The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.

1 Mug with Yellow Dots, 31/2 in. (8.9 cm) in diameter, wheel-thrown porcelain, underglaze inlays, fired to cone 10.

After working for over four decades as a studio potter, Nan Coffin has distilled her years of experience into four words she lives by: “work smarter, not harder.” Though she’s in her San Diego, California, studio every day, she is quick to add, “But I don’t work hard every day.” Coffin has discovered ways to make her 270-square-foot space function well to streamline her processes and keep the joy of making foremost—like utilizing damp boxes to store greenware pots and placing studio equipment on casters so she can easily move things around. Coffin and her husband, potter Richard Burkett, have also invested in gradually replacing their old kiln shelves with lightweight ADVANCER® shelves. “It’s made a difference as we get older in terms of how much we lift,” she notes. 

2 Fruit Ripener, 10 in. (25.4 cm) in diameter, wheel-thrown porcelain, underglaze, fired to cone 10. Photo: Richard Burkett.

Coffin makes her damp boxes by mixing plaster directly in plastic tote bins. Once the plaster hardens, pots can be stored and kept at the leather-hard stage in the covered bins for months at a time until she is ready to decorate them. She keeps the plaster damp by spraying it from time to time with a water bottle. This system takes the pressure off having to finish pots right away and also makes it easy to know where to begin when she goes to the studio. “I no longer feel the push to make, make, make,” she says, adding, “Then you have to go sell, sell, sell.” Early in her career, she hustled to sell her pots, like most working artists. But, once working smarter became a guiding principle, that meant eliminating activities that drained her energy. She admits that marketing is not her strong suit and that, these days, she’d much prefer to work with galleries who will market for her. “It’s worth it to share the proceeds,” she says. Currently, Coffin is represented by Schaller Gallery in Baroda, Michigan (, and Shop Mingei at the Mingei International Museum Gift Shop in San Diego, California ( The remainder of her sales take place directly at her studio. 

Early Years 

Coffin studied journalism in college and was working as a copywriter when she was first introduced to ceramics in 1976. She was living in a shared home with several people in Noblesville, Indiana, two of whom were potters working at the Conner Prairie Living History Museum. “Watching them throw large vessels was magical for me,” recalls Coffin, “and after having a go at it, I knew I wanted more.” Soon after, she moved to Whitestown, Indiana, where she and her husband at the time, potter Doc Welty, set up Woodsman Pottery, their first clay studio. They constructed a small catenary arch gas kiln utilizing firebrick from dismantled boilers from a nearby elementary school. Coffin describes herself as self-taught, though Welty proved to be influential in her learning, offering lots of encouragement. “I was clearly flying by the seat of my pants,” she admits. “I didn’t take any classes, though I wouldn’t recommend this approach for others. There’s certainly an easier way to learn.” But Coffin remained steadfast and persistent, and, over time, her throwing skills improved.

3 Sugar Jar with Blue and Green Stripes, 6 in. (15.2 cm), wheel-thrown porcelain, underglaze inlays, Kanthal wire, fired to cone 10. 4 Spoons, 10 in. (25.4 cm) in length, handbuilt earthenware, underglazes, fired to cone 4.

A New Studio 

In the early 1980s, the couple relocated to a rural property outside Paoli, Indiana. Their new studio, Log Creek Pottery, took nearly a decade to complete. Before the gas and wood kilns were constructed, Coffin tried her hand at majolica ware, which could be fired in an electric kiln. She recalls the challenge of taking a painterly approach to her surfaces. Her majolica explorations proved short-lived once the gas and wood kilns were installed, as her interests lay in stoneware and reduction glazes. However, a painterly approach would reappear later in her career. 

Because of its proximity to Hoosier National Forest, the area was home to several wood mills. One day, the owner of a small mill stopped by Coffin’s showroom and noticed her pie plates. “I like pie,” he remarked. So, for several years, Coffin exchanged pies in homemade ceramic pie plates for slab wood for the cross-draft wood kiln. Coffin and Welty ran their small showroom under the honor system, in the tradition of many rural potters. If they were not there, visitors would take their purchases and leave payment. 

When she and Welty decided to start a family, Coffin put clay on hold. “I found great joy in raising our two children,” she remarks. “As fortunate as I was to be a stay-at-home mom, my eye was never far from the ideas and vision of the pieces I wanted to create.” Upon returning to clay, she worked full time in the studio, supplied work to galleries, and participated in art fairs within a 100-mile radius of her home. Over time, customers began to find their way to her rural studio, reducing the need to participate in so many craft fairs. 

5 Kiln opening. 6 Kiln opening.


After her divorce from Welty in the late 1990s, Coffin reconnected with potter Richard Burkett over Clayart (, an online forum for discussion of issues related to clay and ceramics. The choice to seek connection with other artists to learn and share has always felt like a smart one to Coffin, but this time it proved especially rewarding. Burkett, whom she had purchased clay and dry materials from back in Whitestown, and his colleague, Joe Molinaro, had been conducting research, photographically documenting indigenous potters in the Amazon basin (for more information, visit @IndigenousClay on Instagram). They invited Coffin to join them on their travels to Ecuador, and she accepted. 

Bringing gifts of oil, rice, rope, and fishing hooks, the team made connections in several small villages, where they would return over the course of several years. Staying for weeks at a time, they observed the women make, decorate, and fire pots, often with babies strapped to their backs. “The girls learn about making pots from infancy.” Coffin recalls watching the women paint extremely fine lines with brushes that used just a few long hairs from the heads of the village’s young girls. Today she can see that influence in her own work, as she recently started implementing thin linework herself. 

Finding New Inspiration 

Coffin relocated to San Diego in 2000 to join Burkett, and the two married in 2003. Soon after her arrival, she was invited to be artist-in-residence at Grossmont College under the tutelage of Les Lawrence and Jeff Irwin. She worked and fired pots there for two years while her third home studio, Third Pottery, came to fruition. 

7 Mug with Red Dots and Colored Stripes, 3 in. (7.6 cm) in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, underglaze inlays, fired to cone 10. 8 Folded Espresso Cups, 4 in. (10.2 cm) in height, earthenware, handbuilt, underglazes, fired to cone 5.

From her earliest making days, and as one who loves to cook, Coffin has been interested in functional pots that can be of use. “In the past, I had ideas for kitchen objects I thought would be popular, but they weren’t, even though I enjoyed using them.” Today, she follows her instincts and makes what she wants to make, not what she suspects might be popular. She is inspired by the work of other potters and jokes, “You, too, can steal ideas—nothing’s new under the sun!” Coffin’s darted cup forms are a borrowed technique from Liz Zlot Summerfield, and she’s gotten ideas for scoops and other forms from Lorna Meaden and Sunshine Cobb. “We don’t live and work in a vacuum,” Coffin notes. “It can be a lot of pressure to come up with completely unique ideas. Why not embrace what draws our attention, what interests us, and try to put our own spin on it?” Some time ago, she adopted the philosophy of “charge more, make less.” She slowed down her making process so she could give more attention to each piece. 

Coffin makes wheel-thrown and altered forms, and also enjoys slab building. Having worked with stoneware for decades, she made the switch to cone-10 porcelain because of her interest in its translucent properties. However, porcelain brought some challenges. It’s not as forgiving as stoneware and special care needs to be given to ensure attachments are secure and that all joints are well sealed. Paying close attention to what wasn’t working allowed her to learn how to better handle this new clay body. “I had many failures, which brought about lots of success,” Coffin reflects. 

She also prefers white clay as a background for her brightly colored surfaces. Stripes and graphic shapes of varying sizes and colors adorn the outer surfaces of the cups, mugs, lidded jars, pouring pots, and trays that comprise Coffin’s current body of work. Forms that would otherwise be straightforward take on a whimsical quality with the addition of feet and puffy handles. Sgraffito lines incised with a wash made from gosu1—the Japanese name for a cobalt powder derived from pebbles of cobalt ore—add depth to the work. The gosu has a tendency to pull slightly in reaction to her glaze, Third Pottery Clear. She previously worked with multiple glazes, but now that she’s using Amaco underglazes, she’s streamlined her process and needs to maintain only one clear glaze. This has eliminated the need for multiple glaze buckets and materials in her small workspace. 

9 Sugar Jar with Orange and Blue Stripes, 6 in. (15.2 cm) in height, wheel-thrown porcelain, underglaze inlays, Kanthal wire, wooden spoon.

The Good Life in California 

Coffin was a member of the San Diego Potters’ Guild for a while, which has a year-round gallery and two annual sales, allowing her to build up clientele. Today, rather than hauling her work and setting up elsewhere, she sells from her home gallery—a decision that allows customers to come to her. In 2007, she and Burkett helped found the San Diego Pottery Tour, an annual self-guided tour of 10 home pottery studios and 25 potters that welcomes hundreds of visitors. 

Coffin’s studio, which she lovingly refers to as her “Nan Cave,” is attached to the house and has a separate entrance. Burkett’s studio is a separate, unattached structure. They share two electric kilns and one updraft gas kiln. For the pottery tour, they set tables on the outside patios and open their studios to the public. “People want to see where the magic happens.” Coffin says the sale is “fabulously fun. We invite one or two guest artists to bring in more interest, and friends come to help. We offer up cookies and coffee in the morning and maybe sneak in some champagne in the afternoon.” 

10 Studio shot. Photo: Richard Burkett. 11 Kiln unloading.

The Coffin-Burkett home is just seven miles from downtown San Diego, with a distant ocean view from their back stoop. “I can hardly imagine living anywhere else,” remarks Coffin. “The weather is pretty darned perfect.” The pace of life is a good one now that she has found ways to work smarter and not harder. After spending some time in the garden, and perhaps harvesting a few lemons or figs from the many fruit trees that grace their garden, she’ll stop by her studio to check on her damp boxes. If any pots seem a little dry, she’ll spritz them with water and let them rehydrate overnight. “The next day, I’ll come back and say, ‘Oh look, you’re perfect!’” 

For more information on Nan Coffin, visit or follow her on Instagram @nancoffin

the author Susan McHenry, is a studio potter, writer, and educator based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She has an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. To learn more, visit or follow on Instagram @susanmchenryceramics

1 Pigment made of natural cobalt (~5% cobalt content). Historically, magnesium, iron, and aluminum impurities gave the material a grayish-blue tone. Around 1870, gosu became less commonly used and was replaced by a less expensive cobalt oxide that creates a brighter, more intense blue. From, University of Idaho Historical Japanese Ceramic Comparative Collection.