With autumn comes the work and words of Michael Kline, potter of the month for November!
I’ve admired Michael’s pots ever since I can remember…from my early days as an aspiring potter. Michael’s pieces are timeless: modest forms, generous volumes, and rich surfaces. While his work nods to the history of ceramics (British Medieval ware, Early American Slipware, Chinese Cizhou ware, Minoan, Mingei, and the list goes on) it has a contemporary voice all its own.
One of my first online purchases (of handmade ceramics) was this small stoneware dish (below) of Michael’s from AKAR. It immediately enticed me with its depth of surface, and, after it arrived I fell in love with it all over again! The speed and rhythm of the throwing, trimming and decoration is all evident in the finished pot. Combed white slip was overlaid with dark, swift, floral brushstrokes. Crystal formations that developed in the transparent glaze follow the pattern of the slip and act an an semi-opaque curtain covering portions of the brushwork.
The depth of information in this seemingly “simple” dish is an honest reflection of Michael’s love for his craft. It’s as beautiful as it is useful. Not only do I admire Michael’s work and work ethic, I am thoroughly impressed by his ability to stay engaged through numerous social media outlets. This global visibility is a true testament to Michael’s dedication to educate the public of the beauty of handmade pots!
Enjoy the interview…
How did you first get involved in ceramics?
A good friend, who was in art school, invited me to the clay studio for a raku firing (read: party) I remember watching the teacher throw a pot. Like many who see this “magic” act, I was beyond fascinated, maybe even hypnotized. That night I made a pinch pot in the shape of an egg, which I still have. The clay had me in a spell! But for the moment I would return to my engineering school, soon to drop out from a lack of interest and poor grades.
A year or so later, I was encouraged by a good friend to take a pottery class that they heard was a lot of fun. I remembered seeing the potter at the wheel, and remembered that I wanted to try that, myself.
That first night of my pottery class, the first touch of the clay, I knew I was in love.
Can you briefly describe your background and education?
As a kid, science and math were always easy for me. I was encouraged to seek a professional degree in engineering, but after three years of civil engineering school at the University of Tennessee I dropped out. I really didn’t have the desire to study the material and I didn’t have much of a social circle with my engineering peers. Instead I found kindred spirits in a group of friends who were in the art school. About a year later, after being encouraged by another friend, I signed up for a night class in pottery, remembering my fascination for the potter making that pot on the wheel.
How would you describe your work? How did you arrive at working this way?
I would say that I’m maybe the wrong person to ask, since I sometimes have trouble seeing the forest for the trees, but after many years of making pots I would describe the pots I make as a little bit coarse and a little bit refined. The forms are definitely inspired by classic southeastern American stoneware traditions, the surfaces wear a variety of floral patterns. I gravitate toward using materials that excite me and my own experience in the making and firing. I love materials and processes that require my involved refinement.
I haven’t arrived so much as I’m still on the path.
Would you explain your attraction to utilitarian ceramics?
It’s a sensual thing, you know? The feel of the object, the success in its purpose, turn me on. How the experience of using pot adds up is always a little elusive, and the pots I reach for over and over again are beyond reason and logic. Sometimes a pot that snares me visually doesn’t get used in the strictest sense of utility, but may lead me to another kind of sustinence, maybe something that I might incorporate into my surfaces, etc.
How do you feel that your formal education (UT Knoxville) prepared you for your career in ceramics?
I was pretty much left alone during my time in the UT Ceramics department. I did appreciate feedback and/or critique, but I was happy to follow the beat of my own drum. I wasn’t a very good student. Maybe I was a “know it all”. But what did I know, really? I knew what I felt, what was new and exciting, what it felt like to discover. I learned the joy in making. That is what still drives me. To do work that brings joy in the making.
Aside from your time spent at UT Knoxville, you also studied at Penland School of Crafts under Michael Simon, taught community classes in NYC and worked at Stonepool Pottery with Mark Shapiro. Can you talk a little bit about how this variety of experiences helped inform you, your pots, your career, your work ethic, etc?
Teaching at the Y in NYC was kind of an accident. I never wanted to teach, just make and when I was propostioned to teach a class or two, I was terrified! But I thought that that fear was probably a tip that I should challenge myself. At the time, 1987, I hadn’t really made pots for very long, I didn’t feel confident. But I’ve always been one that eagerly shared, and so I looked at this as an opportunity to share my enthusiasm more than anything. It turned out that I did have some technique to share after all. I also found that when one teaches, one also learns and that sometimes anxiety is just the insecure side of excitement.
