As 2014 is still in its infancy, I look back at the whirlwind that was 2013. My first kiddo turns one at the end of the week, and throughout her first year I somehow managed to interview a dozen potters that I adore and publish our dialogue on my blog. I’m eager to continue this trend, to fill up another year with a dozen more insightful interviews…and I’ve got an exceptional line-up scheduled!
To kick off 2014, I am thrilled to feature one of my heroes…the brilliant and beautiful Sarah Jaeger! I first met Sarah in 1999 when I took a two-week workshop with Bobby Silverman at the Archie Bray Foundation. I was an undergraduate student at the time…and as a part of the workshop we visited local artists’ studios. I remember the trip vividly and recall being quite starry-eyed when we toured Sarah’s charming home, studio and garden.
Sarah’s work and work ethic are inspiring. While her forms and surfaces nod to history and tradition, they are undoubtedly fresh and timeless. I feel lucky to have a handful of Sarah’s work, some colorfully decorated and some simply white…all of which are in regular rotation. When using Sarah’s pots, I am reminded of an impeccable craftswoman, someone who genuinely honors the handmade.
One of my all time favorite postcards is one of Sarah’s from a few years back. It’s a delightful display of her work in the home. Here it is…
…enjoy the interview!
How did you first get involved in ceramics? For reasons that remain a mystery to me, I decided to take a pottery class at a local art center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when I was a senior in college.
Would you explain your attraction to functional ceramics? I think my strong attachment to functional pots has its roots in my childhood home, which was an 18th century farmhouse in Connecticut. We did not have hand made pots, but we did have hand made furniture, country pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries, totally utilitarian, beloved and part of our everyday life. With furniture as with pots, when you use something you have bodily contact with it; the tactile element is fundamental to the experience of the piece.
Can you briefly describe your background and education? I had a classical liberal arts education, was an English literature major at Harvard – and then I took that pottery class. In the second semester of senior year, totally smitten with clay and determined to get some academic credit for all the time I was spending in the pottery studio, I got approval for an independent study in Japanese tea ceremony ceramics. It was my great good fortune to work with Louise Cort (author of the book on Shigaraki, and at that time, like me, taking a beginning pottery class). That was my introduction to ceramic history and to Leach/Hamada/Yanagi, the beginnings of the 20th century studio pottery movement in the west. Through the readings about the connection between the tea ceremony and Zen philosophy, and the role of the tea bowl in the tea ceremony, I began to think about how much meaning a “simple pot” could contain and communicate. Louise also took me into the storage areas of the Harvard museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where we could see (and touch!) some of those amazing historical pots, like Shino and Oribe tea bowls. What an experience for a rank beginner! Twelve years later I went back to school, to Kansas City Art Institute for my BFA, where I studied with Ken Ferguson, Victor Babu and George Timock, and where I had the fabulous Nelson-Atkins Museum right across the street.
Can you talk a bit about your journey including the struggles/sacrifices you made to get where you are today? It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t know, when I decided to be a studio potter, how long it would take me to become established – or even solvent. It helped that I have a fairly high tolerance for risk and financial insecurity, along with pretty high levels of energy and determination, and that I didn’t mind living on very little money.
Anyone who has been to your studio has had the pleasure of touring your beautiful home, studio and garden (with its extensive tulip collection). It really is a quiet, delightful retreat in the middle of Helena. As soon as you step through the garden gate you seem to be transported to another world. Being from the East Coast, can you talk about how you decided to settle in Montana and your “must haves” when you choosing a location? The number one “must have” was that I
had to be able to afford it! Helena real estate was so cheap when I bought my house in 1989, and the house was a dump, with nothing but weeds and a few tough hollyhocks in the yard. It has been a work in progress ever since, but I knew that it was a bargain even then, and that it had the bones of what I needed for a house and studio. There was an old shack of a garage, 300 square feet, that I fixed up for my studio, and in which I worked for 16 years until I could afford to demolish it and build my new studio. I had helped a friend build a gas kiln the year before I bought my house, and for the next 6 years I would transport glazed bisque pots 5 blocks up the hill to that kiln, until I could afford to build a kiln at my studio.
I grew up on the east coast but moved west (Denver) when I was 23 and realized I wanted to stay in the west, but my New England sensibility permeates my idea of home. I have made the very small garden area between my house and studio into an oasis in this northern desert landscape. It’s green, densely planted, and there’s lots of shade, which allows for dappled light filtering through layers of leaves. It’s about patterns and textures as much as color.
I have always admired how your surfaces echo the pace of your decoration process. They are lively, active, rhythmic and meditative. How did you arrive at this process and where do you gather inspiration? My decoration process has evolved slowly. I have always loved pattern, which is about visual rhythm. My garden (see description above) is a source of inspiration, for the sense of light filtering through layers of color and the feeling of repetition and variation more than the likenesses of particular plants. Much of the way I use the materials has evolved out of the process itself, the physical activity of painting on pots over many years.
As a former resident of the Archie Bray Foundation, I often romanticize about my time in Helena and the number of people the Bray continues to impact. I always felt like I was walking in the footsteps of giants and I still love hearing stories that contribute to the history of the Bray. Can you talk a little bit about your residency at the Archie Bray Foundation and how it has impacted your career? Like you, I felt connected and in awe of the ceramic giants who preceded me at the Bray. I also love that the Bray was a brickyard, that connection to industrial ceramics. So much about being a potter is just plain hard work, like working in a brickyard. There were only 5 long term residents when I came to the Bray, and the studios were small and funky, nothing like the palatial studios they have now. The people I worked next to were what made it an amazing experience: Liz Quackenbush and Akio Takamori were residents, and Kurt Weiser was the director. So much energy and so many ideas flying around, such a rich environment for making work and making it get better.
