Studio Visit: Wood Song Pottery: William Baker and Joy Tanner, Bakersville, North Carolina

Just the Facts

Clay
William: stoneware and porcelain
Joy: stoneware and porcelain

Primary forming methods
William: wheel throwing with altered and handbuilt elements
Joy: wheel throwing and handbuilding

Primary firing temperature
William: cone 10 wood/soda
Joy: cone 10 soda fired with gas

Favorite surface treatment
William: refined and smooth
Joy: carved patterns

Favorite tools
William: rasp
Joy: carving tools

Playlist
William: continuous loop of news, podcasts, and eclectic music
Joy: music, podcasts, or complete silence

Wishlist
William: more time each day
Joy: water in the studio

Studio

We were able to purchase our first home in Bakersville, North Carolina, about an hour from Asheville, in 2012. In earlier years, while renting spaces to live and work in the area surrounding the Penland School of Crafts, we had seen many examples of home studios, loosely knit together to form a widespread community of independent artists. These artists and their studios provided not only inspiration, but also practical examples of how to navigate operating a small-scale pottery business in this rural setting. We love the mountains and natural environment here, and when it was time to establish long-term roots, it was hard to imagine a better place for the lifestyle we sought.

Our path led toward a rural setting rather than an urban one, and it became essential to have a place where we could work from home and manage this lifestyle while raising a family. The ambiance of living and working on a quiet country road while raising our two young children has grown into part of the studio environment itself.

Our budget allowed for a house with just enough land in the backyard to build the studio and kiln shed. Walking through the back door onto the deck, we take about 30 steps through the yard, over a small gurgling creek, past the vegetable and flower gardens, and our commute is done. Generally, shoes are not even required!

Our studio building totals just under 800 square feet and follows a very simple design, with priority given to open space, natural light, and flexibility. There is one main work room (almost 500 square feet) large enough for two potters to work comfortably. There is also a separate room (100 square feet) for office space, shipping supplies, and photographing work. Another separate room (150 square feet) serves as a gallery for visitors and studio tour events.

We’ve learned from the beginning to prioritize both our expenses and our time, trying to weigh each carefully for any given project. To build the studio, we decided to hire a small local construction company for most of the structure, working closely with them to trim costs where possible and do some of the work ourselves. We balanced labor costs against our time and chose to finish the flooring ourselves, as well as to build both the kiln and the kiln-shed roof. We chose not to put in plumbing for a bathroom or running water at the time of construction, although we have a closet that will be remodeled into a bathroom one day.

In the work area we have two wheels, a slab roller, and plenty of work tables and shelving units for work in progress and for storing bisqueware for upcoming firings. These work surfaces are all portable rather than built into the space, providing occasional flexibility when we want to change the layout of the workspace. Almost half of the wall space in the work room is made up of windows with southern exposure, providing enough great natural light to work by on many days. This was one of our main priorities for the design and is definitely our favorite part about the space. Often we find ourselves gazing out of the windows staring at hawks, deer, turkeys, fireflies, and even a bear that ran through one day! Our land is in a small cove filled with grass and fields surrounded by mountains, a serene landscape where we spend most of our time. Daily life here is meant to allow our observations of the natural world and a slower pace of living to steep into our minds. For Joy, the details of the surroundings are translated into surface inspiration, providing source material. For Will, the quiet and uninterrupted space is preferred if not required. This is reflected in his refined forms and varied surfaces.

We have a small electric heater mounted in the ceiling that provides enough heat for the space without costing too much, and we can keep the windows open during the summer without the need for air conditioning here in our cool North Carolina mountains. In the future, we plan to install rainwater barrels to collect water from our roof for use in the studio and also hope to install solar panels to make the most of our building’s potential. One challenging aspect of the studio is managing efficient layout and storage in the shared space; we always need more space for storage!

