John T. Davis, of J. Davis Studios, has been a full-time working artist for more than 30 years. One day, while working on a pet project for his daughters, he uncovered a business idea that has lasted 15 years, and is still going strong.
While he enjoys the success of that “pet project” (a.k.a. InnerSpirit Rakus) and admits that his greatest success is making a living off his art, John is still amazed at the satisfaction he gets from taking an idea, putting it on paper, and then creating a three-dimensional work of art from it.
Alyice: When did you first start your adventure in creating ceramic art?
John: I remember amassing large quantities of play dough, usually borrowing from my brother and sister who never seemed to miss it. And in junior high school we were making busts in clay and I thought it would be more fun to carve a negative face out of plaster then press clay into it. As the weeks passed and people were coming up with admirable busts, I labored away digging into the plaster negative.
In my mind I was creating a beautiful Jean Harlow type face, but with the final pressing in of the clay I was shocked to see something that looked like a flat African mask.
As I write this, I realize that my technique has not changed much in forty years. I bought my first kiln after graduating from high school with a little bit of graduation money and a job fixing flat tires.
Alyice: For those who have a hard time understanding the type of art you create, can you tell us a little bit about your best selling, InnerSpirit Rakus (a.k.a. rattles)?
John: Spirit rattles are palm-sized works of art created in heart, round, and square shapes. The rattles are raku-fired then beaded with glass beads with an artificial sinew. Then each rattle is boxed with its own story card in a nest of shredded parchment.
Honestly the rattles came into being as project for my daughters, Michaela and Hannah, to make and raise some spending at an art fair. I was amazed at their popularity. Through the years with the story cards and the individuality of each rattle, people seem to draw a personal bond once they pick up a rattle.
Alyice: Aside from creating your InnerSpirit Rakus, you also create inlaid vases. I read on your site that these were inspired by your grandmother’s delicate figurine making. Can you tell us more about these vases?
John: As a child my grandmother made porcelain figurines. It amazed me that something fragile, dull, and white could emerge from the kiln extremely strong with a beautiful translucency.
My first inlaid pieces were inspired by driving through the desert surrounded by miles of prickly pear. I had the “what if” idea of prickly pear contained within a perfect perimeter of a graceful vase.
Recently I broke a mold, which left a hole in it, and again that “what if” factor came into play. I broke from my traditional technique and was able to have birds, leaves, and raven heads emerging from that opening.
Alyice: What do you wish you knew about ceramics before you got started?
John: Most of what I have learned through the years has been through trial and error which tends to let me see upcoming problems.
When someone tells you that you can’t do something, it only means that it did not work for that person. In ceramic arts much of the “new” is because someone is experimenting with the old and not following any examples—clay paper, for instance. Take two elements (clay and paper) that have been around for thousands of years and mix them together. . . and you’ve got a new medium.
Always continue to experiment and use plenty of kiln wash on the shelf. Some things melt at lower temperatures than you would imagined.
Alyice: You’ve been steadily selling these pieces for over 15 years, can you tell us how you’ve been able to maintain such a strong audience?
John: We have been selling the rattles for over 15 years and the inlaid pieces for more like 30 years.
I feel that most of my audience are repeat buyers, so I guess part of maintaining a strong audience is working on a collection of sorts. Or two. The vases and the rattles (although both are made of clay) follow two separate paths.
The rattles, due to the quantities needed to keep up with production, is a full-time job which would not be possible without the expertise of our studio workers, Tony and Jake Guerrero. With their impeccable work ethic, we’re able to keep up with the demands. Sometimes I feel like I’m working for them which reduces my stress levels because I know things are usually under control. The name Guerrero translates to warrior which is exactly what they are. . . making sure everything is perfect.
The inlaid vases, on the other hand, are pretty much done entirely by me, from the original design to the mixing and preparation of the clay, to construction and painting of the piece.
And the marketing of the studio is done by my wife, Robin, which, in and of itself, is another full time job.
Alyice: What do you believe is a key element in creating one-of-a-kind works of art?
John: To create one-of-a-kind pieces I feel that you must always be open-minded and be willing to combine different and sometimes opposite ideas or emotions.
The finished work may only be truly understood by the person who created it, but I feel this is part of the enjoyment of art, as a viewer looks deeper into the piece and reaches their own conclusion.
A main element in art is to always keep a sketchbook. No matter what media someone is working in, a sketchbook is important. I recently came across an old sketchbook and found several old ideas that I had never tried which could still work. Sometimes a thought on one page, plus an idea on another page will combine into a whole “new” idea.
Alyice: How can artists begin to build the confidence necessary to start commanding a decent wage for their art?
John: I feel that confidence is the key word here.
I have seen many artist recently that are mixing up their artistic confidence with their self-confidence thinking “No one likes my work. My work is meaningless. I’m wasting my time.” Then they transpose this onto their self-confidence and think, “No one likes me. I’m worthless and wasting my time.”
Personal confidence and artistic confidence are two separate things. If one is lacking, work on it, but don’t confuse the two.
Being happy with who you are and happy with what you’re doing is, I guess, every person’s dream. Continue to put your work out there. Make time daily for you work. Don’t procrastinate. And realize that at the end of the day that other things fill the day. Work hard and you will find a balance.
You can learn more about John T. Davis as well as his InnerSpirit Rakus and inlaid vases at jdavisstudio.com.