VISITORS to craft events, watching exhibitors sell their wares, often think, "Now that seems like an easy way to earn a living."
Nothing could be further from the truth. Creating craft/art is exciting . . . but that's only the first step. Marketing requires a tremendous amount of time and energy, trial and error. An artist must decide where to exhibit and sell; apply to shows and exhibits; take photographs for jurying and advertising; set prices to cover costs yet remain competitive; write and design ads, stationery, business cards and billing; build a display; pack, crate and mail merchandise; bill accounts; collect bills; keep books; and learn how to handle rejection.
In 1975, after selling my ceramics at Washington craft fairs, I was accepted into my first large juried show. I spent three months getting ready . . . planning my booth (then a collection of packing crates and 2-by-4s); worrying if my work would measure up professionally with that of the other 100 potters in the show; trying to figure out what the public would want; and wondering if I would sell enough to meet expenses.
Eight years have gone by since then. I've changed my medium from clay to glass, been in dozens of shows and exhibits throughout the United States and displayed my work in every kind of setting from fairgrounds to museums. My markets, attitude and perspective have changed, but one question remains the same: Will the public like my glass enough to buy it?
When I was making pots, I saw myself as a production person geared to a wholesale market, a mini-factory producing 30 jars an hour. Three years ago, I got hooked on glass and became consumed by the challenge of the material. In glass (unlike clay, which can wait until tomorrow), you don't get a second chance. It is or it isn't. The more you push the material--the further you get to the edge of your ability or the limits of the material--the more exciting it becomes. You never know how far it can go until you've pushed it beyond. A hair's breadth on this side is perfection; beyond is a scrap on the floor. The difference between the two is a single moment. As I try to tune into the piece while I'm spinning it, nothing else exists in the world. When it starts to go its own way, I follow it, making midcourse corrections, like a race car driver going around an unknown curve.
Working with glass has completely changed my work habits and perspective. The overhead is so high you have to sell. If you work speculatively, you won't have enough to pay the propane man. The furnace runs 24 hours a day, $500 a month. The bottom line is making enough money to stay in business so I can blow the next piece. Although the father of the studio-glass movement, Harvey Littleton, commands $5,000 to $15,000 for a piece, and a dozen contemporary studio people sell in the $2,000-$3,000 range, I try to keep my glass in the affordable range of $50 to $500. Even then, I must be careful in choosing my markets.
No matter how much I learn, some lessons are painful. Last year, I came out minus $600 after a fair in Dallas, not because I brought the wrong things but because, I think, the event had not been promoted correctly. The experience taught me to be more self-reliant. I don't want to turn my effort into a miniature glass factory. Rather than change my work to fit the market, I have decided to make the best glass I can, then discover or create markets. This means creating several lines of work and marketing each in a different way: vases from $50 to $100; large free-form shells at $350, which decorators can place with clients; a line of harlequin figures at $500 each for collectors.
It works. Recently my work was accepted in six shows in a four-week period, including the Washington Craft Show, sponsored by the Smithsonian.
Marketing crafts is living on the edge of insecurity, constantly betting on your work and yourself. But as Harvey Littleton said in "A Search for Form," "If the necessary risks are taken, the outcome must always be in doubt."
I love living on that edge.