Potter Nan Coffin Shares the Story of Her Career in Clay

The Ceramics Monthly Working Potters issue is out! I always love this issue because I enjoy hearing other potters talk about how they got to wherever they happen to be in their careers. 

In this excerpt from not of the working potter articles, Nan Coffin tells about her journey, from her first hand built kick wheels and kilns, to the lovely San Diego studio where she works today. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.



My introduction to pottery began in Noblesville, Indiana, in 1976 while sharing a house with several people, one of whom was a potter at a living history museum. Watching him throw large vessels was magical for me and after having a go at it, I knew I wanted more.

Shortly after watching that magic happen, I moved to a small house in Whitestown, Indiana, and set up a clay studio (Woodsman Pottery) on a shoestring budget. With guidance and support from my husband and wages earned from waiting tables, a small studio began to take shape. We purchased an old farm truck to transport firebricks salvaged from a school that was replacing furnaces. Soon to follow were handbuilt kick wheels and two kilns built using instructions from Daniel Rhodes’ book Kilns: Design, Construction, and Operation‚ a small wood-burning kiln, the other fueled by #2 furnace oil. Clay was mixed by hand, ware boards cut from scrapped lumber, and I faced a huge ceramics learning curve (having graduated college with a journalism degree). I traveled throughout Indiana attending craft fairs, working to get my wares in the public eye. I could not afford health insurance.

In the early 1980s, my husband and I moved to a rural property outside Paoli, Indiana, and set up a second studio, Log Creek Pottery. Within ten years, a lovely building containing both studio and gallery space was built as well as a covered kiln pad, housing a downdraft gas kiln and a cross-draft, wood-fired kiln. Before the gas and wood kilns were constructed, I did have an electric kiln, and tried my hand at majolica‚ another learning curve. As we had started a family, I put clay on hold for several years and found great joy in raising our two children. As fortunate as I was to be a stay-at-home mom, my eye was never far from the ideas and vision of pieces I wanted to create. The decision to postpone clay work is one I’ll always treasure, as clay would always be there, but children are in one’s care for only a short while.


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On my return to clay, I worked full time in the studio and traveled to craft fairs, choosing to stay within a 100-mile radius to be able to be home with family. My gallery was under the same roof as the studio, and customers found their way to that rural location, reducing the need to schlep pots on the weekends. Still, I had no health insurance, yet took measures to stay healthy by eating a nutritious diet, bicycling, and walking. I have been lucky that illness has eluded me.

Twenty years later (2001) I relocated to San Diego, remarried, and started another studio, Third Pottery, with new inspiration. Upon arriving in San Diego, I was invited to be the artist-in-residence at Grossmont College, a two-year stint, where I was able to get my feet wet and meet other potters in a new region. Although the home studio was under way, I was able to make and fire work at Grossmont. Soon, I was accepted into the San Diego Potters’ Guild (http://sandiegopottersguild.org), which has a year-round gallery and two annual pottery sale events‚ plus for getting my work in the public eye. Additionally, I was fortunate to be invited to show with a local potter, through his well-established, bi-annual studio sales, which helped in growing my own mailing list. For a few years, I rented kiln space in other potters’ kilns, moving bisqued or glazed pots from place to place.

In 2003, my husband, Richard Burkett, and I built a new kiln (soft brick this time!) allowing me to work strictly from my home studio. Bi-annual home studio sales are now in place, generating the bulk of my income. I am part of a group of 10 home studios and 25 potters who have set up the San Diego Pottery Tour (www.sdpotterytour.com). We print (and email) maps and detailed information about each potter and location to our mailing list and provide it to local press. Its in its infancy, yet holds great promise in engaging the public with San Diego’s handmade pottery.

Most of all, I’ve been fortunate to have moral and financial support from Richard, who teaches ceramics at San Diego State University. We have separate home studios and share kiln space, and though we don’t work collaboratively, we do offer suggestions and critique each other’s work. For the first time, I have health insurance, provided through my husband’s work, and I encourage him not to quit his day job! I would be hard pressed to solely support myself in San Diego on what I earn from clay work. Frankly, I know only a few potters here who make their living solely from the sale of their work. Many have an additional job or the financial support of a partner, enabling them to work their passion in clay.


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