Becoming an artist was most definitely my childhood aspiration. In fact, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, invariably my answer was “an artist.” When it came time to pick a college major, however, I couldn’t bring myself to commit to studio art, so I decided on graphic design, as the job outlook was on the rise. I enrolled in a ceramics course my second year of college that altered my professional aspirations, and I switched my major from graphic design to ceramics and never looked back. I knew when I made the switch that finding steady employment was going to be challenging, but the hustle required was worth it, and I was willing. After graduating with my BFA in ceramics from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), I was offered an internship at Companion Gallery, a small, family-owned business in Humboldt, Tennessee. Jill and Eric Botbyl own and operate the gallery, where I currently work as a long-term artist-in-residence.
Building a Business and Making Changes
Building my personal brand is an ever-evolving process. My undergraduate years were focused on developing as many technical skills as I could before graduation. I started asking myself questions in an effort to develop my own voice in the world of ceramics. I began to dive deep into my passions, concerns, and what feelings and expressions my work would communicate. When I answered those questions honestly, my work began to develop. I knew that I was enamored with mid-century modern elements, colors, patterns, and vibrant expressions of the 1960s and 1970s eras, so I started experimenting with all of that in mind until I eventually found the combination of techniques that really felt like my own. As a naturally enthusiastic and extroverted person, I try to carry those authentic elements of my personality into the studio and my career in ceramics.
I knew when I started getting serious about clay that it wasn’t going to be an easy-breezy lifestyle. Something that overwhelmed me in the beginning of my internship was the vast number of hours required to grow my work and pay my bills. For my first year and a half in Tennessee, my 168-hour weeks consisted of 35–40 hours at a secure job and 15 hours of internship obligations. Eric and I developed a pie chart breaking down the available hours left working in my personal studio and setting aside time to maintain a healthy lifestyle with time to rest and sleep. This chapter of my life was known as “Paying Dues.” While I am still busy, I am thankful for this struggle and how it has now shifted to better-managed days filled with opportunities for teaching workshops and local classes, selling pots, working for the gallery, and reselling vintage home décor.
Influences and Selling Work
When I quit my day job to make pots full time, there was a shift in the making process—sales became imperative. It often felt easy to fall into production mode. Mugs are the most popular selling item; therefore, mugs became my focus. Then, I remembered that I wanted to be a potter, not a mug maker, so I had to be more conscious about the work I was making and the importance of personal expression. When I caught myself in this production state, I noticed my other forms started to fall behind. It is important to me to implement a wide variety of forms and to be a more versatile maker. My fascination with the mid-20th century led to a second passion of thrifting vintage items, making way for a new creative outlet, awakening new forms. Owning a vintage shop (currently two antique mall booths as well as an online shop) serves as the main source of inspiration for my clay work, as one would not exist without the other. I feel it is important to engage in other creative activities that aren’t solely centered around clay.
I have always been drawn to color, texture, and the raw surface of clay, so I started researching different techniques that would achieve a raw, weathered surface to replicate vintage wares. I experimented with slip transfers until I found the combination of techniques that I felt best matched my inspiration. Social media plays a large role in selling work, as the various platforms allow for sharing educational opportunities, provide access to online exhibitions and workshops, and effortlessly reach a wide audience, especially through TikTok and Instagram Reels. It’s also another creative form of making that I enjoy implementing into my studio practice and down time.
Companion Gallery provides new, aspiring artists, like myself, a chance to grow their work in a space where they don’t have to worry about the overhead of owning equipment and other expenses and challenges that come with having your own studio. Right now, I have more time than money, so I gladly trade 10–15 hours of work per week for studio space, materials, and firings. My dream is to have a physical vintage shop filled with home décor, my pottery, and work by other local talent, along with a ceramics-studio space in the back of the building. For now, I continue to prepare, grow, and learn all I can as a resident at Companion Gallery.
Making Connections in the Community
The ceramics community is a special thing, and honestly the main reason I chose ceramics in the first place. I am an extrovert in every way imaginable and living and working within a community is very important to me. I work closely in the studio with Eric Botbyl, Andrew Clark, Juan Barroso, and Ashley Akerson. I am especially grateful for the artists and friends like Ian Childers, past graduate students, and current studio mates who have graciously offered their knowledge, honest criticism, and friendship, because without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Our studio is located close enough to many universities (SIUE, Union University, University of Mississippi, and Mississippi University for Women). Their crews will get together and come to our openings and we have attended their events in the past as well. We also have short-term residencies at Companion Gallery that allow us to share a couple of weeks working and learning together with artists from all over the country.
While I was in undergraduate school, we had an amazing group of graduate students and faculty who, thankfully, willingly shared their knowledge. Mark Arnold, Kodi Thompson, and professor Joe Page would go out of their way to help with whatever new skill we were learning. Their energy and passion for clay was contagious and made coming into the studio exciting. Mark would gather a group to attend the show openings at Companion Gallery (which was a 4-hour drive). I started to develop a relationship with Eric and the crew at the gallery. For the next three years, I continued to attend the gallery events, volunteered to help with the booth at the annual National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conferences, and simply got myself involved and said yes to opportunities. Now I get to spend my days with four other talented potters who help run the gallery. I’m most thankful for our friendships and conversations about life and clay.
Decisions to Make and Remaining Authentic
The most difficult decision I had to make as a working potter was to leave a steady paycheck and enter a world with an uncertain flow of income. This may not apply to everyone, but for me this was a necessary transition to help me grow as an artist. In the midst of some of my early struggles, Eric introduced me to a song by David Wilcox, called “Johnny’s Camaro.” In this song, a woman travels to Africa where she was chased by a hyena and instinctively leapt into a tree to save herself. Wilcox sings, “She didn’t know she could jump that high! Well she does now.” In parallel to this character, I took my own leap and left my steady job. Because of that decision, I have grown exponentially as an artist. I now know the heights I am capable of and will continue striving for my goals.
A piece of advice to those who are interested in pursuing ceramics as a profession is this: “Make it till you make it.” Keep making, remain authentic, maintain the discipline of consistency, and make work you enjoy. Within this advice, be sure to intentionally allow time to rest and recharge your soul, whether that’s going on a hike, reading, digging for vintage items at the thrift store, or getting lost in a Netflix show. Now that the world is opening back up again, say yes to the opportunities that lead to making new connections and relationships. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of hard work, and just as importantly taking the time to rest and recharge. Make time for the things you love within the hustle.
Years as a professional potter
Number of pots made in a year
Bachelor of Fine Arts from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, 2018
The time it takes (percentages)
Making work (including firing): 75%
Promotions and selling: 20%
Mudtools red rubber rib
Where it Goes
Studio/home sales: 5%
Where to See More
Companion Gallery: https://companiongallery.com