Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A tomato conundrum

Anyone kind enough to follow this blog may be forgiven for wondering whether, after all that, I actually grew anything in my fabulous new greenhouse.  Well, yes.  I've started.  I don't expect to use it to its full potential until retirement or at least semi-retirement but once we knew we were staying here for the summer, I set about sowing my usual quantities of tomatoes.

I usually grow three varieties:

Sungold is a cherry tomato that ripens to a glowing orange colour and is the sweetest tomato I have ever tasted.  As such, I suppose it might not be to everyone's taste, but we both love them and can happily eat them like sweets.  The plants grow like stink (how nice to be able to use that possibly antiquated but punchy little phrase) so I plant them at the front of the tomato area where the roof is of course higher.  In the old greenhouse they grew further and I used to have them trained along the cross-pieces but this greenhouse has a higher roof so I don't know if they'll grow quite so tall.

I then grow two other varieties, a standard tomato and a plum tomato.  These I choose from the wondrous variety offered by Franchi (Seeds of Italy)  whose seeds, I may have mentioned before, are always of excellent quality and arrive in plenteous quantities too.  I can't remember which two varieties I have this year.  It's not relevant to the conundrum.

So, I have 26 tomato plants arranged in two rows of thirteen.  Starting one variety from the back left and Sungold from the front left and then the third variety filling up the end section front and back.  There are eight of the back row plants and ten Sungold in front. 

The plants were all potted up in one session.  I started with a stack of pots and an open bag of compost.  When the bag ran out (halfway through potting up one variety) I opened another.  After they were all potted up in three little groups I arranged the plants as described above.  Patience, patience, there is a point to these tedious details.

For a few weeks I got on with watering with a watering can.  When I remembered to water I watered the whole lot, starting at one end and doing front/back, front/back until the watering can was empty and then refilling and continuing.  Usually two cans full did it, occasionally the last two plants had to start a third.

So you see, the way the plants have been raised and treated (identically), there seems to be no logical explanation why the eight on the left (some of variety A and some of variety B) are dark green and healthy looking and the eighteen on the right (some each of varieties A, B and C) pale and slightly sickly looking.  The only difference is that the eight on the left are standing between the legs of a new staging frame while those on the right are between the legs of the old staging frame.

I'm flummoxed. 

Explanations and, even more so, suggestions about a remedy if one is available and would be beneficial, gratefully received.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Branding - part 3

And here we have rather more of the finished product.  Cloth and Clay with the irises (from part of my large Irises canvas) plus now my tagline and some photos of pots.

I can't remember exactly when I thought of the tagline "handmade products that make you smile" but it was sometime between writing my "real deal" artist's statement and this spring.  The artist's statement has gone down well with customers and other artists alike and this tells me I'm on the right track that being straightforward, honest and not too modest about your own work is a Good Thing.  I've been describing my pottery as cheery and rustic for quite a while, because I genuinely think that's what it's like.  If you don't like cheery or rustic you really aren't going to want my pots.  It's part of what makes them suitable for everyday tableware.  This led onto the tagline because, finally, I'm just going by the reactions on people's faces when they look at my work, whether they end up buying any or not.  Generally, they smile. 

This is very gratifying.  Of course, sales are important if that's how you make your living, but for me it's equally important that I can see that the work brings people pleasure.  I may have mentioned before that I don't go along with the generally British view that you shouldn't express high opinions about yourself or what you do.  For goodness' sake, I've spent enough of my life finding things I didn't think I was good at - when I think I am good at something I'm jolly well going to say so!  And I'm good at making pots, textile art and cards that make people smile.  With any luck, even the tagline itself will have that effect.

Eventually I hope to redesign my website in line with the new look.  I'm thinking that by October I may have a new look for my Farmers' Market stall, following my customary "end of season" sale there in September.  However, I've already launched the new look for small events with the first one last Sunday at the Wearable Art Painswick festival.  There were craft stalls outside, which I would have liked but they were taken by the time I applied, and a large number inside the Painswick Centre.  As is usual with craft shows, each exhibitor gets one table, generally about 6' x 2'6", and I've rarely done these sort of events because it's difficult to display much pottery on a small space.  Eventually, however, I've become the proud owner of a folding bookcase, which I've been on the lookout for for a few years, and so Painswick was a trial run of my new craft show display. 

