So, theoretically, I'm now a full-time artist. But there's a very large elephant in the studio. Where's all the money coming from which I used to get from sitting at a laptop, thinking and typing all day? In those days the month came and went, the bank account got nicely filled up and I got to stay under the roof which the bank very kindly lends me in return for a substantial mortgage payment. Not only have I just forfeited my chance of convincing anyone to lend me any more money (no one trusts an artist), if the bank doesn't get that monthly payment, I and my dream of freedom are out on our ears. I know - I could move out of London, where just stepping on to the pavement costs money - but for now I'd like to change as little else as possible. In my experience, the fewer variables to cope with at one time, the more coping gets done.
Sales up to this point have been sporadic, almost capricious. You start out with such huge relief and thanks that anyone would want what you've been making (I suspect even (perhaps, especially) the most overtly self-confident artists experience this) that you'll gratefully take whatever the customer offers; and, when they don't offer, you're paranoid that you charged too much and 'scared them off'. You're positively embarassed by each piece which comes out of the kiln: so very far from the apogee of art you secretly or boastfully hanker after.
I started with a false bolstering of my ego by giving work away to people who I knew would have to say nice things about it. They were genuinely my best efforts at the time but it took about two years of study before I could start to understand that a stranger would want to buy something of mine. However, you have to stop and listen, and believe, every now and again. The person at the other end of the buying connection doesn't know what's in your head, no idea about the aspiration or disappointment. They see something for them, something which fits a gap in their lives about which you, correspondingly, know nothing. This is a message I have only just come to tell myself, whereas I'm sure more socially well-adjusted makers grasp it very early on.
Quietly looking for company, I joined Turning Earth, a membership-based pottery studio in London, which started to hold regular sales and I had a chance to try selling, along with thirty or forty colleagues, in a regulated (not to mention, beautiful) environment to a receptive and curious public. There are many advantages of selling in a group, not least the averaging pressure of pricing. If one person undervalues their work then it brings down the perception of the value of everyone's work. Whereas, an exceptionally high price is just seen as an oddity. For many of us the sales were a big and nice surprise. Who knew that one's least favourite pot was someone else's most amazingly meaningful artwork? And who knew that people buy more than once (perhaps everyone who has ever sold anything for a living..) And, another surprise, people come back to you afterwards asking about commissions.
I had a handful of these over a year and failed miserably with each of them. I took on projects with which I had little technical experience but the customers were so unbelievably patient that I was given time to learn how to make these particular items. I still don't know why they stuck with me. I think regular non-progress reports helped. So I fumbled and lolloped from one random sale to another until it became obvious that I needed more data, more structure, an experiment. This is a year ago and my online following had developed to the point where I felt it was worth trying an Instagram auction of five of my large vases. This was immensely valuable for finding out how many people would like to buy and how much they would be prepared to pay. Relative to my expectations, the answers were: 'not many and quite a lot'.
Part of an installation done more than many moons ago
So, a couple of months ago, at the point of going full-time, I needed to get serious about where the money would come from. There's a new phenomenon of popular Instagram makers running online shops and making a living from them. The person who led the way for ceramics is Jono Smart, a potter who makes focused, beautifully designed and gloriously human work. He regularly sells his entire stock within hours. On the other hand, it was obvious that few people could afford my larger work and I was urged by an interior design customer to contact people in his trade who are always looking for unusual work. I simultaneously set off on both these paths.
Making an online shop is simple these days. I've written websites more or less since they were first invented and it's always been painful as browser makers slowly worked out what the web was and why theirs should be the only browser people should use. During a long period, laughably called the 'browser wars', you had to take into account all the ways the different web browsers behaved, given exactly the same instruction to show a web page. Recently some bright sparks realised everyone and every organisation needs a web site so now you can build one, from scratch, with not much more knowledge than how to drag and drop.
At first it was a matter of honour and pride that I should build my own online shop, and then the more sensible angel on my other shoulder said: 'Be a punter, be a civilian, just do what everyone else does and life will be sweet.' It was a significant moment when I realised that I now make something else for a living. I no longer have to be the software craftsman, obsessed with technical detail, ever worried by the lurking bug I knew I must have introduced. So I chose a platform, set up as few pages as I could think of and got to work making fifty things to sell. But I made a mistake. Who was going to visit the shop? I'd developed an email list of people who had shown interest in my work over the last couple of years or who had explicitly signed up on my website. I sent them all a message about the shop and also.. mentioned it on Instagram. The resulting deluge would have been amazing but only 0.4% of the people who visited the shop actually bought something. 99.6% of my potential customers walked away. Erk. I mean ERK. Then I started to get messages about how unaffordable the work was for a lot of people who would actually really like one of my pieces. It's slowly starting to sink in that something about what I'm doing is making sense to quite a few people and that many of them would like to own some of it. And, not to be too soppy about it, but I'm appreciating the connection this process creates between me and others. The next shop needs to be much more egalitarian.
And yet half the stock sold, which is astonishing to me. It's beginning to feel like there is a living to be made.
In parallel, I'd written to a number of interior designers and I'm starting to receive some interest from a few. I suspect a lot of trust has to be built up before they feel they can work with me and I'm sure I'll be asked to compromise some sacred ideal I have about what I'm doing. For now I'm saying 'yes' to everything because my sacred ideals have had a myopic habit of stifling rather than stimulating. It's been difficult to admit but they've left me less than I should be.
Ah.. real life.. The exuberant, bouncy feeling I got from transferring my shop income from Paypal to my bank account was rapidly punctured when I sat down a couple of days ago to do a cashflow forecast. The roof looks like it's going to hover above my head for now but I'll need to crank the sales up a gear if I want it to stay there.