The Michael Simon workshop at Penland in 1989 was another amazing turning point in my thinking and making. I met Mark Shapiro and Sam Taylor during that time and we instantly became comrades. Brothers in clay! It was at that time that I realized there were other people like me that had similar ambitions about making pottery. Michael, in particular, shined the light on the possibilities of making a career in pottery. Not just any pottery, but the pottery that I wanted to make, sharing his uncompromising attention to detail and his passion for pottery. I loved being sequestered in the mountains to make pots with a great group of people. Many of my classmates at that workshop are still active potters, Jane Shellenbarger, Marsha Owen, and Suze Lindsay were all there.
After Penland I went to help fire the wood kiln at Mark’s place in western MA. and ended staying there for almost 10 years! We worked hard there at Mark’s pottery farm! We renovated one of the barns to be our studio as we listened to the news of the Berlin Wall coming down in the Fall of 1989. It was an exciting time. We lived and breathed pottery while we kept our “day” jobs. Eventually we took the plunge of making pottery full time. Mark was the first to break into the world of craft shows and selling pots, then me, then Sam. We had made a lot of hopeful pots, but they mostly sat around the shelves of our studio until we took the plunge and quit those jobs.
Mark wrote a nice piece about that time. We learned a lot about working AND working together during those years. I, in particular, learned a helluva lot about carpentry! Mark was definitely one of the hardest working potters I knew, and I learned a LOT about hard work from him. Although I never worked for Mark, we worked indepently on our own pots, there’s nobody that has had a greater influence on me! Next year Mark, Sam, and I will celebrate our 25th anniversary of meeting at Penland and plan to spend some time next summer working and firing together. We will also have a special sale of those pots!
What is the inspiration for your pieces? How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas?
Much of my inspiration comes from historical pots that I see in museums, collections, online, in books, and of course pots that come into our home that we use.
For the last few years my forms have been cousin to the North Carolina/southeastern-US vernacular. The robust round forms of 19th and 20th century southern crockery are a perfect canvas for my scrolling brushwork. The evolution of my forms parallel my interest in pattern.
I’m at a point in my career where change comes very slowly, firing to firing, subtley. When I decorate pots, new ideas: patterns and surface treatments
The area of North Carolina where you live is known for its lasting tradition of potters that live and work in and around the area. How did you arrive at the decision to settle and build a studio in NC?
I met my wife, Stacey Lane at Penland and we decided to stay in the area after I completed the residency. I know it sounds a little cliche, but the mountains are a constant source of inspiration! Really! The landscape is hard to pin down, it’s a real meander and an excellent visual exercise to live within.
The area has strong cultural tourism and is an hour from Asheville. When I was a resident at Penland, I sold pots nearly every day to folks visiting the school. The econonmics of the residency were an amazing support system that I still enjoy to this day. The concentration of pottery and potters in the area are a real draw for collectors. Before NC I mostly sold pots wholesale to galleries and shops. After the residency, I mostly sell out of my shop.
In a funny twist, I rarely see my potter neighbors and when I do it’s at the hardware or grocery store, and of course at Penland. I do enjoy going up to Penland for “Show and Tell” at the end of each session and to clay slides on Tuesday nights. But as a rule, I avoid the school when I’m busy making pots. The school is a little bit like a candle to this moth, and if I do find myself visiting, the day can get burned away and nothing gets done in the shop! It’s an embarrasment of riches, I guess. Much like living in NY, I can only do so much outside of working, but what I do get to see and experience is a very rich experience.
What were your must-haves when building your studio/kiln and choosing a location?
I built my studio close to the kiln, but not attached to the it.
The studio is a short walk from the house, far enough away to not be too distracted by domestic chores. I think the distance is about 300 feet. At least that seemed to be the combined length of extension cords I ran to the kiln for 7 years until I had the studio built.
After spending several years working a a dark cinder block shiitake mushroom farm, lots of light was another consideration in the studio.
I like the fact that you designed your wood/salt kiln to fire using the otherwise discarded side-cuts from local mills. What kind of advice would you offer to someone wanting to build and fire a wood/salt kiln?
I designed my kiln so that I could easily walk into it to load, The arch is 6.5’ tall. It’s hard enough to spend 10 hours loading a kiln to be bending over. Tall guys like me need to watch our ailing backs! 😉 Building on the ground isn’t something you can do in locations that have intense cold, but it is possible here in NC.
