My interest in clay started early. I got this pot out of the kiln in high school, and it was like I had just turned goop into glass. There was this eureka moment after throwing that pot and seeing it fired: this thing could be used. I could eat my cereal in it. That’s when I realized that everything around us could be made by hand. I went on to study ceramics and earned a BFA from Tennessee Technological Institute’s satellite campus at Appalachian Center For Craft.
At first, I didn’t really choose working as a studio potter as a career. It was something I just gravitated toward. The first potter I worked for prepared me for how much physical work it takes. I started out just wedging clay. There was no pay for wedging, but I did eventually get paid for every piece I made that was up to standards and survived the bisque. I spent about a decade working for other artists, first in Tennessee, then New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon. It wasn’t until 2010, when my wife Jessie Bean and I moved back to Chattanooga, Tennessee, that I realized that pottery was what I felt most qualified to pursue. That was five years ago.
Starting out as an independent potter, doing craft shows was the only way I marketed and sold my work, and, at the time, social media marketing didn’t seem necessary. Life was pretty simple, just like I imagined a potter’s life to be: you apply for shows, make your pieces, sell them, and that’s it. Then you can go home, eat surf ‘n turf, and drink wine spodiodes. It was still a lot of work, but it all seemed straightforward. With craft shows, you can change up your work on a whim. You don’t have to worry about reproducing something if you don’t want to. It was all about exploring ideas and surviving off making work. I eventually realized that this was not the most sustainable model for me personally.
It was at this point that Jessie, an amazing glassworker and designer, proposed a shift. She had become interested in slip-cast ceramics, and at the same time I was given the opportunity to assist a slip-casting workshop at Penland School of Crafts. We had the space and tools and, after receiving a grant through a local foundation, we had the funds necessary to pursue a joint venture, now called Bean and Bailey Ceramics. The collaboration on designs for the business has come somewhat naturally, as Jessie and I have similar aesthetics, and we both came to slip-casting at the same time, avoiding an awkward dynamic of one of us showing up to take part in the other’s work. It is also exponentially more efficient running a business with a partner, sharing the workload of making, marketing, maintenance, and bookkeeping.
As Bean and Bailey Ceramics has become more successful, it is increasingly difficult for me to invest quality time into my own work. At first I was spending 30–40% of my time slip-casting, and the rest on the wheel. Jessie took over a lot of the slip-casting work in the spring and summer while I focused on producing for craft shows. I eventually realized how inefficiently this was working, and faced what seemed like the most difficult decision I have made as a potter. Would I stay happy if I severely cut back on my personal work to devote time to Bean and Bailey Ceramics? I was conflicted because it felt like I was abandoning ten years of hard work, but in reality, that was not the case. I realized that Jessie’s and my collective experiences in craft are culminating in this collaborative body of work. Bean and Bailey ceramics is a true peak in each of our careers.
I think the slip-cast work has more of a future, not just because of its potential commercial success but because the process is scalable: it can easily include other workers and still produce quality, hand-made work. At the same time, I have fallen in love with the process, and the opportunity to spend so much time on the front end designing, refining, and making molds. There is a perception that it is a quick and easy process, but we spend much more time on one design, getting it right from the beginning, so we don’t have to live with a mistake that is reproduced over and over.
We use Instagram to market our work by keeping followers updated with our story and interested in what we are working on. We have retail and wholesale points-of-sale on both Etsy and Big Cartel and get a lot of traffic through those sites. We recently took part in NYNOW, a large gift and trade show in New York, and got some great new accounts through that.
In early 2012, Jessie and I started a group studio space called Artifact along with three other designers/artists. It is located in an industrial building close to downtown Chattanooga. The ability to share studio space with other artists makes everything more affordable and also provides a resource for just about anything from tools to advice. The studio environment also benefits us all with shared events and gallery shows that bring the community into our space.
Reflecting back on all this puts into perspective how my career has changed in the short amount of time I have been a studio potter. I didn’t have an end goal of a shared studio space, a joint business with my wife, and the ability to scale back on my ties to craft shows, but working one step at a time and being thoughtful about each next step has led to this new balance.
If I could offer advice to anyone pursuing studio ceramics as a career, I would say two things: First, work for other people. If possible, quit your other jobs and just work for artists. This will give you invaluable access to tools, space, mentorship, and will keep your hands learning. I would not be doing what I am doing today if not for the people I worked for and learned from along the way. Getting out of school and setting up your own shop by yourself seems likes a terrible idea. Work for and with other people, even if you don’t like them.
Second, just keep doing it. It is going to be as rewarding as it is brutal. Just keep doing it. You will pick away bit by bit until one day you will realize, “wait, how did I get here?”