This month, I’m delighted to feature Kip O’Krongly as Potter of the Month! It turns out that Kip and I both grew up in Anchorage, Alaska although our paths never crossed until recently. We met at Arrowmont’s Utilitarian Clay Symposium in 2012 and although we didn’t have much opportunity to get to know each other during the symposium, we now correspond regularly as members of the Objective Clay collective.
I’ve been intrigued by Kip’s work for a long time and was excited to learn more about her layered surfaces. Kip’s work is sensitive to ideas of food and energy and the links between consumer and environment. In the interview, she talks about what prompted the new direction in her work and what piece of literature helped motivate her to make the shift.
How did you first get involved in ceramics? Can you briefly describe your background and education?
I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. While my childhood was brimming with art classes and creative activities, being an artist never occurred to me as a possible path. Ceramics wasn’t even on my radar when I was a kid – I’m so envious of the many schools I’ve encountered in Minnesota with amazing clay programs for youth! I was a sophomore at Carleton College when I first stepped into the clay studio, and as the story so often goes, I was instantly smitten. Carleton was a great clay kick-start, but it was in the years following undergrad that I truly learned what it would take to run a clay business and find my own ceramic voice.
Despite plans to set up a studio in the San Francisco Bay Area after leaving Carleton (where my husband was starting graduate school), I quickly came to realize my undergraduate skill set paired with an extremely high cost of living was a tough mix. From that point on, I’ve often partnered my work in clay with other jobs to cover my expenses and take pressure off selling work as my primary income. From things like working as a dental assistant, baking part-time, running a community center clay program, to teaching clay classes and workshops, these jobs have given me the resources to continue developing my studio work.
There were a few educational opportunities that have profoundly shaped my artistic path. First was an apprenticeship at Whitefish Pottery in Whitefish, MT from the summer of 2003 – summer 2004. There I beefed up my undergraduate skills and learned the ins and outs of running a production studio (I fired an endless string of bisque kilns and pulled 1,000’s of handles!). Along with gaining experience in a production setting, came the space, materials and time to develop and push my own work (for the first time outside of an academic setting). It was a transformative year of working intensely alongside a group of artists passionate about clay.
In addition to my time in Montana, applying to take workshops at places like Haystack, Anderson Ranch, Penland and Arrowmont have been invaluable supplements to my undergraduate training. While two weeks doesn’t seem like much, it’s amazing how working so intensely with such talented people has helped my work evolve. All of the craft schools across the country offer scholarships and work-study options, so despite the high initial price tag, there are some more affordable ways to participate.
I can’t talk about my education in clay without mentioning Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis. I worked in a number of positions at NCC starting in 2008 as a student, transitioning to a studio artist in 2009, the Material Technician and a Fogelberg Fellow from 2009 – 2011, and the Anonymous Potter resident from 2011 – 2012. While I moved into my home studio in 2012, NCC is still a huge part of my ceramic life. I continue to teach and exhibit work regularly in their gallery and was just awarded a $25,000 mid-career McKnight artist grant. The amazing support from NCC, along with the insights of staff, studio artists and visiting residents has been like my own little version of graduate school. I am immensely grateful for Northern Clay’s dedication to clay education and ceramic artists and can’t imagine being without the support of this fantastic community.
Once I discovered clay, the studio art component of my undergraduate education became an intensive time of repetition and daily practice (or: I spent a lot of time in the studio wrecking pots and slowly learning techniques). While the formal aspects of my education were immensely valuable (from skill building in the studio to the broad education a liberal arts degree provides), it was some of the informal experiences that truly left an impression on my ceramic career path. One of the most memorable moments being a trip to Linda Christianson’s and Jeff Oestrich’s studios along with two other ceramic students (Kristin Pavelka and Juliane Shibata – both of whom still work in clay!). Meeting with working artists in the field (and such lovely ones, at that) was what ignited my desire to become a full-time clay artist, and gave me a sense of what a career in clay could potentially look like.
Your work made a huge shift when you lived in Pittsburgh. What prompted the change from traditional pottery ideas to politically charged narratives?
My husband and I took the extra-long route from our home in Seattle to his first teaching job in Pittsburgh via a road trip through Alaska and Canada. Back in my home state of Alaska I physically witnessed for the first time incredible changes happening in our climate – temperatures were undeniably hotter and glaciers had retreated miles since I left Anchorage in high school. I decided during our visit that I wanted to somehow talk about issues of climate and energy in my work, but I wasn’t sure how to make that happen just yet.
