Sue Tirrell: Potter of the Month

With the annual NCECA Conference rounding the corner, and the first days of spring upon us, I figured it was the perfect time to feature Sue Tirrell’s spirited work!  I have been a fan of Sue’s work since I can remember…being particularly attracted to the narrative aspect in combination with her unassuming forms and vibrant palette.  I’m also intrigued by how her pots inform her sculptural work and vice versa.

White Horse Dinner Plate

White Horse Dinner Plate

In the interview, Sue gives succinct advice about how to market your work as well as explaining the realities of building and maintaining a studio art practice.  Sue also expands on how both Art School and life experience have helped her to shape a successful career.  Find out why Sue connects her creative process to that of a sourdough starter, why the word “whimsy” just isn’t descriptive enough and why horses are an integral part of her narrative.


How did you first get involved in ceramics? Can you briefly describe your background and education?

4th of July Parade, Red Lodge, MT (1985)

4th of July Parade, Red Lodge, MT (1985)

I took my first ceramics class during my freshman year at Cottey College, a 2-year liberal arts college in Nevada, Missouri. My strengths and interests were in drawing and painting, so I thought I would end up in illustration or graphic design. I signed up for ceramics because I had never worked in a 3-D medium and it sounded like fun. My first teacher was Cameron Crawford, who currently teaches at California State University, Chico. He was really tough and I found clay to be extremely frustrating. I’m pretty stubborn though, so I kept after it.

Studio-2I ended up taking ceramics the full two years I was at Cottey before completing my BFA at Alfred University in Alfred, NY. I chose Alfred because they had 6 dynamic faculty members in ceramics and an extensive facility; also, I liked that it was in a rural setting. Having a network of peers and faculty that were both rigorous and supportive was a tremendous experience. Everybody worked incredibly hard, but we had a blast doing it. I came home to Montana during my summer breaks to work for a couple that made production pottery and jewelry.

It is hard to describe how beneficial it was to have this experience sandwiched between semesters at Art School. I learned to be a better thrower, what an efficient studio and home business look like and, most importantly, I saw how being an independent artist is really a lifestyle. I really think I got the best kind of education during these years—creative investigation and development punctuated with practical experiences in a production environment.

How do you feel that your formal education prepared you for your career in ceramics?

I was fortunate to have been surrounded by teachers and peers that were encouraging and supportive, but at the same time had extremely high standards and expectations of me.. It was really exciting to work with colleagues that were always pushing their work to the next level and trying

Red Unicorns Platter

Red Unicorns Platter

new things. I think this is a really helpful way to begin a career—observing that even if you are working alone, there are others in the clay community working just as hard–or harder–than you, to be better every day. Art School also taught me about asking questions and considering what motivates me as a maker and why. Working for the studio potter in Montana taught me about making things that people want to use and, therefore, purchase; about taking care of my equipment and taking care of my back; and about managing my time (something I continue to struggle with! ).

I was first introduced to your sculptural work and then years later fell in love with your pots.  Did one (sculpture/pottery) come before the other or have you always worked on them simultaneously? How do they inform each other?

Circus Rider With Dog and Hoop

Circus Rider With Dog and Hoop

I’m really not sure which came first! I fell in love with functional pots for the simple way they connect the maker to the user. I’ve always made pots, but I never felt like I had a unique hand with functional forms. My strengths were in the surface, not the forms, so making pots wasn’t something I did regularly. As a result, my undergraduate work dealt mainly with abstract, landscape-inspired sculpture. At the same time, my drawings on paper became more dense and sculptural. I began making figure and animal sculpture when I graduated and came home to Montana in 1998. I loved the landscape-based work I made in school, but once I returned to the landscape that I had been away from for so long, I felt I didn’t need to make it anymore.

My horse Charles

My horse Charles

That year, I found myself in Miles City, the largest town in Eastern Montana, running educational outreach programs in rural schools and communities for the Custer County Art & Heritage Center. I loved driving the lonely highways and dirt roads, stopping to admire herds of cattle, horses and sheep. I boarded my horse at a farm nearby that was also home to goats, dogs, chickens, geese, burros and a giant pig. There were even a couple of bison at one point! This was the closest I had ever been to being a farm-girl, and I wanted to tell stories about the animals in my sculpture. When I moved to my current home and studio in 2005, I became a full-time studio artist and began making pots again to supplement my income.

Trick-Roper Platter

Trick-Roper Platter

Currently, pots are my main focus, but making sculpture allows me a mental break and the chance to take a drawing from a pot and turn it into a more complex, three- dimensional narrative. Each body of work informs the other—I started drawing people on my pots because there were things I didn’t think I could achieve with sculpture, like trick-riders and horses flying through the air or a skier encountering a polar bear. Now I am taking some of those drawings and translating them back to sculpture.

sue side by side

I love how you describe your work on your website as “Folkloric pottery and sculpture with a modern sensibility”. Can you expand what you mean by this?

Grey Rabbits and Poppies Dessert Plates

Grey Rabbits and Poppies Dessert Plates

Well,the short version is I was tired of the word “whimsical” being used to describe my work so often!  Whimsy implies that everything is all sunshine and flowers—and some of my work IS just that, which is perfectly fine. However, a lot of it tells a more complicated tale. I want my work to evoke memories and spark conversation in the audience. The best feed-back I get from people are the reasons why they relate to a piece. I have heard stories about beheading chickens, midnight lambing duty, encounters with bears, favorite dogs, and swimming in the ocean with horses. I love how people identify with certain animals, and that a mug or platter or sculpture can enhance that relationship through a shared

Winter Rider Detail

Winter Rider Detail

narrative. I often use bits and pieces of folktales or fables as a starting point for a piece, making the reference vague enough that the viewer can imagine their own version of events. To further this ambiguity, I use a combination of traditional-looking details and modern touches so the piece can’t be placed in any specific place or time. Often the imagery itself can look “vintage,” but the vibrant colors and animated carving on the crisp porcelain canvas give it a more contemporary feel.

How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas?

Vintage Photograph

Vintage Photograph

I draw a lot on the rich history and physical beauty of Montana and the West and my experiences in it. I used to visit a lot of antique stores when I lived in Eastern Montana, making a bee-line for the boxes of old photos. I looked for images of people with animals, specifically women and horses. These photos have served as a starting point for many of my sculptures. I also loved looking at old horse tack and vintage textiles—quilts, embroidered pillowcases, crocheted doilies and tablecloths. All these objects beg to tell their stories, and they find their way into my work through color combinations, textures, and direct drawing references.

White Rabbit Teapot and CupWhen I am finishing a body of work, I always take something from that group and add it to the next—like a sourdough starter. Similarly, I might think of something new along the way and save it for the next piece. I like the unity this creates in my work over time. The changes may appear slight, but to me they are significant.

Do you have a favorite “creature” to draw? If so, why?

My first pony Cocoa

My first pony Cocoa

Horses! I have been obsessed with horses as long as I can remember, and I have been drawing them since I could hold a pencil. Drawing was how I got to know them before I had the pleasure of meeting one in person. I got my first pony when I was 8 and I have been riding ever since. I also love drawing rabbits. I had several pet rabbits when I was growing up, and I showed them, along with my horses, at the 4-H fair each summer. Having the privilege of this intimacy with animals gives me endless inspiration. I love to see them come to life each time I finish a drawing.

You are lucky to live in Montana where despite its remote location and sparse population, there is a rich ceramic history and incredible community support for clay. Recently, a group called Montana Clay was developed to help promote ceramic artists/craftsmen/schools/art centers/galleries/etc in the state. Can you talk about how Montana Clay formed and what your involvement is in the group?

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 11.27.48 AMYes, we are very lucky! Generally speaking, Montana has a notably vibrant arts scene, and the ceramics community is especially large and tight-knit. Montana Clay is two things: A website clearing-house of information related to ceramics in the state of Montana and a loosely organized group of artists, teachers, and advocates. The site includes links to schools, universities and residency programs, art centers, museums, galleries, and artists who are currently living and working in the state. The group itself welcomes anyone in Montana who is involved in the ceramic arts to gather once a year to share ideas, plan exhibits, celebrate each other’s achievements, and have a kick-ass potluck! Montana Clay provides a very inclusive, supportive means for artists across the state to stay connected in what can otherwise be a very insular vocation.

How did you decide to settle and build a studio in your current location and how has your studio practice evolved?

I moved to my current location in Southwestern Montana when I married my husband in 2005. He had a teaching job here and I was ready to move back to the mountains after spending 7 years on the beautiful plains of Eastern Roadtrip knittingMontana. I set up a studio in the unfinished basement of our house and divided my time between art-making and a number of part- time jobs. During the first few years it was hard finding my groove—up until that point I had always worked in a communal studio setting so the solitude bothered me at first. I also had a hard time giving myself permission to call what I did in the studio my full-time job. Gradually, my artwork kept me busy enough that I could quit the other jobs. In 2009, we put an addition on our house that included a large basement space which became my current studio. Today, my biggest challenge is finding a balance between my studio practice and other areas of my life. I find it very easy to work long days and not take breaks between deadlines. I know my body and mind suffer when I get into that routine, so I am trying to be vigilant on that front!

Being in such a remote area, how do you best reach your audience? What kind of advice could you give someone wanting to market their work?

I have found that my audience is best reached through a combination of gallery representation and my own efforts to present my work through home sales and craft fairs. Having a diversity of marketing strategies enables my work to be seen in many places at once. I rely heavily on galleries that have a strong client base and web presence to sell work on my behalf. Everything involved in marketing and selling online—photography, uploading each item, communicating with buyers and shipping—takes an enormous amount of time that could be spent working in the studio. I love all the galleries I work with, and they do a MUCH better job with outreach than I ever could.

Painting Dapples on Horse Plate

Painting Dapples on Horse Plate

When personally marketing work, I would suggest use of user-friendly internet mediums, studio sales, local arts and crafts fairs, and workshops. Facebook and Instagram are easy DIY marketing tools. You don’t have write exhaustive, image heavy blog posts, but giving your followers a peek at what you are up to on a regular basis keeps your work in people’s minds. The same goes for attending openings, workshops, and lectures in person. If you stay visible in your creative community, your work will receive attention, too. I also promote my work closer to home by having an annual studio sale and attending a regional craft fair every year. To prepare for the studio sale, I send out a postcard to

Building up Surface

Building up Surface

everyone I know and give them a discount if they bring a friend, or if they wear a fancy outfit (my sale is always on Kentucky Derby Day!). I clean the house and studio, make some pies, and put a sign on the road to encourage passers- by. I also make sure I leave out a notebook for newcomers to leave their contact information for future sales. This is a great way to engage your community in the work you do. The people who attend my Spring Sale are mostly friends and neighbors, but the event has become an annual tradition and I really appreciate the support of my little neighborhood. The first few years you may not sell much, but it goes a long way toward building a loyal, year-round client base. Plus, you get a clean studio and leftover pie at the end! I have also been doing one craft fair per summer for the last 4 years as a way to test the waters in a new market. I choose an event in a town where I have no gallery representation, is within driving distance, and provides a fun atmosphere when I’m not working.

Carving a chickenI have learned a great deal over the years about what works well at a fair and what doesn’t. Fairs are physically and emotionally exhausting, especially for ceramic artists. Schlepping your work to and from a fair is BACKBREAKING work. You can have a rogue wind that wrecks your tent and breaks your pots, or a weather event that keeps your patrons away. Spending 8 hours a day on your feet talking about your work gets tiresome even for the extroverts among us. Overall, most of my sales come through galleries and that is ideal for me. I like the personal interactions with customers at a fair or my studio sale but that is not a sustainable business model for me year-round.

What other hobbies/interests do you have to balance your studio life? Do any of your hobbies inform your work?

My husband and I love to cook and garden, which is a great way to spend time together. I keep a few chickens in our back yard (for egg production, pest control, and drawing purposes!) and I like trail running with our dogs. My most consuming personal interests are horses and knitting.

My new horse Mabel

Like I said before, I have been a horse-crazy girl all my life and I know I am an artist because of horses. Early on, I made up for any horse deficits in my life by drawing them. Herds of horses filling notebooks, unicorns in the margins of my math homework, blueprints for my dream farm on brown paper bags. As I have grown up with horses, my knowledge of them has expanded and my ideas about them are more complex. Building a relationship of mutual trust with a half-ton prey animal is no small thing. I am currently working with a young horse, so this concept is on my mind every day. She is learning to follow my direction and I am learning to give her confidence in my leadership. It is a new way of thinking about human/animal relationships that fascinates me and will continue to for years to come.. She is learning to follow my direction and I am learning to give her confidence in my leadership. It is a new way of thinking about human/animal relationships that fascinates me and will continue to for years to come.

