This month’s potter, Kris Bliss, is someone near and dear to my heart. Kris is a wholesale potter who lives and works in Anchorage, Alaska. In 1998, I walked into Kris’s studio hoping to land a job as a studio assistant. Little did I know, that visit was the beginning of a lasting friendship. Kris was not only my mentor, teacher and dear friend, but she’s like a second mom to me. Work never felt like work at the pottery (ok, well sometimes…like packing and shipping day). I feel so fortunate to have had these rich experiences so early in my career and am forever indebted to Kris for giving me a chance in the first place. I will always cherish our time together.
I worked for Kris for 4 years and two summers. In that time, Kris taught me about managing a studio, participating in craft sales, and becoming more efficient with my studio practice. She started me out with basic studio chores: hauling water, wedging clay, packing and shipping work, grinding/sanding pots, recycling clay, loading/unloading the bisque/glaze kilns, cleaning/mopping the studio, etc. By the end of my time with Kris, she trusted me enough to produce cart after cart of piecework and to glaze kiln load after kiln load of Bliss Pottery.
Kris is full of life and love. Kris, the eldest of six siblings, comes from a large Alaskan family that ran an established sport fishing lodge at the base of Mt. Susitna on Alexander Creek. Kris left Alaska to attend medical technology school in Washington State. She worked at the University of Washington laboratory and Children’s Orthopedic Hospital laboratory before discovering clay. When she moved back to Alaska in the early 80’s, her career in clay really took off. She began as a student of Al Tennant’s at what is now the University of Alaska, Anchorage and, in 1989, she built her first home studio. Over the years, she developed a tremendous following of loyal patrons and is now a hugely popular potter who ships her work to multiple destinations across the state of Alaska.
Kris has had numerous assistants over the years, many who have gone on to have successful careers in ceramics. Knowing how many lives she’s touched, I asked one of Kris’s former assistants, Deborah Schwartzkopf if she would contribute a few words to this post. Deb writes:
“It was in the spring of 2000 when Jen Allen helped me get my first clay related job assisting studio potter, Kris Bliss. I was just getting really interested in clay when I started helping out between classes at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. Still a beginner of many techniques, Kris helped me build foundational knowledge of throwing, trimming, loading kilns, and glazing, packing and shipping… the list goes on.
I was amazed at how many pieces she made and enamored with the variety of process the discipline held! She was so understanding and supportive as I learned in her studio– Even when I mixed her glaze with the wrong mesh of silica, melting many of her pots to the kiln shelves in the subsequent firing!!! I gained so much from spending time with Kris.
Eventually I started throwing piece-work for her; replication is an amazing discipline to learn. She also let me use all the reclaim I wanted for my own work. Between this and school, I spend every waking moment with my hands in clay building knowledge and experience. Kris is undyingly supportive, direct, and patient. She provided a nurturing place to challenge myself, grow and learn from her example. She opened the door to so many ideas and techniques and helped me build a strong groundwork for being a potter. I am so grateful for this amazing start in clay!”
Enjoy the interview!
How did you first get involved in ceramics? Would you explain your attraction to functional ceramics?
I first got introduced to ceramics when a friend asked if I would like to take an after-work class with her, and I loved it. I think the fascination with functional ware started then, we were so young and just starting out, so making something we could use was wonderful. It stayed with me. Even now, so many years later, I still ask “can I use it?”
Can you briefly describe your background and education?
I came to that first ceramics class (mentioned above) after work in the hospital laboratory at the University of Washington. When we moved to Clarkston, I thought I was a potter. I bought a wheel and small electric kiln, set up a small area in the basement and even set up at a craft sale.
When we moved back home to Alaska, I had no place to work, so I decided to take an evening class at what was then the community college. Well, when I went to talk to the teacher and walked into the ceramics lab I realized I was not a potter, not even close. Luckily Al Tennant let me in one of his classes. I stayed there for many years, working thru all the classes offered, then as a lab aide then filling in for the adjunct. During that time, I took every workshop I could and when I was the lab aide, I got to assist the presenters. I started going to NCECA, then Anderson Ranch, then Metchosin with Robin Hopper. Throughout most of my years at the college (up until I was a lab aide), I was also working full time.
How would you describe your work? What are some of your inspirations/influences?
I think of myself as a domestic ware potter. However, these last few years I have slowly moved away a bit. I will always enjoy making bowls, etc.
My inspirations come from historical ceramics, constant study and just looking at forms and wondering, can I make that? I am influenced a great deal by the young people that come to work with me, they are usually just out of or still going to school. But most of all, I am inspired by Japanese ceramics and Song dynasty ware. Both of my first teachers had a great appreciation of the Asian aesthetic.
How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas?
New ideas come from the strangest places, a customer, a student, the cooking store, looking at pictures, always asking the question, “can I make that?”.
I usually sketch on the wheel, starting small. As I am working I think about how the piece is going to be used and if I can make it better. I also think about the glazing and how the glaze will run or not run. How the foot will be, how the piece will sit on the table, will it need a thicker lip for use? Handles, lids, all the details. It usually takes a few tries to get what I have in mind. I always learn something during the process.
At what point in your career did you make the decision to sell your pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision?
My first teacher once asked me if I wanted a collection of my own work? I wanted to keep making more so I sold some and took a hammer to a LOT.
When I became more accomplished, our local ceramic’s guild was invited to show/sell at the Anchorage Museum. I had a lot of big porcelain bowls and platters for sale and, well I sold most of them. Light bulb moment…people will buy my pieces! I loathed working in the office, so I fired myself from the office job and really applied myself to make a living as a potter.
You have an amazing production studio with top of the line equipment that many young potters aspire to. Can you share how you got to where you are now and the sacrifices/struggles you made along the way?
I started with a wheel and kiln purchased with a large tax refund, and thru the years purchased new or used equipment. Gifts from my husband (slab roller one year and extruder another). For a long time, most of what I had for my future studio was in storage, but I knew this was what I wanted and needed, so I would take on a little extra job (one year sold plants on weekends) and 90% of that money would go to studio stuff. I had help from family and friends when we moved to our old house (where we lived for 15 years). There was a little storage shed out back (one of those barn type) my uncle and our friend came in, put in electricity and sheet rock, reinforced the floor and for two years I worked from there. Soon, I got a loan from my mom and attached a 12X24 building and a kiln pad. Before the building went in, I bought an old Olsen updraft and put it on the kiln pad. The seller let me pay payments…. so I took on another part time job to pay for it. Thank God for retiring potters! As my business grew, the pottery took over the yard, porch, and the dining room (for packing and shipping).
Steve dear suggested we move so he could have room for his boat, and I could garden again. We found a house with land up the hill a bit. We cleared some of the land and with a building loan built a huge building for a studio and garage. Al Tennant once told me if you are going to build , build the biggest you can. Well that’s what I did. Being able to wrap the building loan with the house was a great thing, but I had a big nut to crunch. So I built my business, took on employees, apprentices, added more galleries and tourist shops, did studio shows, two pottery group sales yearly, and worked way too much. 10 years…whew!
Aside from being a full-time potter, you are an avid gardener, mother, wife, sister, chicken farmer, salesperson, boss, dog and cat owner, etc. How do you find balance with everything you do?
It helps that I am easily distracted, so it is not really a balance, more like a flow.
You know it is surprising, but I just added a bit at a time, you really don’t know it is happening. Of course the long summer days up here help. The chickens and other poultry were added for a concern for decent food. The garden, for organic food and sanity. I can garden at 9 pm in the sun! The business stuff well, you gotta pay those bills so if it takes a few more hours a week, well you just do it.
Keep a smile on your face and a song in your heart.
What is your most valuable studio tool? Why?
Probably kilns… you can make, but if you can’t fire? At each stage, I have a favorite tool, a good thomas stuart wheel, bison trimmers, well-ventilated bisque, glazing syringes and brushes.
You have taken on studio assistants in the past to help with basic chores, aide in the processing of your work (clay recycling, glaze making, bisque loading, glazing, etc.) and to make piecework. How did you arrive at the decision to hire an assistant?
It started as a desire to not work alone, then as time went by, I discovered real value in these helpers not only to expand the business, but also to expose me to new ideas and techniques.
There’s satisfaction of thinking that I really helped them also. It feels so good to hear of one of my “kids” doing well. Just makes my heart happy.
Would you be willing to share some advice for potters who are thinking about hiring an assistant/apprentice?
Each person coming into the studio has different work ethic and expectations. Communication of what I need from them and what they hope to get from me, is paramount. Over the years, I’ve only let a few go.
