Becoming a successful artisan is often reached after attempting diverse and seemingly unrelated vocational activities. Though not directly applicable to the craft work, some outside skills can be useful in developing a sustainable artistic pursuit. For an example of the pursuit, we followed a well-known local potter who turned a love of hands-on work in clay into a livelihood. Phill Ungar, a curly haired, graying red-head with a ready laugh, is frequently found dappled in dry clay from his home studio potter’s wheel or from one of three venues where he teaches. He has been potting since the 1980s and markets his stoneware under the name of Cedar Hill Pottery. Phill and several other local artists are holding a one day workshop on turning your art into a successful business. The workshop will be held at BRCC on November 1 and will include discussions on marketing venues, pricing, business entities, and other small business skills.
The Artist’s Life
Phill’s path to the potter’s wheel started out in the family drugstore business. Finding this not to be his vocation Phill went into the business of managing and owning restaurants in Virginia Beach and in the Valley including the former Howard Johnson’s in Harrisonburg. He served as President of the local restaurant association and as a culinary arts instructor. Thus with chemistry, business, and teaching skills, in the early 1980s Phill went back to school at JMU where he discovered an affinity with clay. In the mid-1980s he discovered an unused room at the Gilkerson Recreation Center and persuaded the Recreation Department to offer pottery classes. He has been teaching these classes for the past 26 years. He also teaches at the Governor’s School in Fishersville and at Blue Ridge Community College. He specializes in carved functional stoneware.
Phill offers his work at three local craft venues. The utilitarian nature of his work, non-toxic dishwasher, oven, and microwave safe earthen ware, and the moderate prices the pieces command are suited to the demographics of the people fair attendees. He enjoys the bazaar-like friendly atmosphere of the Dayton Days, the annual event staged by the Town of Dayton on the first Saturday in October. The bazaar-like event provides a happy atmosphere for the 300 or so vendors and thousands of attendees. This year is the 32nd anniversary of this one day event. To apply, artisans submit photos of their work by March 15 and request either a 150 square foot space that costs $150 or a 300 square foot space that costs $265. Non-profit organizations receive a 50 percent discount. Vendors of hand-made objects are selected by a committee. At Dayton Days there are many food vendors.
The 40th Waynesboro Craft Show on October 8th and 9th is one of the largest on the east coast and attracts 150 to 200 exhibitors. The event is billed as the Fall Foliage Festival Art Show and is promoted by the Shenandoah Valley Art Center. This event is more upscale - fine art and sculpture are exhibited - and the items more expensive than at Dayton. The exhibitors are there by invitation and the show is juried. The fee for a 10x11 foot space is $150-$175 plus a $20 jurors’ fee.
The 26th Barn Show near Timberville is on October 15 and 16. Its setting in a restored Civil War-era barn along the bucolic North Branch of the Shenandoah River provides a delightful and intimate atmosphere. The show was started by Jon Robeson 26 years ago to market his own drift-wood work. The show now includes between 16 and 17 artisans many who are friends of Robeson and are known for their unusual and unique work. The cost to enter these shows is between $150 and $300 for about a 150 square foot space.
Phill also participates in private shows and stages his own home show twice a year in May and December. He sends out 600 invitations mostly to previous purchasers for each of the home shows. At all of his venues he plans on displaying about 200 items more if the event is two days. The general price of the earthenware items range from $15 to $50, but some items are in the $50 to $100 range. Phill accepts commissioned work that can include full dinner service or tea sets, as well as single items.
Phill’s philosophy is to offer artistic, functional ware that reflects the earth around us. The pieces often have carvings and a message with his signature on the bottom of the piece. He has various strategies to keep his work fresh and personally interesting and saleable. Each year he experiments with glazes and shapes. At shows he talks to other artisans and distributors and takes the popular pulse by reading décor periodicals, internet materials, and technical literature.
One of the most popular items for a beginning potter and a pottery buyer is a $15 mug. To help one appreciate an earthen ware purchase, a description of mug-making might help. The process requires the clay being handled 12 to13 times. If the item is shown at an off-site craft show, additional handling is required for pricing, packing, and setting-up.
To Make a Mug
- The potter cuts a one-pound square from a 25 pound block of clay and “wedges” it to get out pockets of air and to shape the clay into a ball or cone.
- The clay is “thrown” on a “bat” on the potter’s wheel, where making sure it is kept wet, the ball is centered, opened, and pulled-up into a cylinder. These steps can take as little as five minutes. Before cutting the mug from the “bat,” the potter can tweak the shape. The cylinder is cut loose and left to dry to “leather hard.” (If the item is wrapped in plastic, this may take a week.)