I learned to knit as a child and picked it back up when I graduated from college. It is a warm, dry, tactile, and portable craft that I can do when I travel or to unwind at night. The repetitive structure of the patterns appeals to me and feels similar to the carving I do on my pots.

Icelandic Sweater in Progress

Icelandic Sweater in Progress

Like ceramics, there is no end to what you can learn in knitting. Sweaters are my favorite thing to make—they are like making teapots. Each piece of the garment has to be well crafted and and integrated with the other parts in order for the finished piece to function properly.

An unexpected bonus of these two pastimes is meeting people, learning lessons, and stumbling upon ideas that I would never encounter in my studio life.

Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living?

Chinook Rider

Chinook Rider

Learn all you can about what it takes to work in this field. Find a job or volunteer in a local gallery, museum, or art center. I spent seven years working in a small community art center where I not only taught ceramics, but learned about framing, hanging, lighting and shipping artwork; writing and tracking grants; fundraising, and outreach. I even learned about building pedestals and industrial carpet cleaning! I left that job with skills that I use every day in my own studio practice, and developed contacts with museums and galleries that gave a huge boost to my career as an independent artist. I also recommend reaching out to artists whose work or career path you admire. Most people are happy to share their story with you, and many would welcome you working alongside them in exchange for their knowledge and expertise. You never know if you don’t ask. The time I spent working in a local potter’s studio was a very different experience than my college education but was equally important.

To find out more about Sue and her work, please visit her website:

And…Sue currently has a solo exhibition of new work on display at Red Lodge Clay Center.  Click here to view the show.


Amelia Stamps: Potter of the Month

August’s Potter of the Month, Amelia Stamps is a kind and dear friend.  I’ve known Amelia and her husband since 2003.  At the time, Amelia was beginning her career as a full-time potter while her husband attended graduate school.  I’ve always admired Amelia’s career path…the pursuit of self-employment immediately following undergraduate school.

AmeliaStampsTeaSet150Amelia’s pots are sweet, whimsical and a delight to use.  Her craft is impeccable.  I covet her glaze combinations (opaque matte next to transparent glossy)…both of which break beautifully over her forms.

Enjoy the interview!

How did you first get involved in ceramics? Can you briefly describe your background and education?  Since an early age, clay has held a special place in my heart and served as an integral symbol of my personal narrative. In the 1970’s my parents were potters in Pinehurst, North Carolina. When I was three they split up and as circumstances had it, I only knew my father through using his pots in our house. When I entered high school I took the “pottery & sculpture” class offered and immediately felt connected to my parent’s past, especially my father’s. It was a very touching thing to be working clay as he had done.

931282_525198344211178_318426025_nGrowing up in North Carolina only reinforced the inherent value placed in ceramics and the craft world as a whole. My mother, Lynn Daniel, ran a gallery and worked as a jeweler in Asheville, NC. When I was young my mom would take me to the Southern Highland Craft Guild shows where I would buy handmade doll clothes, toys and even pottery. I remember how proud I was of those well made objects. Looking back, my North Carolina roots played a crucial role in my love for craft and enabled me to see the rich effect it can have on individuals and society.

050f43c1fbc080b5684cfcd849565088As my passion for ceramics grew in college I declared a BFA in Art Studio instead of Art Education, which I had initially leaned towards. I attended several colleges in North Carolina before finding the right fit at UNC-Asheville, a small liberal arts school in my hometown.

How do you feel that your formal education (undergraduate school) prepared you for your career in ceramics?  It was a great time to experiment with different types of firing processes and develop an idea of which temperature and method in which I wanted to work. My art instructors helped reinforce and strengthen my direction in clay. I was exposed to a wealth of visiting artists and an opportunity for dialogue. Also, I was lucky to work with some very motivated peers who taught me that a strong work ethic is essential to making the work that you desire.

You took a year off in undergraduate school and worked as an apprentice for a potter. How did this experience help shape your career? What advice could you offer someone wanting to be an apprentice?  For me this experience was 1653920_10203358551548353_1469192462_nessential. It gave me motivation and skills that I wouldn’t necessarily get from a school setting. I remember on the first day I started working for David Voorhees, he had me trim a shelf of his porcelain vases. My thoughts were, “I can’t believe he trusts me, I have never really trimmed before!” Over the year that I assisted in his studio I learned how a production studio runs from the making, glazing, firing and selling of work. Much of what I absorbed is what I now practice in my own studio today.

I continued to work for artists throughout school and even afterwards gaining a different perspective from each. They all were so gracious with their time and energy. Many of them sold retail, wholesale, or a mixture of both. I have modeled my business to be one that is reliant on both retail and wholesale finding that it is a good balance.

934776_525184657545880_935606586_nHow do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas?  New ideas come after working a good stretch in the studio. I love reaching that creative flow when one decision leads to the next. Pots usually start as drawings or a daydream, sometimes inspired by something I have seen or experienced. Recently, I have been struck by paper embossing. I look forward to experimenting with colored slips and see where that leads me.

What does a typical workday look like for you?  These days, with two little kiddos, my workdays are 3 days a week when they are in daycare. When preparing for a show I will find time to work in the early hours of the morning or at night after the kids are in bed. I prefer to work late at night, but I always pay for it the next day.

A typical workday begins with getting the girls to “school”. If I have time I will exercise or go on a quick walk. Making work for an upcoming show, filling existing orders or shipping usually fills my day. At lunch I will usually make time to return emails, etc. Then work until dinner/family time.

PlaceSetting300I’m intrigued by the CSA(rt) program you participated in through the Lexington Art League? Can you talk a little bit about the program and how you got involved?  The Lexington Art League is using an exciting model of fundraising by commissioning 9 local artists to create a limited edition series of 50 works for their CSA (Community Supported Arts) program. Much like your local farmer’s CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), each “harvest” collection changes seasonally. It is a model that encourages and supports local artists, art buying, as well as, excites the collector’s experience. The best part is the “harvest party” when collectors and artists get a chance to connect.

It was fun working on this project. I made a series of “white on white” cups and ended up collaborating with another artist on a few of her sculptures.

You’re actively involved in the craft fair circuit. What kind of advice can you give to someone wanting to sell their work at retail fairs?  Be prepared and start small. Participate in a few 943051_516987528338426_1241879720_nsmaller shows to gain experience and to tweak your booth set-up. If you choose to do outdoor shows, invest in a good tent (one with interlocking poles). If you can, visit the show beforehand to see if it is the right venue for you and your work. Talk with other artists…. they are your best resource! Have professional images taken of your work. Lastly, create a good mailing list and keep in touch about upcoming shows and events. My mom engrained this step in me after hours of handwriting postcards to her customers over the years (before email).

Which marketing venue(s) (website/social media sites /galleries/studio sales/etsy/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?  All 393748_2633370557354_1596375804_nthese seem to work together to help promote one another. I look at participating in a craft fair, home sales, having work in galleries, posting work on FB or Etsy all as great advertising. My income consists roughly of 50% retail, 40% wholesale and 10% consignment. I find that I do best when I can meet my customer face to face and tell them about my work. Connecting you to your audience in a direct way fulfills something genuine inside of us. Do what feels right and don’t give up after a lousy show.

You moved to Kentucky when your husband got hired at UK. Not being from the area, you have been able to build a local following from the ground up and have now been operating Stamps Pottery for over 10 years. What were the most important steps you took to market your work to your local audience?  I got a lot of practice setting my studio up in three different states while my husband, Hunter Stamps, was perusing his MFA and beginning teaching. I feel fortunate to have had each experience so that I was prepared when we moved to KY to start right back up. Right away I connected to our Kentucky Arts Council, joined the local potter’s club, applied to all the craft guilds in our region and located the major shows within 5 hour driving distance.

Image2In our area we have free business/marketing advice through the small business bureau. This has been helpful to learn more about our area and learn effective ways to work on the business end.

