I've been making a lot of pots in recent weeks. In my world, a LOT. At least 30 or 40 a week. Plus Christmas tree decorations. I'm pleased with those production rates, but due to shop or gallery consignments or pre-orders this stock seems to be disappearing into a black hole. Yesterday I found myself excited at the prospect of having at least 10 festive pourers and wine cups in stock, only to realise that I should use them to fulfil a promise to a gallery and pop up shop. Please don't read this as a complaint - I'm deeply grateful for the demand of my work - I'm simply thinking out loud (er, in type) about one aspect of my production process.
The studio has been rammed with pots for the last month. This week I've been able to free up some space by delivering another 25 pieces to Manx National Heritage, posting 20 pieces to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen and I've just finished packing up 30 pieces to post to Cambridge Contemporary Craft. In tandem with those sizeable consignments, I've been working on smaller orders. It's a relief to get successful, finished pots out of the studio. Shelves full of unfired pots make me nervous!
Now I have studio and head space to plan the next month's workload. This week I was offered a place at the Little Northern Contemporary Craft Fair - I'm thrilled! The organisers, Great Northern Events, have an excellent reputation and attract some incredible maker/designers. It feels like a real achievement that my work is considered good enough to participate.
In true silly-season style, the fair is one week after my open studio weekend, Christmas in the Yard, so time will be very tight indeed! Nerve-racking, but most exciting.
The evening of Thursday 22nd October saw the second Isle of Man Creative Industries public meeting at Noa Bakehouse. Mike Reaney, Business Development Manager for Film & Creative Industries, lead a panel with three local professional creatives – architect Martyn Thomas, fashion designer Lisa Angwin and myself! Our community turned out and Noa was packed, many thanks to everyone who came.
The perpetual issue with panel discussions is that whilst a great conversation can be had, no one ever gets to say everything that they want to. I’d written a lot of notes before the evening, so this is a recap of my answers and comments, plus the things I didn’t say:
My name is Katy Mitchell. I’m a potter. I trade as Kathryn Mitchell Ceramics. I make wheel-thrown and hand-painted functional tableware. Simple pieces - mugs, bowls, plates - intended to be used in daily life. I have a small studio in Kirk Michael, which is open to the public most Saturdays or by appointment during the week. Local sales of my work are predominantly through Manx National Heritage, but also through the Manx Wildlife Shop, direct from my studio and online. Further afield, two small galleries sell my work in southern Scotland and Cambridge.
I grew up on the island then moved to Australia when I was 18, where I stayed to study and work for five years. In early 2013 I ran out of visa options and had to return home. Within 6 months I had re-established a studio here, thanks to the support of many individuals and organisations.
SKILLS / EDUCATION
What has been your entry route?
As a teenager I stumbled into a job at Craftworks Studio in Silverdale. I worked there every weekend and holiday for four years, it’s where my love of ceramics began. I would often be asked ‘Did you make that?’ and my answer would be ‘No, I painted it, but it was made in a factory in China or Taiwan…’, which sparked an interest to learn how to make from scratch and be responsible for the whole creation process. So now when people ask me the question I can answer ‘Yes, yes I did.’
I studied for two years on the Gold Coast, at a poorly managed and privately owned college that no longer exists. But my teacher, Michaela Kloeckner, was wonderful – a practicing artist with brilliant education skills. She was and is endlessly enthusiastic and supportive. The course was an Australian Diploma in Visual Art + Contemporary Craft, which is equivalent to a British foundation course.
What careers advice have you received?
The careers advisor at my high school was a bit lost with me. But I don’t recall any of my friends receiving great advice either! The best advice came from people that I worked for when I was younger, so Martin and June Whiteman from Craftworks, Leni Lewis from Shakti Man (or Baked Beads if anyone remembers that far back?!). They all encouraged my creativity, could see that I worked hard and told me to find or create a job that I absolutely loved.
What are your transferable skills?
Running my business involves intense time management - I've often got 3 or more batches of work on the go at once in different stages and working with clay has long lead times, troubleshooting - problems can occur in every process with clay, events management - twice a year I host open studio weekends, and I've organised exhibitions.
What are your skills gaps?
