Fred and Joan Used to be Potters


How Two Perfectly Respectable Young Adults Became Street People

How we began our art career by doing art shows

A couple of years ago during a very busy art show in Breckenridge, Colorado, I was taking a break on a bench a few yards away from my booth. A well dressed gentleman and and an equally well attired young son of twelve or so stopped in front of me and looked at my booth. The father pointed at my booth and said to the son, "And here is a good object lesson for you son. Pay attention in school and study hard or you may end up on the streets just like these poor folks." Here is the story of how I drifted away from a life of comfort and respectability to became an artist selling my work on the art show circuit.

Now-a-days thousands of artists earn their livings selling art on the street at art shows. As a matter of fact much of the best art in America is no longer sold in galleries but at high-end art shows all over the country. Doing art shows for a living is not so much a career as it is a way of life and life on the show road is rich in good stories: some funny, some sad, and all a window into a very different world than most of us live in. This is the first of a series of essays about what it's like to live in the art show world.

Art shows began in the late 1960s as part of the whole counterculture rebellion of the sixties: hippies, anti-business, anti-corporations, antiwar, peace, love, back to the natural, back to simplicity, authentic life styles, etc. A lot of young people, mostly in their twenties and thirties, became very disillusioned with the way they were expected to live their lives. The Vietnam war especially had a lot to do with this; after seeing the callousness, lack of moral values, and downright stupidity of big government, none of the establishment vocations had much appeal any more. Many of us, and I include myself, were in the process of deciding how we wanted to live the rest of our lives, and the traditional paths of corporate drudgery or big government or big education or establishment anything didn't sound very appealing. As a result, a lot of people turned to art as a more valuable, honest, maybe even more moral alternative. But there was a little hitch; how could you earn a living making art? This is where art shows came in. My route to the art show world turned out to be pretty typical of the route taken by a lot of people at that time.

Back in 1970, I was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico finishing up a PhD in American Literature and American studies. (See, I was already biased towards idealistic, impractical lifestyles.) I had pretty much had my fill of big university life where research was far more important than students and most of one's time was spent in political in-fighting and ass kissing. I sent a hundred or so half hearted job application letters out to big universities and got some offers to teach in the deep south and in a few back-east big city colleges. None of this appealed much to me.

While I was dealing with seminars and dissertations, Joan had gotten involved in hand-crafted pottery. She had a potter's wheel and a small electric kiln set up on the back porch and was busy learning how to make coffee mugs and teapots and casseroles. And it turned out she was very, very good at it; in fact she was a natural. After a year's hard work she was making very professional functional, stoneware pottery. So, as I drifted away from my dissertation on the novels of Joyce Carey in my last year of graduate school, I began drifting more and more into pottery.

Joan decided that she needed a real high-fire gas kiln that would create the reducing atmosphere needed for the rich earth tones of good stoneware. So I decided to build one. I tore down an old brick kiln for the cheap firebrick and built my first catenary arch gas kiln in the backyard of our rented house. In order to get the gas pressure I needed, I quickly discovered how to illegally adjust the standard 6 oz. gas pressure at the meter up to a whopping two pounds. No safety equipment of course; we couldn't afford that kind of luxury. The first kiln was a failure. With no idea of the correct proportions of a high-fire kiln, I made the flue (the hole out of the back of the kiln into the brick chimney) way too big and all the heat went straight up the chimney. After 24 hours of firing into the wee hours of the dawn, it was back to the drawing board.

The next model worked much better. After figuring out how to adjust our homemade burners constructed out of scrap pipe fittings, the kiln settled down to a satisfying roar. As we watched through the brick peep hole the whole inside of the kiln--pots, ceramic shelves and walls, the whole thing--gradually turned a dull red, then cherry red, then yellow and finally the blinding white heat of 2300 degrees F. After the twelve hour firing and another twelve hour cooling, we unbricked the front door and looked at our creations: among the shards and rubble of pots that had exploded because we increased the heat too rapidly, there were a half dozen pots that, at the time, we thought were really beautiful.

After that, there was no holding us back. The dissertation got put on a shelf in my study, never to be worked on again. After the kiln, I moved on to high-fire glazes and my own high-fire clay receipes. I remember one university party where my distinguished dissertation advisor asked how the dissertation was going and I told him about the new clay body I had just invented and how wonderful it was to throw and how tough is was and what a beautiful golden buff color it turned after firing. My advisor got a deep frown on his face and that was pretty much the end of my university career.

Below is one of our catalog pages from our pottery days. This is the hand thrown pottery we made for twenty-five years and ended up selling all over the US

Joan taught me how to throw and I soon had my own kick wheel (all financed by my two hundred and fifty dollar a month teaching assistantship and my five hundred dollar a month GI Bill). It wasn't long before we had a sizeable batch of hanging planters, coffee mugs, soup mugs and casseroles. So we decided to bite the bullet and take our wares to two of the most prominent local galleries. We made a sale in each and ended up with $125.00 in hard cash.

"WHOA," I remember telling Joan, "We can do this. We can earn a living as potters. We don't need real jobs." That night we called our parents and told them I was quitting graduate school and we were going to be potters. I can still hear Joan's father in the background saying to her mother, "Oh my God, we're going to end up supporting those kids." I think my parents were slightly less sympathetic.

One of our next encounters with the art world was the, at the time, very prestigious, New Mexico Summer Arts and Crafts Fair. People all over the state actually waited all year long for this event. Opening night was all high society tuxes and gowns. (Of course high society in New Mexico isn't quite what it is in other more refined places.) We nerved ourselves up to apply and actually got accepted. Our first booth was a 2000 pound monstrosity built out of rough cut pine planks but we thought it was gorgeous. After a gruelling weekend of New Mexico heat and wind (I had nightmares all summer of sixty mile an hour gusts of winds blowing down the booth walls, pots and all, on top of our customers) we finally managed to make $1800.00 which we thought was pretty much all the money in the world. And we met out first real art show pros, people who did nothing but make art and do shows and made good money at it.

After this, we were off and gone and never really looked back. Neither of us ever again held a "real" job or had a boss. Almost forty years later we are still making art and selling it on the street. Now-a-days it's photography instead of pots and the art has gotten much more sophisticated, but the allure of making something you think is beautiful and actually selling enough of it on the street to make a living is still a huge thrill. And then there's the little fact that at this point it's all we know how to do and besides that no one in their right minds would hire such folks for a real job.

This is the first of a series of articles about life in the art show world. I'll continue this in two weeks or so with more stories of early struggles, dumb mistakes, dubious triumphs and our first melt down.

Fred Hanselmann
December 1, 2006