North Carolina enjoys a vibrant community of makers, artisans, craftsmen, and artists. At the Our State Store, we travel the state hunting for local artisans who create special, handcrafted goods, and we're giving you a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the creators of some of our most popular products. Sit a spell with us as we introduce you to some of our favorite North Carolina makers. This month, we spoke with Gretchen Quinn in Raleigh.
Our state welcomes new North Carolinians every day. The artistic community in Raleigh warmly greeted potter Gretchen Quinn when she moved to North Carolina in 2014 with her family, and this embrace led her on a journey of artistic discovery. Nestled in the historic Boylan Heights district in downtown Raleigh, her studio is filled with bright, natural light and strewn with pots in all stages of creation. In this constantly shifting and growing city, her studio is a place where you can find beautifully simple objects, lovingly made by hand. Follow along with us as we to dive into Gretchen’s life here in North Carolina, her studio, and her creations.
Can you tell us about yourself and your background? Where are you from?
I live in the Five Points neighborhood of Raleigh with my husband Tom and our daughter Honora who just turned 13. I grew up in Massachusetts in the suburbs just outside Boston, the youngest of five siblings. My sisters and brother are all talented artists and they were always making things as we were growing up. I know that their constant flow of creativity planted roots within me and is part of what inspired me to be a maker.
Did you study pottery? What training did you have?
I was lucky to always attend schools that valued the arts, so my love of clay was fostered early on and I knew it was something I’d always be working with. In college, while I was working towards a degree in sculpture I found myself spending more and more time in the ceramics building making my pieces in clay, not just because I liked it, but because it is such an affordable material. Eventually, that led to my first pottery wheel class and I quickly became hooked on making functional pieces. It's truly satisfying to make pots that look great and work well. Since college, I have taken as many classes and workshops as I could and have had the opportunity to learn from lots of great potters from around the country. Now, I’m happily passing along all that I’ve learned to the students I teach at the NC State Crafts Center.
After graduating from Providence College in Rhode Island, I worked as a graphic designer for a number of years, but I was always making pots on the side and selling a few pieces here and there. I worked out of some great community studios and took as many classes as I could. Every ceramics instructor I’ve had has contributed to how I make and think about my pottery today, and I hope that, when I teach, I am able to pass what I’ve learned along.
How did you get started with your own pottery studio?
I have been a full-time potter for almost four years now, but I’d always been making pots with the idea that someday, when the timing was right, I would make the move towards starting my business. For me, it was relocating from Seattle to Raleigh that made it possible. Now, I am making pots 40+ hours a week and teach a class or two each semester at the NC State Crafts Center. It’s a great balance and provides the flexibility I need so I can take care of my family and business in a way that works for me. Since my business is still a solo effort, finding this needed balance is still my biggest struggle, but knowing that I’ve never worked harder or been happier at work has given me the confidence that I’m on the right path.
How did you end up in North Carolina? What inspires you about where you live?
When my husband suggested a move to Raleigh from Seattle five years ago, my first reaction was, “when do we start packing?” At that point I knew very little about Raleigh or the state of North Carolina, other than it was on the East Coast and that the East Coast was where we wanted to be. It was a real leap of faith as we packed up 15 years of life in Seattle and headed east, but we were ready for a change, and we wanted to be closer to our families.
Upon moving we were immediately struck by the kindness of the people here. There is a sincerity in a simple “hello” that I had not found in other places that I have lived. Even knowing no one, we quickly felt a sense of welcome and home. The maker community was equally welcoming. Artists here share their experiences and knowledge so freely, and I really feel that each of us care about the others’ business successes as much as our own. It’s truly special.
Tell us about your studio and describe your workspace. Is it organized chaos or does everything have its place?
My studio is in a downtown Raleigh neighborhood called Boylan Heights. The neighborhood is mostly made up of beautiful older residential homes, but at one corner where the railroad tracks bend there is a string of old commercial buildings now occupied by artists. I am lucky enough to work out of one of these buildings.
My studio is a large light-filled space with one wall of windows that is used to display finished pots. The rest of the studio is work space containing a separate room with three kilns, a bathroom, and a small kitchenette.
I share the studio with three other Raleigh ceramic artists: Liz Kelly, Marina Bosetti and Xena Holzapfel. We all make very different work and run our businesses independently, but the four of us often work in unison. We fire much of our work together, share lots of the larger studio expenses, and host events at the studio as a group. Our studio is open to the public any time one of us is working and, as we all are on different schedules, we’re open a lot.
