I’m very excited to be sharing today’s Behind the Biz interview. If you’re new to Prettygreentea then let me tell you a little more about this series. The aim of Behind the Biz is to highlight exciting businesses, discover the story behind their founders and inspire you, the reader, to embark upon your own business journey.
This week we’re diving into the world of ceramics in the creative capital of the Pacific Northwest. That’s right, today I have an interview with a ceramic artist from Portland. I’ve always wanted to visit Portland so I’m delighted to let you know that today’s interview is the first in a series of 3 with independent ceramic designers from the area. Don’t forget to check out TravelPortland.com for more info on what you can find and do there.
I hope you enjoy today’s interview with Sarah Wolf, the founder of Wolf Ceramics – hand-made ceramic tableware, dish ware, mugs and more.
Tell us a little about yourself and Wolf Ceramics.
Though craft has always been a big part of my life, it’s only in the last 4.5 years that it has turned from a hobby to being my work. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and went to college here in the northwest, studying geology and chemistry, and spending as much time as possible in the mountains. Ceramics was my hobby, but for years after college I worked as an outdoor educator, mountain guide, and farmer. I even worked in construction, thinking that I would end up going to architecture school, a career that might combine my affinity for science and math with my love of craft and design. Eventually, I chose to go back to school for ceramics, even though I wasn’t quite sure how I would pay for it or how I might make a living off of it! It was a scary move, but so exciting. I quickly learned that I enjoyed production. I liked making objects that I knew were going to be useful to someone and that might even enrich their daily experience in some way. Going back to school and spending 6 to 7 days a week in the studio helped me build my technical skills, but also guided me in developing and honing in my own style and aesthetic.
I was eager to make a living off of my craft and I started Wolf Ceramics while I was still in school. Though I never had any investors, I did receive a grant for $6,000 from a Mercy Corps Northwest small business program, which helped me to purchase my first kiln and wheel and move into my own space. Since then, the business has grown very organically. I have a small studio and two part time studio assistants. We sell online, in boutiques, work with a lot of local businesses and restaurants, and also make full dish sets for wedding registries.
How did you decide upon the name of your brand?
Its my name! That was easy.
Where do you take inspiration from?
I have a bit of a textile obsession. I’ve always loved drawing shapes and patterns, and playing with negative space. I’ve been attracted to working with the natural color and texture of raw clay with black and white since I was in high school. Its been interesting to look back at my work from the early 2000’s and see that the aesthetic is similar to what I’m doing now, even though I’ve explored all kinds of other styles along the way. I like to keep my forms simple and let the glaze design and texture of the clay be the main focus. Since a trip to Mexico this winter, I’ve been excited about adding a cerulean blue and golden yellow to my work, especially when paired with other pieces that juxtapose white glaze and the earthy tone of the glaze.
What is your favourite thing about your studio?
The people in it! And the fact that it’s mine. I can leave a mess if I want to.
How did you approach your first stockist?
For the most part, stores have approached me. The first shop that I carried work in was run by a friend of mine, who made the connection. I’ve been very lucky when it comes to stock lists! In general, however, I think it’s best to approach stores that match well with your aesthetic. Make sure that the shop owner is someone that you would really enjoy working with, and genuinely tell them why you like the way they have curated their space and why you think your work would be a good fit.
Did you always plan to set up your own business?
Nope! For most of my young life I thought I would go into either architecture or some sort of engineering. I suppose I had a bit of an entrepreneurial streak (I made and sold jewelry through highschool and college), but I didn’t necessarily think I’d start a business. It was just after I began my Post Baccalaureate program in ceramics at the Oregon College of Art and Craft that I decided I absolutely must start my own business. I was so stressed out about money and at one point it looked like a bunch of the backpacking trips that I was planning on leading that summer would be cancelled. Losing these trips would cut my summer income in half and I felt so helpless because it was out of my control. Though sales can certainly be unpredictable for me, I suppose I like to know that I am in control of when I work and how much I work. I get really excited about the projects that I am working on and have the freedom to follow what interests me. Its so fun!
Please share a business high and low with us.
My business highs come when I get to see my wares out in the world being used and when I interact with people who enjoy using them. I also get highs when I come up with new ideas! Business lows usually come when something goes wrong in the kiln. Sometimes a batch of work just doesn’t turn out right and we have to remake everything. This can add several weeks to the production time and be really stressful, especially when there are other things that I had been planning on working on. It’s really important to me to get work done by the time I said it would be ready. I’ve definitely spent Sunday nights in the studio catching up on work that just needs to get into the kiln!
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
If they’re feeling nervous about taking the leap, I’d tell them to ask themself what’s the worst that can happen? Odds are, it’s better to give it a try sooner rather than later. Especially if you’re young and don’t have any kids or house payments. I started my business when I was single and had very few responsibilities, which definitely made it easier. That said, even if you do have kids or house payments, it’s likely worth taking a risk if it means you might get to do something that you’ll really enjoy and feel ownership over.
Both of my parents are self employed and they’ve really supported each other over the years in pursuing work that they are excited about. At times they’ve switched back and forth between being the primary income earner. If you have the ability to support a partner in getting their business off the ground, I think that’s a really wonderful gift, and maybe it will enable you to better support them in things that they are passionate about.
Where do you hope to take your business throughout 2018?
I am excited to work with more restaurants over the course of this year and also to study more large scale building techniques. I like the idea of building up the production side of my business in a way that both supports and leaves some room for me to continue to explore new ideas and continue to develop new skills.
I want to say a big thank you to Sarah for taking the time to be involved with Behind the Biz. I’m delighted to have Wolf Ceramics as part of the series and really hope you all enjoyed the interview as much as I did.
I loved hearing how Sarah tried many things before settling on her true passion. I get the impression she’s keen to continue learning and developing her skills over the years to come. I can’t wait to see the direction Wolf Ceramics takes next and wish Sarah the best of luck throughout 2018.
If you’d like to get involved with Behind The Biz please leave a comment below or drop me a message over on Twitter.