Even though our last festival of the year is coming up this weekend, there are still many fall gatherings and sales where you can find local arts and crafts. Especially with the holidays fast approaching, I thought it would be a perfect time to write up a guide for buying handmade ceramics.
Through the years of selling our ceramics on the road we have figured out that though there are many well-educated folks around when it comes to quality pottery, there are some that don’t exactly understand what it is they should be looking for. And even worse, we have found some “potters” who clearly do not understand what it is they should be making. One such infamous case was a fellow who boasted how “durable” his pieces were by slamming them onto a piece of wood in front of customers….. see rule #3 if you do not understand why this is atrocious.
#1.) PICK UP THE PIECE!
I know many shoppers who check out our booth are very timid when it comes to handling our work, and even ask if it is okay for them to touch. I want to just shout “Yes! Please!” every time, but I withhold. We make functional pottery, and handling is part of the selecting experience. Each piece is unique, and that’s what makes it special. Now I must say, if you are browsing a selection of 50 pound sculptural or low fire pieces…. Do not touch unless you are buying. But for the gift-giving season, it’s mostly mugs and vases that you will really be looking at.
#2.) Mug Handles – Bigger is Not Always Better.
I have a lot of men who complain about handles on mugs being too tiny for their hands. That’s understandable, you’ll want to use those bad boys when your coffee is Scald-Your-Fingertips-Off hot. But what you also must understand is for a ceramic artist, a handle is not just about function, but also about form. We look at the ‘cup’ part of the mug and carefully pull a handle to fit that specific form. What this means is that if you have a small mug, you’ll have a small handle. I throw bigger mugs specifically for our larger handed fans. If you see a tiny mug with a large handle, a professional probably didn’t make it.
#3.) Heavy Work = Sloppy Work
Ceramics 101 teaches us that the shear basic weight of clay will always be our enemy. Pottery SHOULD be breakable!! Think about it; What are you putting into a mug/pitcher/bowl? Liquid. Liquid is heavy. So the vessel in which you will be serving yourself these liquids need to be as light as possible so that it doesn’t add extraneous weight to yourself. It’s the same reason you wouldn’t serve yourself a refreshing glass of sweet tea out of a milk jug; it’s unnecessary, counter productive and in the end you will end up working much harder than you need to. Other forms such as mixing bowls or colanders can carry a little bit of extra weight at the bottom for functional purposes (not knocking them over so easily). And for the record, if a potter purposefully beats his pottery on a piece of wood is front of you as a selling point, RUN! This person does not know what they’re doing, and will not be selling you any quality work.
When buying dishes such as drinking vessels and bowls, think light.
#4) Always Think About Function.
Because the artist should, too. Ceramics is not just about learning how to throw a cylinder on the potter’s wheel and slapping on a handle. There are many things to consider in making a great piece. Let’s take a mug for instance. The piece should be light enough to comfortably carry liquid weight, but heavy enough to be durable when washing. You want a thin rim around the top, with the interior wall sloping to the outer edge. This gives the yummy beverage a comfortable path from the vessel to your mouth. Flat rims will cause you to slurp or spill. The handle should fit the form, and your hand. The underside of the handle should be rounded on the sides because that’s the way your hand is. Your non-dominant hand should also be able to comfortably steady the other side.
PHOTO: Left shows a thick, problematic rim. Right is a thinner, more desirable rim.
I recommend you pick up any piece you’re considering buying. If it’s a gift, think about the receiver’s hands. If the person is larger/smaller than you, more than likely they’ll need a larger/smaller handle. As for buying online, always ask for sizes and weight if they are not given.
#5.) Handmade isn’t cheap, and for good reason.
You will be putting a little bit more money into any handmade piece that you are buying this fall/holiday season. Why? Because a human being carefully crafted it from mud. These aren’t on Bluelight special, and there should not be any “haggling” to be had. This rule goes across the board for all artist and craftsmen. A festival should not be treated like a flea market for one very simple reason; it’s not. These are not pieces that we bought and are reselling for profit. At one time, every mug/bowl/bottle that we sell was the center of our universe, the object of our unwavering attention. We wedged the clay, centered it on the wheel, threw the form, trimmed it, added handles, decorated, designed, carved, sanded, fired, hand glazed, and re-fired each piece to perfection for you. And trying to negotiate our prices is downright insulting. There are many elements that go into a single piece of work, not just material costs. If you think the price is unreasonable, then that piece was not meant for you. But if you are looking for a unique, one of a kind gift for yourself or a loved one this year, you could not have come to a better place. Remember that it may just be a mug, but it’s also a piece of art.
Supporting your local businesses and artists is so important. In a global world, we need to retain our roots in our own communities. We have all become accustom to big box stores and 12 different varieties of every thing, but there is nothing wrong with cutting back to the simple side of life. Slow down and enjoy items made by humans, not machines. Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions!