Developing Voice and Vision: A Studio Internship Model

Eric Botbyl in his studio, 2018.My introduction to studio ceramics and self-employment was a series of obstacles and mistakes. Everyday seemed to present new and unexpected challenges. For example, charging sales tax—I had no idea how that worked. At the state house, I was told I first needed a business license. Every word was new to my vocabulary; I was completely lost. As it turned out, none of these obstacles was impossible.

I learned about selling my work from making mistakes: I had to learn the hard way how to build an efficient sales booth, what kind of tent to buy, and why tent weights are important. I learned how to package work for shipping through trial and error, reverse-engineering packages I received and improving on them. When a customer flaked out on buying a sixteen-piece dinnerware set, I learned the importance of taking a deposit. When my first website was hacked to pieces, I learned to always spring for the security package. My introduction to social media was MySpace, and it was invaluable, albeit cheesy. Through that precursor to Facebook and the myriad similar platforms we now have, I learned that posts with phrases like “for sale” or “buy now” were a scarlet letter, while posts simply showing images or discussing processes led to questions, then purchases. 

When I began teaching community clay classes out of my studio, I learned that I needed to learn how to teach. Being able to throw did not mean I knew how to explain it. Being able to explain it one way did not take into account different ways of learning.

I learned how to program a computerized electric kiln by accidentally entering a 100-hour hold on the first Cone 6 firing of my brand-new Olympic oval kiln. That debacle led to self-directed tutorials in changing elements, relays, thermocouples, and grinding kiln shelves. It was a crash course in heat-work, and the importance of the decimal. Sigh.

When it came to wood kilns, I built my teachers. At first I went by the book, but building beyond the book taught me valuable lessons in proportion, draft, dampers, and passive dampers. Sometimes, there is no substitute for learning through failure after months of work. With every failure, by which I mean lesson, my enthusiasm for clay and pots was wind in my sails. The idea of paying dues makes me smirk because I’ve certainly paid mine, and then some.