Meet Alice Siegfried – A Classic Potter

I had met Alice Siegfried, well-known potter in my hometown, Oneonta, New York before, and bought some of her work. So I decided to seek an interview with her for my article series, “Successful Ceramics”. It was a “just in time” decision. It turned out that Alice had decided to retire after her next firings.

We met at her comfortable home in the center of the city. To my question why retiring now, she calmly answered that she had made that decision after 45 years of business as a potter, that she is now eighty years old, she is alone after her husband passed away and “it is time to step down”. Clear and articulate and with the conviction in her voice that she had fulfilled her dream of creating, we had a relaxed conversation and I got a picture of someone who looks back on her life with pride.

Oneonta, a small city of 25,000 inhabitants, sits in the spectacularly beautiful central part of the State of New York. It is located about one hour’s drive west of Albany, New York’s capital, at the foot of the Catskill Mountains, and is appropriately called “City of the Hills”. It has an active cultural life with a new modern theatre, a symphony orchestra and many other activities that comes with the presence of two colleges, a State College, part of the large New York University’s system, and the exclusive private Hartwick College. Both of them have active arts departments, ceramics occupying important segments. Oneonta also has an Artisans’ Guild right on Main Street, where local artists can meet and sell their work. There is also a Center for the Arts which enjoys some state support.

It’s a city with a stable economy in a safe environment – the quintessence of an attractive small American city with a clean environment where people tend to come and stay, far from the hustle and bustle of a big city.

I know of eight active potters in the area. This is quite a few for such a sparsely populated area and is in my opinion attributable to the general environment. And their presence affords me an opportunity to get to know the life of different potters close to home.

How come you became a potter?

Alice fell in love with clay and fire while taking a course in ceramics at the State University College at Oneonta. The ceramic department at the time she started learning from Dan Young (a well known professor and artist at that college) was modest – housed in a basement classroom converted from a bowling alley. As the interest grew, the ceramic department was moved to the brand new Fine Arts Center on the main campus. Without doubt it was her inspiring teacher who brought Alice’s creativity to life – and into a lifelong passion. Today, Alice Siegfried is an established and respected name in Oneonta’s arts community.

What kind of pottery do you focus on?

“I make functional pots and never tire of it. I use stoneware clay and fire to cone 10 (2,381 degrees F.)” She uses a gas fired kiln, fires in reduction in a brick kiln built for her by her husband. It has a catenary arch shape and stands in a separate building on her property. We went together and studied her kiln house. I found a fully loaded kiln, ready for the bisque firing (1800 degrees). That historic kiln load will be the last of three bisque firings to be followed by six or seven glaze firings. .

“I love throwing pots and the awe I experience at the transformation of the fragile greenware, first to bisque ware and then to full maturity. Most new customers do not know that fully mature, cone 10 stoneware is dishwasher, microwave and oven safe – that what I make can last them a lifetime – if taken well care of”. Then she looked me in the eyes and added with emphasis: “IT’S VERY IMPORTANT TO MAKE BEAUTIFUL POTS”. Functional pieces can be art – she learned that in her studies and the impeccable execution of her work bears this out.

And her pots are beautiful. You recognize her color combinations and especially the style of her handles right away. Her main customer group is women. They become repeat customers. She has never had trouble selling her pieces

How do you establish your prices?

I asked about her pricing and she tells me that she at the beginning checked out what other potters charged and emulated there pricing structure. Over the years of selling at shows – she did seven shows per year in the wider area of Oneonta and environs – and established a following along with a cementing of her techniques and style. That gave her the confidence to adjust her prices according to her experience from the market.

She also sells through the local Artisans’ Guild, and learnt from their experience where her prices should be. The load in her kiln, pending bisque firing, glazing and final firings, she anticipates being sold through that association as well as her traditional open house at the beginning of summer.

During your 45 years as an active potter, could your pottery have supported you?

Alice hesitates for a minute. She is not sure as she was married to a State University Professor. “I cannot really answer that with conviction as my husband was always there and helped me. Now, in my years as a widow, I appreciate the income stream from the sales of my work. Whether I could have built my business all by myself, which I know others local potters to have done, I cannot answer with certainty. My husband gave me wonderful moral support and helped with transporting my load of items to shows.

How do you market your pieces?

My marketing is mostly by word of mouth. After many years of participating in shows – I used to attend seven of them, but only did one the past few years – I built a substantial mailing list. I also established a tradition of open houses on specific dates every spring, for which I send out a flier to my mailing list as a reminder. In addition I place an ad in our local newspaper. Very importantly, the exhibit of my works at the Artisans’ Guild works like a “silent salesman” and results in a steady flow of sales.

Do you listen to your customers?

Definitely and I make changes if they are within certain limits. I dislike special orders, though, and many times do not accept them.

What other factors have contributed to your success?

I am very careful of maintaining an excellent relationship with my suppliers. Over so many years, I had to switch a couple of times. As my main supplier sold his business to a new firm, I continue with that new company and remain with them to this very day. For me it has always been extremely important that my clays, for instance, is consistent as are the ingredients for my glazes. I think a trusting relationship with one’s supplier solves many problems and gives you many happy returns in your business.

Success lies also in consistent quality. Sometimes the lids to my pots give me problems. My rule is to re-make them till they fit rather than sell something that is not perfect. I know that costs me money, but a deficient product can turn out to be very costly to you in terms of lost future sales.

What has been your biggest challenge?

The firing process. I stay very close to the kiln, literally, during the 10 to 12 hours of firing. I always fire with the kiln full and anything going wrong can be very costly.

How do you manage your time?

Alice smiles and answers: “The clay dictates my time management right through the process of throwing, drying the clay, bisque firing the pieces and the final cone 10 glaze firing. Since I have an uncomplicated system focusing on primarily one customer category and one basic line of products (stoneware pots), I can schedule my time quite well. Even so, with many interests and responsibilities, it is sometimes difficult to find a block of time in which to work undisturbed”.

Let’s wish Alice the best of luck with her last kiln load and beyond!

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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.