeat the cycle. In a month or so, I had a gas firing kiln!

In time, my wife and I moved to a larger house and I was able to set up the studio that I currently work out of in the garage. "Why put a car in a garage when you can put a pottery studio in it?" I've always said that!

The Mugs Take On A Life Of Their Own

Sometime in the year 2000, I came home from work and had a message on the machine from some company called Oxygen. They had found my website, owendearingpottery.com, which was a site I did to sell my whole line of functional work. They wanted to know if I could make them some mugs for an upcoming conference that Time-Warner was putting on. I did a bit of research, and discovered that Oxygen was a new cable network that Oprah had recently started. They needed 200 mugs in less that two weeks. I did not have any mugs in stock - in those days almost anything anyone ordered from my site was a custom order - so I did not get the order. But a seed had been planted, and I thought that some day I would like to create a web business that only sold mugs.

In 2006, my wife went back to school to get her RN degree. The two year course was incredibly demanding of her time and energy. One day it dawned on me: I should do that mug business now! Susan will never accuse me of spending too much time in the studio - she barely has time to say good morning to me before she has to rush off to class! And so, I started putting together the first version of mugrevolution.com. Initially, Mug Revolution made one size mug (now known as the large, 16 oz. mug) and it was only available in one color: Green/Blue.

I fortuitously took a class at Central Oregon Community College with a Search Engine Strategies expert by the name of Andre Jensen. After following his advice, mugrevolution.com started to get a lot of on-line sales, and as time went by I started to see that my dream of becoming a full time studio potter was looking more and more possible! In September 2008, I was able to hang up my printer's apron after 30 years of a very wide ranging and fulfilling career, and have been working with clay full time ever since.

The Future of Mug Revolution

When people hear the story of how my small company has grown and prospered, I often hear them say "Soon you'll have to hire employees!" It is interesting to think about that, and while the day may come that Mug Revolution does indeed expand and have employees, it will happen in its own time. I don't equate success with the size of the company. Success to me is having a customer tell me that they are using the mug that they bought from me and it has been their favorite mug since the day they got it. The fact that I can find customers through the internet who understand that a high quality handmade mug is well worth the cost, and the fact that I can support myself and take the time to make each mug without rushing through it to get it done is satisfaction in itself. Well, enough said! I see by the clock it's time for a coffee. Excuse me now while I wander off to the studio to try to find where I put my mug. It's there somewhere, I put it down and it disappeared...