Studio Visit: Elizabeth Robinson Wiley, Rangely, Colorado


Today I am presenting an excerpt from Ceramics Monthly’s ever-popular Studio Visit Series. This time Rangely, Colorado, potter Elizabeth Robinson Wiley tells us all about her path to making a living in clay. I could relate to this one because like me, Elizabeth discovered clay while pursuing a degree in another field. But she got hooked on making pots and the rest is history.

Read on to find out how Elizabeth transformed a derelict building into the sweet little studio it is today. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor


Just the Facts

Clay
Cone 6 Aspen Porcelain from Mile Hi Ceramics

Primary forming method
Throwing

Favorite surface treatment

Laser-transfer collage over cone 6 and cone 03 glazes

Primary firing method
Electric kiln: cone 6 and 03

Favorite tool
My red Mud Tools rib, and my new Peter Pugger pugmill. After 6 years of reclaiming my clay in buckets and a plaster slab, I’m so glad I can just pug out fresh clay from scrap and get to work!


This article is featured in Ceramics Monthly magazine’s December 2010 issue.
To get great content like this delivered right to your door, subscribe today!


studio
My studio is an old 500-square-foot stucco building on Main St. in Rangely, Colorado, a tiny, isolated town in the high desert country of Northwest Colorado. The building was a hair salon called “The Beauty Bar” for years before being bought, gutted, and abandoned. Before that it was a shoe repair shop. My husband and I wrote a very small check for the derelict building six years ago, then proceeded to write many more checks for the renovation, which took six months. When we initially considered buying the building, we naively thought I could slap a coat of paint on the walls and start making pots, but because it had been vacant for years, we learned that we would need to do a more complete renovation before it could be occupied. This necessitated savvy negotiations with the building inspector and meetings with the town council to agree on how close to code I would bring the building. At the time, I balked, impatient to get in the studio, but I have always been glad we took the time to fix it up; not only did I improve the property’s value, but it feels good to work in a space that is mostly finished and that I had a hand in creating.

My favorite things about my studio are also some of my least favorites. I love its age and charm, but not so much its small size and radically uneven floors that require a wedge under every table to make it level. I like the Main Street location and the potential for any random person to walk through the door and talk about—and sometimes buy—pottery, though I don’t always like being disturbed when I’m working or the increased cost of having a separate commercial property. Most of all, I love that it’s a mile away from my house, so when I’m at work, the time is all mine and not shared with kids or laundry, but I often wish it were right out the back door and I could run over to quickly load a kiln or cover pots.

paying dues (and bills)
I took my first ceramics course in college halfway through a degree in biology. By the time I graduated with a bachelors degree in botany and an art minor, I was hooked and decided to seek more training and a taste of the “real world.” Looking for opportunities outside traditional academia, I spent the next six years traveling the country and working wherever I could find a place to make pots and learn. This included studio assistant jobs and residencies, workshops, a cross-country road trip to visit potters’ studios (primarily in Minnesota), a job in a production studio, as well as stints as a special student at academic institutions. During this time, I gained a lot of technical skill, life experience, and a critical eye for form and surface.

Ready to push myself intellectually, I went to graduate school and received my MFA from Ohio University in 2002. From there I jumped at the chance to return to Colorado and took a job as Program Director at the Carbondale Clay Center. I left Carbondale to get married, moved to the remote region of Colorado where my husband teaches, and set out to make a go of life as a potter.

Prior to having children, I spent upwards of 50–60 hours a week in the studio, including nights working into the wee hours. Currently, with a six-month-old and a three-year-old who need routine, regular meals, and lots of time with mom, my studio hours are much more limited. I can usually arrange a work schedule that gets me into the studio about 20 hours a week, usually in 2–3 hour chunks, where I’ve learned to make each moment count. I do my bookkeeping, business communication, and marketing from home. I miss the focus and exploration of long hours in the studio, but I believe the directness and efficiency I have been compelled to foster lately will always serve me well in my studio practice.

