Last year, after more than a decade of practicing ceramics as a hobby, I decided to pursue it as a professional endeavor. I realized quickly that I couldn’t sell my ceramics at a price that would reflect the cost of material and the time I spent doing it. I assumed I just needed to get better at my art and become better-known, but I also realized that there is an inherent bias against my chosen medium. Ceramic artists, even successful ones, often can’t sell their work for the same prices as other types of art such as paintings or non-ceramic sculptures. This “ceramic bias” left me wondering why different types of art are valued differently, both in prestige and monetarily.
I happened to visit the Ceramic Showcase (organized by the Oregon Potters Association) in Portland on May 7, 2022, and this was the perfect venue to ask other professional ceramicists how they feel about the issue. This year was the 39th annual event and included the work of more than 150 ceramicists. The event was virtual in 2021 and canceled in 2020 so everyone was delighted to reunite at the Portland Convention Center.
James DeRosso, a well-known Oregon potter who specializes in sculptures of cheeky monsters, was first involved in the Ceramic Showcase in the mid ’90s. He keeps coming back, despite the steep booth fee ($450 for a 10X10 booth + a commission fee starting at 17% up to $2,000 in sales and decreasing to 3% over $5,500) and the work involved, because of “the friendships, camaraderie and shared learning”. He usually does a demo at this event that “generates a lot of interest in [his] custom larger work”.
The Ceramic Showcase has played an important part in DeRosso’s development as an artist: “My first Ceramic Showcase […], I was clueless of how to do a show or create a booth to sell my work out of. I was also clueless as to what art to make that customers would buy. Those first shows were a steep learning curve and the more experienced members that I met by doing that show and becoming a member of Oregon Potters Association were invaluable to me. It’s where I figured out that my monsters were the thing to go for rather than trying to sell strange abstract pieces or platewares that looked like the Flintstones made them.”
It is always a treat for me to visit the ceramic showcase and get inspiration from local artists. This year was even more interesting because I was able to interview eight ceramicists at this event about why they thought ceramics were less valued than other art forms. My hypothesis going in was that ceramics is considered a hybrid art form – it can be sculptural or functional and it can be art or craft. The lack of clear lines somehow devalues it.
The ceramicists I interviewed offered their own thoughts on the subject, some related to my hypothesis. Ha Austin explained: “My art is an art for the table, people use it every day, it becomes an everyday thing and that somehow devalues it.” Denise Krueger had a slightly different take on the same topic: “People equate it with functional ware and that’s something you can buy cheaply at a store. People don’t always see the difference between what is handmade and mass produced.”
Others offered insights I had not considered. Shelly Fredenberg said: “It’s dirt, it’s something you can dig from your yard, bronze sculptures are more valued.” James DeRosso explained that Art Galleries price “wall space” art higher than “shelf space” art, because people have more room on their walls than on their shelves and as a result wall space art sells better. But, he said, you can make useful art to justify the space it is taking in people’s homes. He pointed to a key holder decorated with one of his iconic monsters as an illustration. Which made me wonder if once functional, a piece would lose value because it is utilitarian, and therefore not art any more. Ceramics seems stuck in a catch 22: too bulky to be useless and too useful to be art.
Several of the ceramicists I interviewed also pointed out that ceramics is considered more manual than cerebral, and is therefore less valued, in the same way that being a plumber has less prestige than being a teacher. But they also resented this. Kendall Jones phrased it this way: “There is a level of technical mastery that should make it valued even higher.” James DeRosso compared ceramicists to athletes: “ceramics involves a high level of dexterity, it’s physical, you cannot fake that.”
The fact that ceramics is less valued than other art forms has, of course, had an impact on the ceramicists’ careers. Half of the people I interviewed were either retired from another job or working part-time. The other half lives simply and does not save for retirement. James DeRosso illustrated the problem with a personal experience: “A friend of mine who is a landscape artist just bought a house. We started at the same time and have very similar careers with very similar successes. But I am nowhere near being able to afford a house. I am lucky that I can make a living. It was a startling realization.” Verónica Aquilevich Guzmàn put it this way: “I’m in this gallery […] and sometimes you see the sales and they’re selling 2000, 3000 dollar paintings and I am selling 20 pieces for like 400-600 dollars.”
For all these reasons, being recognized as an artist when your medium is ceramics can be difficult.
“Do you call yourself an artist?” was one of the questions I asked at the Ceramic Showcase, and all but one person (I will get back to him later) said yes. But it was a struggle for some. Shelly Fredenberg commented “it’s a very hard question” and mentioned impostor syndrome and how long it took for her to call herself an artist. If she had to talk about her practice at all she would say “I work with clay.”
This difficulty to claim being an artist is reflected in the business cards I collected. Only Kendall Jones proudly calls herself “sculptor” and “artist” on her card. Others avoid the issue by naming their practice Ceramic Design, Ceramic Art or just plain Ceramics and Pottery. James DeRosso’s business card does not explain what he does. He doesn’t need to, because a few of his famous monsters decorating his card are worth a thousand words. As for Rabun Thompson, my lone dissenter, he proudly calls himself a potter.
Rabun was the last person I interviewed at the ceramic showcase and the first who replied “no” to my question, “do you call yourself an artist?” I stammered, “why?” His answer: “I am a professional craftsman. I produce functional work. My decorative work is still something that fulfills a function that satisfies the needs of people to have well-made pieces of human endeavor in their lives. It is repetitive, reproduced, commercial and I am solely depending on it for my living. The quality of my work is established by the market and the market dictates if I can feed myself.”
I followed up by asking: “Do you ever feel that’s unfair?” He replied, “It’s reality. If it appeals to people they’ll buy it, and the more it appeals to them, the more they’ll buy it. There is a market for larger one-of-a-kind pieces which I do make, but you can’t make a lot of it and you can never be sure to sell it.” Rabun has been a professional potter since 1980 and when I mentioned that he was the first person I interviewed who did not call himself an artist, he commented, “the young ones are still idealistic.”
Rabun’s work is beautiful and unique and I will call him an artist whether he agrees with me or not (he won’t, and will call me an idealistic fool!). The fact that he has to reproduce his own work and make objects that appeal to the public to make a living does not disqualify him from being an artist in my opinion. I assume painters can copy their own paintings if they have to; they’re just not asked to do this the same way potters are. Why?
The most expensive painting ever sold, Salvator Mundi by Leonardo Da Vinci, cost $450 million in 2016. The most expensive sculpture ever sold is a bronze sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, the man with the finger, which sold at auction for $141 million in 2015. The top ten most expensive sculptures are made of bronze, stainless steel and stone, not clay. The most expensive ceramic piece ever sold is an ancient Chinese vase that cost $41.6 million in 2021. It’s 10 times less than the most expensive painting and almost four times less than the most expensive sculpture. Another data point: in 2013 a Picasso vase sold for 980,275 GBP ($1.53 million) at an auction in London. It is a world record price for a ceramic piece by Picasso, but his paintings sell for much higher prices. Why? In what way is a Picasso vase different from a Picasso painting, except that the picture is painted on ceramics and not canvas? I don’t imply that paintings and sculpture are overpriced. I am merely saying that, in my opinion, there is no reason why ceramics as an art form should not be equally valued.
Ceramics in Oregon has faced hard times recently. The Museum of Contemporary Craft closed in 2016 and the Oregon College of Art and Craft closed in 2019. Both of these institutions were instrumental in elevating and legitimizing ceramics in the state. Nonetheless, Ceramics is supposed to be trendy right now, so I’m hoping that more people will get interested in it and appreciate it more as an art form in the future to boost the prospects of current ceramic artists.
The ceramic showcase was a great place to experience ceramic art and I loved wandering around, getting inspiration from James DeRosso’s amazing monsters; Shelly Fredenberg’s delicate sculptural bowls; Ha Austin’s beautifully decorated dinnerware; Kendall Jones’ intriguing sculptures; Denise Krueger’s organic shapes; Verónica Aquilevich Guzmàn’s whimsical Mayan-inspired animals; Linda Workman-Morelli’s pit fired rock sculptures; and Rabun Thompson’s distinctively-finished platters and vessels. And that’s only eight of the 150+ ceramicists at the showcase. All exude passion for their art/craft no matter the challenges. “We do the work because we love the work,” is how Linda Workman-Morelli put it.
In my mind, art is art and the medium you are using to express yourself shouldn’t be a consideration to judge its worth. Even if it has been the case until now, it’s time for a reevaluation, in the same way that we’re reviewing a lot of other prejudices about gender and race. It’s a shame that ceramic artists themselves are afraid to value their own work for what it is (I’m looking at you, Rabun!).
Shelly Fredenberg told me: “Pricing my work is really hard because I still have that conditioning that clay isn’t valuable. I can make a $300 object out of a pound of clay but what am I factoring into the price? It’s not just the cost of material. […] It took a customer, she came into my booth several years ago and said, ‘your prices are too low, how do you figure your prices?’ I said, ‘time and material,’ because that’s what I was told. ‘Where do you figure in your imagination, how do you price your imagination?’ And I was like ‘Wait, that has value?’”
Yes it does, no matter what material you’re using to express it. And Ceramic Art is just as valuable as other art forms. Own it.
Thank you to the artists/ceramicists/potters who kindly answered my questions at the Ceramic Showcase.