I’d like to be more comfortable with Photoshop. I’d like know to know SOMETHING about Illustrator. And I need to learn to take better product photographs.
Have you benefited from any mentoring?
I was matched with a mentor for the Small Business Start Up Scheme (more on that below), Helen Cowley, for 18 months. She was helpful, enthusiastic and experienced.
In a less formal sense, I have a good friend in Melbourne who has been a potter for 30 years and we’re in contact nearly every day. She’s a great sounding board and is really experienced, so she’ll critique my work and I can ask her technical questions.
Another informal mentorship was from the owner of 19 KAREN Contemporary Artspace on the Gold Coast, where I worked for two and a half years. Terri is a shrewd, creative and seriously motivated business woman; it was a privilege to learn from her. The position was paradoxically fast-paced and nurturing!
We’ve talked about hubs, have you ever been part of one? How do you think you would stand to benefit from such a facility?
I haven’t directly been part of a hub, but when I lived on the Gold Coast I sold my work at a monthly night market which was hosted by a creative precinct, called Rabbit + Cocoon. The hub is an old industrial area, with 2 warehouses a bit bigger than Noa and a private road between them. There’s a café, a digital radio station and 14 creative studios, as well as space to hire.
I feel like the island is ready for a creative hub. The rise of creative, alternate local events in the last 5 years is a clear sign that our population is craving more culture. I'm really happy with my current studio and I’d be hard pushed to leave, but a central location for meetings, exhibitions and a regular quality makers market would be excellent.
Do you ever collaborate across disciplines?
Not often as yet, but I would like to! Earlier this year Tanya from Lovely Greens approached me to make pourers for her to use as a vessel for candles, however it was more of a straightforward business transaction than a collaboration – I made the pots, she paid for them, finished the product, added her mark up and sold them. I like that process, it’s simple.
In terms of exhibition work, I was part of a group show in Melbourne last month called The Cup Collaboration. 34 potters from around the globe were paired up to create cups together. I spent two days with Niharika Hukku in Sydney (full blog post here) and we had a marvellous time figuring out how we work, how our processes differ and finding a balance for the collaborative pieces. I’d like to collaborate with more potters!
More recently I’ve been working with a local graphic designer – Rich Hird – to create promotional material for my pre-Christmas open studio event. I had a fairly clear idea of the design, gave Rich a rough sketch and some components, and he wove them together with his creative flair to produce some awesome artwork. This is my first time working with a graphic designer for my own promotions, and I would definitely do it again – I know the event has been and will be excellent, but beautiful, concise promotional artwork will inspire many more people to be part of it!
What digital “new media” skills do you have / require? How important are they?
In the last year I’ve started using digital decals in my work - they’re like a commercial transfer. It isn’t new technology - I can remember hearing about them 10 years ago - but the costs are more affordable now and the quality has improved. I scan my original illustration into Photoshop, clean it up and compile up to 70 of them on an A3 document, then send that to a printer in Stoke-on Trent. They enable me to repeat the same pattern relatively quicker than hand-painting, which makes production more efficient.
What has been your experience as to financial support, subsidies and grants?
I’ve been through the Small Business Start Up Scheme. I started the course in May 2013, wrote and edited my business plan over the summer, signed the contract in the November and received the funding in December. I qualified for both the equipment grant (a £1500 match) and living allowance (£50 a week for 30 weeks – another £1500!) – in the last month this scheme has been updated (and sounds even better now!), head to the Department of Economic Development website for info. The 18 month mentorship was almost as valuable as the funding, because I had someone to run ideas past, to discuss what I’d achieved, what goals I wanted to set, and I was obliged to keep up with my accounts! Looking back or forwards to a 3 month period sounds simple, but not many of us do it and it’s incredibly helpful. Helen has helped a few creative businesses through the scheme – Faye Christian, Sweet Ginger Emporium – so if you do the scheme, please try and seek her out as your mentor.
That same summer of 2013, I applied for Arts Council funding. This seems to be a little known fact, but the Arts Council has an Artists Studio Policy. They can fund 50% of your rent in the first year and 25% in the second year, which they did for me, I've just come to the end of my second year and I'm writing the report for them now. It really helped my cash flow, especially in the first year.
