For the month of October, the lovely and accomplished Molly Hatch! I’ve been excited to pick Molly’s brain ever since we first met at Arrowmont in 2012. As someone who is enamored by the history of ceramics including the link between ceramics and design, I associate Molly with the continuum of ceramic artist/designers like Russel Wright, Eva Zeisel, KleinReid, Alice Drew and others. The idea of breaking into the design world is not a new concept and I admire the tenacity in which Molly has pieced together a successful and fulfilling career by designing thoughtful, accessible products and simultaneously creating stunning, one-of-a-kind artworks.
While I am attracted to all of Molly’s work, what I particularly enjoy about her design work is her ability to keep the hand a significant part of the finished product. Her forms are carefully crafted and her drawings are approachable, folksy and active. I respond to the apparent naiveté of the drawn images…abandoning rules of perspective while embracing a certain energy and rhythm inherent to her drawing process. No matter what Molly is working on in her studio, her creative voice is unmistakable.
In the interview, Molly discusses what inspires nearly every aspect of her art-making, why creating utilitarian objects is essential to her practice and what exciting new projects she has in the works.
How did you first get involved in ceramics? Can you briefly describe your background and education?
My introduction to ceramics was as a student in undergrad at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I took a summer course in wheel throwing through the SMFA CE program and fell in love with the process and the functional nature of pottery. I think I was drawn to the medium because I could make things that I appreciated in my day to day. If I needed a mug, I could make one. It wasn’t until Kathy King came as a visiting artist close to the end of my time at the SMFA that I was shown that I could draw and paint on the surface of my ceramic pieces the same way I was drawing and painting on paper. It was this realization that pots could be drawings, which completely sold me on clay as a major focus for my work from then on.
After graduating, I went on to work for Miranda Thomas as a production potter in 2000-2001. After leaving Miranda Thomas a year and a half later, I did a couple residencies, taught some and traveled for a bit and landed at the University of Colorado at Boulder for graduate school. I received my MFA in 2008.
How do you feel that your formal education (undergraduate-graduate school) prepared you for your career?
I think being immersed in a traditional fine art school environment and coming to clay later on in my undergraduate career gave me an advantage. I feel that the Museum School curriculum allowed me to try many things that I might not have otherwise. Developing my interest in drawing and painting really allowed me to excel in ceramics. I also feel that the SMFA program really prepped me for being self-directed in my studio practice. I learned quickly as a student there that you get out what you put in and it really prepped me for a disciplined studio practice after undergrad.
Ceramics was the medium that helped springboard your career. Now that you have one foot planted firmly in the “design-world”, what keeps you rooted in the ceramics community?
My love of ceramics and its role in decorative art history informs almost everything I do—both in my one of a kind artwork and my designs. I find that the design world respects my intimate knowledge of ceramics and its history. My love of working with clay and the materiality of clay will always be important to me and remain at the core of my studio practice.
You mentioned that you spent time working for Miranda Thomas, a production potter in Vermont, who was trained by one of Bernard Leach’s students, Michael Cardew. You also worked at the Kohler Factory as a resident artist. How did these experiences help shape your career?
Working for Miranda Thomas was absolutely formative. I hadn’t had much time in the ceramics area during undergrad—having only committed to clay in my Junior year. I was definitely behind technically in clay. Working for Miranda gave me the consistent time at the potter’s wheel, throwing 40/hrs a week, often 100-150 mugs in a day by the end of my time there. I was immersed in the production pottery tradition Miranda inherited from Leach via Cardew. This really gave me a sense of what it would be like to try and work making pots for a living as a production potter. I quickly knew that I too many ideas that required a lot of surface decoration, I wanted to be able to expand on those ideas. As a studio potter, you inevitably rely on repeating your best-selling pots to make you a living, I knew I was seeking out a different model, but wasn’t sure what. I headed to graduate school shortly after in order to try and find out.
Working for Miranda was also aesthetically influential. I find that I learned most of what I know about form and function during my time with Miranda. The Leach tradition is so strong, the pot forms are so influential. I am proud of this heritage and it shows in much of my work.
My time at the Pottery Residency at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in the factory at Kohler was fantastic for me. This residency was timely–in my first year out of graduate school. I needed the financial support of the fully funded residency as well as time to reflect in the studio outside of graduate school. Working on the factory floor alongside the factory employees was fascinating and career changing. My time as a resident at Kohler was influential in my decision to work with industry after being approached by Anthropologie only a year after my Kohler residency. Seeing how the employees worked—so much of the hand was still in each of the objects they cast. It was eye-opening to see a different side of industry than what I had been exposed to previously.
