How Ceramicist Helen Levi Turned Her Passion for Pottery into a Living

  • Photo by Andrea Gentl and Bill Hyers. Courtesy of Helen Levi.
    Picture by Andrea Gentl and Invoice Hyers. Courtesy of Helen Levi.

On a balmy late September afternoon, Brooklyn ceramicist Helen Levi is seated in her light-filled studio in Pink Hook, attaching handles to mugs she’s just lately thrown. The house (coated in a skinny layer of clay mud, as all true ceramics studios must be), is lined with tables and cabinets that maintain numerous clay and ceramic objects in numerous states of end. “It was at all times only a pastime that I liked, however I by no means conceptualized it as a enterprise transfer,” Levi tells me.

Actually, just a little over 4 years in the past, she hadn’t even dreamt up the thriving operation at her fingertips. Again then, Levi was considerably adrift in her hometown of New York. She had a level in pictures however little in the best way of correct employment—she’d give up a waitressing job, and seen the 2 colleges the place she’d been educating pottery shutter. “I didn’t have a lot happening,” she admits. However that every one modified after a fateful fall day in 2013.

At a Steven Alan pop-up retailer occasion in Manhattan, she met the proprietor of the upscale trend chain. Mr. Alan was about to open a house retailer. When he realized that the younger New Yorker was a potter, he requested to see her wares.

Levi hadn’t documented her ceramics at that time. She went house and photographed no matter she had: a motley assortment of cups, mugs, bowls, and planters. “It appeared like such a protracted shot, however he positioned an order,” she says.

“As soon as I received that order, I actually gave all the pieces I needed to it,” she explains of the fortunate break that might result in a brand new profession. “I used to be lit on hearth.”

Since then, her title has turn into synonymous with a line of signature, handmade vessels: nature-inspired stoneware mugs, cups, dishes, and planters made out of numerous coloured clays that she combines to develop gentle, marbled swirls. As these skilled within the rigorous (and tedious) processes of ceramics can attest to, every bit takes endurance, care, and time—seven to 10 days alone for a mug, for instance, to permit for drying and firing.

  • Photo by Peter Siskos. Courtesy of Helen Levi.
    Picture by Peter Siskos. Courtesy of Helen Levi.

Levi, now 30, usually distributes to over 10 shops nationwide—from sought-after retailers like Want Provide and Totokaelo, to neighborhood outlets like The Main Necessities in Brooklyn and Particular person Medley in Los Angeles. Extra curiosity in Levi’s on-line store is sparked by posts to her over 149,000 Instagram followers. She’s turn into a go-to collaborator for fellow creatives, from cooks to trend powerhouse Diane von Furstenberg—with whom she unveiled a recent assortment of vessels this fall. Nevertheless it took time and hustle to get so far.

After graduating from Oberlin Faculty—coming into as a math main and leaving with a level in pictures—the ceramacist returned house to stay together with her dad and mom in New York. Levi cobbled collectively part-time jobs as she pursued long-term documentary pictures initiatives, “doing the common early-twenties, floundering-about factor,” she says.

She’d taken pottery courses for a decade at a local people heart whereas rising up within the East Village, and had been educating the medium on and off since highschool. When her former trainer went on maternity depart, Levi stepped in, working full-time because the studio’s supervisor for round 5 months.

The transition from pictures to designing pottery took time to sink in. “I actually considered myself as a photographer, and that’s how I recognized,” she explains, “so to think about myself as a designer who designs ceramic items was a giant bounce.” Levi’s pictures experience has understandably been a serious asset in selling herself and her work.

One other hurdle got here with recognizing her limitations. “Within the final 4 to 5 years I’ve simply realized a lot by doing it—like with that first order, I needed to remake it a pair occasions as a result of I wasn’t skilled with manufacturing.” She’d by no means bought her works earlier than, not to mention made dozens of the identical pot. She realized the significance of trial and error.

  • Photo by James Chororos. Courtesy of Helen Levi.
    Picture by James Chororos. Courtesy of Helen Levi.