Your work is in numerous retail galleries across the country. Can you talk about how you selected the representation you did? What kind of advice could you offer someone wanting to approach galleries for representation?  I have attended multiple wholesale trade shows over the past 8 years and found that you have little control over which galleries purchase your work. I have developed good relationships with some key craft galleries that keep reordering (thankfully) and there are some that have only ordered once. The fit has to be just right. Have professional images to send galleries (if you are lucky they will use them in promotions).

Get your work out there. Apply to the shows and galleries you want to be in. Galleries tend to comb the craft fairs to find new work. Make sure you stand out in some unique fashion.

1779721_10203323933882933_451610830_nAs a mother of two young girls, how are you able to balance parenthood and studio business?  Being a good potter, mother and wife is a constant balancing act, full of challenges and joy. Our life is full right now and there is always more to be done, but I can see it settling, as the girls get older. I chose to have my studio at home, which has been a good decision, even if I get out in the studio for a few minutes to check something or turn up a kiln. My husband’s work schedule usually falls opposite of mine so that he can be super Dad when I am away at a show on weekends. It has been helpful to keep a joint calendar so that we can schedule each week. Since kids, I have had an intern in the studio helping with tasks in exchange for studio space and materials.

Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living?  If you are interested in becoming a potter I think it is so important to work under someone in the field. This will allow you more time to learn the mechanics and daily routine of a potter firsthand. Branch out and work in many studio situations to pick up different ways of working.

I am a person motivated by deadlines so having orders and due dates gives me structure that I need to stay active in the studio. Find the structure that works for you. Give yourself time and space to develop. Place yourself around supportive peers and work hard towards your goals. Take advantage of all the free resources within 150your grasp. Connect with other artists and arts organizations. Make sure you stop and have a little fun along the way!

For more information about Amelia and her work, please visit the links below:




Tara Wilson: Potter of the Month


Tara’s Studio Pottery Sale

This month features studio potter, Tara Wilson.  Tara makes beautiful, feminine, wood fired pottery.  Her work is a perfect partnership of form and surface…the drama of the melted wood ash and blushing patterns from the flame roll effortlessly over the curvy volumes of her forms.  Her pots, with their atmospheric patina, smooth surface and undulating forms, often remind me of tumbled river rocks.

Tara and I crossed paths a few times at the Archie Bray Foundation (first as summer residents in 2003 and then later as year round residents in 2006).  The first moment I set eyes on Tara’s work I was in love.  Her work is warm, inviting, graceful and generous.  Not only is her work visually comforting…but it is a true pleasure to use.



A handful of years ago, Tara built an amazing studio on her property in Helena, Montana.  Adjacent to her studio, she constructed two wood kilns (a large train kiln and, most recently, a smaller catenary kiln).  Tara is currently at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts for a two-week residency entitled Atmospheric Perspectives.  You can find out more about Tara and her work by visiting her website:  Enjoy the interview!

How did you first get involved in ceramics?

I first got involved with ceramics in High School. I attended a small public school in Clyde, Ohio and my high school art teacher included a lot of ceramic projects in our classes. By the time I was a senior I was spending as much time as possible in the art room.

Can you briefly describe your background and education?

I received a BFA from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and a MFA from the University of Florida, Gainesville. I went straight from undergrad to graduate school then did a little adjunct teaching and community class teaching; so most of the jobs I’ve held have been art related. The most interesting job I’ve had was working as a potter at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

How would you describe your work? How did you arrive at working this way?

tw flower brick

Flower Brick

My work is mostly wheel thrown and altered. I started altering my work when I was an undergrad, but although I was using similar methods the finished pieces looked totally different than the work I’m making today. In graduate school I developed this style of work and it has slowly evolved since finishing school in 2003. Most of the work has an animated quality about it and relates to the figure, either the human form or different animals.

Would you explain your attraction to functional ceramics?

I’ve always been attracted to functional work. I enjoy how accessible it is. We live with and interact with it in very intimate situations in our homes.

How do you feel that your formal education (undergraduate-graduate school) prepared you for your career in ceramics?

tw pitchers


I think my formal education prepared me for a career in ceramics in more ways than I realized. As an undergraduate student I received a strong technical education, I learned how to mix clay, glazes and fire kilns very early. I got involved in wood firing in my beginning throwing class and was hooked. Not only did I learn about firing wood kilns, but also many local artists would participate in the firings and that was a valuable resource as well. Knoxville’s close proximity to Arrowmont and Penland provided another educational resource. Many studio artists live in that area of east Tennessee and Western North Carolina. I remember making an annual pilgrimage to Rock Creek Pottery’s studio sale. Graduate school taught me to think critically about my work and prepared me for teaching. Linda Arbuckle is an a

mazing teacher and artist. She shares so much information with her students and alumni through her list serve which we all greatly benefit from.

