Six Ways to Hate Mugs and One Way to Love Them

Mugs have tons of specifics to execute in order to do their job well:  handle, rim, foot,  balance, containment, usability. Beauty.

But mugs get no respect.  Teapots especially if they don’t actually work – currently have the corner on cache’  and collectability. Even the simple teabowl can garner more acclaim.

Yup. Mugs have to fight for every ounce of approbation they receive and I know why.

Let me hate on mugs in six ways and then tell you about my new line of work: mugs.

Six Bad Things About Mugs

1. Every coffee shop,  roadside attraction and public radio fundraiser has custom logo mugs. Slip-cast  decaled restaurant-ware Made in China, they’re common as a cold.

2. Every local Potter’s Sale has mugs. They’re a handmade staple, but often poorly crafted: too heavy and lumpy,  with ungrippable handles, wobbly feet,  lip-slicing top rims, poorly-applied glazes. It’s amazing to me how bad of a mug even a fairly competent potter will offer for sale. Crude is not wabi sabi!

3. They cost too much. If you buy a $5 handmade mug and it underperforms, well you maybe got exactly what you bought. But there are $50 and up art mugs out there. They begin to approach the unusable teapots and ineffable teabowls, but still make a bid for your daily use. What’s it gonna be? Can you justify your love?

4. If you use them, they will break. If you feel too precious about something, the OOh OOh Tremors will kick in and you will break it sooner rather than later. Or you will be aware of the Tremors, do an end run and use the mug only for posies or, worse, pencils.  I’ve tried gluing a broken handle back on and it broke again, mid-sip, spilling hot coffee in my lap and on my keyboard.

5. They cost too much for the artist to make. Mugs take a lot of fiddling to get right. More than one expert ceramics artist has told me they just can’t recoup their time costs on mugs. They’d have to price them beyond a comfortable range, so why do them at all?  Vases afford respectable returns. Even pitchers or platters.  Wallhangings.

But everyone wants mugs. Even me….witness my Open Studios Mug Tour last October.

6. I don’t really have a sixth point, I just like six as a number. If it did, it would be about the utter irrationality of loving mugs anyway, because it’s a good lead-in to the next section.


How I Found A Way to Love Mug-Making

Over the years, I’ve been asked and asked and asked to make mugs. I’ve come to think it’s because mugs are understandable and useful. It’s a way to have a little something from the artist.  Giftable. Defensible. Enjoyable. Nothing wrong with all of that!

Mugs with faces (Tobys) were logical and appealing for my requesters at one time, but not to me, so I stuck with the Ugly and Character Face Jugs.

And now I get requests for miniature gas and oil can mugs, paint can mugs, tobacco can mugs, beer and soda can mugs, fruit and veggie can mugs. As nifty as these ideas might seem,  so far I have resisted. I only can say I’m more interested in the pure form of the can than the can-as-mug form. And I’m well aware of all the extra fiddling and the woeful reports on cost-effectiveness. Mugs have been a no-go artistically and business-wise for me for a long time. I had no inclination to circumvent the obvious.

Until now.  I promise to post a How-to pictorial soon, as I’ve encountered a mesmerizing layering process.  But all I want to do presently is lift the curtain on a new way of being with the clay that begs me to make nothing but freshly formed,  excellently crafted and sassy mugs. Very little fussing, great usability, lots of artiness. Just barely in my control yet still very functional and I like that.

And for all the fun, they’re even cost effective enough to keep the prices down. Everyone wins!

So, meet the new Strata Mugs! Here are three, still experimental, not even bisque-fired, but all they will need after bisquing is a translucent matte glaze and off they will go to the cupboards of American Ceramic Mug Lovers everywhere.



~Liz Crain, who’s new ceramic process lets her synthesize form and function, process and product, pure play and productivity.

The top photo is of the endearingly local coffeehouse, The Ugly Mug, in Soquel, who gladly takes ANY donated mugs and uses them!



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A Frank Look at Money and Venues

The Situation: At some point, Dear Ones, every artist who’d like to “sell” is looking for validation. If someone –  a complete stranger, a friend, or even your mom – gives you respectable money for your precious creations, you cross a line from self-pleasuring hobbyist to validated emerging professional. Just like that. And it feels good.

We won’t go into how squishy and dotted that line is, or how many times you may retreat and re-cross it;  sure, then unsure, than sure again of that validation. It can really mess with your head. Not to mention your work in the studio.