These ideas gnawed at me for another year and a half until the tipping point finally came in 2007 when reading the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. His narrative following foods from their sources to our tables (and the complicated food-energy web that results), gave me a written framework to visually explore. Pollan’s book, along with the vast array of food and energy related documentaries that pepper our current foodscape continue to inspire my food and energy themed ceramics to this day.
How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas?
Developing new forms and ideas is a slow process for me, but comes most often through steady work in the studio. I’ve found that ideas drift into focus as I’m in the act of making and I need to be present enough to grab hold before they slip on by! In an effort to nab these bits of inspiration, I keep a whiteboard in my studio to easily jot down thoughts and sketch forms. I am an avid NPR listener and new ideas are often sparked while I’m working away and listening to the radio (Radio Lab is one of my favorites!). Sometimes I’ll mull over an idea for months (like how to make a solar panel stencil, or what form makes sense for a teapot body), while other times things seem to snap quickly into focus (like the need to talk about livestock generated methane via farting cows). It seems like working consistently, listening carefully and tuning into intriguing or unexpected connections has been the key for me as I develop new surfaces and forms.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
One of the most challenging aspects of being self-employed is balancing work, social and family life – especially when you work from home. While I certainly think keeping to a schedule is helpful for anyone who is self-employed, one of the things I value most about my job is the flexibility I have. Some days I’ll spend 12 hours just working in the studio (although, that’s not actually my favorite way to work!) and some days only 3 – 4 hours in the studio and the remainder of the workday doing some assortment of answering emails, photographing work, packing and shipping pots, mixing slip and glaze or loading a kiln (and a walk with the dog!). There are times I’ll focus solely on applications, class proposals or be off teaching or at meetings – it all depends on what deadlines are coming up. I’m an avid list maker (there’s nothing more satisfying than a big fat sheet of crossed off to-do items), love to organize and plan, and am an absolute slave to my digital calendar alerts!
I find the drawn narratives on the surface of your pots intriguing. Why is it important for your drawings to be composed on pottery forms? Why do you choose the forms you do?
I find drawing on pots to be a slightly subversive way to get an idea into people’s homes and lives. A pot is something that you use and see on a regular basis, share around the table with friends and family and it’s my hope that this work promotes discussion and dialogue in a personal space that other art forms can’t often do. I like that you can hold pots in your hands and really explore them and their surfaces – they feel so intimate as a result. My interest in pots that participate in meals means that my work tends to live in the realm of functional ceramics. I gravitate toward forms that are simple and sturdy (so they can survive many runs through the dishwasher!), while at the same time giving me a smooth and open base for decoration.
How long have you worked at your home studio south in Northfield? What were the most important steps you took to market your work to your local audience?
My husband and I bought our house in the summer of 2012 and I began converting a playroom into my studio space that fall (as my Anonymous Potter residency at NCC came to an end). The studio modifications took a lot longer than anticipated (which I have sense learned is the case for all house projects!), so I didn’t start working in my home studio until December of 2012.
Even though I’ve now been working in Northfield for almost two years, I’m still getting to know my local market. The most important part of developing that relationship has been my involvement with the Northfield ArTour. Every October, over 40 artists in the area open their studios to the public for a full weekend. Inviting people to visit my space and purchase work directly has made me feel much more connected to the local community. This year, I volunteered with the ArTour planning committee, which has tied me into the artists in the area as well. I’m also part of two local artist meet-ups each month (one with potters, and one with a group of artists in multiple media), on the gallery committee for our local arts guild and I attend as many local art-related events as I can. All of these areas of involvement have been a great way to increase my local contribution, to raise awareness that I’m a working artist in the area, and to learn about upcoming opportunities. I’ve also been chatting with two of the galleries in Northfield and am investigating the farmer’s market and fall food and arts festival as potential ways to expand my local presence.
Your work is in numerous retail 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?
Figuring out not only where you want to sell your work, but also where your work will actually sell can be a challenge. Make a list of places you’d like to see your pieces and then do some research. What artists do they carry year-round? What is the mix of functional vs. sculptural work? Does the gallery lean toward high fire ceramics (and are you an earthenware potter)? What price range do you see? Does that fit within your price range? Do they have any open calls for exhibitions? For me, I’ve found exhibitions to be a great starting point in developing a relationship with a gallery. Typically, if your work sells in a show setting, a gallery will be open to trying out a larger selection of pieces. I’ve also found that a number of galleries do some sort of holiday sale where they broaden the number of artists they carry for the holiday season, which can be a low-pressure way test the waters.