The kiln-shed roof is built on the side of the studio building using all metal construction for the posts, rafters, and covering. This outdoor work area provides enough covered space for an electric kiln used for bisque firings, dry materials storage, a glaze mixing area, a soda kiln fueled with either propane or wood, and some wood storage. Our moderately sized soda kiln holds 20 cubic feet of shelf space and is fired anywhere between 4–8 times a year. The hybrid design allows each of us the flexibility to explore the direction we want. We wanted to build only one kiln to start out, but planned and built the space with room for another slightly larger wood kiln for the future.

Paying Dues (and Bills)

Joy grew up with handmade pots in the home created by her mom, who enjoyed taking classes at the local clay center, and in college she found her focus with ceramics after first dabbling with other art courses. She completed a BFA in ceramics at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and soon moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where she was a resident artist at Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts. Will did not study ceramics in college other than a fateful course taken shortly before graduation, which proved to be the beginning of a long path. After graduation, Will moved to Asheville for a residency at Odyssey. After meeting there, Joy and Will were both drawn to the mountains and craft community surrounding Penland School of Crafts, an area rich in small studios and highly skilled artists.

Being a studio artist and running a small business means so much more than just creating the work; it can become overwhelming—everything from making, marketing, photographing, emailing, updating social media, packing, shipping, and selling. Early in our careers, it was not uncommon to each work 60–70 hours a week, although that time was not always spent making pots. We both chose not to seek employment away from ceramics but often worked part time as studio assistants for other artists. While outside employment has its benefits, staying within the field through teaching local classes or assisting other potters has enriched our awareness of other artists’ practices, and helped to develop rewarding experiences and relationships.

William Baker’s square cups.

William Baker’s rectangle bowl.

As our careers have progressed, where we choose to spend our time and how we earn our living have both shifted. After building his first wood/soda kiln for himself in 2008, Will began using these skills to build kilns for other potters and craft centers. Over the last 6–7 years, this source of income has proven not only a valuable tool to help stabilize a fluctuating income from pottery sales, but also a great way to connect with other potters and share skills around kiln firings. Leading workshops at craft schools and clay programs is becoming another exciting avenue for us, and we are making plans to host small-scale workshops at our home. Recently we have taken on our first apprentice, who helps with many of the tasks around the studio and kiln such as wedging, mixing slips and glazes, and maintaining the soda kiln and wood pile. In return we work to create a long-term mentoring role, providing guidance and studio and kiln access as needed.

Our studio work cycle seems to require two months of making to have enough pots to fill our kiln, but sometimes a seasonal pattern emerges. Most often we set a firing schedule based on the biggest priority of each season and then we each work toward filling our separate kiln loads. Although we sometimes share in each other’s firings, we are always creating our separate work. Joy prefers to work in the mornings and twilight hours, and Will often works during the daytime and usually returns to the studio after dinner for a few more hours.

With the addition of our second child in the last year, everything has shifted again. Currently, Will is working 60 hours per week and Joy is working part time while also caring for our new baby. Each work week is different, but there remains a constant circle of work and life. We expect a decrease in studio time but not workload, a shift of emphasis but not priorities. At this point in our careers, our time is divided differently than it was before, partly out of necessity and partly due to changing opportunities. We try to look at our limited time as a way to focus on the highest priority at the moment.

Joy Tanner’s carved steins.

Joy Tanner’s carved basket.

Marketing

The earliest advice we remember getting from our pottery mentors was to have several different sources of income, such as retail sales, wholesale sales, and teaching. Over the years, these categories have shifted in relevance and changed entirely. Weighing our potential output of pottery and judging our most likely long-term sales, selling wholesale through multiple shops never seemed to make sense for us. Our work pace is often a little slow, with Joy’s work being heavily carved and Will’s focus on detail. Since our production level never felt enough to meet the needs of selling wholesale to multiple accounts, we decided not to pursue that as a primary income source.

Our studio is open to the public and we get occasional visitors; however, we don’t count on this being a large part of our income.  Twice a year we join our local studio tour, which is well established with over 100 participating studios. This a great opportunity to meet customers directly, which always helps to make connections, foster sales, and promote awareness of our craft.

