A series of fortunate events
From hobby to woman-owned business by Stacey McDonald, photos Scott Rose
I moved to Rockford IL, USA from Canada in 2006. It was a classic ‘girl finds boy on eBay, shipping is a nightmare, so she emigrates’. It’s true, I did meet my husband on eBay, but I was shopping for custom rubber stamps, not a boyfriend! We hit it off, I was divorced, my children grown, so I embarked on a new life in a new country. In time I learned the rubber stamp business from him and eventually was able to use my artistic talents to make a living, and, more importantly, develop the skills to operate a small business. Our romance has ended but we still make the rubber stamps together, and I’m grateful for the time and space to learn and grow into my current pottery career.
Quite by accident, in 2007 I discovered Womanspace in Rockford, and was delighted to find they have a pottery studio and classes. One beginner class and I was hooked! The director, Elaine Hirschenberger, encouraged my love of clay by allowing me to trade studio maintenance for studio time, which was crucial since the beginnings of the 2008 economic crash were making it very difficult financially for small businesses, and I wasn’t permitted to work yet.
Many jobs in Canada had kept food on my table; factory work, healthcare, hospitality, but my real love was teaching adult first aid and CPR, which I did part-time for 20 years. I have a knack; if I know something, I can teach it to others who want to learn. I transferred this skill to clay and within a year of my first class I was teaching beginner classes. I wasn’t very good at the start, but I persisted. Every new skill I acquired I passed on to my students, I view what I do as a lateral sharing of skills rather than a master/student dynamic, I have learned much from my students.
Lampworking glass and other pursuits competed for my time until 2012, when clay finally lit me on fire in a class taught by Nishi, a local potter from Japan. Making traditional Japanese teapots inspired me to buy my first wheel, so I could fail repeatedly in private! Until that point I’d been working and teaching at Womanspace, reading books and watching videos, but it was still one of many interests. Having a wheel at home turned a pastime into an obsession that continues to this day. I still haven’t mastered everything I learned in those six weeks.
In 2015 and 2016 I enrolled in the clay courses available at my two local community colleges and subsequently began teaching non credit classes in pottery at both of them. I consider the ceramics professor at Rock Valley College (RVC) in Rockford, Lynn Fischer, to be my mentor. She has an inexhaustible love for clay and a passion for teaching those who want to learn. I’m a difficult student and she told me many times, over my objections, to ‘just do it anyway’, and I learned that what’s easier for me isn’t always the best way, and what seems more difficult can actually be a valuable skill to master. Being in her studio classes opened up avenues in clay that I hadn’t even imagined, and her ongoing support is something I value tremendously.
My own place
The idea of owning my own teaching studio began percolating in 2013, and I started buying secondhand wheels, tools and equipment as I could afford them. In September 2017 I looked into small business training. Everyone knows such things are expensive and difficult and require years of planning and saving up. I had a tentative five-year plan.
After completing several tedious worksheets on market research and imaginary financial projections, the fellow who was guiding me took me around to meet a local businessman, Larry Pittsley. Larry had owned a bit of Freeport IL history for a short while and was working to turn it into a creative destination.
Downtown Freeport, a city of just under 25,000 people, is experiencing a modest recovery from the typical American malady of cities rotting from the inside out, as big box stores starve mom-and-pop shops. His building is a circa 1929 Buick dealership that has since been used for multiple other business endeavors.
He showed me the space on Boxing Day 2017. Its most recent iteration had been as a restaurant. It was hard to love, full of all manner of items in storage, crumbling plaster, bare walls, dirty and cold. I wasn’t ready, after all I was less than six months into my five-year plan. We agreed that I would move in at the end of May 2018 and vaguely agreed on rent.
By mid-May it was obvious the space wasn’t going to be ready. In early June my partner, Tony, and I began spending 4-5 days a week there, cleaning, doing odd jobs and keeping Larry on task. Larry put hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into renovating the space for me. My meager savings were enough to take care of the specialised electrical and plumbing needs for the studio, and after a couple of deadlines sped past again, we opened up in the middle of September 2018.
The astonishing thing, to me, is that since I committed to the studio as a reality, I have been moved by an unstoppable tide of support from multiple, often unexpected, directions. A retired potter gave me everything I need for my glaze pantry, plus tools and batts, when I bought her kiln. A friend of hers secretly gave me the money to buy the kiln; he had never met me and mailed me a $500 cheque on the promise that I would follow through with the purchase sooner than I would have been ready to. Another retired potter sold me a pottery wheel and then gifted me a slab roller, pug mill, many more glaze ingredients, batts and tools and a treasured collection of books. Larry didn’t know me, but he committed to months of work and expense on the promise of my dream. My partner Tony worked alongside me and encouraged me through the whole process, even though we spent a summer with no recreation, in dust and heat with barely enough money to put fuel in the car.