How do you come up with new designs? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/designs/ideas?
My creative process for my product design is a bit all over the place to be honest. I am constantly seeing ideas for new products. I can find myself inspired at a flea market, during travels, looking through one of my magazines or often when I am on Pinterest. Anytime I feel an idea come on, I write it down—I always have a notebook with me!
Both in my one of a kind artwork and when designing, I typically search for surface inspiration once I have a formal concept. This is done in my library or online, often I get to do this research in a museum with the aid of curators. Once I have source imagery to work form, I typically sketch on paper or in photoshop to develop the concept so I can execute the idea. Most of my design partners and gallery clients require me to submit sketches before I finalize artwork.
Once I have the green light from my art director or client, I will make the piece or finalize the surface design. This can take multiple tries before I settle on the actual item for production. If I am working on a ceramic prototype, I often make a couple extra prototypes in case they do not fire correctly. When I am making my one-of-a-kind pieces, I generally use a scaled photoshop sketch to work from.
Once the company I am partnering with has my prototype, they send it off for sampling. This typically takes a few weeks to two months. Once the initial sample comes back from the factory, we review to make corrections and make sure its is looking how we want it to. Once the item is approved it goes into production and then typically hits shelves 6-9 months after the initial prototype was made. I don’t typically see payment for the work until the royalty check comes 3-4 months after the item hits the shelf. Often I get paid an advance or a design fee initially, which helps with the wait.
What is it about utilitarian objects that keep you engaged? Do you have a favorite object to make for the home? If so, why?
I think that utility is an access point. We all know how to relate to a plate—we use them every day. Plates are quotidian by nature and that is attractive to me. In my one-of-a-kind artwork, I work to elevate the plate to an art object—the status of a painting. I love that anyone—educated in art or not—can have a way into looking at the plates on the wall—whether they delve deeper into the concepts I am working through or not, it feels inclusive. In my design work, I aim to make those same art concepts more accessible financially through mass production.
Right now, I am really enjoying pattern design. I am working on my second quilting fabric collection and I am having a blast! It’s a real challenge making patterns repeat by hand.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
I have a 5 year old in kindergarten, so I am up by 7:15 or so in the morning to get her to the school bus by 8:15 am. I let our chickens out in the morning—give them food and water and then I start my day as my studio is in the garage behind my home. I work on the deadlines that are approaching and budget my time as best I can to meet deadlines. I want to keep the art directors happy and my clients happy—coming back for more! I am often multi-tasking paperwork, social media, one-of-a-kind objects and design work in any given day.
I typically bring lunch to my worktable and eat while I work. I am often interrupted during the day by phone calls, so I have gotten good at putting things down and picking them back up again later. I usually have a lot of projects going simultaneously.
My daughter comes home at about 5pm with my husband, so I break to spend time with them. On a good day I will exercise during that time—or work on our garden. Most often I am making dinner and prepping for the next day.
After my daughter goes to bed in the evening around 8:30pm, I return to the studio to work until 11:30pm or 12am. I often get my best work done during this time of day because the time is uninterrupted by emails and phone calls. I always save the things that I want to concentrate on most for the evenings.
Which marketing venue(s) (website/blog/galleries/studio sales/etsy/art or craft fairs/etc.) have you found to be the most lucrative for your work? What kind of advice could you give someone wanting to market their work?
I could write a book about this! I am learning as I go, like the rest of us. I use Wix to host my brand website, I use blogger for my blog, etsy to sell some hand-decorated items and society 6 for some cool surface products. I have never done a craft fair!
I grew my following and career through the typical craft gallery route—The Clay Studio in Philadelphia was one of my first galleries. Things have changed so dramatically since I started out, that I think up and coming artists have a real challenge in sorting all of this out. However, to develop a strong online following through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest you are well on your way to making good direct sales online. I use Pinterest and Instagram all the time to sell work that is in my Etsy shop. Generally emulating what is working for other artists selling to the same buyer that you want to or are selling to will help. I think having a strong brand identity/artistic identity goes a long way in propelling one’s career forward.
Your design work is in numerous wholesale/retail shops: Chasingpaper.com, Twig New York, Anthropologie, blendfabrics.com, Galison/mudpuppy, V&A museum shop, etc. Can you talk about how you selected the representation you did? What kind of advice could you offer to someone wanting retail or wholesale representation?
I worked with Anthropologie for four years and a few other companies independent of agency representation before seeking out my agency Moxie to help me manage and launch my brand in a bigger way. I have now been working with my agents for a year. It took me ages to realize that through my work with Anthropoligie over the five years we have collaborated, I inadvertently started a lifestyle brand. To solidify that and capitalize on the start Anthropologie gave me, I hired Moxie to help me be more mindful and strategic about developing my brand so that I could have a long-term career as a designer.