The hall was fairly well packed with stalls and I was in the centre section so behind me were the backs of other stalls and then the fronts of those against the far wall.  These being rather distracting in my photo, I've blanked them out.  No offence to any of the other stallholders!

I think it worked pretty well.  A friend described the display as "fresh", which I like.  I'm hoping it's also girly enough to fit in with the trend for "pamper evenings" as they seem to be very popular at the moment and I'd like to see whether people consider treating themselves to a new mug or dish to be pampering. 

The Cloth and Clay and colour scheme will be, for the time being, permanent fixtures, and I'll use different words and possibly pictures according to occasion and use. 

There.  Thats' the branding theory written about for the time being.  Now all I have to do is finish the practical!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Branding - part 2

So, as I said, I'm re-branding. And this logo is at the centre. 

A number of factors have been milling about in what passes for my mind and have eventually come together to produce the final result

Back in 1999 I started subscribing to UMRA , the newsgroup for the sort of people who might listen to The Archers.  It's an astonishingly friendly group and back then there was an annual BBQ which we would travel to from all over the country.  Following the 1999 BBQ, Michele was explaining to her partner "which one was Jane?" and answered "The potter in the purple socks."  And so I became The Potter in the Purple Socks and eventually just The Purple Potter.   Indeed, to this day you can follow PurplePotter on Twitter if you've a mind to. No, I'm not digressing, really I'm not.  Here's the point - if I'm going to be the Purple Potter I might as well go for it and emphasise that I'm the Purple Potter.  Why not go for a purplish theme rather than a bluish one?  My pottery display has always been on white boards and plinths and dark blue cloths.  It has always worked well with the range of glazes I use.  For the market in particular, you don't want anything too pale as it will get grubby quite quickly in outside events.  But part of the rebranding involves a gradual changing of colour scheme towards purple and its friends lilac, mauve, fuchsia, etc. 

Another theme in the background lately has been what the market has been doing at the moment.  I mean the market for handmade goods, not the Farmers Market.  What I've been observing is a trend towards "Crafting" and "Crafters".  I have to be honest, there are aspects of this that I find annoying.  Crafting seems to have come to the UK from the USA and is about a new-found love of being practical and making things, mostly as a hobby and often from kits or pre-made components.  I've no argument with this per se.  As a teenager, it was just the sort of thing I used to enjoy.  The problem arises when Crafters start selling the things they've made.  If you are good with your hands and enjoy making things as a hobby, you have a completely different approach to selling.  "Oh, I couldn't sell them for what they've cost me to make!" is a frequent reason given for very low prices.  So when you put hobby crafters and their low prices next to professional craftspeople who depend on their craft to make their living, those of us who need to charge a fair rate (e.g. I aim for the minimum wage but often earn much less) look as if we're charging too high. 

One positive thing the Crafting movement has done is to contribute to the reverse in trend back towards practical skills being a Good Thing.  When I started teaching in the late 70s, practical skills were popular and they were given an important place in education.  We certainly taught the theory behind the skills so that pupils learned why they were doing things but everyone had a chance to learn how to actually make things.  After I left teaching in schools things began to deteriorate - no, no, I'm not suggesting cause and effect here!  I was just lucky to get out when I did.  By the time I was supporting youngsters having problems in school I was able to see that what we had thought of as craft subjects had become design subjects.  The emphasis was on designing products, designing packaging and designing marketing.  A small amount of time was spent on making some products.  I may be exaggerating, but that was what I observed through the work of the children I was supporting.  This is now thought of as an old-fashioned view, I believe.  Others I trained with would possibly see me as out of touch.  I'm sticking to my guns, though.  I think it's great that young people should be aware of what goes into producing things and selling them but you need the product too and most skills take practice rather than occasional attempts.  I don't watch The Apprentice very often but have read about the Biscuit Episode.  For those not bothered about reading more, basically one team created a brilliant brand (aha! Is Jane returning to her theme at last?) but the biscuit inside the box was "rubbish".  That team lost.  Too right!  I'm sorry for the generation that has grown up without practical skills but it's not too late for them to learn.

