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

1 Matias Braun throwing in his studio in Montezuma, Costa Rica. Photo: Stephanie Shirley.

Making a living by making ceramics is hard work, but extremely rewarding. I will say that I come at it with little experience in comparison to many working potters out there. I consider myself a very lucky individual based on how I’ve gotten here and the cards that I was dealt along the way. I have survived four years as a working potter, and I’ve learned so much in those four years that it makes me think that I still probably don’t know anything about making a living through ceramics. I don’t have a million followers on Instagram, but somehow or another people are interested in my work, my pots are selling, people show up for classes, and opportunities have come my way. My studio practice is more than an occupation or a job. More than it being a business, it is an attempt to shift the focus of my life away from money and the rat race, and more toward quality of life and integrity. It needs to provide not only for myself, but for my family, the community, and the environment. That is the yardstick I use for success. If I started looking at the money made in comparison to the number of hours and effort that is put into my work, I would probably quit and close shop. The nice thing is that is not the focus, and that simple fact is liberating and has made for a more ethical studio practice. 

2 Water pitchers, 7½ in. (19 cm) in height, local wild clay, commercial-material glaze, 2023.

Starting a Studio 

In my 30s, there is real pressure to become wealthy and have nice things. Lurking in the air is the idea that one’s success is based on how much money one is making. In the meantime, our values and life quality decline. I made a conscious decision to break away from that narrative and start a studio. The goals were simple. It needed to make enough money, provide a space for the community to get creative and share ideas, and be as sustainable as possible. 

I grew up in Costa Rica and studied in Hawai‘i. My family has been very supportive, for which I feel extremely fortunate. I was raised in a small town on the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, called Montezuma. It’s a quaint little beach town that has been visited by tourists since the ‘70s, and the area is famous for being one of the five blue zones of the world. I was born in Madrid, New Mexico, to German parents, and my parents went on a vacation in 1990 to Costa Rica. Out of nowhere, they ended up buying a little backpacker hostel on the water, and we relocated there when I was 5 years old. I grew up running around barefoot, jumping from waterfalls, roaming the jungles for fruit, fishing, and surfing. My upbringing was pretty amazing. My school was only a few meters from the beach, and I would wear a pair of boardshorts under my uniform and store my surfboard in the school’s kitchen to go surfing after school. I’ve been surfing ever since. It has been a great way to balance life in the studio, which is active but can also be quite repetitive. Surfing requires the same presence of mind that ceramics requires but with a lot more movement. And there is something about salt water that just cleans the slate mentally and physically. 

3 Coffee pour overs, to 10 in. (25 cm) in height, local wild clay, commercial-material glaze (left), and local wild glazes (center and right), 2023.

Working Potter: Matias Braun

 

I opened the studio in my hometown here in Costa Rica in June 2020, and right away through Instagram I got an order of plates. The ball started rolling and hasn’t stopped since. The best advice I got while starting up is to just make it work whichever way I can. It may be not exactly what I want to be doing sometimes, but the idea is that anything in clay is better than the 9–5, so I did my best to be scrappy and take any opportunity that came my way. I figured everything was a learning opportunity, especially in the beginning. I left the artist’s ego aside and made work that people wanted. I’ve learned so much from just getting in the studio every day and figuring out how to make it one day at a time. I never apprenticed or assisted in anyone’s studio to learn the ins and outs of creating a pottery business. I don’t have a frame of reference for how other potters are making it. But maybe that is a good thing. I came up with my own way of making it, and I’m not sure that if I had apprenticed, I would be doing it this way. However, I did have amazing mentors during my studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa where I received a BFA in ceramics. Fred Roster, Brad Taylor, Daven Hee, and Shawn Spangler were instrumental in making me feel prepared to start venturing into working as a studio potter. 

Generating an Income 

One needs to make money, and sadly, there is no way around that. I developed different ways to generate income through the studio. I give classes to small groups three times a week for a few hours, which doesn’t take too much of my time. People are really craving to get their hands dirty in this digital age. I wanted to share my passion for the material and there was a real void in ceramics where I live. It was a much-needed service in the community and it had some interesting side effects on my practice. Working as a potter can be quite the solitary endeavor and, for the most part, that is what is attractive to me. People coming into the studio provide a rewarding opportunity to bounce ideas around and just share one’s experience with clay. These interactions make me feel a little less like a hermit, and the fresh energy that comes into the studio is much needed sometimes. It also forces me to keep the studio at an acceptable standard of organization and cleanliness, which is so important for a healthy working environment. Most importantly, giving classes generates a consistent income that is more reliable than my sales. This lessens the anxiety I have to have to produce and sell constantly, and in turn, allows for my work to be better.

