I am honored to announce that the Potter of the Month for February is the exceptionally radiant and remarkably gifted Sunshine Cobb!
I first met Sunshine in the fall of 2012 during the Utilitarian Clay Symposium at Arrowmont. Although we were both conference presenters, we were given time to visit the other artists that were presenting on the opposite shift (morning vs. afternoon). Being especially intrigued by Sunshine’s work, I spent a fair amount of time watching her demos. I was in awe of the speed in which she worked and the finesse she had with the material. And, the stories…oh, the stories…the one about the parakeet had me doubled over in laughter!
Following our brief introduction at Arrowmont, I became an even bigger fan of Sunshine and her work. Her pots are inviting and approachable on so many levels. The depth and patina of her work is nostalgic and charming and ruminates ideas of history, necessity and daily use. I love the part of the interview where Sunshine gives a bit of insight into her ideal glaze surface: what she strives for both visually and tactically.
How did you first get involved in ceramics? Can you briefly describe your background and education?
I started in clay roughly 15 years ago. I was finishing up my junior college courses and working as a nanny in Davis, California. I was totally broke but found there was a small art center on the UC DAVIS campus. They offered throwing classes. At the time I couldn’t afford to pay for the class but they offered a barter program, I could volunteer for several hours a week and take a class for no charge. And the obsession began! From that first throwing class I was hooked and eventually I graduated with a BA in Studio Art from CSU Sacramento and then a MFA from Utah State University.
How do you feel that your formal education (undergraduate-graduate school) prepared you for your career in ceramics? I have thought a lot about this question in the past couple years as I have been struggling through making a career in ceramics. I struggle with the debt I incurred but when I look back that is the only draw back. What my education gave me is the belief in my skills and confidence in my ideas. It made me a better artist- which was the goal! If i had to do it over I would have taken a few more business courses and maybe a marketing class or two. But that is something I can take now online, when I have the need. I wasn’t ready at the time I was taking classes to be open to those ideas, I was very much caught up in the ideals of working in clay and thinking about supporting myself really didn’t make it into the picture.
Could you describe some of the most influential or career changing experiences you’ve had?
I would say that the most influential thing in my career have been my professors both undergrad and graduate. Besides the obvious things like encouragement to continue or their belief in my abilities, it has been the behind the scenes action on their part that has gotten me many opportunities and propelled me forward. They often know about an opportunity or invitation before I do!
Beyond that it has been some of the publication luck I have had like the cover of Ceramics Monthly, and being named one of their Emerging Artists. Also being included in the Utilitarian Clay Conference had a huge impact on me being invited to workshops around the country.
Can you talk a bit about your journey including the struggles/sacrifices you made to get where you are today?
This is often an ongoing list. I am not sure I think about sacrifices the same way as I used to. I used to worry about not having a home and being in debt and not having a plan that goes farther than two years out. But as I get older and the more I see how other folks live it becomes more clear everyone struggles and sacrifices. The belief that you can “have it all” is no longer something I strive for. I figured out I have enough and more and less than others in different areas of my life. The choice I make to work in clay comes at some cost to things like financial and personal stability, but there is a reward: I choose how I spend my days, I love what I do, I am my own boss. I have found these things are not common and I cherish how getting to spend my time working in clay enriches my life and experience as a human.
You have one of the most handsome websites I’ve seen in a long time (www.sunshinecobb.com). Can you talk about your decision making process in constructing a website? Would you be willing to share any tips for someone wanting to set up their own website?
Content! Content! Content! In order to build a nice website you need visual choices, so take pictures of you and your work and not just in formal settings. Part of having a nice website is having different ideas about how you want to present yourself. The platform has changed, no longer do we have to have formal artist sites, design has become an important part of how you present yourself. Have fun and have a voice in this arena, be a trend setter! I have had a website for about 6 years, it has been a learning curve. They have gotten better with each incarnation, practice is the key! You are not going to have a bad ass website out of the gate, but you will have one that is accessible. Then you will know what you need images of, what kind of content you want to have, the next one will be better! Having a website is ultimately doable, it is one of my pet peeves when I find out an artist doesn’t have a website. How are people supposed to find you? How are you controlling how you are presented to the world? Now a days it is at your disposal to create your own website, there are many template sites, some better that others, it is within your capacity! I hesitate to say it is easy because I spend plenty of time cussing my computer out when I am working on my website, but it can be learned and muddled through with a great end result! I often here the “it is too expensive” excuse, if you sell work from your site, it will pay for itself with a little marketing!
You were a recent guest on Brian R. Jones’s Jonescast. During the discussion, there was a point where Brian asked you “where you came from?”…that it seemed you appeared out of nowhere and were getting all kinds of great publicity. While I was listening to your conversation, I began nodding, realizing that I too was unfamiliar with your work until I attended the Bray’s 60th celebration in 2011 (where you were a summer resident at the time). Since then, it seemed that your work/name was everywhere. Can you talk a little more about how you were able to get your work “out there” following graduate school?
