The potter of the month for June is the lovely Kristen Kieffer! I’ve been a fan of Kristen’s work since early in my career. As a young, excitable, dedicated undergraduate student, I flew from Anchorage, AK to Columbus, OH to attend my first NCECA Conference. Prior to the the “main event”, I took a greyhound bus to participate in Ohio University’s pre-conference. I remember thick, melting snow on the ground, a picturesque campus with weathered brick roads, an amazingly inspirational opening lecture by Walter Ostrum and Kristen Kieffer’s pots.
Her pieces were displayed in stages in her graduate studio space and as finished work in Trisolini Gallery alongside work by Matt Long, Christyl Boger, Kent Swanson and others. When I first saw Kristen’s work, I was immediately struck by her complex forms, intricate handles and ornamented surfaces (all of which reminded me of Victorian silver-plated tea service sets).
Now, I just love seeing the evolving depth of surface on Kristen’s pots. She is a master at keeping her work fresh and fun…constantly seeking out new colors, patterns, textures, surfaces. And her ability to keep up with all the social media outlets she’s involved with is admirable.
Never having met Kristen in public, I am honored to have the chance to correspond with her for this interview. Her advice is straightforward and succinct…and the quote she included by Maya Angelou is the perfect parting sentiment…
How did you first get involved in ceramics? Can you briefly describe your background and education? Drawing was a major mode of play for me as a kid, and art was my favorite class in school. Like many, I didn’t know what career I wanted to pursue after high school, and like many other ceramic artists, once I walked into a clay studio in college, I never left. (That was the summer of 1991.) Clay just fit me, and at a difficult time.
Most importantly, my parents were supportive, encouraging me to be whatever I wanted when I grew up. My Mom was fond of saying that she thought she could only be a secretary, nurse, or teacher (she taught nursing) when she went to college, and wanted me to be open to anything. I concede my being an artist made them nervous at times (though they hid it well); they never faltered from being supportive.
I can add too that while they never pursued careers in the arts, both my parents are creative and artistic. My Grandpa was a hobby, realist oil painter too.
I wound up receiving an AA in Studio Arts majoring in Ceramics from Montgomery College, Rockville, MD (1993), a BFA in Ceramics from the NYSCC at Alfred University (1995), and an MFA in Ceramics from Ohio University (2001).
How do you feel that your formal education (undergraduate-graduate school) prepared you for your career in ceramics? Formal education taught me how to grow as an artist as well as critically assess my own work, both crucial. My associate, undergrad, and grad degrees also made each next step possible. I wouldn’t have gone to Alfred for my BFA without the encouragement of my community college profs. I wouldn’t have worked at a historical pottery, which put in proximity to John Glick, if my undergrad prof hadn’t given me the internship prospectus. And on and on.
Working with John is what prepared me for a career as a studio potter, but also led to my acceptance to a grad program that could further push me as a maker. I’m lucky to have had so many mentors and professors to guide me along.
You spent a year as an apprentice for John Glick. How did this experience help shape your career? What advice could you offer someone wanting to be an apprentice? My year with John could best be described as a residency (he’s actually referred to it as such for the last 10 years). I assisted him only in sharing workload. When he was throwing his pots, I was throwing mine. I helped him pack his work; we mixed clay together, and loaded kilns together. It was an opportunity to work side-by-side with a studio potter, to disperse wear on his body and offer camaraderie in the studio. I helped facilitate his production, but didn’t play a direct role in it.
Working with John was both formative and transformative. When I teach workshops, I always credit him with everything that got me started on the path to being a studio potter. From literally how to pack pots and take care of my back to pricing and gallery dealings. My year with John formed how I could be a studio potter in mind and body.
Additionally, he taught me how to play. You can’t work alongside a man, potter, and glazer like John without being inspired to shake off fear and explore. His energy and positivity are infectious.
There are few opportunities to do such a thing (residency, assistantship, or apprenticeship with an artist), but it’s truly valuable to spend time with a working artist if that’s what you want to do. I admire that John opened his studio and life to so many assistants over his 50 years in clay. Not many folks have the room, interest, or fortitude to share their creative space with another.
How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas? Gosh, if I could articulate that maybe I could make it happen more often! While I do know that just wanting to have a new idea rarely makes it so for me, taking the time to draw helps. For a long time, to develop new ideas I would flip through my collection of books on antique silver and brass vessels from different cultures and periods, and draw. Now I do a similar thing with my Pinterest boards (almost all of which are influence resources). I’m rather a formal maker, so a shape, line, or form from a current piece can sometimes offer a new direction, so my own work leads to new ideas as much as outside influences.
All that being said, sometimes I make a new form based on need. I had a neighbor years ago who grew tremendous dahlias. Every once in a while he would give me one, but I only had recycled bottles that worked to hold them, so I started making bud vases.
Do you have a favorite form to make? If so, why? I’d say currently yunomi are my favorite because they’re jam-packed with everything I enjoy (and sell).
What does a typical workday look like for you? I work alone, so on any given day I may be making, marketing, photographing, adding to my Etsy, packing to ship, emailing, workshop prepping, etc. I think only half my time is spent making. So, a typical day is basically working on what needs to be done. I try to balance studio time with not-studio time too. I spend evenings and at least part of the weekend with my hubby, work in the yard in the spring and summer, and have an 8-year-old doxie who is my demanding studio mate.
You talk about your work as “Victorian modern style” and “ornamented strength”. Can you expand on what you mean by “ornamented strength”? Adjectives and phrases have helped direct my making for years. Sometimes those descriptors help me in the studio, and sometimes they are used in marketing to provide buyers with labels for my work.
The right word can help change the line of a pot, focus its function, and/or distinguish the surface. In my slide presentation for workshops, I show how my MFA thesis exhibition pots were “ornate,” but not particularly “elegant,” and how the decision to focus the work on the latter word changed everything.
I’ve long been curious about the sociology of pots and how we categorize them. We assign pots a gender, and that seems to lead to when and how they’re used, and perhaps by whom. For example, a pot labeled as “feminine” sounds like something for special occasions, and perhaps used by a female.
I can’t control how (or if) my work is used or perceived, but I can relay a story through phrasing that helps buyers understand from where I create.
“Victorian” and “feminine” tended to be the most used descriptors for my work, so I decided to take on those phrases. I didn’t set out to make work based in a certain style; “Victorian” and “feminine” were not goals. I have a wide range of influences that, combined with how I enjoy working, yield what I make. I can see the Victorian elements, but I’m not making historically based pots. They are an amalgamation as well as contemporary (which is what Victorian was in its day). “Victorian modern” is a design category that describes a modern take on era influence.
The “ornamented strength” phrase is also from my slide presentations. I show a picture of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman and Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth to illustrate how “feminine” (not normally associated with “durability”) can be strong as well patterned. That is where I see my work, thus my tagline, “Ornately elegant pottery for everyday.” “Everyday” implies strength.
I share a lot of your aesthetic pursuits of seeking to create beautiful and useful objects for everyday. What are some things that you consider necessary in your form/surface/function to communicate this aesthetic to the user? How do you differentiate your work from “complex pieces for special occasions”? So, I can say whatever I want about my work, but if I want them to be perceived the way I voice, I need to back up my verbal claims in 3D. The best example I can give are my cups. 10 years ago, the handles were thin, narrow and gestured far above the lip line, and were therefore worrisome to hold. Additionally, the small piece of the two-piece handle had a curlicue, which didn’t lend to durability, and the cups themselves were modestly sized. Now, the cups are “mugs” with a generous shape, the handles are plump and feel inviting, and though still two pieces, are streamlined. When people pick up my cups, I hope they feel that “ornamented strength” (not delicateness), which invites use.
Complexity of form can lend more to special occasion than complexity of surface, and I don’t think of my forms as particularly complex. I tend to think complex forms require both physical and mental leaps for use (which can limit them to special vs. daily), but complex surfaces may only require mental ones (which goes back to phrasing). If I wanted to make special occasion ware, my work would be different.
