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Competitors and Compatriots
by Brad Sondahl

I was talking shop at an art fair once with a potter from across the state. I admired his sparse but realistic drawing style on his large platters. I learned he was more of a producer than I was, using twice as much clay as I did in a month. We got to talking about galleries, and I mentioned one that had been doing well for me. I didn’t think much about it until the next time I stopped in the gallery, and saw a large display of that potter’s wares. I realized then I’d aided a competitor... I felt like that potter had taken advantage of my friendliness to my detriment. I started to feel like my sales weren’t as good there as they used to be, although in retrospect it could have just been my imagination. Competition is constantly with us. It is with us as we begin learning pottery. If we learn to center quicker than the others, we’ve got an edge. If our sculptures meet the approval of our teacher more than the other students, we get the better grade, or better recommendation for graduate school. Yet in that same environment, cooperation is also a vital strategy for success. If I have a problem, I’ll mention it to anyone who can help me, and in return if someone approaches me with a problem I know something about, I’ll be happy to share what I know. We are both better off than if we struggled on our own.

If ceramics were a simple undertaking, cooperation would not be so necessary. But the field of ceramics is complex enough that no one is expert in all areas of competence, such as clay composition, forming processes, glazes (in all their temperature ranges and atmospheres), and firing processes.

The spirit of cooperation has long been reflected in Ceramics Monthly Magazine, where potters sharing ideas and processes have shaped their counterparts around the world. In addition the Internet has become integral to fostering this cooperative relationship, as questions on very specific problems can be addressed to persons most experienced in that area. Some people (including myself) have chosen to create helpful web pages in their areas of expertise For specific questions and answers the Clayart listserv (which can be viewed at http://www.egroups.com/list/clayart) and the newsgroup rec.crafts.pottery are probably the most widely accessed in this regard, as well as the forum at Ceramics Today.

One reason that this cooperative system works is that a potter in Australia does not feel in competition with one in Ohio, and thus will share secrets freely. However the Web is becoming more prevalent as a marketplace, and competition again becomes a factor, as the various pottery web sites vie for the same pool of shoppers. Both competition and cooperation are vital to our survival. While I favor the cooperative approach, I know that there are valid boundaries to set as to how far one should cooperate. If I work for years to develop a wonderful glaze, it is a sane decision to keep the recipe to myself, if it is what makes my current work special. But my formerly wonderful glazes, now history, may be just what someone else can do wonders with. Also competition fosters an improved product, as we try to equal others accomplishments, or are knocked out of our complacency.

I would rather think our real competition lies with the mass manufacturers, that we are all compatriots promoting human made craft over machined indifference. This is certainly the case where corporations have mimicked hand made style, clearly competing in our arena. And it lies in all our interests to promote the use of handcrafted articles, and to cooperate so that we can produce the best possible of these things of clay.

Many thanks to Brad Sondahl for submitting this article.


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