A Family Affair: How One Pottery Family Makes it Work

<p>Dinner plates, bowls and side plates, porcelain xyz...</p>

Dinner plates, bowls, and salad plates, to 10½ in. (27 cm) in diameter, porcelain, cone 6 electric, 2010.

What could be better than making a living doing what you love? How about making a living doing what you love with the people you love most? That’s precisely the story behind Free Ceramics in Helena, Montana. About three years ago, Emily Free Wilson, her husband Matt Wilson, and her brother Bobby decided to join forces and make a go of it in the pottery business as a family.In today’s post, an excerpt from the June/July/August 2011 Working Potters issue of Ceramics Monthly, Emily, Matt, and Bobby tell the Free Ceramics story. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.

Emily Free Wilson of Free Ceramics

Emily Free Wilson of Free Ceramics

Emily Free WilsonThe Time It Takes
Years as a professional potter: 9
Number of pots made in a year: 1000+
Making work (including firing): 35%
Promotions/selling: 40%
Office/bookkeeping: 25%

Where It Goes
Galleries: 40%
Studio/home sales: 50%
Online: 10% (just started!)

Over the past three years, I have shifted my personal pottery into a family business with my husband Matt Wilson and my brother Bobby Free. We work together to make porcelain pottery decorated with my whimsical line drawings and colorful dots. About ten years ago, Bobby and I both caught the clay bug in our own way 2000 miles apart (Bobby was in Oregon and I was in Wisconsin). Over the years, we continued on our own paths, gaining skills and experience that now benefit our joint efforts. I am attracted to the business side of ceramics (running a gallery, selling ceramics, working with artists and collectors). Bobby spent time in China and Korea, worked with other amazing potters in the field, and could easily throw a pot that looked like I threw it. I was looking for options just as his schooling at Utah State was coming to an end. Meanwhile, Matt, with a background in mechanical engineering and an interest in geology, was searching for an alternative to construction. These skills all combined and fueled an interest in mold making, slip casting, and glaze chemistry. I had become more invested in my day job as the gallery director at the Archie Bray Foundation, but I also wanted to keep pushing my own ceramic art. A few years ago, after a number of years of off-and-on collaboration, Matt, Bobby, and I agreed to pursue Free Ceramics, our family pottery business.

Plate by Free Ceramics.

Plate by Free Ceramics.

In the years that led up to collaborating with my husband and brother, we took important steps so we could make these leaps without falling. We researched other facilities and spoke to owners and people working in similar fields. As the number of pieces we made increased, we slowly committed to more galleries to help with exposure and increase our income. Making pottery for a living involves a certain lifestyle, family priorities, and a balance between financial security and enjoying what we do for a living.During the day for most of the week, I am at the Bray. Because of my daily interaction with the community and visitors going out of their way to visit the Bray, I see the importance of holding a piece of art in your hands, or standing back and gazing at a sculpture that you cannot get out of your head, or your heart. The community in Helena understands and values the handmade object, especially clay. The tradition and history of ceramics here helped me establish a place among the already strong community of ceramic artists. After eight years of consistently holding a holiday pottery sale, I have recently added a spring sale to help increase this essential part of my yearly income.

Whiskey cups by Free Ceramics.

Whiskey cups by Free Ceramics.

While the importance of the Internet is shifting the role of a gallery, I feel that, even though galleries are going through a difficult time and are having to adjust to current trends and demands by collectors, in the end the face-to-face interaction with a piece of art is very important. After years of hearing success stories about Etsy, and hearing about the growing blog community that can keep up and relate to artists they have never met, I took the plunge. As I expand beyond the studio and gallery sales, I am curious and excited to see what the Internet can offer, but it also brings new challenges to a potter who may prefer spending that extra time in the studio. Luckily, I enjoy meeting new people, selling, and interacting with people who share a love for clay, and hopefully the Internet will function as a positive tool.My own childhood did not include much art education, but it did have a solid foundation in working hard and working for one’s self. For years my parents ran a successful printing business out of their home with an antique paper cutter in our living room, a printing press in our dining room, and a dark room doubling as the laundry room. Choosing to run my own family business came with the knowledge that it meant longer hours, less sleep, and more juggling. After Matt and I were married and turned our dining room into my studio, it wasn’t long before our garage was getting remodeled and the investment became a reality. With it came the financial reality that was not as relevant to me as a child. Sure, I can “write-off” that expense, but I need to have a certain amount of cash flow to keep the day-to-day stuff going. I grew up with a sporadic influx of income, but I am impatient to move my own business to the next level. I want to keep my expenses low and increase my income, but that is harder to do than it is to write about.

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Flask, 7 in. (18 cm), in height porcelain, cone 6 electric, 2010.

Flask, 7 in. (18 cm), in height porcelain, cone 6 electric, 2010.

