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Pottery: Innovation in an Ancient Craft

What do you think of when you hear the word “innovation?”

Maybe you think of the future? Do you think of technology? Maybe more generally progress comes to mind.

What if you hear the word, “pottery?”

Do you think of ancient archeological digs? Do images of crafts, arts, or hobbies pop up?

Since the dawn of human history, our ancestors were discovering the power of clay.

This strange malleable mud can be formed into a useful tool. Clay, when shaped, dried and put into a fire, becomes permanent and rigid. Now, with a little creative innovation we can make what we needed to survive. Bowls, storage vessels, and water jugs allowed for a certain consistency in human life. Water could be carried from the river to the campsite. Grain could be stored after the harvest.

I would have loved to see the face of early humans as they worked out the potential of clay. The dawn of ceramics was the dawn of our future. Each generation of potter explored and pushed the limits of what was thought possible with clay. The first potters were our first innovators.

So how do we at Studio 2 Ceramics practice this ancient tradition of innovation?

When we started developing our MN Mugs, it came in fits and starts. We spent many hours in the studio testing forms, process, and techniques to get the results that had been bouncing around our brains. After each new set of mugs came out of the kiln we’d spent some time with the new products and then walk away. We’d let them stew in our heads. Asking, “What worked with this design?” “Are we happy with them?” “What could be improved?” We looked at what other potters were doing and made adjustments.

Many morning and afternoons, usually while walking our dogs, we’d talk about the studio and bounce ideas off one another, trying our best to let the ideas come out unfiltered. These unedited ideas are our spark for innovation. A partially formed thought here, a “what if” question there and hours of testing and observation pushes us to innovate naturally. Many times I’d start my ideas with, “This may be a terrible idea” and often the unedited version wasn’t great. But that didn’t stop us from trying them out and see what worked and what didn’t.

The biggest enemy of innovation is keeping our ideas to ourselves. When we make, we collaborate with each other, with other artists, with illustrators, friends, and our customers. Because we share our ideas, creativity can follow freely.

Our ancient ancestors shared ideas, too. They collaborated on designs and adjusted the forms to best suit their needs.

How will you practice innovation today? Who will you collaborate with on an idea you have?

Share your ideas with us on facebook and Twitter!

– Jim

What the heck are we doing?

While Jim has been throwing pots for 15 years, and I (Grace) have been an artist and entrepreneur-spirited gal for 33 years, we still feel new at this whole “own your own studio” thing.

In 2005, I moved into Jim’s studio in the basement of the Thorpe building. He had his side where he threw pots and then took them up to Bethel University to fire them in their soda kiln. I had my side of the studio where I painted and drew and made collages. It didn’t take long for me to come up with an idea to add a gallery to our space. Something Jim learned very quickly about me is that I’m always thinking of ways to build revenue.

We built a gallery, named it Gallery Courbet, had some shows, sold some work. We showed and sold our friends’ work as well and began shaping our “brand.” At the time, we did not know that’s what we were doing. At the same time, I was fresh out of college with  not-so-hireable English and Art History degrees. I was working odd jobs to make rent and Jim was working at Caribou from 5am-11am before coming into the studio.

Eventually, we realized that we couldn’t afford to keep paying rent on our apartment and our studio, so we shut down shop for a few years. We sold the kiln, moved the wheel to my grandma’s house, and worked hard at increasing our cash flow in and reducing the cash flow out.

The next few years were a dark few years. While we were improving our financial situation, we were not improving our emotional situation. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, when you take the studio away from artists, you take away our life force.

Praise the maker for the housing market crash. Not for all the people who were victimized by the banks or lost their homes. But this market crash was our way to buy our life force back. We began looking for homes with unfinished basements. Because of the crash, we were able to buy a historic home with a full, unfinished basement, with a kiln room (root cellar) in the artist district of Northeast Minneapolis. We moved in May of 2012, bought our kiln in August of 2012 and we were back in business.

As we look back over the path of Studio 2 Ceramics, buying our own kiln made all the difference for our business. We now were able to fire in small batches -16 mugs at a time. When we were taking our ceramics up to Bethel, we would only go a couple times of year. The kilns there are made to hold whole classrooms worth of work. We are just two artists- one potter, one glazer. This quicker turn around helped us shape our style, and ultimately, our brand. Firing in small batches, we were able to make tweaks to our designs and our methods regularly. We were now able to turn custom orders in just a few weeks, rather than a few months. We could shape and design our identity as Studio 2 Ceramics. And best of all, we could fire at home, rather than 15 miles away.

We are coming up to our 4th anniversary in our home (and studio) and we still don’t know what we are doing. We are still trying to figure out where we want this business to go. We are still shaping our brand, though we do know we are getting closer. We now have 7 retail partners, a regular booth at the Northeast Minneapolis Farmers Market and an Etsy shop. Our confidence is growing and our partnership is paramount to our business (and of course our life together.) We have a new website coming soon, and a growing social media audience. Looking back over the last 11 years together, there’s no way I would have imagined that we would have sold 200 MN Mugs in one year or that the Minnesota Zoo would want our work!

We might not know exactly what we are doing, but we believe we are doing it well. Jim and I have the fortune to be able to be life partners as well as business partners. We love working together and our creativity feeds each other. We feel so thankful to be able to make pottery together and grow Studio 2 Ceramics.

Going forward, I hope to be blogging regularly about our development as a business and as artists. I am reading a number of books on entrepreneurship and plan to review them on this blog. I also intend to share with you how we think about business development, what struggles we encounter as we grow, and what I’m learning about social media marketing.

Questions, comments, hopes, and dreams? Email me at grace@studio2ceramics.com

xoxo,

Grace