For Donna Flanery, the holiday season begins immediately after Halloween.

That's when the ceramic artist and studio manager at the Clay Studio of Missoula begins ramping up production for holiday art sales, an important time of year for Missoula artists, galleries and studios.

Flanery makes functional ceramics such as cups, bowls, tiles, teapots and more that she thinks of as "custom canvases." She paints them with whimsical scenes of people and animals rendered in flowing lines and supplemented washes of color. She's participating in four sales this season, which typically account for half of her art sales for the entire year.

She made a hundred pieces this year, which she said is less than some of her peers, in part because of her hybrid style of two- and three-dimensional art.

"My things take a long time to paint so I tend to produce less than most potters I know," she said.

The studio has a holiday sale going back at least a decade. This year, it features about four dozen artists and hundreds upon hundreds of pieces in its sales gallery, which is more than double the size of older space.

Prices can start as low as $10 for small work, while coffee cups by established artists run from $30 to $50. There are large-scale, sculptural works that run in the thousands.

The sale opened on the first of December and about 200 pieces have moved so far. It's open to the nonprofit ceramics studio's resident artists, paid community members and students from its classes.

"For some of the people, it's maybe their first time putting their work out there, which is exciting for them," said Shalene Valenzuela, the studio's executive director.

The studio's kilns are firing far more in November and December compared to the quieter summer months, as artists prepare work for the myriad pop-up sales and art fairs around Missoula.

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Courtney Murphy makes functional ceramics such as plates and bowls that she embellishes with intricate lines and patterns of dots and solid panes of color, inspired by abstractions of nature and folk art. For Murphy, the holiday season's work begins back in August at her studio in the Brunswick Building. She's found that starting early gives her enough lead time to balance the workload with gallery deadlines and maintaining a life outside art.

By the time she's done, she'll have taken part in six or seven holiday art sales this year. Typically, the season can account for a "good chunk" of her income for the year.

She's found success with experiments in price points, including work such as earrings and small dishes that are in an affordable $25 range. "All of those have sold well," she said.

Murphy signed up for pop-up sales at Caffe Dolce, the Dram Shop, Western Cider, the Montgomery Distillery and the MADE Fair. She said the sales were strong and the events drew different demographics.

"It feels good that there's been that much support," she said, and the opportunity to connect with buyers so many weekends in a row was "incredible."

Murphy is also showing work at the Radius Gallery for its fourth annual holiday show, which runs all the way from late November until Christmas Eve. It includes sculpture, ceramics, paintings, drawings, etchings, collages, photographs and more. Co-owner Lisa Simon said the show, dominated by Missoula artists, can function something like a local yearbook, with veterans like printmaker James Todd alongside local newcomers, who bring visitors in to give them a "tour" of the artistic community.

It's billed as "an affordable art show for gift-giving and collecting alike."

"In the call for art, we encourage things that sell for under $500, and that usually translates to smaller pieces," said co-owner Jason Neal. The "sweet spot" is around $200 and there's plenty of work that's less among the 300-some pieces in the show, which is the largest of the year in sheer volume. Neal uses a laser-level to help hang the salon-style exhibition, which requires every inch of space available.

"In terms of sales, it's a pretty important show," Neal said. He and Simon know that it's profitable and carries less risk than their other exhibitions in terms of sales. Artists can discount their work leading up to the Christmas Eve closer if they'd like to give it an extra sales incentive.

They invite a certain number of artists and also put out an open call. They've found that they have to charge a submission fee, a relatively low $10, in order to keep the volume at a workable level. One year, they didn't have a fee and it resulted in hundreds and hundreds of submissions, some just before the midnight deadline.

For the gallery, the holiday show can be a way to get to know artists they haven't yet worked with and gauge the public's interest in their work.

"We'll start a conversation," Simon said, "And if we feel like there's a lot of excitement about your work — even if it doesn't sell — if there's excitement about your work, then we'll consider bringing you in for a group show."

Another of the Radius artists is Courtney Blazon, who draws minutely detailed, sometimes-surreal illustrations filled with literary references. In addition to gallery work, she produces prints, pins, shirts, greeting cards, stickers and more. She participated in a slew of art fairs and holiday shows this year: the sprawling MADE Fair at the Adams Center and the new Helena version that she helps organize, plus the pop-up sales at Western Cider and Caffe Dolce. In addition, holiday commissions are an important part of her income. Family members might request a portrait, or an employer might purchase one as a gift for an employee.

The season can comprise almost a third of her sales for the year. 

"During the holidays I make a good chunk of what I need to survive the rest of the year," said Blazon, who quit her day job years ago to pursue art full time.

She typically uses the money to invest in her large art purchases for the rest of the year, such as supplies or T-shirts from local company Garage T's. This year, she also bought an iPad Pro so she can begin making digital drawings.

Blazon said she's done "incredibly well" at all of the fairs and sales she's attended this year.

"It gives me hope about continuing along being an artist," she said.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.