Innovation Under the Radar with Stephen Procter Pottery
Art as Business
By Lesley A. Dyson

Stephen Procter's large pottery studio looks like any utilitarian artist's workspace, until his newest piece comes into view. It is mammoth, about five feet tall, with a deep umber color that suggests the earth and ancient lands, yet at the same time its classic and elegant lines evoke the tranquility of an English garden.

Gargantuan human creations like the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, or the Empire State building inspire awe at their sheer magnitude. One gets the same feeling of awe looking at the epic pottery of Stephen Procter. The considerable size of his pieces convey a powerful sense of permanence. The viewer has an initial spiritual reaction to his work. There is a sense of space being taken up, almost as if his pots enclose more than just air. They have an anthropomorphic quality of life flowing through them. These elegant corporeal shapes, almost Rubenesque, invite touching. His pieces are a triumph of form over clay.

Procter takes a basic substance, clay, and out of this humblest of materials pulls, wrestles, and coaxes out a substantial yet graceful vessel, then transforms it with fire to endure for centuries. His extraordinary structures are not small pieces that can be pulled off the potter's wheel quickly, but large scale pots that take about three weeks from start to finish—up to a week to establish on the large potter's wheel, a week to cure, and about a week in the kiln firing then curing. During this three-week process, Procter prays that the pot will not will not crack.

Unlike his contemporaries who use unusual or colorful glazes on their pots to enhance the look, adding shine and color to attract our magpie interest, Procter is more concerned with the shape itself, the exaggerated scale of the piece and the earthiness that the matte unglazed surface embodies.  He may coat his pots with a thin layer of slip to achieve different hues, but the glaze is not the destination as it is with many potters’ pieces. His latest pots have no geegaws, gimcracks, or doodads ornamenting the surface, only that subtle coating that is transformed in an intensive firing reaching 2350°F. The unadorned vessel has only itself to draw the eye, a grandeur inviting the viewer to stroke it like a magnificent beast.

Stephen Procter talks passionately of his strong attraction to pottery and its natural elements of earth and water, fire and air. Almost twenty years ago, when his young daughter was taking pottery lessons, he discovered the art of the wheel. Although he didn't take to it immediately—he said it took him five years to make the first "Yeah!" piece—he was hooked, on both the material and the process of pottery. He felt at home in the warm community of artists and potters, whom he calls his "tribe."

He knew at the onset that he wanted to create large pots, although he explored making traditional objects such as dinnerware and bowls. But the sensory pull of designing monumental clay forms drew him away from working on a small scale. His heart was in discovering "a miraculous emergence of form out of a lump of clay."  

Ten years ago, Procter made a pilgrimage to North Carolina, a region that has a long tradition of crafting large and beautiful clay pots, to study with master large-pot artisans. After North Carolina, he felt that he had grown in his art and wanted to pursue it professionally. He didn't quit his day jobs—consulting for arts fundraising and teaching classical guitar and performing—but his dedication to pottery became a higher priority. When a friend asked if his pursuit of pottery was in line with his love of guitar and music, Stephen realized that there was a music to making pots that reflected his lifelong passion for the guitar and paralleled the music’s repetition and rhythm, balance and melody on an abstract level.

Any artist with passion for their art does it for him- or herself, but that doesn't pay the rent. The artist is forced to sell the creations he loves in order to continue to create and to earn a living. But the need for others to love and want that artistic creation comes into the mix. So, the artist must become a sales person, connecting with galleries, shows, and buyers in order to make money and to make a name for himself.

From glassblower Simon Pierce, originally working in a basement studio open to the public, to Sabra Fields’ tranquil Vermont scenes, to Dug Nap, who sold his crayon drawings from his basement for years,  to Stephen Huneck's whimsical dogs—these Vermont artisans eventually cracked the market and are now big names in the art world. Their work can be found nationwide.

Procter's mammoth vessels are on the cusp of this kind of status. But unlike a glass goblet or framed print, Procter faces the problem of scale. The sheer size, weight, and price tag of his pieces often restrict them to buyers from an upscale market. They are not purchased on a whim; they are investments—a pot that takes weeks to create isn't an inexpensive item. Putting on a show involving many pots, or even transporting a few vessels to a gallery, is in itself a huge operation. Finding the audience that will appreciate and buy a single massive, sculptural vessel takes time and extensive work.

Thus the potter must now become an astute businessman.

Procter is conflicted by the marketing process. He wants to work purely for the joy of creating, but must balance this against what his patrons may want and will purchase, and how to make a living doing what he loves, saying, "Am I an artist or a factory? I want to focus on pieces I like – shift into art production mode versus market research and development."  He wants to create pottery he calls “more Steve,” more of himself in the pots.

One of the challenges Procter faces is that no one in the Northeast is doing what he is doing. Even the massive pots from North Carolina are so different that potential buyers often hesitate, wondering if his pottery is form, function, or art. "Being different is a double-edged sword," Procter says. “People don’t have an experience with large pots or how to make use of one in the landscape. I think of my pots as sculptures in the landscape." Procter's sculpture-in-the-landscape pieces are four-seasonal; they can stay outside year-round, unlike a low-fire terra-cotta pot that crumbles after a freezing winter. His stoneware pots become vitrified when fired—melting silica turns to glass within the clay so it won't take in moisture, freeze, or spall.

Three years ago, Procter had the opportunity to do a summer show at Blithewold, an historic 33-acre garden estate on Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay. For the show, Procter made twenty vessels, to stand throughout the extensive grounds for the summer. He quit his day job to produce the monumental undertaking. To support himself, he sold the Blithewold pots by subscription, a buy-the-pot-now-and-get-it-after-the-show deal. He had an enthusiastic response to that offer, selling enough pots to devote himself to work on the show and almost two years of full-time pottery work. That full-time focus allowed him to explore and develop his art as well as consider the possibility of launching a solo career as a potter.

Over the last few months, Procter has ventured into collecting data on prospective new markets and mounting an extensive marketing campaign. He has been written up in national magazines, has enhanced his website—where one can view a video on the remarkable process of making a large pot, and is producing a catalog.

The initial response from his marketing efforts has been positive, but Procter feels he’s walking backwards into the business and marketing world, an unfamiliar arena for the artist. He is taking what he sees as a calculated risk by investing his funds in marketing to high-end galleries and garden shows. The result has been an increase in commissions but eventually he hopes to cultivate a demand for his work in the commercial market.

These days Procter is spending less time on his consulting job and more time on his art. As he reflects, "The corollary of 'Don't quit your day job' is 'Don't keep your day job too long'—half-time won't get you to the level you want to go."  He started his pottery career for the love of pure art, but now that he has streamlined the process to produce four to six mammoth pots a month, he feels strongly that he needs to grow his business and test new markets for his work in order to turn his attention to creating new forms.

In this way, Stephen Procter continually molds his career, passion, and his needs to find a path that is not yet clear and defined down a complex business road. 

Stephen Procter Studios
76 Cotton Mill Hill
Brattleboro, Vermont 05301
(802) 490-4983
www.stephenprocter.com