I would find out about available wood supplies before you design your firebox, etc.
Can you find used silicon carbide shelves or do you have the capital to purchase new ones?
Fire often in the beginning, inviting other potters to contribute pots. This will engage others to help you “research” firing effects, as well as encourage them to help you fire the kiln.
As a father of two, how are you able to juggle family-time and studio-time?
It is very difficult, especially when I am in crunch mode right before a firing. My wife does most of the ferrying to and from school and events. I am the default caregiver when the kids are sick since I work at home.
I wish I could spend more time with my kids as they are very insightful at ages 9 and 11, and inspiring in their view of the world around them. Working after supper, after their bedtime, allows me to break early in the afternoon to be with the kids after school. While I try to get at least 8 hours in the shop every day attending to pots in some way, throwing, finishing, decorating, etc. sometimes that means working after the kids have been put to bed.
What kind of advice could you offer to artists who are new parents?
With my first daughter Evelyn, I was able to spend a lot of time each morning just being with her while my wife worked. We then would trade places and I worked in the afternoon. It was a very special time. That would be my advice, to spend as much time being a new parent as possible. Plan on making work when you can, as your work day will be interrupted often. Be with your children and share your world as an artist.
What does a typical workday look like for you? How much do you spend on marketing vs. making?
After sending the kids to school in the morning, usually around 7:30 a.m. I feed my chickens. Then I check in with my friends online, listen to the Democracy Now, and review emails and review my to-do list. I try to get into the studio by ten and I work until 3:30, when the bus brings the kids home. I try to pick my head up from my work during the day, to take a look around, maybe do a few things outside, if the weather is nice. Sometimes I will take my dog, Jack, for a short walk.
Depending on my place in my firing session, I usually spend a few nights during the week in the studio. I find that the night work is quiet, uninterrupted and usually the most creative.
Throughout the day, I look for images to document my work for my Facebook page and check in with my other social media outlets much like one might take cigarette breaks, but healthier! Probably a third of my day is spent tooting my horn and marketing online, uploading pics of what I’m doing, announcing events, etc.
I have always admired your ability to connect to your audience using social media. What kind of advice could you give about marketing on the Internet?
I enjoy the internet and its ability for it to bring me the information I am seeking amazingly fast! SO, naturally, I have the impulse to share information from my end. But I have to be careful with my time and avoid getting sucked into vortex.
My advice would be to be consistent and to keep it professional and focussed on the work
post frequently: decide what works for you,i.e. daily, weekly, etc
find out where your market is online, i.e. pinterest, facebook, twitter, email?
don’t mix personal with professional (much) Your lifestyle is an asset and a wonderful part of your narrative as an artist. I try to avoid personal opinion and/or politics, unless the issue is really close to home or I really feel dedicated to whatever cause.
share things you are generally excited about, not necessarily what you think other people want to hear.
Which marketing venue(s) (website/blog/galleries/studio sales/etsy/craft fairs/etc.) have you found to be the most lucrative for your work?
I have seen Facebook emerge as the best way to reach my audience. I think FB people mirror the community at large, but it is a constant effort to reach those folks who aren’t potters [;-)] or haven’t discovered my work, yet.
Our Cousins in Clay shows are growing and bringing more people to the studio to buy pots. We use Facebook to market our esteemed and renowned guests as well as ourselves.
Are there other methods of marketing that you’re thinking about taking on?
I think that good marketing happens in the details. Recently I have been sending hand-painted watercolor invitations to our open studio sales.(twice a year) It takes time, but folks are really excited to get something of substance, some real in their mailbox. It’s good painting practice, it’s fun, and folks tell me they collect them!
I also include hand painted thank you cards with my online sales.
Finally, What advice would you give to aspiring potters who are looking to set up a studio and make pots for a living?
I guess I would say that you need to keep your day job for as long as you possibly can to avoid having to put financial pressure on the body of work you are building. Make the work you really love and others will recognize that and want it too. Value your work and ask for a good price when you sell it. In my first year or two of full time making, I was shy about asking a good price for my work. I was afraid that it wouldn’t sell. I made a LOT of pots, but I ended up not making any money because I had a poor business plan and undervalued my work. Take a good basic business class. You can still be frugal and work any 16 hrs a day that you choose! 😉