The Council have also approved several other grants – they've helped me attend three different off-island conferences and they funded the material costs for my exhibition at Noa in 2014. The most recent one is the smallest but it’s incredibly helpful – I've been invited to participate in two Christmas exhibitions at established UK galleries, but posting a box of heavy ceramics off-island is expensive and consumes any profit I might make in sales from those shows. I asked the Arts Council to help and they've kindly given me £50 to cover that expense. It’s a tiny amount, but to a small business like mine it makes a big difference.
IMPACT OF CREATIVE INDUSTRIES ON THE WIDER ECONOMY
Have you considered your relevance / potential impact on tourism offering of the Isle of Man?
Tourism is really important to my business. The pieces that I sell through Manx National Heritage and the Manx Wildlife Trust are inspired by Manx iconography and bear Manx Gaelic phrases – they are aimed at tourists as high quality souvenirs and they sell as such. There is a distinct gap in the market on this island for locally made, high quality, tastefully designed souvenirs. And we have plentiful unique and wondrous elements to provide inspiration. I could work with MNH for the rest of my career and probably not run out of influences for Manx souvenirs. It would be wonderful to see more locally designed cards, postcards, jewellery, textiles. I'm working like a hamster in a wheel to fulfil orders – I can assure you that there is a demand for this kind of work. But it NEEDS to be of the highest quality. It must be carefully considered and marketed accordingly. I'm tired of seeing mediocre or lack lustre products made on this island and marketed as craft. True craft is an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill. We need to raise the standard on the Isle of Man.
Have you used the services of a strategic marketing company, or creative agency (or been hired by one?) – do you feel you have a clear understanding of your market?
No, but I have attended workshops with two marketing consultants – Heather Blackley and Alison Teare – both of whom I highly recommend. Those courses helped me to understand my market, then formulate a marketing plan and communications plan. I admit, I don’t always stick to the plans, but it’s good to know they’re there if I need to reassess my situation and it’s reassuring to know that marketing isn't as scary as we may think.
TO WRAP UP
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Making a profit. I can sell good quantities of pots, but my work is highly labour intensive so the profit margins are tight. I have my costing formula to calculate retail prices, but more often than not I need to reduce those idealistic prices, otherwise I’d be pricing myself out of the market.
As my production process evolves and my brand gains more recognition, this will get easier. The digital decals are already increasing my efficiency, as I continue throwing that skill will improve and speed up, and as my brand reputation grows I can slowly increase prices.
What advice would you give the people in this room (or reading this…!)?
Surround yourself with people that believe in what you’re doing. Those friends and family that cheer you on will be instrumental in helping you achieve your goals, even if there input seems unrelated.
The local funding bodies are not scary, they are employed with nice, friendly people, who are happy to answer your questions. So call or email them, suss out how they can help you.
Be brave and talk to people about your work. I get it, that isn't always easy, it's often uncomfortable. Most of us creative bods are introverts. Talking to new people scares the shit out me most days. I'm much happier in studio solitude. But the best way to share our work (and thereby grow our businesses, SELL the things we create and support ourselves) is to talk to people, in real life.
And finally, read Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking.
Thanks for your time, folks!
I was a right Grinch around Christmastime for YEARS. I guess it came purely out of teenage angst and then battling with confusing Australian Christmas traditions. But last year I found love for it again. My festive range was limited in 2014, but I spent most of my post-Christmas days off drawing for this year! I've been super keen to get them onto real pots and I'm REALLY enjoying this year's festive making.
These plates are awaiting some touches of gold, then destined for Manx National Heritage:
Last Sunday morning we joined the good people of the Isle of Man Society of Architects for their Big Draw event. Our muse was the Sea Terminal - somewhat of an icon in Douglas and a prominent childhood location for me, as my Dad worked in one of the offices for about 15 years - and was surprisingly fun to draw! After an hour (ish), our fingers were suitably cold and we piled into Noa Bakehouse for hot chocolate and croissants. It was a most pleasant was to spend a Sunday morning!
The first half of my festive consignment for Manx National Heritage is complete:
I still love my 'open' sign. I might never get bored of photographing it...
Last night we yurted! We also learnt that we need to brush up on our fire safety skills. But it was a lovely one-night escape and I'd highly recommend Saba's Glen Yurts!