When approaching any gallery (either to participate in a show or to be taken on as a gallery artist) having high-quality documentation of your work is absolutely vital. I take my images myself using an EZ Cube (which I love). If your work is complicated to shoot, or you’re not yet comfortable doing it on your own, absolutely pay someone to do it! The quality of your images can make or break any application, no matter your qualifications on paper. If you have any questions about your images, seek out the advice of someone who knows what to look for – an instructor, an artist who exhibits regularly, a gallery representative. I’d be happy to look at anyone’s images!
While targeting galleries you’re most interested in makes sense, being part of ANY show is a great way to raise awareness of the work you are making. Be prepared for a lot of rejections. Even if you’re making fantastic work, sometimes it just won’t fit well with the overall space or exhibition vision. And once you do nab an opportunity, make sure you pack and ship it professionally and do things on time. Every interaction is a way to make an impression – good or bad! You’d be amazed by how often galleries receive poorly packed pots or communication that is unprofessional. It’s the seemingly small details that often result in you getting invited back for another opportunity with a gallery or not.
Which marketing venue(s) (website/social media sites /galleries/studio sales/etsy/craft fairs/etc.) have you found to be the most lucrative for your work? What kind of advice could you give someone wanting to market his or her work?
Aaaaah, marketing. Despite the fact that my father’s business is in marketing, I don’t know that the gene was passed on to me! I have found this to be a difficult part of my studio practice because it’s something I just don’t particularly enjoy. While it may not be a favorite aspect of my business, I do know it is what’s required to get my work out into the world. In terms of marketing advice, I’d say that having a web presence in some way, shape or form is mandatory. A website is a great way to house your body of work so interested folks (consumers, galleries, fellow artists, etc) can see a collection of pieces and learn more about what makes you tick as an artist (here again, images are paramount!).
While I do have a website, I’ve largely outsourced a good deal of the day-to-day marketing by electing to work with galleries rather than pushing the work myself. Either way you’re paying for the marketing. You take the 50% gallery rate, or you pay with your own time and money. A hybrid of these two options for me has been working online with Objective Clay. We’re a group of 14 ceramic artists, from all over the country, who work together to create a unique online space for content and selling work. Pooling our resources has been a wonderful way to broaden the audience for, and awareness of, all of our work – I’m excited to see where this virtual space goes in the future.
In terms of craft fairs, I’ve found the initial financial investment to set up a stellar booth and lighting situation, along with the often-expensive booth fees, keeps me from diving into that particular market. There are some local fairs that I could envision as a starting point, but right now the gallery work (along with my fall studio sale and Objective Clay web sales) make the most sense for me.
Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living?
Making a living working in clay has meant a lot less time in the studio than I initially envisioned. Running a small ceramic business (any business, really!) requires so much more than making the product (from photographing work, packing and shipping, finances, marketing and promotion to seeking out new exhibition opportunities, teaching and writing grant proposals – just to name a few!). And while I never would have imagined this as I started working in clay, there have been times when going into the studio felt like a job with a capital J.
When you solely rely on pots to cover your expenses, you put serious pressure on how much work (and the kind of work) you make. You’ve got to make a lot of pots and have them in a lot of places just to support daily life and studio expenses. You may find that after awhile what once brought you joy, now has lost that initial spark. I know, I know, how could you ever feel sour about working in the studio? Trust me, it can happen. It happened to me. I have found though, the best times in the studio come when I’m bringing in (at least a little!) predictable income and the direct pressure is off my pots.
As I talked about earlier, I’ve had many other jobs to supplement my own creative work.
So, I’d suggest getting a (ideally part-time!) job and keep the freedom to make what you’re passionate about making in the studio. Spend all the time you want to develop strong forms and thoughtful surfaces. Play, experiment, apply for shows, take some business classes, talk to lots of artists; slowly build your business. But most importantly, recognize that there are as many ways to work in clay as there are people. There is no ultimate path, no right (or wrong) way to make a living. Keep yourself open, set some goals, be willing to make mistakes and you’ll get to where you want to go.
For more information about Kip and her work, please visit her website: