A Potter With a Paycheque?

New Kiln = New Inspiration

I recently (at the time of writing – 2022) unpacked a new kiln that finally arrived since ordering it 6 months before (thank you Covid). The long wait dissipated some of the excitement I originally felt while ordering it, and I kind of felt ambivalent about it when it arrived. Until I opened it!

My new, shiny kiln with a Bartlett Genesis controller sparked something in me that has been kind of dormant for a while.

When I graduated from art school with my clay diploma in 2010, someone gave me a little manual Skutt kiln for free. It was the first sign to me that I was on the right path. A lot of people graduate from art school and then move on with their lives, leaving their art behind.

Setting up a ceramic studio can be challenging and expensive, especially when you’re broke from having just spent 2 years in art school and you live in a condo. I didn’t know how I would make it work but then, receiving a free kiln was a sign that I would make it happen. And I did. (It involved moving out of my condo).

For over 10 years, I’ve been firing this little manual Skutt kiln and it has been great, but left a lot to be desired when your main passion is glaze testing. It cooled very quickly and controlling the cooling cycle wasn’t really a viable option when my kiln sitter was often shutting the kiln off at bed time. I wanted to play around with firing schedules and cooling cycles and have some solid data to go with my glaze tests.

I dreamed of a “fancy” kiln with a digital controller and it was always out of my budget until this year. The success of my online courses has afforded me the opportunity to finally purchase the kiln I’ve been dreaming about.

While unboxing my new shiny kiln this week, I thought a lot about the journey that brought me to this moment and if I can say so, I felt very proud of myself for how far I’ve come!

After a couple years of neglecting my home studio to sit in front of my computer, creating courses that would support me financially, and learning all of the tech involved with an online business, I’ve ignited my inspiration to get back into the studio and start testing glazes again.

I’m so excited about it!

This new kiln has inspired me to share a story I shared in an email last Fall when I quit my position as studio technician to pursue a teaching career full time. I titled the email – A Potter with a Paycheque? – and it’s about my journey from struggling studio potter to starting my dream job as a studio technician to reluctantly growing out of that position and quitting my job in order to teach online classes full time.

I got so many responses to that email from other potters sharing their similar stories, or who felt inspired by my story, that I thought I would share it here on my website in hopes to inspire others to continue pursuing their passions, even if it’s challenging and takes a long time.

If it was easy, it probably wouldn’t feel so great when you finally reach another milestone.

I hope you enjoy reading this story.

Taking my photo in the shiny reflection of my brand new kiln

A Potter With a Paycheque?

If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you may know that I worked as a ceramics studio technician at a public pottery studio for 6 years from 2015 – 2021. This post describes my journey from struggling production potter to studio technician to online ceramics teacher.

When I was first hired for the position as studio technician, it was a dream come true. It was a full time position with paid vacation, sick days, benefits, a pension, things I had never had before, and didn’t think I ever would. As a ceramic artist without a college degree, there aren’t many jobs like that in the field. Many potters work “real” jobs outside the realm of ceramics to support their passion.

I couldn’t believe I found a “real” job with a paycheque in a pottery studio. I felt very fortunate to spend 5 days/week doing what I do best, working behind the scenes loading kilns, mixing glazes, recycling clay, and lots of pottery problem solving.

A dream job in a beautiful pottery studio

At the time I was hired, I had recently burned out on the pottery market scene. For my first 4 years as a potter, I had a day job as a “Lunch Lady,” driving around town, selling lunches to people in their workplaces. I was finished work by 1pm and spent the rest of my time making pots and taking them to markets on evenings and weekends.

I did farmers markets, night markets, Spring sales, Christmas shows galore, some that I paid thousands of dollars in booth/travel fees. It was a grind and I didn’t really enjoy it. I was very slow at setting up and taking down my booth and I felt awkward selling and talking about my work.

I was also a very slow potter. I’m naturally super detail oriented and kind of a perfectionist and wanted every piece I made to be unique and flawless, which took way too much time and meant I either needed to charge prices people didn’t want to pay, or I didn’t get paid for my time. When you’re not getting paid, it’s a hobby, not a business.

Sound familiar to anyone?

And the truth was, I really just wanted to spend my time testing and experimenting with glazes. Unloading the kiln and looking at the handful of glaze tests I had in there was exponentially more exciting to me than unloading my pots that I had spent so much time on.

I wished I could somehow earn a living from test tiles.