In recent years, our more successful retail events have been pottery specific sales rather than craft shows displaying work in all media. We found that we are more likely to find our customers at an event that focuses on ceramic work than at an event with a broader draw, where the visitors are less likely to be familiar with wood- and soda-fired pottery or studio pottery in general. Two great invitational pottery events in our own area are the Potters Market Invitational at the Mint Museum in September and the Spruce Pine Potters Market in October, where we find an audience of enthusiastic local collectors and visitors with an impressive awareness of ceramics. We participate in as many of these each year as we can manage to fit into our schedules. We also work with galleries to sell our work on a consignment basis, although over time we have narrowed down to a smaller number of galleries that truly work for us rather than having our work in numerous places on consignment. For us, this is most often measured in sales, but we also consider other elements of the relationship as well. These might include exploring related opportunities such as workshops, finding new paths for our work that we are not currently exploring, or a chance to exhibit our work among peers or with an audience whom we admire.

Joy Tanner’s carved butter dish.

Joy Tanner’s carved teapot.

A new project in the last few years began when a chef with a love of wood-fired ceramics commissioned Will to supply five dozen plates for a new restaurant. The project began with creative freedom in design and the possibility for repeat sales. What started five years ago has become a recurring project with many more dozens of plates and bowls designed for a new ramen restaurant in North Carolina.

We use social media, mainly Instagram and Facebook, as well as manage our own websites, online sales, and email newsletters. All of these avenues take time and energy but they do pay off, both in sales and in spreading awareness of our work. We share behind-the-scenes images and information on our process and works-in-progress in the studio, pots in action, finished pieces, as well as glimpses of daily life around our studio and family. So far we have not done much with paid ads or promotions on these platforms but have built our following over several years by focusing on sincerity and, most of all, the quality of the images. These efforts have led to new friends, new connections, and new sales.

Most Important Lesson

One important lesson we work on every day is to remember to pause for breaks, both mentally and physically. Throughout the years, we have strived to pace ourselves better, and to set aside time for recharging through other things besides making pots. Almost daily we are able to enjoy some time walking, hiking, gardening, or cooking as a break from the studio. A day off would likely include time on the river, a picnic, a nearby hike, or a camping trip with the family. Joy enjoys yoga and meditation as a way to stay balanced daily. Will began running a few years ago as a way to stay fit, but found he most enjoyed it as a way to recharge mentally and physically during the day.

Although we both use social media such as Instagram and Facebook for photography, connecting to other artists, and marketing, we don’t turn to it directly for inspiration. For us, new ideas sprout from the process itself. Time in the studio and with our sketchbooks generates creative energy. The process of working brings new ideas and the work cycle begins to flow. With each firing, we take time to set aside the best pots to evaluate them, to learn from them, and know why they worked, resetting the bar higher for the next firing. We have more ideas for pots to make than we have time!

William Baker’s small plate.

William Baker’s rectangle vase.

If there are moments of frustration or feeling stuck in the studio, we find it helpful to return to a familiar form. Later, when we come back to a challenging and new idea, with our hands warmed up and our minds more focused, we can see the creative process unfold and new forms slowly emerge.

This path we have chosen has not been an easy one. It has required a tremendous amount of work, perseverance, and resilience. A life as an artist can be an emotional roller coaster before the work is even fired. However, we find it worth the effort to stick with it, and we keep seeking the next stepping stone in this path we are on. Sometimes we just have to get out to the studio and get our hands wet with clay and we are reminded of the joys of making. Sharing this lifestyle with each other brings challenges in some ways because we don’t have a regular salary coming into the household for financial support. However, we find the support and understanding we provide each other in every other way can be enough to keep on keeping on.

http://williambakerpottery.com

Facebook: @williambakerpottery

Instagram: @williambakerpottery

https://joytannerpottery.com

Facebook: @joytannerpottery

Instagram: @joytannerpottery

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