Andy Warhol once said “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
The quote brings to mind one of my favorite stories about the legendary master potter Otto Heino, who passed away a little over a year ago at age 94.
You would probably have to be a ceramics aficionado to appreciate his art and recognize his name. I know of him only because he lived and worked in Ojai, not far from where I live in southern California.
Ojai, Californai is home to a number of artists. But they aren’t just artists. They are business people. They are blending art, work and business in the way Andy Warhol expressed it in his statement. Otto Heino was a standout example. He was of Finnish descent, and the first thing you’d notice when you met him was his incredibly smooth skin, the result of two decades of applying his own porcelain slip (the liquid porcelain before it’s been cast) as a mud mask to his face, 20 minutes per day.
Why is he legendary? Because the Chinese government once offered him a billion dollars for what he knew about the color yellow. Not only that, but in 1978 when Pablo Picasso wanted to know who the best potter in the world was, he sent out a request to the ceramics world to help him figure it out. Picasso invited 50 countries to participate in a contest. It was Otto who won the grand prize with a 24-inch pot with two birds on it. His entry remains in Picasso’s museum.
Otto changed the world with a highly-sought-after shade of yellow. As the story goes, he went to a ceramics conference in Japan in 1980, where he met a Chinese monk who wanted European and American potters to work on a certain lost color. The monk was looking for a high-temperature yellow glaze popular during China’s Chin Dynasty (A.D. 265 to 420). It was the color of a Buddhist monk’s robe.
What intrigued Otto, and what started a 15-year pursuit, was that the formula for mixing the color had been lost centuries ago. Said Otto in a 2007 interview: “I found an old book in a library that said the original Chinese artist had burned the formula because he didn’t want it to be put onto cheap pots. So my wife [fellow potter Vivika] and I decided to work on it.”
Two months after the sad passing of Vivika in 1995, Otto got it. “I knew it right away. I opened a bottle of champagne. I celebrated all day. I called China.”
As journalist Anthony Head tells it, “The ceramics world descended on Ojai. They came in droves. Japan and other countries sent official delegates to scrutinize the color and the ability to fire the glaze at high temperatures. Once they confirmed that the secret of this precious color had indeed revealed itself to Otto, they spent a lot of money obtaining his pottery created with this newly uncovered treasure.”
The FBI didn’t like it. After Otto cashed a seven figure cashier's check, they ransacked his shop and home. It took him three days to clean the mess up. Said Otto, “They came at seven in the morning, three with rifles, two with pistols. I thought all along the guy was going to shoot me. They said no potter could make that much money. They accused me of being in the drug business because I was on the phone talking about ‘shipping yellow.’”
Otto’s peaceful life in Ojai changed with the color yellow. What didn’t change was his work ethic. He was up every day at 4 a.m. to start work. What didn’t change were his principles—he turned down China’s billion-dollar offer for the yellow glaze formula! (Of course, he enjoyed depositing the $600,000 cashier’s checks for his wares. One of his uniquely shaped teardrop pots would easily go for $35,000.)
As for Otto’s secret forumula, it passed away along with him. Taking a page from his predecessor centuries before him, he would never sell it, and never reveal it to anyone. “When I die,” he said, “then it goes with me. It isn’t the money. It’s the ethics. I don’t want anyone to put this yellow glaze on bad pots. It is the most important part of my legacy.”
I believe that all of us, irrespective of our walk in life, can learn three important lessons from Otto, principles to be embraced and applied to whatever our work, art, or business might be: insatiable curiosity, tenacious perseverance, and creative integrity.
Otto Heino would have made Andy Warhol proud—he was a consummate artist, diligent worker, and savvy businessman to the end.
Matthew E. May is a design, creativity and innovation author and coach. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay.