Daniel Bellow is a sometimes writer and ceramicist living, exhibiting, and teaching in Berkshire County. Known for unique porcelain creations, Dan’s work is sold in Berkshire County, online, and in Anthropologie stores from L.A. to London. Daniel sits down with MASS MoCA intern Violet Lynch to chat about being a full-time potter, launching his own business, and the people who helped him get there. Daniel is the one of four artists participating in this summer’s Berkshire-focused crowdfunding campaign spearheaded by Assets for Artists.
Your work is sold all over the place; it’s available online and you’ve said that your circle of galleries expands as far as Chicago. Wow!
Everywhere is a big place, so I’m kind of a king of the Berkshires. But the Berkshires are a small place, and it’s difficult to make a living just being king of the Berkshires. So I need to be king of everywhere. That’s why I pursue wholesale deals that get me in to places where people will spend all day selling my pots, so that I can make more. That’s the whole idea: sell pots, make more. If you count all the Anthropologie stores I’m in, I go all the way from L.A. to London. I want to be in Tokyo.
It’s really worked out better than I ever dreamed it would, to be picked up by a national chain and to be online and selling… you know, I sent out five packages this morning and one of them went to Texas, one to Michigan, and three to Atlanta. So it’s really great to live in the Berkshires, I love living in the Berkshires, but you can’t make a living selling pottery just in the Berkshires.
What was it that initially brought you here?
I came here in 1988 to work on the Berkshire Eagle. I was one of the last crop of promising young reporters that got hired there, and I worked in newspapers for 20 years. I ended up back at the Berkshire Eagle working in editorial. I started with high hopes for a big career in journalism and that didn’t happen. The reason it didn’t happen was because I didn’t want it enough. So I thought, well I have to do what I really want so that when I do succeed and have a good career it will be what I want. This is a small thing to succeed in but still, I set a task for myself and now I’m achieving it, it’s really great. I’ve always wanted to be the artist.
At this point, had you been working with clay for a long time?
Only since sophomore year in high school. I took 15 years off to be a newspaper reporter.
So during that time, you weren’t making any work at all? Or just every now and then?
No, I was like an alcoholic; I swore off it. And then I went back to it, and it’s much better than alcohol; it’s incredibly rewarding. I was in a show at the Worchester Center for Crafts, and there were the 22 best potters in New England, and I thought, this is good, I’ve really made it, and I’ve really arrived.
How did you come to the realization that you wanted to leave the Berkshire Eagle and pursue pottery full time?
I always said the reason I’m not doing this is that it can’t be done. Every old potter that I meet says, “Yeah, I broke my back and I’ve never made any money.” But this is the life that I wanted; I want to make things all day, my own things. I’ve sat in front of that computer all day, and I’m here to tell you that this is better.
You’ve said previously that you were somewhat hesitant to enroll in the Assets for Artists program. What changed your mind?
It’s very supportive for artists, here in Berkshire County. There are a lot of people who want to see you succeed. One of those people was [Assets for Artists Program Director] Blair. He said you need this, I really want you to do this; you need this to become more successful. And he was right, I really did need it.
What role, if any, did Assets for Artists play in the growth of your business?
Assets for Artists played a small but significant role in getting the whole thing off the ground. Attending the classes really focused me on what I needed to do. I saw people who were further along and more successful taking this class, and I learned a lot from them. It made me mindful of the need to be organized; the writing of the business plan really focused my attention on what I needed to do. Then I went and did it. The money was really useful. It paid for part of my kiln; I expanded my kiln 33% and now it fires a lot better. It allowed me to pay the programming costs for that bright shiny website that you see. When you send somebody a link to your website and it looks really professional and there is a whole e-commerce function attached to it, and they see it, they can buy it. That impresses people, and they want to do business with you.
Were these all goals you had going in to the program?
Yes. I knew that I needed to improve my production facility and to be able to sell more pots. The whole principle is sell more pots, make more pots. It was something that I needed to do. It was a business class like you would get at BCC [Berkshire Community College] or at MCLA [Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.] Nobody was saying get off your ass and go enroll at BCC, but Blair said, well here, participate in this program, we’ll give you money. You know, twist my arm!
The website looks great, really impressive!
I’m going to rearrange the whole site and make it focused on selling more of what I actually make. I want my more popular products out front. I’ve decided to simplify my line, so that I only do dinnerware in one shape because it is very hard as a sole practitioner to have stock that is deep enough. If the whole thing blew up and everybody wanted pots tomorrow, I would have what to send them? Everybody always orders the color I don’t have, it’s some kind of sinister Murphy’s law effect.
Do you work completely alone, or do you have help in the studio?
I have wonderful helpers in the studio. Mostly I work alone because my work is so technically difficult that I have trouble finding people who can do what I do. That’s what they tell you in the course, to identify the area of your business that only you can do and delegate everything else. Lots of people can glaze pots, lots of people can load kilns, and that is a quarter of what we do here.
Did you experience any other benefits after having participated in the program? Did you find that your practice changed at all?
It taught me to quantify aspects of my business. I’m more mindful of how I spend my time. In my business, raw materials are cheap, relatively speaking. My margin on everything is very high, but there is a limit to my productive capacity. So the most important commodity in the studio is the potter’s time. It taught me to count my minutes and it taught me to quantify, and that has helped me with pricing things and trying to figure out what I can sell that is going to make me the money I need to survive. I spent the past year on that. I made 2,400 pots for Anthropologie last year. When I went to the show and told other people what I had done they could not believe it.
The thing that I need to remember is to be an artist and to constantly keep working on new things. I have a bunch of new products, some of which I designed for Anthropologie and some of which I thought of on my own. I think I’m going to have buyers for all of these things. After I got the 300 more pots off to Anthropologie in March, I spent April working on new things, and trying to remember that I’m not just a businessman, that I’m an artist too.
The Berkshires are a great place for that, as you are surrounded by such a vibrant creative community all of the time. You could be working from anywhere, so why do you stay in the Berkshires as opposed to somewhere else?
My life! I live in this wonderful town, I have this great neighborhood where my kids are out playing kickball until dark. They love their school, they love their friends, they play little league, they act in community performances. It’s a great place to live and raise children, which is why we came back here when our kids were little. I love my studio. If one day I need to get bigger, there are buildings by the highway on Route 7 where I can build a new kiln. I have a project that may turn into a factory, and I would like nothing better than to have a manufacturing facility in Berkshire County. The state of Massachusetts has been so incredibly supportive of my work! It would be ungrateful of me to offshore to China.
I love it here; that’s why I stay. The community is really good to me. I talk about being king of the Berkshires, but my local galleries are what launched me. Donald Clark of Ferrin Gallery saw my stuff in Philadelphia in 2005, where I went before I was ready to handle the business I have now. Donald asked, “Why aren’t you with us in Lenox?”
I had a real estate license. I found Ferrin gallery their spot on North Street in Pittsfield. Pittsfield has been very supportive of me. MASS MoCA ordered my work, how great is that?
My supplier is 10 miles down the road. If I’m mixing a glaze and I don’t have an ingredient, I call them and I drive 10 minutes down the road, and I get a bag of ceramic material that would cost as much to ship as it does to buy. They sell my work. In the boxes that they give me clay, I return to them finished work.
How did you start selling work? Once you had started working in the studio, what was the logical next step?
Sheffield Pottery has been great, they sold my work before it was any good. Local galleries, local people, the farmers market . . . I made cups for Dottie’s Coffee Lounge. I sold them at below wholesale, just to have my work out. People would see my stuff elsewhere and say, oh those are the Dottie cups!
When I was a real estate agent, I would go into the houses of total strangers, people I was sure I didn’t know, and I would see my work in their kitchen. They had a pitcher, they had a coffee cup, somebody had bought them something, even if they were weekenders. My work is my ambassador, it goes out in front of me. In the circle that is closest to me, that’s Berkshire County. The Berkshires have been really good to me.
Do you have any idea how you might use the funds from the campaign?
I’m always beating up my equipment and having to replace it. I need kiln shelves. I’m starting to slip cast, so I need plaster. Maybe I need to have somebody else make molds for me. I got an order for butter dishes, which I can really only slip cast in quantity. [Slipcasting is] a way of making more pots. What else… I’d buy kiln shelves, I would outfit my slip casting operation, one of the wheels needs a new motor baring… that kind of stuff.