In addition to being self-employed as a studio potter, I have a home-based design business called Postcards for Artists where I primarily design promotional postcards and exhibition announcements for other artists and a few galleries. It is a great source of extra income; I can adjust my level of business to the flow of family life, and fit the work into the crevices of time I get at home. I also teach a beginning ceramics class at the local community college. There is no way to quantify the number of hours a week I work, as life and work are constantly flowing together.

body
Mostly we focus on eating very healthfully: all whole foods, very little processed or packaged foods, lots of veggies, whole grains and the like. To be perfectly honest, I don’t look forward to exercise. I work out when I can—usually on the days when the recreation center offers baby sitting. My biggest obstacle to exercise right now is that if I can get an hour to myself, I will almost always go to the studio. So, for now, cliché as it sounds, a lot of my workouts involve chasing the three-year-old while lugging around the baby. We are incredibly fortunate to have health insurance through my husband’s job. We have a limited income, and it takes a large chunk out of his monthly paycheck, but the co-pays are reasonable and the coverage has been very good.

mind
I just finished reading a great group of essays by Barbara Kingsolver called High Tide in Tucson; she uses language so beautifully to get across an idea. I’m a bookworm and love contemporary literature. I don’t have much time to sit and read these days, and when I do, I’m usually reading about parenting, gardening, or something else very hands-on or practical. I always have an audio book going in the studio and on the two-hour drive to the grocery store.

I recharge by spending time outdoors in the sunshine and focusing on being still, by keeping in touch with other artists, and by going to the studio. We go to Denver twice a year, and I try to see an exhibition or go to the art museum while I’m there. The hardest thing about living in such a remote area is not being around art and other artists.

marketing
I have been very fortunate that I haven’t had to do a lot of marketing to stay busy. For me, the best strategy initially was to spend my energy trying to make the best work possible and not be in a huge hurry to sell. Since finishing graduate school, I have made myself easy to find by maintaining a website and Facebook pages. The only frustrating thing about keeping up an online presence is the time it takes to stay current, as well as responding to people who make inquiries that you never hear back from. I also send e-newsletters and show announcements a few times a year and print postcards and distribute them. Although it might seem self-serving to say so, I think postcards are one of the most effective ways to market artwork. Emails are often unread and easily deleted and people surf away from websites; postcards are tactile and, if beautiful, hang around on desktops, refrigerators, and studio walls for a long time, reminding people about the work.

Before having children, about 65% of my sales came f
rom a weekly market in Aspen and out of my studio showroom, where I spent most of my time, as well as sales from a variety of exhibitions and galleries. Right now, I mainly sell my work through a few galleries and to customers who contact me directly to request or commission work. I am fortunate to work with some wonderful galleries that provide great exposure for my work, as well as sales. Because direct sales also make sense financially, I am finally setting up an Etsy store to sell pots online. The trouble is, I keep sending the work away instead of photographing it and keeping it on the shelf to sell. I will get better at this. I have not sought opportunities to wholesale work, though I have done a few orders when requested. Although shipping out work that is already sold is very sensible, I find I’m more comfortable with people purchasing work they’ve already seen and loved.

Currently, with my limited work schedule, I am not seeking new markets, though I welcome most opportunities to show and sell that arise. I’m not the best business person, since I prefer to make what I want and then find a way to sell it, rather than focusing on making work to sell. My work is very labor intensive, so although it’s not cheap, profit margins aren’t high. I cannot yet hold myself up as inspiration to anybody looking to make much money selling pottery, though I feel profoundly fortunate to be doing something I love.

most valuable lesson
Embrace and engage each stage of life as it comes; each offers opportunities for artistic as well as personal growth. I loved the time I spent as an obsessive, nomadic young potter, yearning to work hard and learn and see and do everything, where the focus was on discovery rather than sales. It was exhilarating and exhausting. Right now, as a busy mom, studio time is small and precious, important personally, but also necessary for the support of my family. It, too, is exhilarating and exhausting. I yearn for more time in the studio, free of distractions and the pressure of making money, but appreciate the consistency and maturity my work has gained through the discipline of being tied to a limited schedule, and show and sale obligations. I also cherish the blessings and responsibilities of parenthood. Older friends and mentors demonstrate to me that as time passes, and children grow, studio time will stretch longer, and the work, too, will continue to grow and change, sometimes in short spurts like a storm, sometimes like the gradual progression of a season.


WebFaceSpaceBloGallerTwEtsyList
www.elizabethrobinson.com
Facebook: Elizabeth Robinson Studio
www.postcardsforartists.com
Facebook: Postcards for Artists
www.etsy.com/shop/elizabethrobinson

Comments
  • Anna W.

    Dear Elizabeth
    Thankyou for your genourous text about your life as a potter and mom in a remote area of the world. I just have to write and tell you that I am so much in the same situation as you even though I’m in a small town in the north of Sweden on the other side of the planet! It’s amazing how similar situations one can have and it was great to read your text! Thankyou!!! Best regards anna http://www.annakeramik.se

  • Dear Elizabeth
    It was a pleasure reading your feature and I completely identify.I am trully at the same phase in the tiny but famous country of Israel. Juggling life, although a pleasure, isn’t always easy. I love your studio and your pottery.
    Warm Wishes
    Rinat Shahar

  • Mitch L.

    Elizabeth,
    Happy New Year! I like what you say, how you say it, where you live, and how you put it all together for yourself and your family…..keep going.
    Mitch Lyons

  • Shari K.

    Thank you for sharing your story. It brought tears to my eyes as I remember raising my own children while struggling to maintain some semblence of work/studio time! I’m here to tell you that there’s life on the other side! Children grow up and your studio time grows along side them. You’ll be surprised how quickly it happens. All I can say is enjoy each phase.

  • Julie A.

    Elizabeth,

    Thanks so much for sharing your life with us. I too was a biology/botany major with a minor in art from the midwest! I now have a studio that I share with my husband in Steamboat Springs, not too far from Rangely. I also teach ceramics at Colorado Mountain College! I’m certain that we will cross paths at some point soon…. I look forward to meeting you.

    Julie Anderson

  • Patty L.

    Elizabeth, Anna, and Rinat, I’m in East Tennessee and I too can relate to juggling much desired studio time with children and family. Elizabeth, thank you so much for sharing your life experiences with us. It was a pleasure to read your article. I love your studio. Also, thanks Shari for reminding us to enjoy each phase. It’s easy to forget to laugh and smile when life gets so busy. Happy New Year to you all and happy potting!

  • Marcy H.

    Thanks to Elizabeth. This is a great article and very inspiring as all the studio pieces are. I always want to know more about the processes used in the individual creation of pieces, however. This time, I was hoping to learn a bit more about the cone 03 application of laser art to the cone 6 porcelain pieces.

    Actually, the most important aspect to me in most of what I read about ceramics is the description of how the pieces are formed, glazed and fired.

  • I agree with Rozz though I loved reading and hearing how you managed to incorporate your home, family and studio. You are my kind of woman. I wish you much success. I am interested in the how to of your work, especially the low fire methods.

  • Stephani S.

    ELizabeth, thanks for sharing your story and your work!

  • Subscriber T.

    Thanks for such a well-written, insightful glimpse into your life. I love that you continue to make and sell what you like rather than allowing the market to drive (and, in my opinion) stifle your creativity. You go girl!

  • Gwen L.

    Thanks for sharing your story. I like your work. I’m new to pottery having just finished my second year. It’s something I experimented with as a retirement activity and I am finding it challenging and spiritually satisfying. I had set a goal to become good enough to sell some pieces but your article brought a realization that I should focus on the priority of doing good work and to enjoy pottery making.

  • Angela C.

    Thank you for sharing you busy life with us. I enjoyed reading about how you manage juggling the art of family with the art of pottery. I too juggled parenthood and career and wonder how I did it all, I am sure that you too will wonder how you did it.
    I am retired and in my 70’s and have recently discovered pottery !
    I love it and am totally addicted after starting last August. I am still having a hard time centering but have turned a few pots out and am my own biggest fan, I particularly love the glazes. It is the most difficult thing to part with pots that I have made, I am sure that if my pots were for sale I would check where they were going to make sure it was a suitable home for them !

  • Roberta H.