Instead, we’ll fast forward to the place where all the problems you’ve solved in order to stay validated are different now. You’re a Selling Artist. Though you may still and forever be “emerging,” the talking points become more about your niche, your ideal customer, your pricing practices, your product families. Art Biz stuff. Besides making the most excellent and meaningful work you can, where are the optimum places for you to be in order for it to be enjoyed and purchased by those who naturally want what you have and have the means to buy it? Where is the Goldilocks Validation Zone?

That last question will never really go away because it involves the agile art market and your fragile toehold in it.  This applies to us all: I don’t care how big of a name you have or market you roll in, agility and adeptness in responding to change are your trusted allies. You will answer and re-answer such marketing questions until you no longer seek market validation.


The Plot Sickens:

A few Art Soup thickeners here: You’re in charge of this selling stuff, every bit of it. Even if you partner with galleries, co-ops, wholesalers, art groups, agents and tour events, you are the partner too.

No pathway is a sure thing.

Going ONLY after money is a one-way ticket to meaninglessness.

Beware of seeking potential validation, which might masquerade as all-promising flattery and/or “exposure.”  You might lose sight of a venue or event’s viability. (I’m looking at YOU quasi-donation pay-to-play garden party.)


The Frank Look: Until recently, I just ran numbers on my actual sales and actual costs venue by venue or event by event in order to understand whether or not each was profitable. It was good insofar as I was able to compare what has happened over repeated months and years, so I could understand how tweaking all sorts of things (staying agile) impacted the bottom lines. I also know my overall annual income and expenses and net profit. But I sensed dis-parity in my “income streams.” What would help me understand where my efforts approached that GVZ and where was I perhaps not making the best use of my time and troubles, or, heavens, where was I spending money on an illusion (and going in the red to do it?)

The key to creating The Frank Look is to leave the world of real sales numbers and just suppose the same gross sales across the board. I started with a flat $2000 in annual sales, so let’s look at that, venue by venue:

Traditional Gallery: No out of pocket expenses.   Commission 50% = $1000.  NET: $1000.

Vanity Gallery: Upfront Monthly fees $48  x 12 = $576.  Commission 15% = $300. NET: $1124

Co-op Style Gallery: Annual Membership = $50. Entry Fees: 4 exhibits x $45 = $180.  Commission 25% = $500 NET: $1270.

But, wait, while the Co-op looks to be the most lucrative of our galleries,  there are soft costs which must be taken into account: namely the volunteer time required to “sit” the gallery and the travel expenses specifically associated with that task (not in getting the work delivered/picked up.) Even if I value that time at a ridiculous $10 an hour, it plays out like this:

Hours to Gallery Sit: 72 x $10 = $720  Travel: 12 x $5 = $60. ADJUSTED NET: $490

So ya gotta ask about the Opportunity Cost of lost studio time as well as applying a more appropriate hourly rate. Seems to me the news only gets worse for the Co-op Style Gallery.


Let’s look outside the galleries. Applying the same flat $2000 sales to shows and art tours….

Regional  Outdoor Show: Costs, including fees, commissions, mailings, transportation, volunteer and booth sitting time = $981.  NET: $1019

Local Outdoor Show: Cost, including fees, transportation, volunteer and booth sitting time = $361.  NET = $1639

Major Art Tour: Costs, including fees, mailings, postcards, volunteer and selling time = $810.  NET: $1190.

That Local Outdoor Show wins: no travel expenses, lower fees, NO commissions.

Are you still with me? Because there’s more.

What’s my Downside Risk?  What if I had ZERO sales?

Traditional Gallery: COST = $0

Vanity Gallery: COST = $576

Co-op Style Gallery: COST = $1010

Regional Outdoor Show: COST = $681

Local Outdoor Show: COST = $361

Major Art Tour: COST = $810

Sorry, Co-op. Yay for Local Outdoor Show! Very respectable, Traditional Gallery.

These numbers are telling me a clear story about comparable and true costs. I ran them for $1000, $3000, $4000 and $5000 sales figures. with no unexpected variations. The themes were the themes. The good got stellar. The not-so-good  dwindled and rotted as other factors came into play.

Most important other factor: the likelihood of selling a certain amount or not. Some venues are undeniably hampered in that regard, others are nearly unlimited in potential, some need to prove themselves.  It’s also fair to consider such things as: In which of these venues do I feel at home? Am I treated fairly and professionally? Is my work given a spotlight? Which of them takes less physical/creative energy to maintain? Which are better for my relationship to my collectors?

It all goes into the hopper, and armed with both The Frank Look numbers and my horse sense about where things go well, I can better determine where  that Goldilocks Validation Zone is now and in future possible exhibition venues or events.

~Liz Crain,  an artist who tries to squeeze meaning out of every effort, whether sublimely creative or calculatedly analytic, yet knows all will be well regardless.






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