I sell work online, straight out of my studio, at a local café, and at a local gallery. Most of my sales come from people stopping by the studio. People find out about me through Instagram, from a friend, or by seeing some of my work somewhere else and deciding to come by the studio. The nice thing about where I live is that there is a constant influx of travelers who are new potential buyers. The work must be good, though—I can’t overemphasize that. As I was starting out, it took me a long time to make a mug that I could appreciate, but it was an investment in my skills, vision, creativity, and design. Later, once I established a way of making my work, it became more and more efficient, better crafted, and more streamlined. So, the initial investment pays off. 

4 View of the outside of the studio in the dry season. 5 Student work area of the studio.

6 Hawai‘i Series mug, 3½ in. (8 cm) in height, porcelain, underglaze, stains, glaze, 2023.

Career Snapshot 

Years as a Professional Potter

4

Number of Pots Made in a Year 

approximately 300–500 

Education  

BFA in ceramics from University of Hawai‘i at Manoa 

The Time it Takes (Percentages)

Making work (including firing): 60% 
Promotion/Selling: 10% 
Office/Bookkeeping: 10% 
Lessons: 20% 

Favorite Tool

An eye surgery kit 

Process

Wax-resist sgraffito 

Where It Goes

Retail Stores: 10% 
Galleries: 10% 
Craft/Art Fairs: 10% 
Studio/Home Sales: 50% 
Online: 20% 

Learn More

Instagram: @matiasbraunceramics

7 Display and gallery area of the studio for finished work. 8 Braun’s studio is equipped with a standing desk and wheel to protect his back.

Sourcing Materials and Practicality 

I have two distinct lines of work. In one, I use a mixture comprised of clay that comes from a guy’s backyard in the central valley of Costa Rica and a clay that I source and process myself adorned with simplified glazed surfaces. The other is a porcelain line of work. The local clay line is inspired by my natural surroundings here in Costa Rica and it’s more about highlighting the clay and glazes that I dig and process myself. Not all the glazes I use are wild, but I have been able to develop a few nice ones so far. Sourcing wild glazes will probably be a lifelong project. In this line, the surface is developed by the materials and the firing with a quick application of glaze whereas the porcelain work’s surface is drawn, stenciled, incised, painted, squeegeed, and then cleaned. That process alone can take up to 8 hours on each piece on top of what it takes to throw, trim, and assemble. The porcelain line is inspired by my time in Hawai‘i and the Hawaiian landscape. 

9 Hawai‘i Series set of vases, to 7 in. (17.8 cm) in height, porcelain, underglaze, stains, glaze, 2023.

The local clay line is no less special, but the time spent on the work is minimal compared to the porcelain line. I still make it special and there is time invested into these pieces by way of material research to develop clay bodies and glazes sourced from the area. It takes some serious time and effort to find and process the materials myself, but the knowledge of that new glaze material stays with me for the rest of my career. Again, the initial time spent on the research pays off. My intention with the local line is to have the materials do the talking. However, the most important purpose of this work is the environmental impact of sourcing the materials locally. I’m not relying on materials that have been mined halfway across the world. I can go straight to the source and process one backpack load at a time. 

10 Work in progress in the studio, back in 2021 when Braun shared the same space as his students. 11 Hawai‘i Series teapot, 6½ in (16.5 cm) in height, porcelain, underglaze, stains, glaze, 2022.

Recently, a friend Blake Anthony, from Pittsburgh Pottery (@pittsburghpottery), and I have been doing fast-fired, mini wood kilns and yielding nice results in under a day with about only a wheelbarrow’s worth of wood. There is so much availability of driftwood and fallen branches here that there is no need to cut a tree or buy wood to fire the kiln. I’m constantly looking to use what’s directly available and make my processes as sustainable as possible. Doing so makes the pots completely unique to the area and really special. 

12 Espresso cups and saucers, 2¾ in. (7 cm) in height, local wild clay, local wild glaze, 2023.

The porcelain line is not a very practical line of work, business-wise. Each piece takes about eight hours of detailed work of hand painting, drawing, and stenciling, so if I exclusively made this work, it would be really challenging to survive. But it’s what keeps me excited as an artist and is more personal to me—where I get to express more of who I am than any of the other work. I’ve not only been able to appeal to a whole new market of buyers, collectors, and galleries, but I’m making work that continues to challenge me technically and conceptually. It makes me feel like I’m improving as an artist. I see the influence of mentors, my upbringing, my lived experiences, the influence of surf culture, and my aesthetic, which is important to have as an outlet and not feel like I’m a factory worker.