    Elizabeth, thank you for your story!! I am a “later in life” potter living in Craig….I will be over to visit soon!

    Roberta

  • Ritu B.

    hi elizabeth loved the write up about you and got inspired reading your story. Like angela , i am new to pottery and clay – been just a month . find the medium very additive and gives a sort of satisfaction mentioned by Gwen.
    wish you success in your endeavors.

    Ritu
    Bangalore, India

  • An inspiring story, and I LOVE your little studio!

  • Lisa H.

    From what I can tell you are living the dream! It’s not about money. It’s about love. Loving what you do and having a family to share it with is about the best journey I can think of. Congrats on such a splendid achievement!

  • Mary-Ann C.

    Hi Elizabeth, I enjoyed your story. I agree with the others…enjoy each stage of life. Kids grow up so fast! I just started taking a pottery course in the fall and have signed up for another one starting now. I took a course many years ago and loved it. I have always wanted to continue and felt now I needed to take some time and do something for me! I have 4 boys, our oldest just married and our next one to get married this summer and twin boys just out of high school, at home. We farm and my husband works full time off the farm and is going to retire soon. I also have elderly parents and am the main caregiver for them and my husbands mom, All with growing health issues. Going to my classes and going in to do extra time, is good for my soul! I enjoy it and am so involved in what I am trying to create, I don’t think of anything else! I love your work!

  • Myriam T.

    Hi Elizabeth, I would love living from selling my ceramics,I survive giving workshops to kids, I love working with clay and kids. Between workshops I’m developping my own ceramics and try to sell in my little studio and on local “bio”markets etc…
    As other potters say: kids are growing, you will have more time for yourself-any way you must TAKE time for yourself!Go,go,go!Best regards from Belgium,Myriam

  • Elizabeth R.

    Thanks so much for your interest and all your comments everyone!!! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate hearing from all of you. As my friend and mentor potter Diane Kenney always says- this global ‘tribe’ of potters is such an amazing community to be connected to!

  • Julie N.

    As a retired Registered Nurse (last April) who could not WAIT to spend all of my time in the studio, I must say that I smiled all through your daily trials. Yes, the children will eventually be grown….that I have learned by experience…..yes, your life will have its ups and downs, ……. and yes I find I NEVER have enough time in my studio, even though retired . Life, and don’t we love it, just keeps crowding in to the point that I STILL have to carve out my time in the studio….but now, at least, I am doing it!

  • Patricia P.

    Hi Elizabeth,

    I really enjoyed your article. It is filled with a journey and struggles to keep your art and love of pottery woven into your life right now. Thank you for this insight. I watch the videos on throwing and hand-building, but this was helpful to me because I struggle with home life commitments in caring for aging relatives who recently passed away, and now my husband who was injured. I can see the commitment to continue a passion is most important. You have helped me a great deal even though I am in a different phase of life. Thanks so much.

  • Anthony G.

    Elizabeth, it was a terrific change and inspiration to come across a person courageous enough to pursue a dream and stick with it as you have. I’m clawing my way to becoming a potter, but alas I’m up in years and have had many “second-thought” moments about marketing what I make. Reading about your personal trials and triumphs has given me a helping hand up the next rung. Thanks.

  • Laura D.

    Hi Elizabeth, I have been eating off your beautiful dishes and have to say every time I use them, they please me! Thanks for your beautiful work! I enjoy your sense of color and pattern.

  • Ornella P.

    my studio is 64 square foot if i don’t wrong 20 square meter, so is not so little.
    i like your busy life

  • Thoroughly enjoyed your story. Found it interesting – both informative and encouraging.

  • Craig E.

    Hi Elizabeth, Thanks for sharing that sure encourages me. Ok now I bought a ceramic biz a few years back, taken for ever to get it up and now eventually ready to give it another go. I’m actually happy and not sure why but the ceramics things just seem to flow easily! Yip enjoy the daily ceramic info! I’m base din Durban South Africa, but spent a bit of time in the US when I worked onboard cruise ships in the Casino! Anyway all the best! 🙂

Enter Your Log In Credentials
This setting should only be used on your home or work computer.

Larger version of the image

Send this to a friend