I think it is common for craftspeople to have very ambivalent feelings about selling their work. On the one hand it can be a wonderful experience when we meet someone who really apreciates what we are doing and will enjoy the objects we make, on the other it can leave us feeling cheapened, as if our work has been turned into a mere commodity. Most craftspeople find it difficult to actively sell their work.
What is the problem?
I think it comes down to what we put into the work. Louis Nizer said.
“A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist”
I would argue that any good craftperson works with hand, head and heart. And this is the problem. We actually put quite a bit of ourselves into our work. Everyone knows this is the case with artists and nowadays it is fashionable for artists to be very explicit in baring their personal stuff. Craftspeople are not so up front but still we care passionately about what we have made. To take this work and put it on a display at a show and stand by whilst folk talk about it is exposing yourself in a very vulnerable way. It really can feel like putting your soul on display for open critique. If nice people like it, say nice things about it and buy it then it is a tremendously affirming experience, though it can work the other way too. Showing what you made is taking a big emotional risk.
The commissioning process can be particularly difficult, especially at that moment when you finally hand the piece over. At that moment the patron is unlikely to say “well actually that isn’t what I had hoped for.” So the craftsperson is wracked with uncertainty, did they really like it? One nice thing about working to commission is that it is quite easy to end up with a long waiting list, this is good for the craftspersons feeling of self worth and also has a self limiting effect on the type of people that want to buy. A third effect is that having waited for many months increases the feeling of specialness when the work finally arrives. Those of us that just make stuff and then sell it avoid any doubt about whether the customer liked it. If the customer sees the work and chooses to hand over hard earned cash then they clearly value it.
In an ideal world perhaps we would be able to choose our customers as well as them choosing us. I know many craftspeople that effectively do this by not promptly answering emails and phone calls and just being difficult to buy stuff from. The customer has to make a real effort which acts as a filter, the folk that just want to buy a pot go elsewhere and only the ones that really understand what this person is trying to do and want exactly that pot will persevere and succeed in buying. The capitalist would of course say this is the time to put your prices up and only those that can afford it will buy and having paid a high price they will value it. But we want to select the customers that will really appreciate our work most not just the ones that will pay most for it.
I don’t know if it is a symptom of the sort of work I do being sort of humble functional ware for everyday use, or whether we just have the right sort of web presence but I do seem to have very nice customers. I regularly get letters and emails from folk telling me how much they enjoy using the bowls and plates. Best of all some even send photos. One day I should get round to putting up a gallery with photos of customers with their bowls they are so heartwarming to me.
Here are a few of my favourites
Of course all this is all a luxury of living in a rich society and I would like to spare a thought for all those craftspeople in the world for whom it is simply a question of churning enough work out in the day to buy food for their kids. Though there is perhaps little better for the soul than working hard to feed your kids.