Working in the state of Alaska, you ship all your materials by barge via Seattle which is over 2000 miles away. How does this expense/time factor into your overall business plan?
You have established a wholesale line that ships across the state of Alaska to feed the thriving tourism industry. What percentage of your income comes from wholesale orders? How did you decide to market your work wholesale and what steps did you take to develop your wholesale clientele?
80% of my total income comes from wholesale, and some years more.
Wholesale works really well for me, on several levels. Most of what I make is spoken for, so there’s no will-it-sell stress. I am a poor bookkeeper, so I don’t have to keep track of where the piece is, nor worry if the shop is trying to sell it.
My town has a wholesale show, and one year a friend encouraged me to do it, showed me how to track the orders and gave me advice (like minimum orders etc). Talk about light bulb moment! I got a huge order at the show and for a few months after that, more and more small orders. I was on my way. I only did that show for two years. After my stuff was out there, I received inquiries from other shops and galleries. When I wanted to expand, I would research which was the top gallery in that town, and send them information and follow up with a phone call. This would usually result in a small “try it order”. If it worked for them and the shipping as well, I would then get a larger order. Year after year.
Aside from wholesale clientele, you also have a loyal local following. What other venues (such as craft fairs, group holiday sales, etc) have you used to successfully market your work in your community?
You know, I have done all of the above, including studio shows and art walks. I also gift delivery men/women, neighbors, the gas man, etc. Oftentimes those folks come back to the studio bringing friends and I get small steady walk in sales. It creates good will and puts a smile on someone’s face. So worth it.
Also, for 20 years I have contributed many many (sometimes 200) bowls to our Empty Bowls event. I get to help feed folks that need it, and I hear so often that my work was seen there, and could they get more?
Also I don’t stamp, I sign Bliss Alaska on every piece. Then there’s no question who made it or where to find more. Tourists often call or write, “I got your piece in a little gallery on our trip, can you send me more?”. Same for folks in the community. They know it is a Bliss pot and a check in the phone book and they can find me.
In the state of Alaska, you are known for your signature glaze that you have termed your “Aurora Glaze” because it reminds you of the aurora bourelis. As a marketing strategy, this is brilliant since the majority of your customers are tourists. Can you talk a little bit about your marketing failures and successes and how they impact sales?
For the galleries I ship to, if there is a new glaze or variation of the Aurora glaze I will send them a picture. Tastes vary, I used to have a gallery that only wanted a more pastel version, so they got the pots fired at the top of the kiln.
I never fire more than a few pieces of an unproven glaze or variation of aurora. Then if it doesn’t work, the loss isn’t too much.
As a wholesale potter, making the same forms by hand by the thousands can really take a toll on your psyche. How do you keep things fresh (keep inspired) with your work and not get bored?
Simple, I play games with myself. Such as how fast can I make this form? Can I fill the ware cart before lunch? or if I make 25 two pound flare forms, I can go work the greenhouse for an hour. Also after so many years at this sometime I feel like a robot, so to avoid that I throw in a variation just for fun and lots of times, that form finds a place on the wholesale list.
During the throwing cycle, if I am feeling bored, I will stop and study a bit, try a new form I just saw or talk to the folks there with me and ask questions. Or make that form larger or smaller.
During the glaze cycle, I will watch or listen to entertainment. Add bit more or less of this or that.
I will vary the cycles, glaze a coupla hours then go do something else. Same with every step. There is always so much to do, if one gets bored trimming, go recycle for a bit.
Living as an artist in a remote location like Alaska can be isolating. How do you keep inspired and engaged with the ceramics community at large?
I discovered the Clayart list serve early on and learned so much. I went to as many NCECA Conferences as I could afford, talked to visiting artists, and took as many workshops as I could.
Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living?
Find what works for you. For example, there are limited craft sales up here, so I found if I wanted to do this full time and make a decent profit wholesale for me was the best way to go. Consignment is fine for some, but not for me.
Keep at it kids, and when you find your niche, explore it , work it and use it.
Keep your credit good and some savings, so when an opportunity comes up, like a retiring potter selling off their studio, you have the ability to take advantage.
What always held me back was the ability to take good pictures. Those you can use to expand your territory.
For more info about Kris and her work, visit her website: blisspottery.com