Sometimes the studio is very quiet, and I can be the only person working for a day or two. Occasionally we are all there pushing through projects late into the day. For me, the camaraderie is essential and keeps me focused.
Walk us through a typical day for you.
No day is really typical and it’s that fact that keeps pottery interesting for me. I balance making for shows, making for shops, and making work to keep in my studio for my own retail sales. I’m constantly assessing my stock and deciding what pieces I need to complete an order or what I need to make more of to bring to a show.
The studio is filled with pots in all stages of completion. Some pots are just thrown, others are setting up under plastic, another batch is waiting to be loaded into the kiln for firing and as the solo maker I’m responsible for completing all of the stages. In my dream pottery world, one day I’d make, then the next I’d finesse the details to finish the pieces and let dry, then I’d fire and glaze and fire again to complete and sell. In reality, I am usually running around doing some of all of the steps daily. I think that is partly why unloading the final glaze kiln can be so satisfying, as I’ve finally made it all the way through the process.
What are your most essential tools?
My most essential tools by far are my hands, and the only tool that I don’t misplace. So much of my work is done by touch, in both hand-building and throwing on the wheel. With clay, I’m constantly having to assess the dampness of my work to determine just when to add or remove clay from a piece, and my hands are an essential guide with this. Besides my hands, I couldn’t do without my very old -- yet trusty -- Brent wheel and my Skutt kiln.
What’s your process for a vase, for example, from start to finish?
My basic step-by-step process is:
• weighing out the clay (this is determined by the size of the piece I am making)
• throwing the piece
• trimming the piece
• carving the pattern
• drying and bisque firing
• glaze firing
• adding gold luster and firing again if the piece includes gold.
Where do you find inspiration for your pieces?
I’m definitely under the spell of well-made crafts, and a lot of what I make spins out from my love of Danish modern and Shaker designs where simplicity, utility, and honesty are among the guiding principles in their work. I like clean, modern shapes that will function well for the user. I spend a lot of time thinking about how each piece will be used, held in the hand, and how it will fit in with other pieces in my collection. I always start with the idea of making pieces that I would like to have and use in my own home.
How do you recharge your creativity? Any hobbies?
I love to walk my dog Leo. No music, no particular route, just grab his leash and go. It is really a relief to just let my mind wander, and it’s the one guaranteed quiet part of my day. In the studio I split my time between throwing on the wheel and hand-building. Making pots both ways definitely helps to keep the boredom away as they are such different ways of making pieces, and I’ll do a few days of one and then switch over to the other.
What advantage would you say your products have over mass manufactured products?
No two pieces are ever the same, no matter how much I try. I have really grown to appreciate that over the years. When I started making pots my focus was on having them look perfect. I’d compare my work to that made by others or by machine and feel somewhat disappointed. But after developing my skills, I realized that it is the little markings or fingerprints left behind by the maker that makes handmade pieces special.
What new skills are you trying to learn?
Currently, learning to run my own business is my main focus, but I love to dabble and have tried a lot with varying degrees of success and with more than a few big fails. Some of these past passions are knitting, painting, screen-printing, garden design, woodworking, single scull rowing, and curling. But through it all, pottery is the one that just stuck.
What advice would you give to yourself of five years ago?
It sounds so simple, but I would have encouraged myself to pursue what I love and to work really, really hard. I would also suggest being fearless in asking for what I want. That was a big lesson to learn and one that I still have to push myself on. You can’t just sit back and hope for opportunities to come your way.
Do you have a favorite piece? What makes it your favorite?
Right now, my lamps are my favorite pieces to make. They are all one-of-a-kind so that offers a lot of freedom when making them. I don’t have to weigh out the clay or plan the form in advance; they are just made as I go, and, so far, I am loving the outcome.
Give me an example of a memorable reaction to your work.
I still participate in a lot of artist markets each year and one of my favorite comments that comes up at every show is, “did you make all this?” It is so satisfying to be able to say, "YES! I made every single pot, and I made my display, and I designed my logo and handle every detail of this business all by myself." Of course, I don’t tell them all of that, but I know that I did it all and that I will continue to do so, because I just really love it.
You can shop our collection of Gretchen Quinn pottery here at Our State Store. Learn more about Gretchen and view a schedule of upcoming artisan shows she'll attend at her website.
Images courtesy of Gretchen Quinn and Our State Store.