Living as an artist in a remote location can be isolating. How do you keep inspired and engaged with the ceramics community at large (apart from the local Bray community)? It is the Bray community that anchors my connection to the larger ceramics community – residents, visiting artists, slide talks, exhibitions; I don’t know that I would have chosen to live in Helena without that. Although, to be contrarian, a person can be isolated in a city, too, and sometimes isolation is what we need to focus on our own work. I read some of the ceramics magazines, especially Studio Potter, and increasingly depend on the internet. But 2-D representations of 3-D objects, whether on the page or the screen, only tell you so much. So whenever I travel I look for the clay galleries and museums, and I do go to NCECA fairly often.
How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas? At times I think that I’ve only had a couple of ideas in my life, and I’ve spent all my years working in clay just trying to figure out how to express those ideas. It’s the nagging feeling of never quite succeeding that keeps me going back into the studio with questions in my head. I don’t know what I’d do if I felt like I had completely answered the questions.
But there are places I look for ideas and inspiration. Ceramic history: I have stolen so many ideas from Tang and Song Dynasty pots, and 10th century Persian pots. Also I look at textiles, for pattern and how it can wrap around a body; and to the garden and plant life. Sometimes when I feel stuck, or curious, I give myself an exercise, like changing one element of a form (i.e. “what if I move the volume lower?”). Sometimes that will trigger a succession of changes that evolves into a new form.
What does a typical workday look like for you? My ideal typical workday allows me lots of time in the studio. I work best when I have fairly large blocks of time, and since I don’t have another job, I have that luxury of time. I start every day with some form of exercise, either at the gym or a hike with the dogs, then spend some time on the administrative stuff, email and correspondence, and then hopefully will still have a pretty full day in the studio. I’m not a night person. I make a lot of pots, but I don’t work really fast. Glazing especially takes me a lot of time, but I have found that there’s no way to make the pots I want to make without devoting a lot of time to them.
What is your most valuable studio tool? It would have to be my wheel. I could probably find substitutes for any of my other tools, but the essential qualities of my pots derive from their origins on the potters wheel.
You have an established gallery connected to your studio where visitors can come purchase your work anytime. What percentage of your income comes from these sales? How did you develop your audience? How do you currently advertise your studio sales? About 2/3 of my income from selling pots (separate from any income from teaching workshops) comes from sales directly out of my studio. They have grown slowly over time, and I never imagined this would be the case when I started out. Being near the Bray helps for 2 reasons. First, many people who come to the Bray for workshops or shows also come to my studio. Also, I think the presence of the Bray in Helena has created an unusual appreciation and market for pots in this community. I have been in my studio/house for 24 years and have developed a loyal local customer base. I have 3 studio sale weekends per year in Helena, one in the spring and two in December, for which I mail postcards, send email invitations, and have a notice in the art section of the Helena newspaper.
At what point in your career did you make the decision to sell your pots for a living? I came of age, and began making pots, in the early 1970’s, and I suppose I am a product of that era. From my beginning with clay I wanted to make functional pots. I believed strongly in the importance of handmade functional objects in people’s lives, and I was convinced that if I made good pots I’d be able to sell them. It was a seat-of-the-pants approach. I had no concept of a career path such as exists in our field today. During the ‘70’s I was a self-taught potter with a BA in English, working day jobs and making pots on the side at a potters guild in Denver. I went to Kansas City Art Institute for my BFA from 1983-85 and from there to the Archie Bray. During all those years I had part time jobs to make ends meet. It was not until September of 1990 that I was able to make pots full time and support myself entirely, however frugally, by selling my work.
Aside from studio sales, what other venues (such as craft fairs, group holiday sales, etc) have you used to successfully market your work in your community? I hardly ever did craft fairs. I hated them and I never made much money at them. In Helena I have some pots in the sales shop at the Holter Museum, a more public venue than my studio. My primary local marketing tool is probably word of mouth. I donate a lot of pots each year to those ubiquitous silent auctions for organizations I support, from the Humane Society to environmental groups. Those donations give my work very good visibility in my community and are in my opinion good advertising, and they are a way for me to support these causes when I can’t write the big check.
How have your marketing strategies evolved over time? How do you foresee them evolving in the future? The internet did not exist when I started out, and now it’s huge. This past year I hired a good designer and completely revamped my website, my biggest marketing expense ever but well worth it. So far I have resisted social media (I’m not on Facebook or Instagram) because I resent having to spend too much time in front of a screen and, so far, I feel like I can get away with that. Because I already have an established presence in the field I (maybe) have that luxury. People earlier in their careers are in a totally different situation.
Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living? I have gone into some detail about my own history largely to communicate how long it took me to get to where I could make a living from pots. Patience and tenacity are important. Low overhead is really important; it means you don’t have to sell so much work to survive. Low overhead pertains to real estate costs and also studio amenities. It’s great to have a beautiful studio and state of the art kilns, but beautiful ceramics have been made for millennia without them.
For more info about Sarah and her work, please visit her website: