Tony Ross-Gower lives a dual life as a child protection expert and a master potter, he is married with children and lives in the hamlet of Selling in Kent
I should be doing a proper full-time job
When I went to see Tony Ross-Gower his first ever one man show was seven weeks away. He said he had been building to this all his life, yet he still hadn’t sorted out the financial side with the gallery. On the one hand he was full of hope, on the other he was insistent that he should be doing a proper full-time job
I would struggle to make a decent living just doing this. All this is happening by accident, it’s just that my child protection consultancy is only taking about fifty percent of my time at the moment. I have accepted that this will never be my living. if I had to choose between setting up my own children’s home and being a successful full-time potter I wouldn’t know which to choose. Pottery is my hobby, not my living, I don’t do it to make money, I just have to make enough to cover costs.
Serving the Kiln Spirits
The technique I am most fascinated by is ‘Raku’ which is an ancient oriental method of swiftly firing pottery followed by intense ‘reduction’ of oxygen with sawdust and/or rapid cooling in water.
I face the same problems in making my Raku pots as potters of the Tang dynasty I am placing myself in a ten thousand-year tradition.
For the glazes I buy the raw materials in bulk and grind it myself through a metal sieve, it takes hours and hours .
My pots go into the raku kiln which is heated to a thousand degrees I can look into the kiln and decide when to bring the pot out, when I judge the moment right, I plunge it, red hot, into a bin of sawdust or bracken or leaves, all of which naturally try to catch fire, I then put the lid on the bin to starve it of oxygen and that draws the oxides out of the glazes.
With raku what happens, happens, I don’t try to control it I am more a zen facilitator. Michelangelo said you release the statue from the block of stone and I feel like that. I am learning from experience all the time. Sometimes I make a pot so pleasing that I feel that the kiln spirits have smiled upon me.
When I was sixteen, I was depressed and in Peper Harow School which was a therapeutic community for boys in trouble. One of the other lads said come down and said make a pot. I didn’t even know what he meant . When I saw you could take a lump of clay, put it on a wheel and make it into a pot, it was a life changing experience for me. If someone says why do you do things by hand? my answer is, that is why I live. It gave me a sense of completion it was a way of expressing myself without causing trouble.
At that school you could choose how you spent your time and so I did pottery every day for years and years. At first I was protective and secretive about it. I didn’t want anyone else to come into the workshop, I didn’t want them to get good. I ended up taking a ceramics degree at Stoke on Trent. Pottery gave me a sense of my own worth
The Price of Hoarding
Tony has a convoluted view of selling his pots, it’s a split attitude which he probably should resolve. On the one hand he sees selling a pot for a good amount of money as a confirmation of his mastery of his craft. But at the same time £150 is the most he has ever charged for a pot. He says
I would feel I was taking the mick if I asked any more, I don’t think it is worth it, it’s a bit of clay and I fashioned it, it is a crafts piece, it’s not like art which can portray emotions.
He is insistent that he only needs to cover his costs, which I point out means he is undercutting other potters who make their living from their work. He admits that some of his buyers tell him they would pay much more than he has asked for particular pieces. Big name potters like Ray Finch command thousands of pounds for a pot. he says he would pay to simply touch a Ray Finch piece.
If anyone challenged the price of a pot, I would be the first to defend it, I consider myself a master craftsman. I’m a good potter and I am proud of it, 37 years of experience goes in to the making of my pots.
He has difficulty parting with his best pieces
Sometimes opening the kiln is like falling in love. When I sell a pot the buyer doesn’t own it; it’s physically with them, but it is still mine. I want them to look at the pot and think of the person who made it. I love to go and visit my pots and I take lots of digital images before I part with them.
He seems to have the emotions of a father who walks his daughter up the aisle.
This unwillingness to part with his best pieces is probably behind the modest prices he asks, he could not, in all conscience, refuse a big amount, but if he keeps the prices modest, it is less of a sin not to part with his best. Holding on is probably also a by-product of working part-time. A potter who can work whenever he wishes is driven by the next piece he is going to create, if you can only work in phases, you need to keep hold of your best things so you have a starting point of excellence.
Facing His First One Man Show
Anticipating his forthcoming one man show at Creek Creative in Faversham for which Tony is hoping to display 50 to 100 pieces:
My wildest and most excessive dream would be that someone comes along and falls in love with everything there and wants to buy it all for £10,000. But I would be more than happy to sell £1,000 worth, if it was just £300 then I would be gutted but then it depends what the exposure leads to, it might lead to an invitation to show elsewhere or to a spate of commissions.
He is not keen on spending too much time as a production potter
–Works 20 hours a week —Income cover costs—
An order for so many plates or goblets I see as a chore, I get the same satisfaction as loading the dishwasher, there is no joy. But I do like to see my things in a shop or gallery, I like to look at them and think ‘I made those.’
UPDATE ON SHOW
He displayed over fifty pieces over four days and sold over £2000 worth of pots, received lots of commissions, was invited to take part in other shows and was asked to do lots of workshops. His biggest sale was £600 and his highest single priced item sold for £285. For Tony the show was pivotal
I have broken through to a new level of pricing, the whole show was extremely gratifying. I simply hadn’t realised the distance I had travelled, the show confirmed the idea that I had been nurturing – that my stuff was good.
Gallery visitors were so positive they said things like ” Truly gifted” ; “Great talent”; “Extraordinary beauty” It was so confidence boosting.
I also felt vindicated, all those years I had been stealing time from my family to do my pots suddenly added up. My wife Jo was bursting with pride, she was introducing herself as the artist’s wife, now she is fully convinced.
Its given me more energy, more confidence and I can even enjoy the basics as I know where I am going.
Ross- Gower is on a high, he deserves to be, he is an innately modest man, his first one man exhibition reveals how much a craftsman needs his buyers’ approbation. For a craftsman it is never just about the money, he needs to be recognised, sales prove that recognition, but praise too is vital in building self belief which fuels creativity. Intelligent patronage is crucial, the maker- buyer relationship central.