You are a marketing genius and are constantly and consistently promoting your brand. Which marketing venue(s) (website/blog/galleries/studio sales/etsy/craft fairs/etc.) have you found to be the most lucrative for your work? Ha! Well, consistent anyway. How I market is constantly changing as the platforms change. My Kieffer Ceramics Facebook page served me well for several years, but since FB changed to “pay to play” (pushing users like me to PAY to “boost” posts to allow our followers to see content), I’ve seen a major decline in connecting with folks who actually want to see my posts. It’s hard to explain that to see all the posts by a person or page, Facebookers need to add it (that friend or page) to their Interest Lists because some or all posts may no longer show up in their newsfeed. Thus, I finally joined Instagram because if you go on IG, you will see posts by everyone you follow. Its disadvantage to me is not having clickable urls like FB and Twitter posts, so it can be harder to get followers to click over to my online shop, for example.
Though I don’t blog as much as I used to (in part because social media has become about images vs. reading in the last couple years), I write as if I’m communicating to a collector. This brings a different voice than if I were writing to my fellow potters.
What kind of advice could you give someone wanting to market their work? I think it’s important to be consistent with social media. Don’t start it if you’re not going to keep up with it. Decide your goal, your brand, and your voice for each platform. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, sell on Etsy, and have an enewsletter, all of which I approach a little to a lot differently because the platforms themselves and their audiences are different.
Your work is in numerous galleries across the country. Can you talk about how you selected the representation you did? What kind of advice could you offer someone wanting to approach galleries for representation? I retail work in half a dozen, mostly craft center galleries (perhaps a quarter to a third of my sales) around the country that carry my work, and I hope earn their 50% by styling it well and discussing it with interested customers. (I think of true gallery representation as being for artists whose price points are considerably higher with an artist/gallery relationship that is more formal, exclusive, and engaged, like Duane Reed and Mindy Solomon galleries, who don’t really work with functional potters.) I think most galleries invite artists, and do so after seeing their work (now, in social media; in the past, in juried and invitational shows and the publicity that followed them). It always comes back to making solid work, photographing it well, and getting it out there in a professional manner.
You’re website is filled with thorough, informative, varied content. How did you decide how to format your website the way you did? What tips could you offer someone who is thinking about creating a website? What amount of time do you dedicate to upkeep (keeping it current)? I’ve been on WordPress.com for my blog/website combo for over six years, and still like the format and ease. I’m constantly tweaking it, and actually enjoy doing so. The blog part of the site keeps it fresh (updated at least twice a month), though every page of my site is current, from work to schedule. I’ve tried to create a layout and present content in a way that I want when I visit someone else’s site. I think almost any question someone might have about me or my work is there, which I hope leads to sales (pots and DVDs), workshop enrollments, and/or answered questions by collectors and students.
Much of what I’ve done is adapted from the good and latest in site styling I see on other sites, and bypassing the bad (too many clicks to reach content, flash, clutter, etc.). There are infinitely more templates and build-your-own sites now, so it’s a matter of finding one you like and understand, paired with the time involved in maintenance and cost.
You produced your own DVD of surface decorating techniques entitled “Surface Decoration: Suede to Leatherhard”. Can you talk a little bit about the process of creating a professional instructional DVD and your choice of content for the DVD? The DVD came about because my husband and I were both laid-off from our part-time teaching when the Worcester Center for Crafts closed for the full year of 2009, and because my Dad happened to take up video as a hobby in retirement. Though the Craft Center re-opened in 2010 (minus the furniture program in which my husband taught), the sales from the DVD my Dad and I produced has been an additional, helpful revenue stream added to the way I piece together my income.
I actually took a poll on my blog, and ‘surface’ was the unanimous choice for the video. Deco seemed the most straightforward to tackle too. I didn’t want the video to be a version of what I teach in workshops. I wanted the video and workshop teachings to each complement the other: workshop participants purchase the DVD to refresh on techniques I taught in-person for them, and DVD-purchasers often wind up in a workshop because they enjoyed the DVD. Plus, I’ve sold the video all over the world to folks who can’t readily take a workshop with me in the States. I’m very grateful to have had such a supportive audience for the video over the years.
Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living?
- Style should be the result not the goal.
- Working hard and play are not mutually exclusive in the studio.
- Making a living as a self-employed artist requires diversification of income.
- “Making a living is not the same as making a life.” ~ Maya Angelou
To find out more about Kristen and her work, please visit her website: