How to Quit Your Day Job and Pursue a Career in Ceramics
Handmade ceramics are one of our all-time favorite modern luxuries. We’re talking plant pots, jewelry and those cozy coffee mugs of the ceramic variety that evoke a unique, artisan glamour. No one knows these fancy crafts better than Dana Bechert. Dana is an artist who does it all: patterns, pottery and textiles. Her aesthetic is very handmade, minimal and fun, and we can’t get enough. Today, she’s joining us for our How to Quit Your Day Job series and chatting about how she embraced a full-time maker’s life of ceramics.
Meet the Ceramic Pro: Dana Bechert
Dana is no stranger to the ceramics world — her mom is also a ceramics artist, which is how Dana got her start working with clay. In 2012, Dana graduated with a degree in sculpture and started her business one year after that. She was balancing her new business along with working at a local restaurant in Baltimore when The New York Times’ T Magazine ran a profile on her art. She told us, “I found myself flung into the field of ceramics quite unexpectedly and without much time for preparations.” The high demand from the NY Times article boosted her profile and helped her make the decision to quit her restaurant job. She says, “While that was an amazing learning experience for me, it would not have been possible to maintain my ceramics business while working there.” She took the leap and started creating full time.
Create a workflow. Dana tells us that when you start using your passion as a way to make money, you have to create a workflow — not to stifle your creativity, but to harness it. “Figure out the bare minimum of tools and materials you can work with to start and fill out your studio over time.” She started out with just a wheel and some clay, but now she operates four kilns and all kinds of tools. It’s best to start small and build in a direction that works for you, which takes time and patience.
While you’re perfecting, you’re also running a business. She says, “Jobs in a larger company are divided into accounting, shipping, material processing, sourcing, outreach and promotion, etc. In a small business, I am responsible for all that.”
That means you may have to spend the same amount of time doing the business stuff as you do making stuff. For example, Dana spends a lot of time communicating with clients and organizing projects. She said, “This took a little getting used to. At first I was really overwhelmed, but it is becoming increasingly easy and fun!” Figuring out a perfect workflow may seem like a bit of a drag, but focusing on how you work best can really give you more time to focus on what you love, and make money at it.
Be Your Own Rep. Just after her big break in T Magazine, Bechert was in high demand. Right off the bat, she said her biggest challenge was keeping up with online sales and adjusting her schedule to create items more regularly. She shared with us, “The next step was reaching out to select shops and galleries for representation.”
At the beginning, you may be asking (if not begging) any and all boutiques and shops to sell your work, but it’s best to go against that urge. Dana said, “It’s important to get your work out there, but don’t be afraid to be selective about where your work is shown and sold. Make sure you are clear with contracts and professional relationships. It’s much easier for an individual to be taken advantage of than a large company.”
The more professional you are up front, the more you can avoid any miscommunication or oversight in how and when you get paid. Make no mistake: That “My stuff is in a real store!” feeling will wear off really quickly when it’s time to pay the bills.
Be Prepared to Make Adjustments. Even after her multiple media features, Bechert wasn’t exactly rolling in the dough, but her passion took priority over a life of spending. She accommodated her lifestyle to a more sporadic, freelance income. “I have been able to cope… by having an extremely low-cost lifestyle in which I make and grow many things for myself. I also moved out of the city, which helps save money!”
While this leaves her a lot of time for creating, she also has to dedicate time to staying in the public eye through features and her own social media presence. It’s important to keep up a following, especially in crowded industries.
Design for You. Dana’s aesthetic is a very freehand, organic take on geometric designs. She takes inspiration from Native American pottery, but at the end of the day, she just makes what she likes.
“I strive to make elegant, timeless works that are dazzling and exciting to use. Believe it or not, outside my pottery, I focus mainly on color studies and pairings. Overall, my aesthetic is eclectic and playful. In pottery, it is more sober.”
When deciding what objects she wants to make, she thinks about what she has a need for in her own life, like coffee pour-over sets, canning funnels, fermentation crocks and latte cups. “Many of these things are traditionally made of ceramic, so it’s certainly nothing new, but they stand apart from the basic vases, bowls and planters that most contemporary potters seem to focus on.”
Make Time for You. When you are self-employed, the lines between your work life and your personal life can quickly become blurred. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Dana told us, “Actually I have found that my life has opened up tremendously since I started this career.”
Since she has more control over her schedule and she’s created a workflow that works for her, she can schedule in time to pursue her other passions. “I have more time now to garden, cook and take care of myself… It’s amazing having control of my own life and to be able to use my time to keep myself happy and healthy.”
Get Inspired. Ceramics is certainly not a new industry (in fact, it’s ancient), but Dana finds modern inspiration everywhere. “I look at quilt designs and books often. I find pieced quilts to be overwhelmingly beautiful and many of my patterns are based loosely on traditional American quilt designs.” In addition to books, museums and exhibitions are also inspiring to her. If you’re ever in London, she recommends visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum. “[It] has a huge range of pottery and lots of work by Lucie Rie, one of my favorite potters.”
What’s Next for Dana? We asked Dana what projects she has on the horizon, and in addition to working on some larger pieces, she said, “I am in the process of making a series of large pendant lamps. It’s a lot of fun to play with translucency in porcelain. I also will always love making planters, because I love how my pots look paired with plants!” Pendant lamps and planters? This woman knows what we love.
Perfect Your Skills
Before you go and convert your garage into a ceramics studio, you may want to start with a super basic class at a local studio. There’s a lot you can learn online, but ceramics is one of those mediums where you really need the right space and hefty equipment (pottery wheel and kiln) to get you started. Whether you decide to take a class locally or just DIY your skills and rent a space at a studio, there is no shortage of online tools and inspiration to help you along the way.
1. Start With Mastering the Wheel: Don’t expect a Ghost experience the first time you sit down to the wheel (or ever) because it takes some patience and time to master… but not too much time. There’s a Pottery on the Wheel class for beginners on Skillshare that’s only 30 minutes long and will give you everything you need to throw your first pot. ($96 an for annual Skillshare subscription to view all classes.)
Simon Leach is a potter who teaches a four-part online class ($150) to show you how to throw his four most basic pots. If you’d rather graze some free video tutorials, Hsin-Chuen Lin is a ceramics master who has uploaded over 200 YouTube videos of everything from throwing basic pots to crafting elaborate vases.
2. You’re So Fancy: Okay, so enough with the pinch pots and basic bowls. After you feel like Swayze on the wheel, you can start getting more intricate with your designs. Ceramic Arts Daily has pages upon page of pottery videos, and they’re all free! From patterned pots to mugs with handles (that actually stay on), they’ve got you covered.
3. Get Glazing: Ceramic Arts Daily also has a really detailed overview for Glaze Chemistry 101. Glazes are fun because they’re kind of unpredictable, but the more you know about how they work, the better results you’ll get from your experimentation. You can build on your knowledge with a plethora of pages on glazing techniques. You’ll be a pro in no time.
If you start now, you can handmake lovely ceramics for everyone on your Christmas list. Check out Dana’s Instagram for ongoing ceramics inspiration in your feed.
What passion would you like to see covered in our Quit Your Day Job Series? Let us know in the comments!