Since the studio opened the outpouring of support has continued, with a student gifting a small fridge so we can have cold drinks and keep some food on hand, while a student from another studio I teach at generously gave us a kiln in what looks like excellent condition, and both gifts? Delivered! An artist friend provided display pedestals, a laptop computer and a collection of mundane but much-needed office supplies among many other things. Gifts of tools, clay, and other super useful things are a regular occurrence. I cannot rest my eyes anywhere and not gaze upon a gift graciously given. This space makes my heart full to overflowing.
What clay means to me personally is hard to describe. I have inner turmoil about the production of ‘things’; the use of resources to produce things that we don’t need, and which can be purchased so much cheaper from factories, troubles me as my primary interest is in functional ware. So, I always ask myself, ‘what is the real value of my work; what am I, as an artist, and the world, as repository of my objects, gaining?’.
Mastery of skill and control of the material delights me, and the lifetimes it would take to know everything hold the promise of endless avenues to explore. I love the personal relationship that others form with my work; a favourite mug or bowl, the colours they just love, the one they choose from the cupboard because it speaks to them. The history of clay objects, how pots and sculptures from the cradle of mankind can reach into the present and still speak to us, makes me feel part of a larger human family. Because I don’t have to rely on sales of my work exclusively as my livelihood, I’m free to explore, experiment and continue learning. I have not yet settled into a ‘style’. My body of work is rather chaotic, with colors and clay bodies from all of the places that I work and teach. Perhaps as time goes on I will develop a particular style, but right now I am loving the free rein I have in a fully equipped clay playground that belongs to me.
I sell my pots at local farmers’ markets and include throwing demos when possible, using the exposure to promote my studio classes. My experience of teaching at the community level has shown me how much of a social experience and therapy clay is for many people, in addition to being a relaxing creative outlet. Friendships are formed that are supportive and lasting. With clay on your face and pots flopping, you cannot be anything other than who you are. Real talk about real things happens in the studio. Owning a studio and teaching classes, for me, is as much about providing a safe space for relationships to form as it is about the clay. I thrive in this environment too, I am a quiet person and while I love the company of people, the usual social hotspots like bars and restaurants leave me exhausted, but clay and clay people invigorate me.
I learned how to mix clay and other materials at RVC. Not wanting to be a passive consumer, I enjoy the control and insight it gives me. The equipment to mix clay and the requisite safety controls are on the long-term plan, but I had to decide on a commercial primary clay body for my studio immediately. It’s astonishingly hard to do! When a potter uses a cone 6-10 clay, for example, the clay is a cone 10 clay and at cone 6 will likely be unacceptably porous for functional ware which ought to have under 1% absorption. The best I could find locally is a cone 5-7 smooth white stoneware clay body with mullite, called Ontario White (my home province!) with an absorption of about 1.5% at cone 6. I buy it from Great Lakes Clay, a small business where one can call up and talk to the owner and ask questions about clay and materials and get good information. While my primary clay is a good white stoneware, there are bags and buckets with many different clay bodies stowed away around the place. I may be an addict!
I fire my bisque to cone 04 and I glaze to witness cones 5/6. I use two old manual kiln sitter kilns, which have been teaching their secrets to me as I’m doing more frequent firings. There are differences of heating within every kiln that one would never discover without using witness cones. I recommend that everyone use them, in this way you can harness the different zones to your advantage with your glaze palette.
I have worked with commercial glazes and I love Amaco Potter’s Choice colours, but for my studio, I decided to make all of my own glazes, as well as engobes, underglazes, stains and terra sigillatas for the cost savings and control. I even make a ceramic ‘ink’ for stamping and have made my own sodium silicate. I use glazy.org to search for recipes and I make the recipes I use available for my students. I often talk about ingredients and how they behave when I present glazing in my classes; it’s important to me to empower students to pursue every aspect of this wonderful clay life.
Right now, we’re experiencing the best time in history to be a potter. With the plethora of Facebook groups, YouTube videos, streaming services and online courses such as Matt Katz’s Ceramic Materials Workshop, one can learn in a week what historically took a lifetime of experimentation to master.
If I had any advice to give to those on their own clay path, it primarily would be to be bold and get out of your comfort zone. Subscribe to in-depth video streaming services – my current favorite is ClayFlicks – join online discussion groups and scour the library or Amazon for books on the subjects that interest you. Go to museums and stare at the clay objects and if you can afford the time and money, take classes. Every single tidbit of information about clay makes you a better potter. Buy an old kiln and refurbish it yourself, then learn how to use it. If you feel like clay is your vocation, commit! Make work, lots of it, let go of the preciousness of your work, accept failure as a learning experience and make more work! I found that every time I made an increased commitment to my craft, the universe rewarded me with opportunity. Much benevolently offered advice is dead wrong. Go with your gut and do not engage with negative people.
It hasn’t been easy, and I have a long path towards earning a good enough living, but I am exactly where I need to be in order to achieve my dream. I could not have gotten here if I had wavered, or worse, given up.
Scott Rose, photographer: instagram.com/blackthornartistry
For more Meet the Potters, click here
This feature first appeared in issue 23