Elizabeth Nields – a potter sans pareil

Elizabeth Nields has been residing in Otego,  Upstate New York, (near Oneonta), for a long time. Her path to the present was preceded by the most outstanding education in the art of ceramics one can think of.

Born in New York City, she completed her undergraduate studies at Radcliffe University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, studied arts at Adelphi College, Long Island, Columbia University (New York City), and continued at the well-known Brookfield Art Center in Connecticut, Judith Baldwin Pottery in New York City (where she taught and sold her work), Greenwich House Pottery, also in NYC,  Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina and Det Danske Selskab in Denmark.

A teacher at heart

Elizabeth has conducted Summer Clay Workshops in her school in Otego, New York for many years. At Hofstra University, she taught glaze formulation, Japanese ceramics, ceramic sculpture, wheel and hand building, as well as advanced classes and workshops. She also taught intensive workshops and courses in clay at Adelphi University (Long Island) and Montclair State University in New Jersey.

After moving to Upstate NewYork, where she settled permanently, she was in charge of the dynamic ceramic program at the State University College of Oneonta for more than ten years. Elizabeth has conducted Summer Clay Workshops, held at her sprawling complex in rural Otego for many years, where her home, studios and galleries are located and where both beginning and advanced ceramicists from the US and foreign countries gather to enjoy her expert and inspiring tutelage.

To get a good picture of the diversity of her knowledge and background, please take a look at her fascinating website, www.ElizabethNieldsClayWorkshop.com.  As you can see, her work includes about every known technique in clay work – Majolica, raku, ash and salt glazing, firing her stoneware clays in electric as well as gas kilns. Her exceptional variety includes sizes from small to large – if not to say huge - pieces.

Today, she is a well known and respected ceramic persona in her field, with a nationwide recognition and following. She has been featured in Metropolitan and Vogue magazines and has her work on display at the Dietrich Lange Foundation Museum in Florida.

To my question what drives her and gives her the energy, she answers that working with clay and teaching in clay form a mutually supportive function in her life. I can attest to that that after having visited her sought-after workshops, held both during summer and winter, starting with her Celebration for Heifer International in the spring. Students make plates and bowls to sell at a pot lunch for the benefit of that organization.

In her teaching, she offers the broad knowledge she possesses. To accommodate students she has found ways to layer her classes for the students so that each one can be exposed to the many techniques they aspire to learn, within the assigned time frames.

Her summer courses also include children’s work, meals and some accommodation.

Walking through that sprawling ceramic complex is in itself a lesson and an inspiration. No wonder many or her students come back year after year.

How come you selected ceramics as your life’s call?

“I took an intensive workshop at Brookfield Craft Center in Connecticut. I just fell in love with the clay and realized working with clay was what I wanted to do. I immediately found a place where I could work (Baldwin Pottery in NYC) and more or less apprenticed myself there.”

What kind of customers do you target?

“Sometimes I make pottery the way one might make cupcakes. I make things that are practical, utilitarian. I am complimented when my neighbors buy mugs and plates from me. One of the sales I was most proud of was an exchange with a farmer of a pitcher for a load of manure for my garden.

Many times I think of work in clay as an exploration of ones inner life  and discovery of forms that have roots in ancient fragments of art. Along that vein, I am happy when finding a customer who would buy vessels, platters, and sculptures as works of art.”

Do you listen to your customers?

“I generally work from an inner idea. I do occasionally enjoy making something in response to a special request or using a customer’s idea as inspiration for a series of work. There was a store in Hastings on the Hudson that asked me to make tables out of clay. The tops were glass and so a whole interior scene was part of the appeal of the piece.”

How did you find your main suppliers?

“I want them to be as close as possible to me, give me good service and get to know me. So I have excellent relationships with as few suppliers as possible.”

When did you make your first sale?

“I was 25 years old at that time.”

How do you manage your time?

“I love my work and am flexible. If needed, I work into the wee hours and then sleep late next day. I carry a notebook with all notations of what must be done, should be done and could be done within a reasonable time frame. Then it gives me satisfaction to check off one after the other.”

What about shows/fairs?

“I have my facility here in Otego and this is where I have my students and outside customers come and buy. I work fast and can produce considerable volume of work. The future will tell which avenue I will seek to sell my production and at what speed.”

Which are your biggest challenges?

“After working so many years as a teacher without the need for a broad base of customers, I now start to feel that I need to focus more on marketing and selling.”

Which advise would you give to a beginning potter?

“Over the years, I have answered that in many different ways. It really depends on the individual. I have some standard pieces of advice.

First of all: “Take inventory of your courage to be on your own. You will need quite a lot of it”

Secondly: “Learn to accept rejection and keep trying until you start selling. Be patient, don’t give up. Analyze each situation and make adjustments where your intuition tells you they are needed”.

Promotion and Advertising?

“Word of mouth through my students and customers is the most important advertising. I do mailings about my courses and events and keep close watch over updating my mailing lists.”

What about pricing?

We discuss this in some detail. I will try to distill Elizabeth’s philosophy.

“Experience has taught me how to price different pieces. I have sold large or complicated pieces at up to $5,000.00.

I sell to a wide range of customers in a wide range of markets – affluent or less so. You have to adjust. I seldom lower a price once I have decided on it – I feel that betrays my value as an artist. A low price works against you and sends a signal to the customer about both quality and artistry.

You may lose a sale here and there on price, but that’s life. If you have no price rejection, you are probably underpriced and lose money over the longer term.”

Lots of wisdom in that answer.

Thanks, Elizabeth!

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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.