This year opens with an exciting new project I’ve planned for my website: Each month, I will be posting a new interview with a studio potter.
First up is Jeff Campana. Jeff and I were fellow graduate students at Indiana University. He is an amazingly talented potter living and working in Helena, MT. To the left is a photo of Jeff re-constructing one of his pieces.
Before I begin the interview, I wanted to share a “small world” story about Jeff’s work: A few years ago, I toured the Homer Laughlin China Company (famously known as the Fiesta-ware Factory) in the northern panhandle of West Virginia with students from West Virginia University. When we entered the design studio, I noticed that there was only one poster hanging on the wall in the main design room: a poster of Jeff Campana’s works. I recently returned to HLCC with a group of students from BGSU, and Jeff’s poster was still the only one there. When I asked the art director why he only had Jeff’s poster on the wall, he said that not only did he admire Jeff’s work, but the poster was the most well designed poster he’d seen of an artist’s collective works. So, if you find yourself in Newell, WV, stop by the Homer Laughlin China Company and ask to visit the design studio.
Hope you enjoy the interview!
How did you first get involved in ceramics?
I took a class my Sophomore year of High School. I pretty much knew right away that ceramics would always be a major interest of mine for the rest of my life. It just felt immediately like I was supposed to be a potter.
Can you briefly describe your background and education?
I chose my undergrad school based on the ceramics program. At the time, the University of Wisconsin Whitewater was by far my favorite ceramics program, so I went there. I took my time, spending 6 years there. I was a good student, but didn’t feel ready to move on to the next phase, so I just stayed and dedicated a lot of time to ceramics. After a year of trying to work independently, I got into grad school at Indiana University.
As a fellow classmate in graduate school, I wonder how you feel that your formal education prepared you for your career in ceramics? Is there anything you wish you had known before leaving school?
Very little about the art education system, with only a couple of exceptions that I know of, is based on preparing students to be professional artists. I was never taught anything about what is really involved in making a living from the making of art. All academia concerns itself with as an institution is artist statements, defending one’s work, theses, resume lines, etc. Things that could get you a job teaching ceramics.
Too bad none of that stuff really matters when you are out there making work and selling it to people. People who buy art largely don’t care about artist statements and all that stuff. They are more concerned with whether they feel the need to own a piece, and to a lesser degree, some collectors care about whether the artist seems like someone that will continue to grow and remain a known artist. The way you do this is not by writing fancy statements, but by continuously making work and selling it to people.
When I left grad school, I thought, as many do, that I would teach for a living. I wish I knew what an underpaid, under-appreciated, overworked, nomadic shitstorm that would be before I decided to go that route. It’s so much better for me to just make work all day. Thankfully I figured it out before it was too late. The actual people I worked with and for were all wonderful, but institutionally, early stages of a teaching careers are a very bad deal for the instructors. You need 3-5 years of adjunct/junior faculty experience before anyone will seriously consider you for a tenure track position in today’s market. If you are not familiar with what adjuncting really is, take a look at http://www.adjunctproject.com
How would you describe your work? How did you arrive at working this way?
My work is functional pottery that has been deconstructed and reconstructed in such a way that the seams of rejoining create beautiful decoration to the interior and exterior. When the glaze runs and pools, it emphasizes the tectonic structure and gives the seams incredible depth. It appears merely decorative, but at the same time there’s hidden connotations. The way it was made is an intriguing enigma to most. Also, there’s the fact that it was made more beautiful by being destroyed and rebuilt. Although they are cheerfully colored and shiny and bright, they sprouted up from a very dark place. They are as much about destruction as they are about nourishment and beauty. When I work, I feel like I’m part chemist, part craftsman, part designer, part engineer, and part inventor. I really like a good challenge, so I enjoy making things that are seemingly impossible. There is no end to the problem solving.
Would you explain your attraction for functional ceramics?
Like all potters I enjoy that people out there use my work daily. At this point there must be 2000+ pieces out there in about 10 different countries. I like thinking about how these objects I made are impacting the lives of all sorts of people. Occasionally, I get emails from people who dropped a mug and urgently need a replacement. This is verification that what I do matters to other people. The main reason I make pots, though, is that I simply like solving the problems that utility provides me.
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?
Inspiration usually comes from process for me. I like refinement and see that as a legitimate creative endeavor. So a lot of my growth is just trying to make better versions of what I have already made. I look at my work and figure out ways to make it better. Every once in a while, I decide to make something truly new. New forms take years to develop, as there are so many things to figure out. I sketch a bit, and then I throw “sketch pots” that I don’t intend to keep. They are rough, and rarely make it past greenware. I make physical sketches because I need to work out the how of the cutting. I need to know the lines in 3 dimensions. I have such a busy production schedule these days that I only get to squeeze these in occasionally. Once a form has been worked out, sometimes I need to make generations of them before they get good enough to release to the public. That’s where dinner plates are right now. Everything’s figured out, now I need practice.
I know you moved around a lot post graduate-school. How have these experiences after school prepared you for where you are now? Could you describe some of the most influential or career changing experiences you’ve had since you’ve left school?
I was well on my way to a career teaching at University. I adjuncted at the University of Louisville, Indiana University Southeast, both in the Louisville area, for a couple years, then moved to Helena for a summer residency at the Bray. I then got a full time technician gig at Bennington College in Vermont. After exactly one school year, I moved back to Helena to be a long term resident at the Bray. These experiences did teach me a lot. Learning to speak about what you do in completely basic layman’s terms actually clarifies what you do to yourself. I had the opportunity to meet a lot of wonderful colleagues, coworkers, and students. People who are lifelong friends now. It was very, very hard though, and most of that time was spent desperately poor and quite lonely. Nomadism can be fun, but for an introvert like me, it meant I was alone most of the time. Basically, what I got out of the whole experience is the sense that if I got through all that, I can endure anything. Toughness.
Was there a point in your career that you made a decision to sell your pots for a living? Could you describe how you came to that decision?
I had finally gotten a tenure-track Assistant Professor job offer, something I had been working toward for years. At the same time, I had been invited to be a long term resident at the Bray, something I had always dreamed of doing. I knew if I took the job, I might never get a chance to go to the Bray. That decision changed the direction of my career. I used my first year here to figure out whether I could make a living purely from my pots or not, and it turned out that I can. My plans now are to establish my own studio, in Helena, and try to make a go of it. It’s not that teaching is unpleasant, it’s that making a living by making art is just so awesome.
How have your experiences so far been different or similar to your expectations when you set out?
Happily, I can say that things are working out better than I had imagined. I remember in grad school, everything seemed so hopeless. I got a couple lucky breaks right out of the gate and then was able to capitalize on them, and make things happen. I never anticipated enjoying the business/marketing side of being an artist, but ended up loving it.
What does a typical workday look like for you? How much do you spend on marketing vs. making?
I wake up whenever I’m done sleeping (which is awesome), and immediately start on the stuff I call homework. My two bedroom apartment is basically a shipping center, warehouse, photo studio, and office – with a bed in the corner. So while coffee is brewing, I’m already going on this sort of stuff – packing Etsy sales, packing shows, photographing work, emailing people, facebook promotion, ordering supplies, if it’s nice out, go for a hike, etc. I usually cut myself off at noon, which is about 4 hours or so after I wake up, and go in to the studio. I like to work 8 hours in the studio at most. When in there, I am able to spend my time on whatever part of the process, but I try to stay very efficient and in my own world, with my giant cordless headphones and some Rdio. After that, maybe go out for a drink with friends, maybe come home and kick back. I work for 5-6 weeks in a row, no days off, and then when a cycle finishes, I try to get out of town for a week or so, but at least take 5 days off if I have no travel plans. It’s important to take breaks and avoid burning out. I am always trying to figure out how to get the same amount done in less time. I would love to trim it down to 50 hours a week.
How does an artist go about acquiring business and marketing skills? What piece of advice would you give to others just starting out?
Well, since nobody is going to teach them that in school, working artists are left to acquire business savvy the same way they learn anything else. Trial and error, persistence, critical thinking, careful deliberation, spontaneous curiosity fulfillment, falling on their ass and getting right back up, exploiting anything that works, abandoning anything that doesn’t. Fearlessness.
For marketing, my best piece of advice is to approach it with creativity, treat it the same way you treat making work. I think of marketing, everything from how I shoot the work to webpage updates to writing copy on Etsy as part of the process. A piece is finished for me when someone else owns it. Until then, it is in progress. Come up with things that work for you, not necessarily by the book. We live in exciting times, where you can invent your own brand identity and market it easily, and without even the help of galleries, amass a global following. Because I am willing to ship internationally and have a strong internet presence, I sell work all over the world.
What is your relationship with galleries (on and offline)? How has that relationship changed over time?
Galleries end up being very important, but some are effective and some aren’t. Some gallery affiliations just don’t work out, and when that happens, I’m not afraid to pull out of it and put my work somewhere else. I have some wonderful galleries that I know are out there working on my behalf, and I have come to know the managers or owners. They give the very best business advice if you pick their brain. I always respect my gallery relationships by not undercutting them. If I sell a piece directly to someone and get 100% of that money, it still costs the same to the customer as it would if they bought it at the gallery where I get 50%. If someone commissions something as a result of a gallery experience, you have to let the gallery know and give them a cut. I have had 5 galleries go out of business so far, so it’s not like they are getting rich off the exploitation of artists as many seem to think. They have to pay people to work there, pay the gas bill, pay a mortgage and whatnot, all for the purpose of allowing people to experience new art in person before they buy. That is a valuable service they provide to both the artist and the customer. They earn that cut.
You have had an Etsy site for quite a few years now. How has your experience on Etsy helped your career? What percentage of your income comes from Etsy sales vs. retail galleries?
I love Etsy. It has a great community, and sales are pretty good on there for me. Maybe ¼ of my income comes from Etsy sales. My favorite thing about it is the access to the customers. I might have regular customers at galleries, but never know it. With galleries it is boxes of pots that get shipped out, and paychecks that arrive in the mail. With Etsy, customers are in contact with me. I know where the pots go, and I get feedback. The whole transaction has much more meaning to me, and hopefully to the customer as well.
Finally, what advice can you give aspiring artists struggling to find their own voice/style?
One great quote our old professor Tim Mather always said on this subject was “The best way to ensure you never find your aesthetic is to go looking for it”. I think it’s just a matter of forgetting what anyone else thinks for a while. Indulge your own quirky stupid curiosities, and keep an open mind about what you see in the results. Once you have something that thrills you, just make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make make. It’s really that easy. If you get bored, try something new. It takes a lot of making to truly figure something out. Make so many things that your studio feels like it’s bursting at the seams. As the craftsmanship improves over time, so will the clarity of meaning and intention. Choices are made all the time. The choices you make mean something, even if you don’t know what at the time. Schools teach this backwards, I think. Most importantly, have fun with it.