Studio Visit: Kristen Swanson, Lovettsville, Virginia

Studio

In 1998 my husband and I bought a 150-year-old farmhouse in the historic town of Lovettsville, Virginia, located about an hour outside of Washington, DC. The following spring we built the original 16×24-foot studio tucked in the back corner of our half-acre property. We have since expanded the studio twice, with the current studio measuring 24×44 feet (a little over 1000-square feet). It is a lovely light-filled space. Creating the studio on our property has been one of the best decisions of my career. I am able to raise my children and build my career simultaneously and have never been forced to prioritize one over the other. While there are challenges to running a home studio, they have never felt unmanageable. My husband and sons help prepare for studio events, pug clay, repair kilns and wheels, carry ton after ton of clay from the driveway to the studio, and keep the pellet stove going through the winter. I love that, without my intending to, our home studio is shaping who our children will become and how they will approach their lives. I have walked to my studio thousands of times over 18 years and each time I feel excited by the clay possibilities and grateful for its connection to our family life.

named the studio White House Ceramics, as our home is located at 16 East Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House address is 1600 East Pennsylvania Avenue. We occasionally receive mail addressed to the President. In addition to making my own work, I also teach classes. The demand for classes and the support of my pottery in our tight-knit community has steadily grown over time. I currently teach 4 wheel classes per week and 4–8 workshops per month, for a total of 70–120 students monthly.

Last year we purchased a large front-loading kiln, installed plumbing, and enclosed the exterior studio porch to create a separate work space for me. It has a large pass-through window so I can work separately, and still engage with my students during their open studio times. I throw my pots in the main studio and pass them through the window to my workspace. I do all of my surface work, glazing, and firing in this area. This addition has greatly improved the efficiency of my work cycle as I no longer have to move pots and reorganize in order to teach classes.

After 17 years of carrying 5-gallon buckets of water and running hoses through the backyard, having plumbing is an absolute dream! Having running water has also enabled me to expand my wheel classes.

 

Paying Dues (and Bills)

I took my first ceramics class as a sophomore at Virginia Tech while earning my Bachelor of Science in Education. I graduated in 1994 and taught elementary school for two years, all the while yearning to pursue a career in ceramics. In 1996 I resigned from teaching, went to art school, and received my Bachelor of Fine Arts from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1998. My love of teaching stayed with me and after five years of solo studio practice, I opened my doors to students. Roughly 50% of my income is from teaching and 50% from pottery sales. The majority of my sales are through two annual studio tours (the Western Loudoun Artists Studio Tour in June and the Catoctin Holiday Art Tour in November) and through direct sales with local customers throughout the year. Gallery and online sales supplement my pottery income.

Mondays through Thursdays from 9am–4pm are reserved for my own work. An additional 20–30 hours per week are spent teaching classes, preparing materials, pugging clay, glazing, firing workshop projects, and cleaning. It has taken me many years to define and protect my studio practice while simultaneously running a community classroom.

Community classes range from open studio time to elementary school kids coming by bus every two weeks for classes. Every other Sunday afternoon, I teach teens handbuilding. I also host parties, corporate events, couples nights, ladies nights, and scout troops. Each spring, 120 kindergartners (in groups of 30) take their walking field trips to my studio and each child takes a turn at my potter’s wheel with guided hands. I love the community gathering space that is literally a few feet from my kitchen door. I’m an extrovert and I would suffer pretty severe loneliness in the studio if it weren’t for the company of my students. Teaching has helped me to become a better maker and sharing my daily creative process with my students really demonstrates what being an artist is all about.

Marketing

I maintain an email database through Mailchimp and send 4–5 newsletters a year with information about classes, workshops, and shows. The newsletter, coupled with online class registration, has made the teaching end of my business fairly successful and easy to manage. I recommitted to my Etsy shop in June after many years of neglect and am still trying to figure out if it will work for me. I joined Instagram in January and use Facebook (to share my work and connect with other artists.

Making work, teaching classes, and raising a family fill nearly every second of every day. Figuring out how to allocate the time needed to promote my work in a focused and meaningful way is an ongoing goal.

Body

I want to make pots until I am ancient! In order to maintain physical strength and stay fit, in a normal year I do three weight-training sessions per week with a trainer. I walk my dogs each morning, jog, and try to do yoga at least once a week. This past year, however, has been the year of injuries: tennis elbow and plantar fasciitis that required surgery in May. The recovery has been long and challenging and I now understand what it is like to work with physical limitations.

My throwing cycle is short compared to the hours and hours I spend on the detailed surface work of my pottery. I have figured out an ergonomic sitting position with a special chair, foot rest, and raised padded platform that keeps my arms supported and my pots at eye level.

 

 

 

 

 

Mind

Audio books, NPR, and podcasts are my constant companions in the studio. I can do any number of studio tasks and lose track of time completely if I have the stimulus of good books and interesting conversations coming from my studio speakers. The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri are recent favorites. I recently discovered two ceramics-focused podcasts, Tales of a Red Clay Rambler and The Potter’s Cast. Both are informative, inspiring, and help me feel in touch with the broader clay community.

I love to sketch, journal, and make lists. Time with family and friends, making soup, and day trips to the city nurture my spirit and recharge me.

I run an empty-bowls nonprofit, Loudoun Empty Bowls (www.loudounemptybowls.org), with five outstanding women. Working with this organization contributes enormously to my sense of well being. I’m very grateful for the opportunity that being a ceramic artist has afforded me in this area. The mission is always on my mind, whether I am making bowls, teaching community members how to make them, or hosting local potters in my studio to make them.

Most Important Lesson

My most valuable lesson to date and therefore my biggest piece of advice: hire a teenager to clean your studio and train them well. Do not hire your own teenager. My first time walking into an immaculate studio that I had not cleaned myself was a fall-down-on-my-knees miracle. It has eased my stress in the house and studio and has made me more productive. I wish I had done this years ago!

www.kristenkswanson.com; Instagram: @kkswanson;
Facebook: Kristen K. Swanson Ceramic Artist

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