If you want to seek out an agent, or work with retailers like Anthropologie, make good work! Anthropologie finds people the same way you or I might. Through galleries, trade shows, articles and simply walking into a shop like the Clay Studio in Philadelphia. Be open-minded and opportunistic. You never know when an opportunity will come along to license or collaborate with a larger company. I would hesitate to sign on with an agency for many reasons, you can do a lot on your own and be paid in full. However, agents have the ear of many buyers and companies thanks to relationships they have fostered for years. This is a huge foot in the door and a leg up as an artist—but it comes at a cost. Agents will take anywhere from 25%-40% of your earnings! Similar to a gallery. It took me a long time to find an agent that I wanted to represent my work. I looked at other artists the agency represents, had many meetings about the way our relationship would work and took my time with my lawyer to go over the fine print of our agreement. In the end, I chose to work with Moxie because my agents there are really interested in fostering brand growth rather than selling as much of my surface design and product design as possible and burning out the brand before its even had a moment to grow. We have developed a real strategy for brand growth and licensing and the kind of companies I am interested in partnering with. Working with Moxie has been incredible so far.
It looks as though you now have exclusive representation for your one-of-a-kind work through one gallery, Todd Merrill, in NYC. This is an atypical route for potters who usually seek representation in multiple clay galleries across the country. How did you choose this one gallery to work with? Have you completely stopped selling individual handmade pots (cup/plate/etc) as one-of-a kind work?
Todd Merrill does represent my one-of-a-kind artwork exclusively. My work started to receive a lot of attention thanks to working with Leslie Ferrin in 2011-2013. Leslie took my work to some of the premier art fairs and it was selling well—we kept raising prices according to demand and my work had the opportunity to become more detailed and larger-scale. I started to see that my work needed to be seen in both the art and design fields, so I sought out new gallery representation and Todd Merrill has been an excellent fit. As a design gallery that sells decorative arts and furniture, Todd has an unusual gallery. In regards to the benefits of exclusivity, Todd and his staff do so much for the work from installation and shipping of artwork, to prepping contracts and dealing with commissions and press inquiries. The cost of the art fairs alone is so high and unapproachable as a single artist. What Todd does for my artwork I simply couldn’t do on my own—or online.
As a studio potter, I was better off selling direct to customers or taking large wholesale orders. My work never did best in the context of the traditional gallery model—I always did better in well-styled home interior and design shops and selling online.
How do you deal with the “balancing-act” between your one-of-a-kind pieces and your manufactured design work? How do you keep both ventures similar enough so they don’t conflict with each other? How has keeping both types of artistic outlets helped your career and your creative pursuits?
This seems to work itself out a bit. I advocate for both equally. My reach is much broader in my design work, but the artwork is providing me with an equal income as the design work. It’s about a 50-50 split. They support each other in many ways—even the making schedule for the design world alternates busy times with the art fair schedule…its kind of perfect. I need the long—slow process of the one-of-a-kind projects. These typically require a ton of research, design and making time. Usually I spend about 2 months working on one piece from throwing the plates to painting and firing.
With the design work, I usually have much less time to design—industry is responding to trends and is constantly in search of the new. I turn around some design projects in a day—others in a few weeks or a month. I love the quick nature of the design work and the collaborative nature of working with other people and companies on products.
One idea I really connect to: your ability to offer good design to the masses. I am often conflicted about the prices I have to charge for my handmade mugs. I would love for my audience to broaden, but the market for my work is what it is…very small. Decoration takes a lot of time as does well made form. Could you expand on the experience you’ve had with your own work? How you were able to broaden your audience without sacrificing content, decoration or design?
I have Anthropologie to thank for giving me the low-risk opportunity to try manufacturing my pots to see how they would translate. Putting some of the designs that I knew were best-sellers out of my studio into production at Anthropologie without having to change the designs has allowed me to offer the ideas I have worked out in my pots to a very large audience at affordable prices. I love the idea of manufacturing allowing for the work to be more accessible and affordable. When I was first approached by Anthropolgie I not able to afford to make the work I was making—in other words, I needed to find a way to make more work at the same price point or lower with simpler decoration so that I could make a living. Design was what allowed me to keep the integrity of the original pot design and still make a living.
What are your thoughts on “the handmade”? How do you keep the idea of the hand or handmade in your design work?
My design process hasn’t changed at all from when I was working full-time as a studio potter. I design 1:1 prototypes that are sent off to be manufactured. So I make my prototypes as I would a handmade pot. This allows me to retain the nature of the original in the final product.
