Clementine Porcelain is teaching kids that they can make a difference for someone in need, one plate at a time.

In 2010, Tracy and I were pretty settled. Our daughter Clementine was 3 years old and we were getting used to our new identities as “Clementine’s parents.” We both had full-time teaching jobs as well as an adorable home and studio here in Omaha, Nebraska. Things were comfortable, but I was feeling a little restless. I loved teaching, but it was becoming clear that I worked for a degree mill and I was looking for a change. I had dreamed of starting an international ceramic design and production company since graduate school and this seemed as good a time as any, so we decided to go for it and start our own business.

1 Plate Project exhibition at True Blue Goods and Gifts, each plate: 9 in. (23 cm) in diameter, slip-cast porcelain, china paints, 2016.2 Plate Project workshop at the Union for Contemporary Art in preparation for National Clay Week; Nevaeh Kocarik and Mara Johnson working on their plates.

Clementine Porcelain

Jesse: This was the beginning of Clementine Porcelain and it was a really exciting time. I dove into the practical stuff. We needed a booth, a production catalog, and a tax ID number before we even applied to the gift show. We needed a brand, a website, and social media accounts so we could pass ourselves off as a legitimate business. I’ll admit it, I got carried away…but Tracy kept her head.

Tracy: When Jesse suggested we take a leap and start our own ceramic design and production company, I had already been teaching full time for 5 years and was satisfied with my job, our life, and our part-time studio practice. I wasn’t really interested in a strictly commercial venture like the one he was describing.

By this time, I had organized four empty bowls events at Midland University and also created an empty bowls class. During each event, my students and I had raised about $1000 and I had been thinking about how I could do more to aid in the fight against hunger. When we talked about starting Clementine Porcelain and defining its mission, I was adamant that the company include a charitable arm that would provide a format for this kind of giving.

3 Nevaeh Kocarnik with her decorated plate.

Engaging the Community

Tracy: Jesse and I are parents and educators so we decided it was also important to educate children about the needs in their immediate peer group. Our idea was to create a context in which kids can make a real contribution to the fight against childhood hunger in their very own community.

The Plate Project, which expands on the ideas behind empty bowls events, combines education, outreach, direct community involvement, and fundraising in a single program at the heart of our company. Blank plates are provided for community members to decorate during the workshop events, and the completed plates are then offered for sale, with proceeds donated to the backpack program run by the local food bank. It is the purest expression of Clementine Porcelain’s mission.

Below, we’ve laid out the way that we implement this mission, but the model is flexible enough to accommodate all kinds of variations.

4 Jeff Bridges’ Self Portrait Plate, 9 in. (23 cm) in width, slip-cast porcelain, china paints.5 Amanda Smith’s decorated plate.

Creating the Flexible Model

Tracy and Jesse: We use plates for the project because they’re made to hold food and they’re easy to decorate. We slip cast porcelain dinnerware, so we donate glaze-fired plates for the project. They go all the way through the glaze firing before the workshop and the participants use oven-bake china paints to decorate over the glazed surface.

We started off using underglaze on bisque-fired plates, but we lost too many. They would chip in transit, get broken by the kids, crack during the glaze firing, etc. It’s also really hard for the uninitiated to account for the changes in color and texture that take place during the firing. The china paints don’t change, so the kids have more control over their compositions, and they cure in a conventional oven to a vibrant and surprisingly durable, food-safe surface.

When selling the plates, the transaction can be tricky. At first, we collected a $30 flat fee per plate then donated $25 to the food bank. This is the simplest way for everyone involved and we still do this when we have to, but the flat fee presents several problems. The donation amount is fixed, individuals need to trust that we are donating for them, it’s difficult to separate donation transactions from sales, and the buyer can’t receive a tax credit. Our preference is that the customer pays us directly for materials and shipping, then donates directly to the charity. This model allows the buyer to give more than the suggested donation, it’s easier on our accounting, and the buyer receives the tax credit.

We’ve given plate project workshops to participants of all ages, but prefer working with children whenever possible. By teaching kids about the needs of their immediate peer group and providing them with a concrete way to help, we hope to create a lasting sense of agency and efficacy. Besides, parents can generally be counted on to buy their child’s plates so we raise more money for the food bank.

6 Clementine Ross with her decorated plate.7 Arajay Dagins with her decorated plate. Photos: Jesse Ross.

Plate Project Events

The very first Plate Project workshop took place in our backyard studio and included kids from the neighborhood. It was very sweet, we made some new friends, and got some great results, but it wasn’t the best format for fundraising.

Our most successful events include collaboration with a more conspicuous partner. For example, last year we partnered with a local shop called True Blue Goods and Gifts here in Omaha. True Blue furnished us with a neutral, comfortable, and convenient space to hold workshops, then hosted a short exhibition of the resulting plates. The exhibit coincided with an article in Omaha Magazine about the Plate Project and that exposure, along with the efforts of the folks at True Blue, allowed us to raise money as well as awareness.

Last year, we were asked to present the Plate Project as a model for charitable giving during National Clay Week. The idea was to provide a practical guide to aid in the organization of events just like ours. We’d spent the previous 7 years streamlining the program, so outlining the details was easy. But that’s not enough. The real problem is finding the time, energy, and motivation to do the work.

It began with the acknowledgement that we wanted to play a greater role in our community. We started small and allowed things to develop organically. The organizational structure was designed to exploit our particular talents, passions, and convictions.

It’s hard work, but it’s work we love. It’s tons of time, but we consider it time well spent. Now, it’s just what we do. It’s part of who we are . . . the best part.

the authors Jesse Ross and Tracy Shell launched Clementine Porcelain Inc., in 2012. They currently serve retail clients throughout the US and beyond. Ross is also the co-op manager and ceramics technician at the Union for Contemporary Art in Omaha. Tracy is chair of the art department at Midland University in Fremont.

Topics: Ceramic Artists