Drive, Flexibility and Speed made this potter’s success

Jennifer in the Artisan's gallery on Main street Oneonta.

Meet Jennifer Kemper

I have known Jennifer Kemper for a long time – she actually worked in my ceramic company for quite some time here in Oneonta (Upstate New York) , but the pull from her entrepreneurial spirit made her leave and seek success in her own business. During the time she was  working in my company, she bought a small kiln and worked nights and weekends perfecting her skills at throwing on a wheel, hand building, slab rolling, casting – any form of creating what a project would require.

When and how did you start?

The other day we met up for a talk and I got a deeper insight into her road from her first experience in ceramics in 1973. It was during her Jr. High and later Sr. High school in southern California that she found her fascination with clay – the love for three dimensional arts. She stood in line for ceramics class which was overfilled, but somehow succeeded to get in and start formal education. She continued that education later at the local universities’ ceramic programs here in Oneonta.

In addition, parallel with her schooling and working on her ceramics skills, she also somehow found time to work as an editor for the Unitarian Church, part-time, for seven years

Jennifer always had a strong independent streak and mentions, like in passing, that “after learning the basics at school, you take off and learn most of your skills on your own”. That, in my mind, could describe the trajectory of most successful entrepreneurs.

Do you specialize in some way?

Not really. I listen to the customers and give them what they want at an appropriate price”.

Jennifer has no problem with special orders. We always muse over a major project she made for my family. Being Swedish, we drink a hot and spicy, wine-based “glögg” during the Christmas season. It’s heated and – in this case – kept hot in a large stoneware bowl with a lid. To the base of red wine, you add cut and sliced almonds and raisins, some port wine and a bit of vodka and drink it steaming hot from small stoneware mugs. A Christmas would not be Swedish without glögg.

My wife asked Jennifer to make a Glögg set, complete with a dozen mugs. She slaved over this project and produced a beautiful set decorated with a Christmas motif, which we still enjoy every year. It – along with the secret recipe for the glögg - has become a family heirloom.

So Jennifer certainly listens to her customers – she makes what they want and need. I consider this another key to the success of anybody’s business.

What equipment do you use and where do you work?

“I use two large and one small electric kiln, which I find gives me the flexibility to accommodate most projects. I exclusively work in stoneware clay and fire to cone 6. Cone 6 is a mid-range temperature for stoneware and saves electricity.

After living in the city in Oneonta, I have now moved into the country, where I find less interruption to do my work and – at least the last few years – even find time to relax and spend time on gardening and other activities”.

Where do you find inspiration?

“I admire the classic New York pottery and study other cultures’ pottery. Recently I spend 6 weeks in India and saw old and new pottery and sculpture. The impressions are now imbedded in my soul.”

How to you price your work?

“I learnt early on to be flexible and I studied other studios’ pricing. Since I really do not concentrate on just a few shapes, I have to constantly figure out what price to apply to a particular piece. The size and complexity of the piece can make a difference. .

Jennifer goes on and explains that you must know the cost of your piece and the longer you stay in the business and the more exposure you have to different market places, your “instinct” for pricing right grows inside you. This is what I call a mature way of finding “neutral pricing”, meaning a price that is just right, not too high to lose a sale and not too low to lose your profit. Finding “neutral pricing” is key to profits.

How do you market your pieces?

“Through several venues. Like most successful businesses I rely on good word of mouth, which I consider my most precious asset. I have built my following through participating in 8 shows a year – 7 all over central New York and 1 in Vermont. I also have a permanent exhibit at the Artisans’ Guild on Main Street Oneonta. The Guild is a cooperative where all of us artisans (not only potters) pay our share of the rent and have permanent exhibits. We are also required to work 4-6 hour per week, minding the shop and waiting on customers.

I also make pieces on all price levels – even for kids, which may just want a ceramic button, a Christmas ornament or some other low-priced item. It all adds up both money wise and by creating good will. Anyone coming into the Guilds’ exhibiting store can find something to buy.

Are you feeling any impact of the slow economy of today?

She pauses and thinks about this and then shakes her head. “No, I don’t. I am keeping just as busy as always”. Maybe this has to do with her wide range of products and a following of loyal customers “who come to the shows where I exhibit, to buy something every year”. It might also have to do with the stability of Oneonta’s low profile economic environment.

How about your bottom line?

Sometimes this question makes people clam up, but not Jennifer. She smiles and explains that she is doing well financially. She paid the tuition for her son through the School of Visual Arts in New York City (three years) – a very substantial annual financial set-back, to a small extent mitigated by student loans and modest scholarships – and has enough income for a comfortable life, including social security and health insurance. It helps, of course, that she does not pay rent for a separate studio. She works in three rooms in an old house on the property but lives in a cottage that her partner David Green built from a small, former horse barn. The combination of all that space accommodates all her needs for living and work.

“I can work fast and efficiently, which is really necessary. There are days when a concentrated 5 hours of work yield the results I need.”

Jennifer, in her low-keyed way, is certainly an inspiration for other potters and artists.

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© 2011 by Rolf E. Ericson, Oneonta, New York, publisher. All rights reserved. Photocopying, reproduction , copying, or redistribution of any kind in printed or electronic form is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher.