Ceramics Monthly: How did you end up working with business partners to convert a former jail into a mixed-use creative space?
Josh Copus: In August of 2016 I bought the old Madison County jail in Marshall, North Carolina, at auction with my three business partners Jody, Pete, and Weslee. (That’s me climbing the scaffolding in front of the building above.) Collectively we are Big House LLC. Individually we are an artist, a contractor, a lawyer, and a real estate developer. When this whole thing started, I only knew one of my current partners. The other two were actually rivals bidding for the jail, too. Through that process we all decided that we were better as a team.
I’ve always been a power-in-numbers person and a firm believer in the strength of community. If you are able to identify your strengths and weaknesses as a person, you can play to your strengths and surround yourself with people who have skills that complement yours and make the group complete. My whole life I have operated in a way that reflects those beliefs, and our new jail project is a good example of those strategies leading to success.
This partnership and the unique perspectives we each bring to it has been advantageous to us all. First of all we bought an old jail—it was in operation from its construction in 1905 until it closed in 2014—not your typical property. Buying from the county at auction takes a lot of financial capital, and is also a very complicated process. The diverse set of skills that we have as a group was evident from the beginning. We each take the lead where we are most experienced and allow each other to do what we do best instead of trying to do it all ourselves. While it is a huge undertaking, it’s also an amazing opportunity and I honestly don’t think that any one of us could have realized the full potential of this property alone. I certainly would not have been able to purchase it without my partners’ help.
There was so much that I didn’t know about the nuts and bolts of buying a property like this. We had to make a corporation and buy insurance; arrange for deeds and surveys; and work with lawyers, accountants, architects, and the national historic registry. There are many things that I didn’t even think to think about. It’s been helpful to have three other people with different sets of experiences so that, in this partnership I can focus on the what excites me: the space and the community that it is a part of.
I’ve always viewed art making as a series of decisions in creative problem solving. It’s a great approach to take with an adaptive reuse project like ours, because creative thinking is essential in order to make the former jail relevant as a building but preserve certain valuable aspects of its history. The way that I see things as an artist is different than my partners and I’m fortunate to be in a group where that perspective is valued.
It’s important to us that the jail continues to serve the community in new and different ways. We care about this place and we want to see it grow in positive ways. Repurposing the jail is a way for us to contribute.
It’s also important that this project serves us as building owners in financial terms. My ultimate goal in life is freedom. I want to create a life where I have financial and creative freedom to do and make whatever I want. This is just a different way of getting there.
CM: What is your approach to both developing/ getting involved with community-oriented creative and business projects?
JC: My approach to everything I do in life comes back to the same place. It’s all about relationships. People have always been the key to everything that means anything to me in my life and career. I can’t make my work alone (from digging raw materials to firing the wood kiln) and this project is no different. Developing positive relationships with a diverse group of people all over the world has been essential to the success I’ve achieved in my life. It all begins with the people.
From there I just do what I think is interesting, important, valuable, and fun. Once I get into something that fits those criteria, I talk about it all the time to different people; you never know where those conversations can lead. I work with all sorts of people and certainly not just those in the art world. I’ve been consistently surprised by the way that conversations I have with people fit together to create something bigger than I could dream of alone.
Photo: Emily Patrick.