You’ve attended numerous residency programs and presented at countless conferences/ workshops throughout your career. Could you describe some of the most influential or career changing experiences you’ve had?


One of the most amazing experiences I’ve had was the opportunity to be a long term resident at the Archie Bray Foundation. I think I learned as much or more about what it means to be a professional artist during my time there as I did in school. A time that I will never forget was the Bray’s 55th anniversary, which happened while I was a resident. For the month of June a group of international artists worked in the summer studios. Getting to know them and work along side them was an amazing opportunity. I feel extremely fortunate to have worked with Janet Mansfield during this time. We fired the train kin together at the Bray and she invited me to come to Australia and be an assistant at a Gulgong conference. While in Gulgong she introduced me to many Australian artists which led to presenting at a conference a few years later in Tasmania and I’ll be going back next April to participate in a woodfire symposium on the south east coast of Australia.

What is the inspiration for your pieces? How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas?


Tara and Willow

I draw a lot of inspiration from nature, the environment that I’m surrounded by and the figure. Sometimes the work itself leads to new ideas and new pieces through experimenting with different parts of each piece while in the studio. Spending time outdoors is very important to me. It not only provides a source of inspiration but is also a time to unwind from the studio and reflect on ideas. I try to spend time outdoors everyday even if it’s just a short walk. My house and studio is located near the end of a dirt road with easy access to great hiking and mountain bike trails. In the winter I make time for backcountry skiing with my dog Willow. Animals are another source of inspiration. I enjoy being around animals, I grew up showing horses, and sometimes I feel like where I live in Montana is a wildlife sanctuary. Just in my yard alone over the past few years I’ve seen deer, elk, pronghorn, fox, wolves, bear, and lots of small animals and rodents (which aren’t always cool, such as the pack rats). A few months ago I got chickens, which are a great source of entertainment.

What advice can you give aspiring artists struggling to find their own voice/style?

Work super hard! This is a difficult, or rather competitive field that requires many hours of practice especially in the beginning. I think it’s important to realize what you’re passionate about and figure out how that can be incorporated into your work. I often encourage young artists to look not only at contemporary work, but more importantly at historical work.

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Generally speaking, female potters who wood-fire are not the norm. Can you describe what its like working in a seemingly male-dominated tradition?  I agree that woodfiring is a male dominated field. I’ve never really had any issues with this or negative experiences. I think I’ve been very stubborn in sticking to my beliefs and opinions and have just always jumped in and been part of this scene. Now that I have my own kilns I’m the one in charge and even when it’s mostly guys helping there’s never been any issues. I think my work is fairly feminine compared to the typical woodfire aesthetic and in recent years I’ve really tried to embrace this and create work that’s embraces this feminine quality.

How do you market your work to your audience (galleries/studio sales/crak fairs/etc.)? What venues have you found to be the most lucrative for your work?

So far the most lucrative venue has been selling through galleries. I think maybe because that’s where I’m most established. I built my studio five years ago and I’ve just recently started having studio sales. They are a lot of fun and I enjoy meeting new folks in my community but these sales are not as lucrative as I would like. I think over time they will get better. Also, I’ve had an etsy site for about a year now and I think there is a lot of potential there. I’ve only posted work a few times, but I’ve sold most of what I’ve posted.

How did you arrive at the decision to settle and build a studio? What were your must-haves when building your studio and choosing a location?

IMG_0156This was probably the most difficult decision I’ve ever made. All through school I thought I would probably pursue a teaching career, so deciding to be a full time studio artist was a major decision in itself and then deciding where to do this was another huge thing. I fell in love with Montana while I was at the Bray. I like many things that Helena has to offer such as the amazing trail system with great mountain bike trails right on the edge of town and although it’s the capitol it’s still a fairly small town. The Bray has a clay business so I can easily get clay and supplies. When I built my studio I knew I wanted a space that was large enough for a few people to work in so that I could eventually have assistants and be able to offer them workspace. I knew during firings there would be more people around so I wanted a kitchen and bathroom in the studio as well. And there is a separate room with a garage door for the electric kiln and all my wood shop tools and other random stuff. Another factor in choosing this location was the fact that I wanted to have wood kilns, so I needed to live somewhere that I could make this happen.

