Setting down roots in an arts-friendly town and connecting with her peers through an apprenticeship, jobs, and everyday life led Abby Reczek to her career as both a potter and co-owner of a gallery space.
Recently, I was thinking about the life of a studio potter and the many ways we all find to “make it work.” For those of us who have not gotten to the point of fully supporting ourselves through our pottery, finding a way to supplement our income is a necessity. Whether through teaching at community centers or universities, serving tables, or doing other side jobs, each of us has a unique story about finding a way to follow our passion while still being able to pay our bills. This is my story.
Finding a Community
If you travel through the Blue Ridge Mountains in Southwest Virginia, you may just find yourself startled to come upon the tiny town of Floyd. Many people have described it as a hidden sparkler, chock-full of talented artisans who are wildly enthusiastic about handmade craft, music, and natural foods grown by artisan farmers. Sounds idyllic. It is idyllic. Settled atop the Blue Ridge Plateau, Floyd is the chosen home of a tight-knit community of craftspeople, and the birthplace of Troika Contemporary Craft Gallery, which showcases a lot of their work.
I rolled into Floyd in August of 2013, lured by the chance to be an apprentice at Silvie Granatelli’s studio. Silvie, a renowned potter and co-founder of the 16 Hands Studio Tour, had been taking on apprentices for two-year stints since the late 1990s. The apprenticeship, an opportunity to work at Troika (the gallery Silvie had opened with two other artists), and living among fiercely talented and dedicated craftspeople soon wrapped me up in the sensation of having found my place and my community. There is a fiery spirit of generosity in how these people share ideas, experiences, and the inevitable struggles. We are comrades striving to carve a living from our art.
Troika is in the heart of downtown Floyd, surrounded by an array of unique shops. Silvie and artist-friends Susan Icove and Gibby Waitzkin, women who shared a vision, opened the doors in 2010. Their idea was to create a space that would showcase the brilliant quality of craft threaded through and around this tiny Appalachian village. They started by offering their own works, slowly adding more from local artists making work that resonated with them, and eventually including craftspeople from the greater region. Functional and sculptural pottery has always been a gallery magnet, with many of the 16 Hands craftspeople keeping shelves stocked. Along with ceramics, the gallery is filled with a full variety of handmade crafts including textiles, blown glass, turned wood, metal sculpture, and a stunning array of jewelry.
Managing Life as a Studio Potter
Working at Troika during my apprenticeship (and waiting tables) was critical to supporting myself and supplementing income from pottery sales in my first years as a studio potter. As the apprenticeship came to an end, I began navigating my way as a studio potter. Building a body of work, applying for shows, and learning to manage my small pottery business consumed a large part of my day. In addition, I was increasing my time and responsibilities at Troika, gradually absorbing the nuances of how a gallery functions. Connecting with the artists, picking up artwork at their studios, developing relationships, and making friends all proved critical to what was to come next.
In 2018, Silvie, Susan, and Gibby decided they were interested in passing the torch. Wanting to spend time with their families and devote more energy to their own crafts, they quietly began searching for the person that would hopefully take the gallery to the next level. Almost without willing it, my hand shot up. It was a huge leap of faith, but I knew I wanted to become an owner of Troika.
Taking on a New Opportunity
One of the appealing things about small-town living and a tight community is that a broad range of strong relationships can be so freely formed. And if you’re paying attention, opportunities will bubble up all around you. This feels different from the way things happen in a larger population area, where the pool of people that you come across is so much bigger, and less intimate.
Troika was an idea three friends brought to life here in Floyd as a way to bring fine craft to a greater audience. One of the most important things they wanted was to find new owners who would continue that tradition. They were most concerned about finding people who could put their hearts into the business and maintain its small-town sensibility. I was lucky enough to have built relationships with these women over the past few years that I’d worked for them, particularly with Silvie, as her apprentice.
The women also appreciated the skill of Annie Armistead, a local jeweler who had been a Troika employee from time to time, most frequently sharing her talents for display, showing off Troika’s wares to their best advantage. With their encouragement to come together as partners, Annie and I created a plan with the owners, agreeing to split the reasonable cost they were asking for the infrastructure of the business. That meant we could get our version of the gallery up and running without the burden of a sizable debt. The owners agreed that we could see how our first year panned out to get a better idea of how the repayment would take place. I had made a personal plan to try to get it paid off within the year.
The generosity, confidence, and goodwill of the owners has had a great impact on Troika’s success today. Without that generosity and flexibility, Annie and I could not have afforded to step into ownership boots. My pottery sales were growing, but not enough to support my share of the business. Having this small-town connection, and the good luck of my association with Silvie, Susan, and Gibby is a privilege that I will always be grateful for. It is one of the most important reasons I believe my Troika story is a rare one.
Our next step toward ownership was all about the finances. We needed to understand and plan how to make this business profitable. We did not have to get a loan to buy the gallery, as the previous owners helped us finance the takeover. Annie and I created a verbal business plan where we discussed what we hoped for with the gallery and how we could obtain it. Annie had owned other retail businesses in the past, so she had a good idea of what needed to be done in order to generate business. Troika had been a consignment gallery, which alleviated the expense of investing in inventory. That model remained a part of our business plan, as was retaining the work of the talented artists who had been an integral part of the gallery’s success. In addition, our goal was to cast a broader net, increase the gallery’s selection of art (we increased the number of artists we had on display and added more jewelry in the lower-cost range), and create an open and welcoming atmosphere for all our patrons. We’ve witnessed first hand the success of this business model. When the artists do well, so does the gallery. This business shift better reflects our personalities and was a natural fit with the eclectic Floyd merchant community.
Little by little over the past three years, Annie and I have grown into our “owner boots.” I continue to learn more about what it takes to run a business and how to deal with artists and the public. One of the key things I’ve learned over the years is the importance of building personal relationships with both artists and customers. I have also learned about the organization that is required, especially when dealing with other people’s artwork. I check and double check things constantly to be sure that I’m not missing any sales or any discrepancies in the inventory system that would affect the artist getting paid the proper amount for their work. A third aspect I’ve learned about owning a storefront is that consistency is extremely important. Our gallery is open every day, excluding major holidays, so our customers can rely on showing up to an open store.
At this point, Troika’s success has made finding the right balance between running the gallery and my own studio practice an exercise in patience. But I can only see this as a good problem to have. Annie and I split the days at the shop, which allows me two or three days a week to dedicate to my studio practice. On days when I am in charge of opening the shop, I will get an hour in my studio before work and then a few more when I get home. I spend about 20 hours a week making pots, which allows me to maintain a work/life balance.
Our confidence is growing, and with it, our sales. We recently expanded our shop and added Troika Home, which offers US-made, small batch products. Today, Troika’s story is one of talent and skill, luck and generosity, and commitment to an artistic idea in a small community. Stop by. I would love to hear your story.