From the early days, as she refined her expertise, Levi was additionally actively advertising and marketing herself. “You attempt to say sure to issues, to place your self on the market, and toot your personal horn, though typically you hate doing it,” she explains, nodding to the self-promotion that occurs on Instagram. “But when I don’t try this, no person’s going to try this for me, after which I’ll simply be making work on my own in a darkish cave.”

Whereas social media has been vital to constructing her model, she notes that the platform is definitely not a robust predictor of gross sales. “Simply because a thousand individuals like one thing on Instagram doesn’t imply anybody will purchase it,” she says.

Through the years, Levi has picked up numerous new expertise via books, YouTube movies, and from her fellow creatives. When she wished to learn to make giant planters from casting, she employed a mold-maker to show her. “I feel I’m nonetheless studying that are the issues I ought to do myself and that are the issues I ought to rent somebody who’s an actual skilled at to do,” she notes, nodding to a sequence of beeswax candles she’s made with the steerage of an area Brooklyn candlemaker. She’s additionally regarded to her friends when in search of steerage, like designers Chen Chen and Kai Williams, with whom she shared a studio for 2 years in Sundown Park, having day by day lunches and discussing their respective companies.

Whereas she had no prior enterprise expertise, Levi says her curiosity in math has been useful, to an extent. “The enterprise facet is making errors after which realizing you’re not going to do it once more,” she presents. In setting costs for her work—which vary from $38 for an espresso mug to $190 for a big planter—she regarded on the market and consulted with fellow potters. “My stuff is just not low cost, and I do know that it’s a high-end object for lots of people,” she acknowledges. “However I’m not dwelling like a Rockefeller. It’s my job, and it has to assist my life.”

Within the early days, she would make pots for orders as she acquired them, which might require a six-week lead time. “Till this studio now, I by no means had house, so I actually didn’t have any additional items,” she says. If a good friend was headed to a marriage and in search of a singular, last-minute ceramic reward, Levi must flip them down. “I noticed I used to be lacking out on potential monetary achieve by not being able” to extend manufacturing, she says.

  • Photo by Helen Levi. Courtesy of Helen Levi.
    Picture by Helen Levi. Courtesy of Helen Levi.

Area made all of the distinction. Levi had labored out of communal pottery studios, shared with dozens of different potters, earlier than transferring into the Sundown Park house she later shared with Chen and Kai for 2 years. However that house is dwarfed by her present Pink Hook studio, which is about 5 occasions bigger. Levi recollects driving via a snowstorm to see it. She wrote a verify on the spot. “That’s how actual property is on this extremely aggressive market,” she says. “If one thing pops up, you need to take it. You possibly can’t look forward to the correct second.”

“I needed to slowly develop into an area like this,” Levi provides. To get so far, she needed to pursue a variety of income streams—not simply retailers and the web store, but in addition customized orders and open studio gross sales. “I like to only have a day the place all the pieces’s out,” she explains (and it doesn’t harm that in-person gross sales lower out the price and time concerned with transport).

Levi has needed to stability all elements of her enterprise. Whereas sure weeks are devoted to throwing or glazing, respectively, some days are consumed with packing and transport orders.

Although she’s been in a position to rent assistants, she’s made some extent of reserving sure key duties for herself. “I do the marbling as a result of I really feel that that’s the step that has my hand in it,” she explains,” however there are many different steps of the method which might be very time-consuming that I do really feel comfy handing off to an assistant, like glazing.”

Assistants have additionally been useful in keeping off burnout, a recurring hazard. To fight it, she’s taken to briefly retiring sure items after she tires of constructing many in succession. And she or he doesn’t settle for orders in January, to provide herself a break after the surge of vacation orders.

  • Photo by Helen Levi. Courtesy of Helen Levi.
    Picture by Helen Levi. Courtesy of Helen Levi.

Sooner or later, Levi has ambitions to experiment with extra sculptural and large-scale vessels. However by way of progress, in the interim she’s comfortable sustaining the scale of the enterprise she at the moment has.

“I don’t wish to be a slave to the studio,” she says, noting that point administration generally is a battle on this extra mature stage of her ceramics profession. “It’s addictive while you’re operating your personal rising enterprise. You’re placing in effort and also you see the outcomes. I work quite a bit, however I like what I do.”

—Casey Lesser

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