At the end of 2014, I decided I wasn’t going to do any markets in 2015 and just see what happened. I wanted to love pottery again so I needed a break from the pressure of selling it in a way I didn’t enjoy.

Et voila!

A couple months later I got an email from my guild about the posting for a full time technician position. I applied and was hired!

Then, with the pressure off to make pots for a living, I was free to spend my evenings and weekends studying glaze chemistry. Life was grand!

Becoming a teacher

Fast forward a couple years to 2017, as I started to become known locally for my glaze knowledge and troubleshooting skills, people started asking me to teach them. So I began teaching glaze chemistry workshops in my spare time.

My first 2 workshops were held in local potters’ living rooms. My true humble beginnings! Then I moved on to renting a classroom at an Arts Centre in town.

  2017 – teaching my very first living room glaze workshop

I really loved teaching about glazes! As I got busier with that, I started to burn out a bit from working so much and requested to reduce my technician hours at the Rec Centre to 3 days/week so I could focus more on teaching. That’s also when I started blogging regularly and creating online courses.

In need of a mental break

Fast forward again to Fall of 2020. The pandemic took its toll on me mentally and emotionally, as I’m sure you can relate. I had so much unexpected anxiety being around the public at work as we opened our programs back up. We had so many more safety protocols to follow and teach everyone and keep everyone distanced and all the sanitizing… plus my hour commute each way. I was feeling very stressed and tired.

I decided to take a leave of absence from my technician position to rest, regroup, and reassess life in general. After a couple months’ rest, I started teaching online again and really found my groove working from home full time. Without all the commuting and splitting my attention between 2 different jobs, I was able to devote all my focus to my online courses (from the safety of my home office.)

My creative juices that had been blocked for a while started flowing again and I became excited about creating more online videos, blogs, courses and workshops that can help the potters out there who want to learn more about glazes. It feels just like when I first got my position as technician, that I’m finally doing what I’ve been called to do.

Choosing a new path

So in Oct 2021, when I got the email that it was time for me to decide whether I would return to my position as Studio Tech at the Rec Centre, I chose to take the leap and resign from that position so I could pursue my teaching career 100%.

It was not an easy decision, I got a bit choked up about it. I’ve loved being a technician and involved with a community studio so much. It’s the best job I could have had.

Without all those years loading and unloading kilns, mixing and fixing glaze recipes, helping potters understand their results, fixing and maintaining kilns, slab rollers, wheels and pug mills, writing Safe Work Practices and Operating Procedures, purchasing supplies and studio equipment, managing a team of volunteers… without all of that experience, I definitely wouldn’t have the knowledge I have today to be able to teach and help potters around the world.

So in essence, my technician position set me up to be able to go off on my own and create a life where I finally get to spend my time testing and experimenting with glazes, and sharing that knowledge with the world.

While I definitely miss my tech job, this feels like the exact right path for me to be on.

I think I was always meant to be a teacher. It comes naturally to me. I love explaining things. Even when I was working as a technician, I was constantly “teaching” anyone who asked me a question about anything.

People often got more than they bargained for when asking me seemingly simple questions like “Why did this glaze come out weird?” If you come to me with a question like that, prepare yourself for a lesson on bisque porosity, flocculation, off-gassing and heat work. Haha, just kidding… or am I??

  2021 – teaching my Glaze Mixing Essentials workshop online

Inevitable evolution

So that’s my story and my evolution from potter to technician to teacher. It has been an incredible learning experience and I look forward to many years of teaching and experimenting with glazes ahead of me.

I actually created a life where I can earn a living from test tiles, which is all I wanted back when I was flogging my wares at markets. I have so many ideas and research projects in mind and finally have the opportunity to devote time to them.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me on this journey, reading my emails and blogs, joining me for Ceramic Story-Time with Sue, taking my classes and workshops, participating in my Facebook group, you’ve all helped to make it possible for me to make this amazing life transition.

Join my free community

If you love learning about and discussing glazes, I'd like to invite you to my free social learning Facebook group called Understanding Glazes with Sue. The group is full of videos and discussions about firing, mixing glazes and fixing various glaze issues. Please join!

Learn to Mix Glazes from Scratch

If you’ve never mixed a glaze from scratch before and want to learn, I teach an online workshop called Glaze Mixing Essentials where I show you all the steps to mix a glaze and then test a base glaze with multiple colourants. Click the link for all the details.

Register now.