"Kiln fires fusion of art, commerce"
June 9, 2008 · Updated 6:45 PM
"Bainbridge ceramic artist Brian Mackin doesn't see tension between art and commerce. In fact, he says, you can't have one without the other.Once the object goes out your door, it's a business, he says. You have to reconcile falling in love with art and the landlord who wants his rent.Mackin is one of the relatively small percentage of artists whose artwork supports a family and a mortgage. His secret formula is the same as for any business - persistence and hard work.As you go along, each year, people drop out, and you have less competition with experience, he said. Stick with it long enough, and you will break free.But there is also hard work. To get ready for his current show at Bainbridge Arts and Crafts, Mackin has been spending 18 hours a day in his custom-built studio next to his house on Roberts Road.Mackin's large earthenware vessels are unquestionably works of art. But because they can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and be taller than a person, plenty of industrial engineering is also involved.Mackin builds his works in layers. He finishes one ring, heats it inside and out with a blowtorch to form a skin for support, then stacks the next ring on top.His custom-made kilns are also layered. When he has a large piece to fire, he slides it onto a base, then stacks as many rings of kiln on top as he needs to accommodate the piece. It's kind of like building a pyramid, he said. I use lifts and pulleys, but nothing that's been invented in this century.As the scale of his work increases, so do the problems. Drying a 1,000-pound pot takes 10 times as long as drying a 100-pound pot. He learned the pitfalls by trial and error.Everything I've learned, I've learned by screwing up, he said. Basically, the way to ruin things is to go too quickly.The bright, primary colors that characterize his work are the product of necessity as much as choice. Mackin is color-blind, and relies on wife Andrea for guidance in that area.She approves my colors, he says. And while he's broadening his color palette, he does so carefully.I mixed some colors I thought were really neat one time, he recalled, and Andy said, 'That's such an ugly brown, it looks like dog poo with glaze on it.'Mackin reverses the prototypical story of the aspiring artist who ends up being a businessman. The Seattle native majored in economics at Whitman College, then went to Japan for a year to learn the language as a foundation for an international business career.To help pass the time, he took a pottery class, and inspiration struck.For the first time in my life, I was doing something that I really loved. And I thought it would be great if I could do it for a living.His first art job was as a glass blower making Christmas balls. But he shifted to pottery, in part because that medium permitted the large-scale work he likes.Rejecting what he calls the starving artist model, Mackin worked other jobs for a dozen years to subsidize his own art. He gradually built a following in galleries, but his commercial breakthrough came when Gump's department store in San Francisco began showing his work.In a gallery, I'll show 10 pieces and sell five, he said. But at Gump's, you have 9,000 people a day seeing your work. So I show seven pieces and sell 50, by replacing pieces every week.Even with a good volume, and with Mackin's larger pieces selling for $2,000 and up, the economics of art are still daunting. Gump's and most galleries take 50 percent of the sale price. Larger pieces cost up to $300 to pack and ship. And despite all of his experience, he still loses about one third of his pieces to cracking, warping and glaze problems.Potters figure if you can clear anything more than $10 per hour, you're doing well, he said.The show at BAC is an exception to the 50-50 split between gallery and artist, because the island's non-profit co-op only takes 40 percent. That, in turn, lets Mackin drop his prices for the 60-plus pieces in the BAC show.And the 40 percent that BAC takes goes for a good cause as well. After paying the small staff, which Mackin calls hands down the easiest people I've ever worked with, BAC dedicates any leftover money to island art education.Mackin hopes BAC prices are attractive to local buyers. I'd like to see some of the pieces stay on the island, he said.Mackin said that even though San Francisco is his best sales outlet, the people who buy his work come from Chicago, New York and Florida. So, as logic would suggest, he wants to get into galleries in those areas. He is in a gallery in Chicago, and has a New York gallery representative visiting him soon. But he has no interest in going to his buyers.The way to beat the system is to live in a place like this and sell in bigger markets, he said."