People, Palaces and Pottery
This year I made it my goal to attend Maker’s Central in Birmingham, England - so I could finally meet a lot of the people who have inspired me to keep going with my small business and fine tuning what I’m doing as a potter. One of the things that had me getting really pumped for the trip was that I was preparing special pieces for several makers who had really been inspiring to me the last year or two. For Maker’s Central I had several makers in mind to gift pieces to. The Red Smith, Al from Al’s Hack Shack, Steve House, Karoline Hinz, and Jessie Uyeda. These folks are all content creators and really great motivators for different aspects of what I’ve been doing creatively as well as personally. I'll give you links to all of their snazzy stuff in the info below as well.
THE RED SMITH
Red was the first creative that I purposefully watched on youtube. If you remember, Ben was the catalyst for our small business and his obsession was with woodworking videos. I had a hard time watching the playlists that Ben regularly watched. The reason was that Ben really was gaining knowledge for his new discipline. I hadn’t found mine yet and found most of the woodworking videos a bit boring. In my quest to find channels that would strike the right chords, there was a suggested watch of The Red Smith. He was the first creator that really caught my attention and I watched with a purpose. I hadn’t ever subscribed to a youtube channel and I immediately subbed to him. There is just something about his work and style that I’d never seen before. He was the first blacksmith I’d seen and even the first leatherworker. These were both very new things in my world view. In my brain the only people who did that type of work currently were bag manufacturers and people that were really into historical towns and festivals. I owe a lot to him taking the time to post his projects or I may never have stuck with the community or being active as an artist. It’s funny how things work. I made a video of the mug that I made for Red.
AL’S HACK SHACK
Later I came across Al – we were a fairly new channel and business and when he came along and introduced himself to the community. His initial video really made things click for me in my head. I adored him from the start. He took a project that for most would be long drawn out and possibly boring video series and turned it into an adventure story. Instead of having a year long showcase of how he built his small shop, lovingly call the Hack Shack, he made it so fun. He kept it to one video and made that his introduction. I am Al, I am silly and fun and I break all of the rules. I immediately sent him a message and was totally on board with his story. He even has one of our hand printed t-shirts from when we were first playing with youtube. The power of story is prevalent in all of the videos that Al puts together and there is so much joy wrapped up in the small packages he delivers.
By way of Al, I found out about Steve. One thing that I hold so precious to knowing Al and Steve, is that I got to see them pretty early and have been privileged to see how much they have grown in that short amount of time. Steve is one of the hosts of my favorite podcast, Fools with Tools. He along with Al and Brett McAfee run the podcast. It’s funny, inspiring, and always has some really great topics to think about while you work in your studio or while you are driving. I spend a good bit of time in my studio throwing and it’s always a delight when I have a new episode to listen to. I started out with podcasts listening to NPR shows and This American Life, but it’s so much more compelling when you can listen to folks who are in the same place as you creatively or vocationally. Steve brings such a sincerity to everything that he does and is very open about his life and journey as a blacksmith. I’ve taken so much from his experience that I really felt I honestly owed him so much more than just a silly mug. He spent the last two years building his career and working toward leaving his day job to be a full-time blacksmith. He was even so generous as to order several mugs from me when I was first starting out selling my works. It is so inspiring when someone is willing to part with their hard earned money to buy something from you – even more so when what they buy from you is chosen as a gift for the people that they love.
Karo as we lovingly call her, is an amazing sculptor based out of her studio in Germany called Berlin Prop Shop. I've really enjoyed getting to know this woman and how she crafts her ginormous set pieces for theater and movies as well as how she creates these wonderful costumes of animals. Her work is really stunning but the value I have gained by her patreon blog is unmeasurable. She has brought us into her studio and journaled about her weekly triumphs and challenges. It is an inside glimpse most of us don't get from following people on instagram. Instagram is often a place to polish photos and showcase a brand or a finished product - but with patreon some creatives like Karo like to give their patrons and inside account of what's going on, they ask for feedback or just give us an idea of what's coming to look out for from them. I love Karo's approach to being very candid with how she is working through unique challenges that a working prop builder would have to get through. It has helped me to start really investigating some of the more challenging things a full time potter might experience as well. It's like an education that I receive every week. She is very open and very kind with her responses with me. It has helped me tremendously to ideate what I would like my studio to be eventually. When I made her mug I was really nervous. She is an amazing sculptor and I don't want to give her something she would be happy to use in her space. So I rigorously researched how to achieve the look that she liked with pieces that she kept around her. So, just like normal, I asked her, 'what is your favorite beverage and what do you drink it out of?' Here is the link to the video on the builds for Karo, Al and Steve's mugs.
Jessie has just been a light since I met her in NYC a few years ago. She is such an approachable person and such a light. I remember thinking when I first met her, ‘OMG self, that’s Jessie Uyeda and I’m actually talking to her. We’re walking around MAKER FAIRE WITH IJESSUP AND SHE GAVE ME A STICKER.’ I don’t fan girl often, but it was a big moment for me. That day I met quite a few of Ben’s “maker heroes” but this was the first time I was meeting someone I was inspired by. She did not disappoint. She was warm and friendly and inquired about our little business; she was interested and so generous. The funny thing about social media is that you get a pretty good idea of people based on the things they share and how they interact with other people. I saw her joke with the folks in private maker facebook groups and saw her offer encouragement to everyone. The biggest thing that struck me about Jess is her willingness to drive across the country on a whim and just take up residency wherever she is needed. I remember at one point thinking, man, I used to be like that. What happened to me? Then I realized, I happened to me – I got comfortable and stopped pushing myself to find adventure. When I saw her do things like travel over 8 hours north to visit with a brand and then stop in to visit Anne of All Trades – I was even more convinced I could travel to England without much of a plan and without a companion. She was a huge influence for me having the confidence to go. Here is the video of how I made her mug.
I have seen palaces. And I’m not talking Royal Palaces, although – when I was in England I did see one of those. I’m talking about the palaces people build for themselves – their workshops, their studios, their libraries, their nooks. Mine is my little pottery studio in my home. My dad's is his garage. Ben's is his woodshop. I saw one such palace in Cleveland right before my big trip across the pond. My friend Ellen came into town for a few days before she attended Spring Make in Cleveland, Ohio. We showed her around our city and she wanted to head to see this crazy bicycle museum that we didn’t even know existed. It’s called Bicycle Heaven and is owned by Craig Morrow. Talk about a palace for anyone enthusiastic about bicycles. This guy has created a space to house his collection, pay homage to the history of the industry and build/repair bikes for customers. Not your typical museum where things are super clean and organized, this is a sculpture in and of itself. Stacks and rows on rows of bikes and parts. Things hanging from the ceilings, collages of cogs and chains and spokes and seats. It’s an impressive sight. This man was paying homage to his passion and his life story all in one. There are photos of him, memorabilia from his life - juxtaposed to movie memorabilia and cycling history. It was unique and inspiring to see the space and to realize that people work there customizing bikes for people with a similar passion to Craig.
Knowing I would get the chance to hang out with Ellen again as well as see some of my friends who were in town, I took a quick drive up to Cleveland to visit that following weekend. It was a litmus test for how I would feel about going to England for the same purpose. Part of the excitement was that I was going to go see my friend Tim Cunningham’s workspace and the Cleveland maker palace known as Soul Craft. Tim runs his small business, The Urban Forge out of this location. It’s gritty, dirty, gigantic, open, and found in an industrial part of Cleveland. A giant space that was once home to a manufacturing company (can't remember what though, we'll just say brooms...), there are all types of artists who use the space as their studio. Downstairs you’ll find floating beds, a kitchen, a large swing and even a small room dedicated to Ghostbuster’s enthusiasts. Further through the building you’ll happen into a Motorcycle shop called skidmark garage, focused on uniting new and old gearheads. Upstairs is the Soul Craft space that is dedicated to woodworking, blacksmithing and some additional technologies like 3D printing. Ellen even found a dusty sewing machine in one area. Tim manages blacksmithing classes and hosted an open forge that evening. It was just brilliant. Jess, who I described above, was there along with my friend Ellen as well as Brett. It was so nice to spend some time with them and build confidence about my coming trip to England. Ellen and I had spent some time making Jess’ mug and we were both excited to tell her about it. Ellen was heading with Brett and Jess, after Spring Make, further north to Jimmy’s upstate New York ‘palace’. This is a location I hope to go to some day. On my drive home I thought about what it was going to be like to go to England for the first time and how the nerves I had about going had all but dissipated after my time in Cleveland. I had been really worried I'd go to England and no one would like me or I would feel like a wallflower the whole time. I didn't want to go to England and waste my money and time, but Cleveland really injected confidence into me.
During my last bit of time at home before my trip, I finished up the mugs I would be taking with me, wrapped up my 'maker coins' and got all of my travels sorted. When I made it to England I spent a day in London and did see the Queen’s Buckingham Palace. It was nice and beautiful, but it did very little for me emotionally. Similar to how I feel when I go to capital buildings or you see a manse that was built by people who would never get to enjoy living in the thing that was made. They are beautiful works and full of masterful craftsmanship and can create a bit of awe and wonder for how they were made, but feel a bit empty in comparison to some of the other palace’s I visited during my time. I had a lot more questions about an individual's choice in surrounding themselves with things that were important to them and had a story. But that's just my point of view. As I've gotten older, I'm much more interested in individual stories than that of iconic figures in history. Real people don't have all of their battle wounds polished away for history books.
After London I headed by train to Birmingham for Maker’s Central and then hitched an unexpected ride with my friends Jake Thompson, Andy Birkey and Jamie Page to a landmark called Stonehenge. Although not a palace, it is a marvel in its own right. The fact that a village of people built this ancient calendar and it is still a mystery as to why - is astonishing. For such a feat of engineering that there is no solid record is bewildering. There are plenty of theories and ideas as to what the space was used. Today we have things like Youtube to showcase our stories and tell the steps that it took to complete a project. There is no real reason why anything today couldn’t be catalogued and archived for people in the year 3000. How much have we lost because traditions die and stories fade into myth? Speaking of olden traditions, the next palace I visited was called The Forge. It’s an active blacksmith shop run by a giant of a man named Alex Pole. He is the mentor to my friend Steve House who we were visiting with. As you can imagine, The Forge is dirty with thick coal smoke and loud sounds of hammers ringing. It is a beautiful thing. The Forge is located next to an apple orchard where sheep mingle among the trees. If you ever wanted to feel zapped back in time, visiting a place like this is certainly the key. The village that the forge is located in is in rural England and there are thatched rooves and barely any billboards or signage. It was heaven.
For my husband who is a woodworker he probably would have been in heaven at the next location. It was an old sawmill that is called Yandles. It has been operational since the 1800s and boasts an amazing amount of woods that get imported in as full trees and milled to slabs that are stored in their warehouses. It is quite a sight to see. We spent a day working with lathes in their classroom area and received a tour of the facilities. It’s amazing to see a place like this working to keep these crafts alive for generations after their mill was established. There is a whole section dedicated to wood turning and another area for fabric arts and yarn. The working mill is toward the back of the property and is nestled in beside a giant crane that is no longer in use. I think I overheard our host mention that even though the crane is impressive to look at, their modern day fork lifts can manage more weight than it ever could when it was in operation.
The final experience that I had in England that will have a lasting effect on my life was the chance to tour the Mulchelney Pottery. The thatched roof pottery and gallery were by far an overwhelming cool experience. Tucked away in the most rural space you can imagine, this tiny pottery with a wood fire kiln looked just like it did when it was started 50 years ago. The elder potter who established the space hasn’t been well. So, I wasn’t able to bend his ear, but I did get to meet Mark Melborn who was a student and is now transitioning to be the lead potter as Nick Rees retires. The space was so full of character and everything that you’d want to see from a pottery studio. Pots at all different stages of development, pieces and photos on shelves and tacked to the walls in a seeming Hodge podge of memories. I took it all in the best I could for the brief time we were there. I know all to well that this could be gone in a flash and never have the opportunity to see it again. The pots will last longer than the space they were created in and that seems so sad to me. Just like the story of stone henge some of the works created through-out the region and elsewhere have the same life – created by a person who will only live to see a glimpse of the time the piece will carry on for. Maybe that is what to me seems so interesting about working in materials that will last long beyond us. Stone, Metal, Clay. Pretty profound to think on.
So, there it was, my month in people, palaces and pottery. It was an incredible and informative time that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to recreate. I’m glad to have had the time and ability to go and see so many great places. Most importantly I was able to meet the folks that have sustained my creativity and fed into the inspiration. I met so many more people and there are so many more stories to share about my trip. I'll definitely be revisiting little nooks and crannies of my time in England as I build out some more projects and continue the Mugs for Makers series.
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Small Business owner and Artist, committed to growing as a maker as well as sharing her and her husband's experience with owning a small maker studio.
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