Well, do you know, I think that's probably enough for today.  It turns out that Branding is a topic that will take more than two parts to explore.  Next time - more about what my brand is about.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Branding - part 1

I'm re-branding. Slowly. Not slowly from reluctance but from practicality - I just don't have the time to do it all at once. I had planned to revamp my website during our long stay in France this summer but of course we're not going at all this year now and life in Stroud gets filled up with other things so I don't really have time for the website at the moment. I have time for little bits and pieces, though.

I've always been aware of the concept of a brand, I think, though I wouldn't have called it that. In recent years 'brand' has become a phenomenon, buzz-word or whatever other term you wish to use for something that is 'in'. And I am distinctly ambivalent about 'in' things.

Clothes fashion is a really good example of this.  In choosing what to wear I've never been one to follow fashion, really, other than when I was at college.  There, fashion was mostly what I was engaged in, although even then, while we were following the general trends of what might be called 'high fashion' of the times, we were also supposed to be creating our own styles and mine, though influenced by the top designers and particularly Zandra Rhodes, was already recognisable.  After college, though, clothes returned to being something that everybody just got on and wore and my style soon became pretty informal and unrelated to fashion.  Periodically the clothes that come into fashion interest me more and at other times my favourite colours turn up as the colours of the year but by and large fashion trends and I have little to do with each other.

What I hate, though, is consumerism and the extent to which fashion and brand drive it.  That people with not much money feel driven to replace perfectly serviceable items because the colour and shape isn't 'in' this year is, I think, what is behind many of the ills of our modern world.  I've no wish to sound like an old fogie and drive my readers away so I won't go on about this, but suffice to say it couldn't matter less to me who has made my shoes so long as they feel comfortable, don't fall apart and I find them visually pleasing.  (If you care, I wear Crocs during as much of the year as I can get away with them as they are amongst the few shoes I have ever owned which fulfil all three criteria.)  But kitchen appliances, hi-fi equipment, three-piece suites and even wallpaper should not be replaced because they are not in the latest style if they are still in good order and do the job you want them to do.

So then, as a consumer, I'm mostly not keen on the whole brand thing.  But here's where Ms Jekyll turns into Mistress Hyde, I'm afraid.  As a manufacturer, Brand is important to me.

At Gloucestershire Arts & Crafts Centre we have more than 50 different makers selling in the shop at any one time.  Some sell better than others and I'm convinced that this is often linked to whether or not they have a recognisable brand.  When new people join, if they don't have much experience in selling their work we try to encourage them to think about their brand, or image.  The worst way to sell is to be skilled in many crafts and display them all together.  If among those things you've made are some pottery mugs, you need to provide a reason for the customer to pick your mug out of your mixed display instead of buying one of mine from a display of nothing but pottery.  We all do it as shoppers - look at a display and in a split second make an assessment of what is being sold - and if that assessment doesn't come up with a clear concept, we tend to move on to something that has.  Over more than twenty-five years of involvement in the arts and crafts business I've seen that the best sellers are always people whose brand is clearly recognisable.

Exactly because I do diversify more than most, it's always been important for me to present my work in a way that shows it clearly as mine.  Working in both ceramics and textiles I can sometimes be seen as a bit of an amateur.  I have been turned down for craft groups for reasons along the lines of if I was a proper potter/textile artist that would be all I do.  I can understand that view even though in my case it's erroneous.  I'm professional in all the things I make and more dedicated than many to my work.  But so that other people recognise this I need to make sure I have an observable brand.

To some extent this was helped when I built my first website.  Needing a domain name, I knew I had "The One" as soon as I thought of Cloth and Clay.  It's what I do and it rolls of the tongue.  Stage one achieved.  In part 2 I'll write about my current rebranding project.