In my surface design, I do almost everything by hand with a little help from some basic knowledge of photoshop. So the hand stays in the 2-D artwork as well as the ceramic objects I design. This keeps a consistent identity and look to all the items that I design.
In my one-of-a-kind pieces, I make these by hand—so the hand is inevitably present. It’s important to me that the one-of-a-kind pieces are related, yet different from the design work. Sort of “couture” to a “ready-to-wear.”
You’ve had a lot of success collaborating with museum collections. The two that come to the front of my mind are the large commissioned wall “painting” you made for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (456 hand-painted plates based on two 18th C. plates from the High Museum’s decorative arts collection) and the soon-to-be-released book, “A Teacup Collection: Paintings of Porcelain Treasures”, you created while collaborating with the Clark Art Institute’s collection of over 200 18th C porcelain teacups. Can you talk a little bit about these processes? Do you have future projects in the works that we can look forward to?
With my one-of-a-kind artwork, I typically work by sourcing a museum collection or an historic object. As a contemporary decorative artist and designer, I think of myself as making work in a continuum. I love the idea that someone looking at one of my plate paintings may have a sense that they are looking at a familiar image and form, but that it is hopefully a new experience of that familiar thing—sourcing historic imagery allows for that familiarity to exist.
I also source museum collections and archives in collaboration with curators in an effort to bring attention to artworks that the curators feel are overlooked or difficult to exhibit. Getting permission to source historic artwork as well as the blessing of a curator feels like the right thing to do in making derivative work—even when the artwork is in the public domain.
“Physic Garden” (the piece at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta) was an exciting opportunity to make a piece that reflected the museum permanent ceramic collection as well as an opportunity to make the largest piece I have made to date. There was a lot of risk on both the museum end as I had never made such a large piece. Luckily, it went off without a hitch—it took some creative problem solving at key points, but it worked well.
My book with Chronicle titled “A Teacup Collection: Paintings of Porcelain Treasures” started with a visit to the archives at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA. I was intrigued by the over 200 18th century teacups housed in the collections at the museum that hadn’t been exhibited much. It was wonderful working with the curator at the Clark to take source images and make paintings of the cups for the book. Chronicle was intrigued by the book concept and quickly picked it up as the publisher. I am very excited that this is my first book—working with Chronicle has been amazing.
I have a few other prospects for museum projects coming up, as well as a couple new books that I cant quite talk about yet—but all good and very much related to these projects. For a sneak peek of the illustrations from Molly’s upcoming book, “A Teacup Collection: Paintings of Porcelain Treasures”, please link to designer Lisa Congdon’s blog entry here.
You mention how very few ceramic artists have tapped into the e-course market. Can you talk a little bit about your decision to produce an online class and the process it took to make it a reality?
The only online workshop I have produced is still in process and will run in the fall of 2015—as far as I know Diana Fayt is one of the only other ceramic artists who has an online course. I decided to take advantage of my ceramic surface book that is due to be released in summer of 2015 to make a complimentary online workshop. I am thinking about it like a workshop and not a course because the format is very similar to a face-to-face workshop—instead, it is online and takes place over several weeks.
I have often felt like the face-to-face workshops I teach in the traditional workshop environment like at Anderson Ranch and Arrowmont are incredibly expensive and require a lot of time and resources for anyone attending. There have got to be tons of art teachers and hobbyists out there who want to take a class on ceramic surface for an affordable fee ($150 for 5 weeks). My hope is that my forthcoming book with Quarry titled: “New Ceramic Surface Design Handbook” will compliment the online workshop and that the online workshop will provide participants with much of the same information as the face-to-face workshops, only at their own pace, affordably, through recorded demos, once a week interaction, lots of downloads as well as a community to interact with. My hope is to offer more information to more people for less money.
Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living?
These days, markets are changing so fast. I think that the biggest things to consider are: being an opportunist, being open minded and aiming to market your work through as many channels as possible. It is increasingly important to have a strong online presence and marketability. Try to find a voice that is consistent and your own—consider the idea of branding and what your “brand” is all about. Learn about basic small business nuts and bolts. I can recommend Craft Inc. and Art Inc the Craft Inc. Business Planner from Chronicle Books. These are fabulous resources for making a go of a creative career in today’s marketplace and have helped me a lot.
I think it is important to recognize that when you are joyful in your making or designing, people see your joy in the final product and in turn want to have a part of that joy. Make things for yourself and find joy in your making!
To find out more about Molly and her work, please visit the following sites:
http://mollyhatchstudio.com one of a kind works
www.vimeo.com/mollyhatch video links