I have heard this a few times and always think it is funny because I was trudging along trying to figure it out. During school I was really working hard on finding out how to accomplish the idea of developing a body of work. Having a concept and following it through. I didn’t apply to shows, I just didn’t think my work was ready or strong enough yet. So when I got out of school and got my first residency it was an opportunity for me to develop another body of work. I had a short term residency in Sonoma and then was accepted to the Summer program at the Bray. Sometime in there I figured out a new series of work, and took good pictures of it and applied to some key opportunities, like the Ceramics monthly Emerging Artist line up. I also put together info for approaching galleries to carry my work (most have a format in which they want you to submit your work). I really didn’t have the money to apply to juried shows, so I went with the galleries I liked and thought had good online representation and submitted work. I just want to say I didn’t hear back from those folks in the way that I thought I would but what I found was that I started being on their radar. From then I started getting invited to be in group shows they put on or holiday exhibitions.
When I saw your work for the first time in person, I was stunned. The warmth and a patina of your pots are undeniably inviting. I am intrigued by the matte surface on the exterior contrasted by the glossy interior. Knowing that you spend countless hours sandblasting the exterior surface, can you touch on the significance of the sandblasted surface? I’m sure people have asked “why not just use a matte glaze”? I’m guessing that the depth of surface that is revealed from the reductive process of sandblasting is much different than an applied glaze?
How I wish a matte glaze would do the trick!! I have tried everything someone can think of: slip, terra sig, matte glaze . None of it works with the image I have in my head. There is something in the revelation of the texture of the surface and the actual feel of the surface that works in combination that does it for me. So it impacts the type of clay that I need to use, how I make the work and how I fire the work, how I finish the work once it has been sandblasted. I feel I have been impeached by my early wood fire days. All of that work had to be sanded to be used, but something in that surface always interested me. The relationship of the visual and the tactile experience: it was often visually rough and tactilely soft. What I strive for in this body of work is I want to be as soft as it looks. We are accustom to the hard glaze surface and the actual softness surprises people and I hope connects with them in a way that inspires a nostalgic comfort. I always use the favorite T shirt idea, I want my work to have the worn in feel to it, loved and used to the point it has your own personal history imbedded in its surface.
When I think of your work, I envision it on the glossy pages of Architectural Digest magazine, softening the scene of a harsh, ultra-modern living room. I also see it being used in a vintage cottage kitchen sandwiched between a copper kettle and a well-worn farmhouse sink. The breadth of your audience speaks volumes about the appeal of your work. Can you talk a little bit who you envision your audience to be and how you reach out to them?
This for me is an ongoing problem I am trying to figure out. I really want my work to connect to new audiences. I want more people to experience well crafted hand made ceramic objects. Right now I am taking some online classes in marketing to help me figure out how to do that. What is most difficult about this part of my job is how much time it takes up. Also it is often a significant financial investment to boot!
What does a typical workday look like for you?
I typically spend the morning working on the computer 1-2 hours answering emails of working on projects that require computer time(like this). I set a new years resolution a few years back to spend at least two hours a day on the computer working my my career. Be that answering emails, figuring out website stuff, working on blast newsletter , it has been invaluable and something I have continued to do. After that is finished ( nowadays I find the time on the commuter eats up my time often closer to 4 hrs), I usually head to the studio and try to get some work done. That can be any amount of time 6-10 hours.
What is your most valuable studio tool?
I have a small number to tools I cant live with out.
1. banding wheel
2. cheapy cheese cutter
3. disposable surgical scalpel
4. notched wooden measuring tool
5. various metal ribs
Which marketing venue(s) (website/blog/galleries/studio sales/etsy/craft fairs/etc.) have you found to be the most lucrative for your work? Are there other methods of marketing that you’re thinking about taking on?
I have been doing gallery, online, craft sales, and workshops as my main sources of income. Currently my goal is to sell more work myself. I am doing a couple craft fairs this year and working on an independent project to sell 500 mugs myself this year, it is a marketing exercises from one of my online classes.
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?
This past year has been an exercise in trying how to make that a reality. My goal when I came to the Bray was to try and figure out how to make a business out of myself. As I am finishing my last year I am trying to figure out how to translate that into the actual world. As the education field has become incredibly precarious and not a reliable field to enter and I have been fulfilling my interest in teaching by workshopping I have made the decision to try to create a business model that will sustain my life and ceramic practice.
Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living?
Diversify! Try to pick up as many skills as possible that you think might add to your ability to market yourself. Being talented, hard working and making good work is the baseline these days. Figure out what sets you apart and what is important to you about how your work is in the world. Good Luck!
For more info about Sunshine and her work, visit her website: