Tracy Shea remembers her first time. As a sophomore at Ohio’s Mentor High School she took a ceramics course and was instantly hooked. “From the minute I touched clay, it’s always been something I wanted to do,” she recalls.
She scored a partial scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of the Arts, but ended up accepting a full-ride to a different college. “My parents refused to pay for an art education,” she explains. “They were like, ‘You’ll never make it as an artist.’”
Fast forward three decades and the Garrettsville, Ohio mom of two spends her days making her popular Pedestal Jewelry Holder. The lace-imprinted ceramic stand — fitted with 50 holes to hang earrings — was born from a desire to display heirloom pieces passed down to her from her aunt. Eyeing her collection “drove me to think, people have stuff that they don’t necessarily want to throw in a drawer,” she says. “People collect stuff for a reason — there are emotional ties. So this is a special place to put things that are really special.” She puts her process — and her life as an artist — on display.
Have you been working in the art world since high school?
I’ve always, always, always been an artist, my entire life. But I tried to do what I was supposed to do and got jobs in the real world. I worked for a steel company and then a mail order catalog company. I ended up quitting that job to stay home with my daughter and then I picked up pottery again. I started teaching kids. We had a lot of home school people in the area and somebody asked me, “Are you interested in teaching ceramics?” So that’s really how I got started in it professionally. When I started the home school thing, I got a vendor license, starting doing shows and opened my Etsy shop. That’s how that sort of evolved.
How did you come up with the idea for the jewelry holder?
Primarily, I make tableware and I was making things on pedestals. I was interested in sort of elegant, taller serving pieces. The jewelry holder really started as an ice cream dish. And when I was making it, I was kind of looking at it going, “Am I really going to sell this? Is it really practical?” And from doing shows and art galleries and stuff I realized jewelry is a huge category. For some reason it just dawned on me one day, you know what, this is a great way for me to sort of get into this category. So it sort of evolved that way. I started out with something that was the basic form and then went into, what’s going to make this a more useful, more special item than just something to eat out of. I wanted it to be something that you leave out all the time.
The lace design is such a nice touch. Do you use a special fabric?
I’ve made more than 5,000 of these and I’m still using the same doily — a handmade cotton doily that right now is getting a little haggard-looking, but it’s still working.
So imprinting the clay with the lace is step one. What’s next?
It’s done in stages because the clay has to change and evolve as the process goes along. So I have this flat thing that I’ve made in the mold, but it has to sit in the mold until it hardens up enough to hold its own shape. And then I cut all the holes, which is a crazy process when you consider cutting 50 holes in something 5,000 times. All these little plugs come out when I cut the holes. I literally have five-gallon buckets of those little plugs. So I do that, then it has to harden so it’s stiff enough to put the pedestal on it, but wet enough that the pedestal will stick to the bottom. At that point, I take it and put it on the potter’s wheel and the pedestals are actually thrown right onto the bowl. Then it dries; it’s fired the first time. Then you glaze it, and then you fire it again.
What’s your favorite part of the process?
My favorite part of the whole thing is when my father comes over and boxes them all up for me. It’s really cool because my dad just retired. He was this workaholic person that I virtually really didn’t get to know until this part of my life.
What’s your studio like?
All this happens in my two-car garage, I evicted my cars. I grab my cup of coffee and walk out my kitchen door into the garage and that’s where I work. The doors get opened up in the summer or I sit on my back patio and I’ve got a potter’s wheel out there.
How do you get inspiration for your work?
Most of the time it just evolves from living. I can be out walking and see something in nature and say, “Oh, I love that shape.” Or it can come from function — cooking and going, “Which shape would this food look good on?”
What’s the best part of being an artist?
The process is my favorite. It’s almost meditative. Maybe because each piece isn’t exact. Even though it’s the same form, there’s something different about it. I just love the process. I love to touch clay. I love doing what I do. But I also love that I can do it at six o’clock in the morning or, if I have to, one o’clock in the morning. The flexibility is probably close second.
When you were making pottery in high school, did you imagine this?
I didn’t really think then, “Wow, I can make a living making stuff out of clay.” I was told I couldn’t make a living doing any kind of art. And then a close second was, “Well, if you’re going to do art, you have to do advertising. Or you have to teach.”
And yet here you are.
I’m in year three selling these and this year I’m going to make 3,000 to 4,000. It’s wonderful. It’s been a life-changer and it’s paid for my daughter’s college. She’s studying graphic design — the irony of it all. I told her, “Of course you can make a living as an artist!”
Good for you, Tracy! Holding your own in the art world is a tough challenge, and less stalwart folks fall out of it and settle for less quixotic careers. Glad to see you’re doing well, fulfilled, and supportive of your daughter’s new career as well. I’ve had a life in the arts, too. Like your daughter, I chose graphics—type design, actually—and had my share of success (corporate design group leader, then international character standards committees) and challenges (the font world dissolved into a cottage industry in the late ’90s; so I fell back on my literary skills and worked as a typography advisor and proofreader*). All in all, what a ride! FYI, I bought my wife one of your jewelry holders last year, and she loves it.
[* noted in your second answer paragraph: “table wear” should be “tableware”]
Thanks for your comment, Bill. We’re always happy when one of our artist stories connects with creative people like yourself. Being an artist or artisan is a challenging life indeed. That’s one of the main reasons we highlight our UncommonGoods artists and makers. They’re inspiring! We will pass along to Tracy what you said about her jewelry holder; she’ll be very pleased to hear it. And thanks for your eagle eye – we corrected that error. Continued good luck to you in your creative and professional endeavors, and thanks for reading our blog.
Ummm… It’s “tableware”, not “tablewear” (implement, not a garment or [omg!] deterioration). Like software or hardware. It’s always the homonyms that trip folks up the most—there/their, its/it’s, complement/compliment. Spell-checkers won’t help you here; they can’t consider the context (plus, we have caffeine on our side).
I’ll close with my wry “proofreader’s lament”: Nobody’s Prefect.
All I can say is, “D’oh!” Corrected. Thanks again!