What does a typical workday look like for you? How much do you spend on marketing vs. making?

IMG_1266My typical work day changes depending on where I’m at in the cycle of making work.  It takes me about six weeks to make work for my train kiln. An ideal day during the making is, get to the studio fairly early, work until 3 ish, go for a hike or bike ride, eat dinner, then work a little in the evening. But like I said that’s an ideal day. In the winter I will usually ski in the morning or first half of the day and get in the studio for the second half. Then after the making cycle it takes me a few days to glaze, a day to load the kiln and two days to fire. These are usually very long focused days in the studio, or at the kiln with not much other activities going on. Once the work is fired it takes me a few days to sand and clean up all the work. Packing work for shipping is another big time commitment in the studio. As far as the marketing goes, I know I need to put more time into this. I spend time everyday, maybe an average of two hours keeping up with e-mails and paperwork stuff. I guess that is considered marketing. I know I need to put more time into taking advantage of social media. I realize this can be a great way to market my work, but I’m not really good or consistent with it.

You have built many wood kilns over the course of your career. Can you talk a little bit about the critical things to consider when building a kiln? Which resources (books/magazines/ websites) did you find the most helpful?


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Well the things I considered when building my kilns were, the size, length of firing, and surface effects. After spending three years primarily firing train kilns at the Bray and then as a resident at Red Lodge Clay Center, I decided that I wanted to build a train. The interior of my kiln is 45 inches wide, and the stacking space is about 10 feet long. The kilns at the Bray and Red Lodge are very similar and I liked this firing cycle as far as how much time it took to make work to fill the kiln. It’s also big enough that I can offer space to folks in exchange for help. I like the surface effects that can be achieved in trains in a fairly short firing as well. This last winter I built a small catenary arch wood soda. I’m really enjoying this kiln and looking forward to experimenting more with glazes in it. I think I will probably fire this kiln at least once or more between every train firing. It’s much smaller so the turnaround time is much quicker, and it can be loaded in a few hours and fired off in a day. It’s also nice to be able to offer another type of kiln to those people who are working with me in the studio. Some helpful books are the The Kiln Book, and Woodfired Stoneware and Porcelain, but I think the best resource is looking at a lot of kilns and talking to other potters.

Over the years, you’ve had a handful of assistants/apprentices that come live and work with you. How did you arrive at this decision and what are the specifics of the relationship (how long is the apprenticeship/what is expected/what are the privileges/exchanges/etc.)?

When I built my studio I knew I wanted to have assistants at some point so I built it large enough to accommodate this. I think of it as a work exchange. I enjoy teaching and the sense of community that happens in group studios, so this is a way for me to teach/mentor younger artists and have other artists working in close proximity.


Right now, assistants stay for a year with an option to stay for a second year. I have two assistants and ideally one will leave each year and a new one will start, so they can help train each other. They do all types of chores, basically everything except making my work. Typical cores are lots of wood prep, and everything involved with the firings, prep and clean up, packing and shipping, cleaning the studio. They also help with bigger projects such as building the kiln and shed, finishing the bathroom and kitchen in the studio, even building a chicken coop. I think all these things are good experiences for young artists. They get to work closely with me and learn what really goes into being a studio artist.

Would you be willing to share some advice for potters who are thinking about hiring an assistant/apprentice?

Well, it’s made me be very organized and clear about my expectations. Clear communication is also extremely important. I think having assistants is a great way to teach an offer opportunities to younger artists.

Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring potters who are looking to setup a studio and make pots for a living?

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I think there are so many opportunities for young artists now, such as residency programs. I would recommend doing as many of these as possible, and traveling before sefng up a studio. If you know you want to set up your own studio, start collecting stuff, equipment, wheels, brick, anything you’ll be using in the studio so you don’t get hit with having to purchase or find everything all at once. And think about how the space will function.