Welcome to the first ever Art Force Academy podcast. This week, we spoke with Josh Blanc, founder and co-owner of Clay Squared to Infinity in the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District. Josh graduated from the Columbus College of Art and Design to open Clay Squared in 1996. He currently serves on three boards – as President of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District, as founder, coordinator and publisher of the Handmade Tile Association, and he also works with the Tile Heritage Foundation.
We sat down with Josh to talk shop, being an artist entrepreneur and to discuss some of the unique obstacles and opportunities facing the Northeast Arts District. Listen to the full podcast here or on our Soundcloud page. Excerpts from the interview are also transcribed below.
How did you get your start as an artist, and specifically, what led you into this world of ceramics and clay?
That’s a longer question… but like most people, it was in school. My first time being on a wheel was in ninth grade, and I was thinking “that seems really silly; that doesn’t seem interesting.” I tried it, and I was the only one who could throw a pot the first time. It was the first time in my life when I realized that I could do something that other people couldn’t.
I then decided that I wanted to go to school for glassblowing. I had seen somebody do glassblowing when I was maybe in the fifth grade, and I thought that that was what I wanted to do for a long time. So I searched out art schools during my senior year of high school, and I found a couple that had glassblowing and ceramics.
Did you come from a creative family?
My mom was always doing art fairs, so I’ve been an art fair roadie my whole life. She did crafty stained glass sorts of things. I would say my parents were more hippies than artists, even though my mom was from New York City. When we go to an art museum, it was the typical “why is this here?” You know, those sorts of questions. But I think that they were overall supportive.
So it wasn’t so shocking when you decided to go to art school?
Oh yeah, it was shocking. They didn’t know what to do. What do you do with a kid that goes to art school? Every parent has that fear – even if you’re the most open minded. If you said you’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer, that’s the norm of what parents want to feel comfortable. I personally want my children to be plumbers and accountants, so that they can help me out on those two fronts.
Not so that they can make money, it’s just to help me. That’s the goal.
Ahhhh. So not for their own well-being but for your own ends?
So let’s talk a little more about art school. You went to Columbus College of Art and Design. What was your experience like?
Well, I like to call it art prison. It was a lot like MCAD but without any grass. It was all concrete. They loved concrete. Gray was their favorite color. Very Bauhaus.
Yes, but it was very intense. When most people think of art school, they think of pot smoking, drug taking people. I had 11 classes a semester. Each one had anywhere from 4-10 hours of homework a week. So the first year was pretty intense. For the first few months, I was in denial that it was even happening. But I was a hard worker, I liked it, and that helped me. It was not this free flowing, hippie-dippie thing. It dropped a lot of people. I had three other roommates my first year, but I was the only one that graduated.
You already come to school with your work ethic, so therefore, if you were already a hard-working sort of person, this was not going to kill you. This was going to emphasize the things you already learned. I did a lot of moving wood, mowing lawns, taking care of animals – that sort of stuff – growing up in Vermont. Now I was just making things instead of cutting stuff up.
Same work ethics, just applied in a different way.
And then there’s the entrepreneurial skills. I had a car, which few people did, so I would go out to the grocery store and get cases of soda, sell them out of my room, and undercut the machine down the hallway. I made a few hundred dollars doing that.
Wow, a little entrepreneur!
That was the key to having pizza money.
One thing we have continued to bring up in the Artist Entrepreneur Series is the question of having art students take more classes in the realm or business. Were you glad that you focused on just art and technique in school?
Intellectually, I say yes, they should have more business classes. At the same time, when we were at that period of our lives, we didn’t want to take business classes! I think it is more about your entrepreneurial skills that you brought to the table before you got to school. My wife and I talk about this a lot. She was very entrepreneurial too. She used to have a sticker club and did all these different sorts of things that made money in weird ways. If you don’t come with those skills, you aren’t going to make it as an artist very easily.
I do think it is important to have business skills. I would like certain skills that I don’t have.
Yeah, accounting! Exactly.
As you become an artist and you move forward, you go from making a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand dollars, and then when you do a public art project, and it’s $50,000, $100,000, or $250,000…how do you handle managing $1000,000 out of nowhere? If you’re not prepared for that, you have a major chance of making a big mistake. Having those types of management skills would be very helpful.
Whether or not we’re willing to listen at 21…
You guy have been here 20 years, now? Wow, that’s incredible.
Yep, keep playing the game. We’re unemployable outside of this.
Did you have an idea from the get-go of how to present, market, and sell your work? Or did you learn it over time?
Oh no, I didn’t know. I think the best thing that we did, and this is my new mantra, is that every art student should get a real estate license. The biggest concern you have when you move into an art community is about being gentrified out. You should buy property! You should do things that put you in control.
What did you do during the recession to be successful?
I think we lag behind the rest of society by about 18 months. When everything was falling apart, nothing was really happening to us. We just waited and waited. We did have a 6 month period late into it when things really slowed down, but the Internet is amazing. We get stuff from all over the world. It’s just crazy. You have to be really savvy about getting out there and making sure you’re in every location you can.
What is the breakdown between walk-in business and online sales?
Minneapolis has changed a lot in the last 20 years. There was a lot more walk-in traffic years ago, and people would go out and do things, but that does not happen the way it used to. I mean, we get emails for our information or our samples from people up the street now! It happens a lot, so we are very tuned into our computers. My wife and I were very into the Internet right way and have always been ahead of that curb.
What were you doing to be ahead?
We made a website. We made it functional and look good. We were on Facebook right away. It were those things that helped us to get ahead…but now websites are starting to become obsolete, so what do you do?
If there was one piece of advice you would give to someone starting out their art career or considering a career in the arts, what would that be?
I think you have to give up the idea that you’re this pure artisan thought. That’s not the point. Nobody can be creative 100% of the time so you have to be willing to do other things to get there. Don’t do things that you don’t like to do, make things you don’t like to make. Stick to your guns, and don’t get a job that will make you comfortable. That is the biggest thing that I tell people.
You have to break it down into the little details. Sell 30 dollars a day to have a 900 dollar studio – can I do that? You have to be willing to do the math. I know what it costs me to make a tile. I mapped out how long it took me to make it, how much glaze was used, how much it cost me to fire – all the steps and broke it down. This is what this tile cost me to make, this one little piece, and I had my budget. So then I know what I can give as a discount, and what I can’t, and how far I can go from there.
How do we say it, “we don’t go to Vegas, because we’re not the house.” I have to gamble every day, so at least I’m the house, you know…everyone else is gambling. If you’re just out there saying “here’s my studio, why don’t you buy it?” that’s a horrible sales pitch, it just doesn’t work.What are you doing that’s so great? I don’t know, but you better figure it out. There are 600 other painters in this neighborhood – why should they choose you? That’s the question.
Thank you to Josh and Clay Squared for welcoming us to their beautiful space! Stay tuned for more artist interview and studio tours on Art Force Academy.