Addressing the physical demand on a potter’s body was an important piece of the Free Ceramics puzzle. Doing every step of the process is physically demanding, which is one reason why we divide tasks among the three of us. When I was pregnant, I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) throw a set of dishes that needed to be made. Bobby was willing, and is a great thrower. It took no time at all before he could make a plate that looked just like one of mine. And when I push myself too far and get a kink in my back, I am so fortunate that Matt is happier moving boxes of clay than sheets of drywall. In the next year, the priority list for our business has health insurance at the very top. We have to afford it for each person’s health, for the safety of our business, and for our entire family’s financial security. I am very fortunate to work for the Archie Bray Foundation and have health insurance, but if something were to happen to Matt or Bobby, it could bring our goals and dreams to a screeching halt.I have found great advice from people in many fields: teachers, painters, real estate agents, ballet instructors, curators, and those who run their own businesses. Listen, ask questions, and figure out what kind of work is attractive to you and what parts are not. There are so many ways to go about being a working potter and there are a lot of wonderful people to learn from.

Matt Wilson of Free Ceramics.

Matt Wilson of Free Ceramics.

Matt Wilson The Time It Takes
Years as professional: 2
Number of pots made in a year: 1000+
Making work: 65% (slip casting, hand painting, glazing, firing)
Promotions/selling: 5% (Setting up shows and sales is second to acting as Emily’s sounding board on this subject.)
Office/maintenance: 30%

I’d like to think that I would have eventually become a professional artist naturally. The truth is that my decision was expedited by the resounding crash in the building industry. The current economy does not appear ideal for artists looking for income, but when you’re trying to earn a living wage from carpentry, art becomes a shining beacon of hope.

There is more to making a living at this than just making the pots. Many times a week a feeling of guilt sets in when you realize just how much time you’re spending without a pot in your hand. All of those “distractions” are actually vital details to the overall well being of the business. We all have a part in the making of the actual pot, which utilizes the best abilities of each individual family member. We also divide the “distractions” in the same manner. All of us have particular things we enjoy that also fit our talents or experience. Matching this personal criteria with a duty creates a happier work environment that is transparently obvious in the end product.

We are a close family, and our first concerns are naturally for brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives. For us, this is true for both our personal and business lives, and we try to use this powerful motivator to our best advantage.

The most difficult part of being a working potter in a family business is ensuring that family stays involved in the business concerns, while keeping the business out of family concerns. No one wants to focus on business disagreements with a co-worker during Thanksgiving Day dinner, but that’s who our guests are. The love that we share as a family is the biggest advantage we have to our collective success and happiness. It’s a daily balance to ensure our strength does not become a detriment.

Bobby Free of Free Ceramics.

Bobby Free of Free Ceramics.

Bobby Free

The Time It Takes

Years as professional: 5
Number of pots made in a year: 1000+
Making work: 90%
Studio up-keep and loading kilns: 10%
Promotions/selling: 0%Since I’ve started, I’ve learned that what other established potters told me, especially concerning how hard it would be at times, has changed. It’s much harder than they let on. Making the decision to focus on and make my sister’s style of pottery instead of my own was difficult. Weighing out the pros and cons, I think that this was one of the best decisions I’ve made. My skills as a thrower are increasing with leaps and bounds. Coming right out of undergraduate school, the idea of being a professional potter by myself was overwhelming. The so-called-difficult question I posed to myself was, “Am I willing to sacrifice part of my own ego for the time being and pursue this way of working?” If the answer hadn’t been unequivocally “yes,” I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

I address issues of health by practically ignoring them. I try to stay healthy, and I rely mostly on the fact that I’m 29. I’ve always been able to recover quickly from an injury. I can spend a night drinking beer and still be able to jump out of bed early the next morning. I’ve heard rumors that changes as one ages.

The longer you live in one place, the better. Roots are important. We simply can’t rely only on the ceramics community (which is important in it’s own unique ways) to buy the pots or sculptures we make. I can’t even explain how integral the people around us are, and I’ve only begun to really understand it. I think of some of the Carolina potters that have lines of customers waiting for days before a kiln opening or sale. How else could that be possible? Community is how a potter will continue to survive. Building a relationship with the place where you live will bring more people directly to you.



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  • Çetin P.

    sizleri yürekten kutluyor başarılarınızın devamını diliyorum .Sevgiler.

  • Çetin P.

    sizleri yürekten kutluyor başarılarınızın devamını diliyorum .Sevgiler.

  • Subscriber T.

    That’s lovely…love the designs and sounds like a familiar story! Well done!

  • well done folks….very inspiring work and outlook….

  • Kathleen R.

    Love your story… thanks! and best wishes to your success!

  • Metka S.

    funny, we have similar small company on the other side of the world (in Slovenia, Europe)- me, my partner and my brother and we are also doing my designs in clay, wood, plaster etc…
    keep up the great work

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