Here's the story of how this little business came into being... And about what's coming next!
Hi friends! Sarah Wolf here.
It’s been a while since I introduced myself. Here’s the story of how I started this business!
Ceramics was a hobby and a love of mine since around the third grade, but it wasn’t something I ever thought would be my job. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, then went off to college to study geochemistry. I spent most of my spare time in the mountains, climbing and exploring the snow covered slopes and rocky deserts of the west. After college I followed a meandering path, farming on a permaculture homestead, traveling, and working as an outdoor educator and climbing trip leader for high school students. Around the age of 25, I started working on a construction crew and applying to architecture schools. I was attracted to creative industries that bridged the gap between art and science. As the possibility of going into architecture came closer, I had a rising sense of dread that I might spend years glued to a computer, deep in debt, giving up a work life that was physical and allowed me to be outdoors.
I panicked! You might have called it a quarter-life crisis. I’d been aching to get back into a ceramic studio, so I joined Radius Community Studio and decided to apply to the Post Baccalaureate program at the Oregon College of Art and Craft.
Respected mentors of mine advised me to steer back towards my undergraduate degree in geochemistry and follow a path that would provide me more certain income and stability. Financially, craft school felt like a terrifying and absurd idea, not knowing how I’d cover my living expenses while in school, expecting to take student loans for tuition. It wasn’t even a masters program. But it was exciting. My goal was to build up my ceramic technical skills and dive deeper into a craft that had been pulling at me for most of my life. I hoped I might find my own style and voice in this medium.
While in school, I was on a tight budget, living in an unfinished basement with cheap rent and working in outdoor education in the evenings and on weekend trips. I spent long days in the studio. I found I was most drawn to making functional work, items that would be used in daily life and enhance ordinary moments in small and subtle ways. I loved working with black and white and earthy clay tones. Limiting my use of color was inspiring. Even with only black or white glaze, the possibilities of shape, pattern, and negative space were limitless. I started to find an aesthetic that felt like my own and I was overwhelmed with ideas. I had to keep a notepad by my bed so that I could write down ideas when I woke up in the night.
During my last semester of school, I’d started selling my work. I had also enrolled in a Mercy Corps small business program that, once completed, would grant me $6,000 for equipment. In the fall of 2016, I quit my other jobs and set up a studio with the funds from Mercy Corps. It was a scrappy operation. I was aided every step of the way by my privilege. I had a stable and supportive community of friends and family, and I had access to a 400 square foot space in my family home, where I set up a studio. Some friends volunteered to help build tables and shelving. Others bought ceramics or joined my mug club as a way to support the budding business.
Orders started coming in. Sometimes more than I had time to make! I began hiring friends to help with various orders and projects, and by spring of 2017 the flow of work felt steady enough that I hired a part-time studio assistant.
By 2018, I had created an online store and my team had grown to a group of three. Over the next few years, my role slowly shifted. I was forced to learn the ins and outs of business, the rules of being an employer, and most importantly the skills of managing a team and creating an environment where people feel valued and proud of the work that they are doing. I am still working on this constantly. Right now I have an amazing team of 5. Together we throw, trim, glaze, fire, pack, and ship ceramics out into the hands of our customers and community.
As the business has grown, I have had plenty of times of stress and overwhelm that have made me question if growing this business is the right path for me. I’ve had a hard time passing off parts of my work to my team. I am learning to let go and let the culture, character, work and weight of this business fall into the hands of my entire team, not just my own. It’s exciting to watch each of them claim their work and take pride in it. I am so lucky to have them in my life and as part of this business!
And here’s what’s coming next...
A new studio in Hood River!
I’ve been wanting to move to a more rural place, closer to the mountains, for years and years. I’ve had my eye on Hood River and I’ve been open about this goal with my studio team. They are so sweetly supportive of it. Some of them are even interested in eventually moving there too!
This spring I found a studio space for rent in Hood River (1 hr from Portland) and decided to go for it and sign a lease. Together, we’ve been working towards scaling back my role in the Portland Studio for the summer, while I set up the Hood River studio and spend a some time making creative work. To keep the business going strong, I want to spend some time reflecting on what I’ve learned in the last five years of running this business, and thinking about this next stage of growth.
Making time to do more big-picture work and taking on an expensive lease is a terrifying move. Lucky for me, each member of the team has been eager to take on more responsibility, excited to support this next step, and committed to keeping the flow of production going in Portland while I put some time and energy into the new space.
So that’s what’s up! I am really excited to keep sharing updates with you about the Hood River studio and about our whole team. I hope to have some new and different work to show you later this summer, once I get a kiln wired into the new space!
In the mean time, I just want to say, I appreciate you!
Your purchases support five full time, living wage jobs in a studio that I strive to make a happy and healthy place for everyone to work and to grow.