Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—home of the cheesesteak (and its vegan offshoots), the Liberty Bell, and fellow marketing team member Morgan. I’d only been once, in middle school, when all I cared about was seeing the house where “The Real World: Philadelphia” was filmed, before my trip down in December to tour the studio of ceramic artist Brian Giniewski. In a far-off corner of the city once known as a center for textile production, Brian makes delightfully drippy vessels perfect for housing fully-loaded scoops of ice cream, each glazed in tantalizing shades like “pop rox,” “creamsicle,” “saffron,” and “peach.” I know they’re made of clay, but I’ve gotta be honest: they made me hungry—and actually, they still do. But I digress.
Accompanied by my trusty companion, Royce, I followed Brian through the halls of Globe Dye Works, a yarn-dying factory-turned-artistic community that houses tenants like the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory, Rival Bros. Coffee (I had some, and it was quite good), and, of course, the artist himself. Remnants of the building’s industrial days lined the path to Brian’s workspace, where a seemingly endless supply of shiny, textured mugs, plates, and planters mingled with tools of the trade. After a tour of his sunny studio, Brian threw a quick piece for us—an act that may as well have been magic to me—and invited us both to indulge in “Cake Time,” a staff tradition that pretty much speaks for itself. One slice of chocolaty cheesecake and a good old-fashioned sit-down later, Royce and I took our leave, equipped with a handwritten list of must-try Philly lunch spots (tehina milkshake, anyone?) and a directive to stop by Field, a plant-centric pop-up in Philly’s hip Fishtown neighborhood, for First Friday.
Itching to know more about the guy behind our Drippy Ice Cream Bowls? Read on for our Q&A with Brian, plus a selection of photos from our visit to his space.
When you think “activism,” you may not think “handmade pottery.” Thanks to the work of longtime maker JoAnn Stratakos, we’d encourage you to broaden your horizons. Best known around these parts as the creator of Elwood, our de facto mascot, JoAnn’s latest creation—the Protect the Elephants Mug—harnesses cuteness for a cause. For every mug sold, we’re donating $5 to the PAMS Foundation, an organization dedicated to conservation efforts, including the protection of elephants, in faraway Tanzania.
Why PAMS? We asked JoAnn that very question. “The MudCrew and I came about the PAMS Foundation through a social media post about Wayne Lotter,” she told us. But if “the MudCrew” is JoAnn’s nickname for her staff, then who’s Wayne? The former director and co-founder of PAMS, that’s who. Killed in the line of duty last year in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Wayne founded PAMS in 2009 alongside fellow conservationists Ally Namangaya and Krissie Clark. It’s believed that Wayne—who received death threats throughout his career—was murdered for his anti-poaching work.
When it comes to the creative realm, Sarah Beth Elkins has done a little bit of everything, from book-binding to teaching high schoolers graphic design, but her true passion lies in one thing: clay. Now a professional potter working from her home studio north of Houston, Texas, Sarah Beth molds mounds of the pliable stuff into playful mugs, bowls, and even earrings, not to mention the lovely, lighthearted Berry Colander that’s now available for purchase at UncommonGoods.
With one look at Sarah Beth’s adorable berry bowl, we here at UG fell quickly in love with her careful craftsmanship and whimsical touch, and we wanted to give her a proper welcome to the family with her very own post in our This Just In-spiration series. Read on for our Q&A with Sarah Beth, touching on her time as a teacher, her day-to-day life in the studio, and much, much more.
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.
Our makers never fail to motivate us, encourage our creativity, and fill us with inspiration. So, when a new design enters our assortment, we’re always excited to learn more about the people behind the product.
What gets an artist going and keeps them creating is certainly worth sharing, and every great connection starts with a simple introduction. Meet Kristen Juen, the artist behind our new Mauna Planter and Dish and Valley Hanging Planter.
When did you know you wanted to be an artisan?
I have always had a passion for creativity. When I moved to Austin recently it felt like the right time and place to pursue a path as a maker.
What has been the most exciting thing about becoming a professional artisan?
Sharing my joy and inspiration for creating with others!
What does your typical day in the studio look like?
I like to stay busy in the studio. I typically continue on a previous day’s work, while also starting something new so I always have something going. You will find me rolling out slabs, assembling new work, trimming, smoothing, and glazing. I also currently work out of a shared studio, so I learn a lot and gain inspiration from being around other creatives.
Is there a trinket, talisman, or other inspirational object you keep near? If so, what is it and what does it mean to you?
I do not have a specific trinket, but I gain so much inspiration from the outdoors. Getting out of the studio occasionally to take in the beauty, peace, and surprises that can be discovered in nature, is so important to the development of my creativity and ceramic wares.
Imagine you just showed your work to a kindergartner for the first time. What do you think they would say?
A kindergartner recently looked up at me during an art show in amazement and said, “Did you make all this?”
What quote or mantrakeeps you motivated?
It can be scary to push myself to try new creative ideas that might completely fail. However, I recognize that my most exciting creations often evolve from these experiments. I am inspired and motivated to keep going by the Joseph Chilton Pearce quote, “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.”
One morning a few weeks ago I woke up extra enthusiastic. I couldn’t wait to get to work. That’s because my work day started with a trip into Manhattan to meet an artist whose work I’d loved since the moment I saw it on our tabletop buyers’ sample shelf. I was going to meet Maggy Ames, the maker of the some of the most beautiful stoneware bowls I’d ever seen.
When I got to Maggy’s space, one of the last working corroborative pottery studios in Manhattan, I was happy to see that she was as enthusiastic about the start of the work day as I was. She was ready to start throwing pottery, but she didn’t mind taking a moment to show me and UncommonGoods Photographer Emily around first. We snuck a peek at the kiln room just in time to see a fresh batch of bowls come out, watched Maggy’s team weigh and prepare clay, caught a glimpse at the secret formulas for a few glaze colors, and admired how the clay dust that seemed to touch everything in the studio made the place even more magical.
After our introductions and a little exploring, we watched as Maggy transformed a large, lumpy ball of clay into an exquisitely curved bowl–something she does about 15 times on an average day. Watching the process was certainly inspiring. Talking with Maggy, who’s been making pottery for 30 years and retired from law to became a full-time artist 5 years ago, gave me a much welcome creativity boost too. Whether you’re looking for little motivation to get making, some inspiring words of wisdom, or just some beautiful photos of art in the works, I hope you’ll love meeting Maggy and seeing her studio as well.
The son of an architect father and artist mother, Aaron A. Harrison quickly gravitated towards all things creative. LEGO towers gave way to kindergarten art contest wins, which eventually gave way to an MFA in ceramics and sculpture. Knowing he wanted to play with clay forever, Aaron decided to turn his passion into a career once he started raising a family.
While working in production at a ceramic slip casting company that specializes in bird feeders, birdhouses, and nightlights, Aaron began to shift his focus from artist to designer. “It was here that I learned how to run a production studio,” says Aaron, “making products from clay was preeminent to making clay art.” Working with all the bird-friendly pieces at the studio also fostered an appreciation for the bird form, inspiring Aaron to incorporate the winged creatures into his own designs once he started his own studio in 2009.
On his process, Aaron says, “creativity as a designer follows the need to solve a problem.” In the case of one of his most popular designs, this problem was the unrolling of yarn. After two separate friends asked him if he made yarn bowls, he researched the concept, made some prototypes, literally put a bird on it, and the Birdie Yarn Bowl came to be. Each yarn bowl begins as a ball of clay that is then thrown by hand on the potter’s wheel. Once the bowl firms up, the bird is added, then the hook and holes. After an initial firing and glazing, each bird is painted by hand, then fired one more time to seal it all in.
Aaron works out of his 500 square foot basement, painting each individual bird himself and packing each completed yarn bowl for shipping. “It’s not uncommon to find my children wrapped in bubble wrap or making packing peanut soup for their dolls,” says Aaron of his at-home operation. For inspiration while he works, Aaron keeps drawings from his children around, as well as a LEGO calendar (“my second favorite pastime after ceramics”), and an architectural drawing of an observatory from his father.
With all this inspiration by his side, it’s no wonder Aaron’s work has been featured in Knit Simple, Vogue Knitting, and Knit Scene. Though he’s “still waiting for Oprah or Martha Stewart to place their orders,” Aaron gets immense satisfaction from the feedback of others, telling him that his piece inspired them to be more creative. Both this and the opportunity to work from home are the ultimate pay-off. “Sitting at the wheel three to four hours a day, working long into the night to finish an order, and the physical strain of manipulating the clay can take its toll,” says Aaron, “but I am working for myself and I can see my children grow up. In the end, it’s a tremendous blessing and extremely satisfying.”