One potter’s journey through COVID

Potter Debbie Gilmer hard at work on her creation, in advance of the upcoming Ottawa Guild of Potters sale December 10 to 12 in the Horticulture Building. Photo: Joanna McMahon

By Suzanne Denney

Working from her own studio, Debbie Gilmer has run a full-time pottery business since 2009. But last year, her livelihood was hit hard by COVID-19 and she was forced to pivot to try to save it.

“The pandemic lockdown wasn’t all bad news,” she says now. “It forced me to retool my business, make it more flexible and diverse.”

At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, Gilmer had applied to four in-person shows in March and April, but all were cancelled. She experienced depression and didn’t touch clay for awhile. To help herself out of this funk, she took an online workshop.

In June last year, she started to do custom work again and sent a newsletter to customers to float the idea of a Studio Open House and Christmas Sale. It worked – the event went ahead with COVID-19 masking and social-distancing restrictions, and it turned out to be a great success.

But she wasn’t out of the woods yet. Gilmer continued to apply for in-person shows, but all were eventually cancelled. This cut deeper into her sales and livelihood.

One creative alternative to in-person shows did help. The Merrickville Artists Guild organized a virtual studio tour in which artists were interviewed on camera and showed their studios online.

Another pivot was revamping her online sale portal on Square, a point-of-sale app and service. Gilmer put lots of effort into keeping it updated and maintaining inventory for online purchases. She also signed up on The Northern Kiln, an online platform for selling pottery. Sales gained some momentum but have never reached the volume of in-person events.

Still, Gilmer says these alternative outlets are helping. “Not all my eggs are in one basket anymore.”

And prospects of boosting sales back to pre-pandemic levels now look brighter with the return of in-person shows. As pandemic restrictions ease, Gilmer is busy building inventory for the Ottawa Guild of Potters Holiday Sale. The sale will take place Friday, December 10, 3–9 p.m.; Saturday, December 11, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; and Sunday, December 12, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. in the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne Park.

“The format of the sale is uniquely cooperative,” says Gilmer. “Customers can browse displays unattended and still have access to participating potters for questions and assistance.”

Gilmer is thrilled to be heading back to normalcy after 18 months of head scratching and uncertainty. She hopes you will come see her and many other potters in person.

Suzanne Denney is a member of the sales committee of the Ottawa Guild of Potters.

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