September 25, 2018
Nicci Winrock and Neal Barman run their clay studio, and their family, with attention to the nitty-gritty.
Keep on learning. Hire good help. Balance business tasks with creative work as you’re planning your schedule. These themes emerged recently when we asked a handful of CIA’s many successful alumni what it takes to thrive as a self-employed artist. Nicci Winrock ’02 and Neal Barman ’03 are the owners of N2Clay in Rochester, New York.
Tell us about your business.
We’re a clay studio that designs and produces handmade tile, furniture, tableware, and custom works. Currently we are focusing our energy on a line of tile that will be sold in tile showrooms (starting in Rochester, New York) as well as through our online shop. We plan to do small batch runs—offering different glazes and lines seasonally throughout the year.
Is this what you thought you’d be doing when you were in college?
The college version of ourselves was very idealistic and driven, very similar in a lot of ways to who we are now but with a lot less understanding of the nitty gritty. As soon as we graduated we were ready to jump right in and run a business making custom tile!
The reality (aside from the fact that we had never even made a tile) was that we knew nothing about how to sell tile or who to sell it to. Not to mention that we didn’t have a studio.
Reality hit pretty quickly that our dream and our business together was not going to happen overnight. In order to help us pay the bills and buy materials and tools, we both looked for day jobs that applied our experience and skills from CIA. Neal taught art classes to underprivileged kids in the city and made connections with local non-profit agencies. I was hired by a local company that specialized in selling handmade tile, where my focus was drawing and designing tile layouts. Every day was like being back in school again as I suddenly realized how much I needed to learn about the industry—how to work in a professional environment, how to meet and establish connections with local interior designers.
We searched and found a place to live that also had studio space available and where there happened to be other ceramic artists. In 2006, Neal was awarded a grant from the Art & Cultural Center of Greater Rochester to create a 300-square-foot floor for the building where he was teaching classes. We were able to buy clay and raw materials to establish a glaze lab. We still didn’t have a kiln, but we lived within a community of artists, and our neighbor, Julia Galloway, offered to let us use the kilns at RIT over the summer break. If Julia hadn’t offered us this break I still to this day wonder how we would have pulled it off.
After completing that project, we received our first commission. From there, each commission created credibility, which then led to the next. We put all of the money we made back into the studio and YES! We finally could afford to buy three large, computer-controlled kilns!
Our experience from our day jobs helped us understand how to navigate the business end of things in a professional manner but also in terms of understanding the details—like how to price our work, meet deadlines, create invoices, and what the hell a 1099 form is, not to mention how to do our taxes.
Balancing our desire to build our business, to have a family, while learning to regroup after unexpected life events has of course been a challenge.
Over the years we learned a lot about time management and in 2016 we realized we needed to stop taking commissions so we could focus solely on developing our tile line, which we are launching his fall. I would say we are on track with becoming the people we wanted to be when we graduated college. But we definitely have a stronger appreciation for how much hard work, continuous learning, and adaptability is really needed to get to the place we want to be.
What is your typical day like?
Neal and I each have very different roles within the business. Neal is our engineer and craftsman, and I’m the chemist and project manager. And as I’m sure is true for most artists, our studio and home lives unavoidably collide. Our poor daughter is so used to not having a dining room table because it is constantly covered in test tiles and concept boards or mounds of notes. When we first started, Neal and I would both be in the studio at the same time working. Now that we live across the city versus in the apartment above our studio we tend to be there at different times. We bring things back and forth so we can review results together and come up with our next game plan. We have always been dreamers—if we are in the same room we are in a constant state of designing and brainstorming.
A typical day in the studio for me actually begins while we’re getting our daughter ready for school. I download enough podcasts to work through a six-hour stretch in the studio. I listen to them while I’m mixing glaze tests, glazing tile, and loading kilns. My favorite podcasts are How I Built This with Guy Roz, which offers a little entrepreneurial inspiration, and Hidden Brain with Shankar Vedantam, because I love listening to stories about how we make unconscious decisions. Really I like listening to Hidden Brain so I can recant the entire podcast to Neal while he cooks dinner.
A typical day in the studio for Neal starts on the opposite end of the day—he heads to the studio in the evening, opens the large steel framed factory windows, and cranks rare recordings of Jimi Hendrix. We keep production on a tight schedule and he spends the evenings making wet work or glazing. Mondays through Thursdays are very focused on production while the weekends are reserved for exploring new processes and coming up with new ideas. Whether he is making dinnerware or tile he loves watching the shelves and rolling carts fill up with work.
It’s important for us that we come together for design but it’s equally important that we are able to work in separate stretches because otherwise we’d be a lot less productive.
Do you think “hustle,” or salesmanship, is important to your business? How do you do that?
We were raised in school on one model for how people were succeeding in the handmade tile business—and after we graduated we took the opportunity to take tours of these businesses and meet the amazing people behind the craft. But the reality of the economic shift that happened soon after is that the tile industry changed—and a lot of those smaller, couple-run businesses ended up being folded into larger companies.
We focused in those years on creating connections, figuring out what we wanted our business model to be, and designing our line. We’re excited to see the upswing in people looking for heirloom quality handmade items—there are great small businesses selling curated runs of ceramics online, making things directly with the customers rather than relying fully on physical showrooms. We’re planning to tap into this burgeoning market of the independent online shop and into social media as a platform for promoting and selling art. Look for our lines coming soon!
I would add that following through and having strong communication with customers is so important. When we were selling our first run of accent tables online through Etsy, our customers were located all over the country. We didn’t have the option of making a face-to-face connection with our customers and, at the price point we were selling our furniture, it was understandable why people wanted to know as much as possible prior to placing an order. We would offer to send color samples and take any additional pictures to make them feel confident about their purchase. This also gave us more opportunities to interact and build rapport. We are really proud to say that we sold every table from that first edition, the majority of them through our online shop.
How much attention do you give the business end of things?
In the end, paperwork and accounting (which is a part of the hustle!) is not always the most fun part of the job, though I really do love using a calculator. It’s important to take a little time at least once a week to review everything, it makes the task less daunting.
Any hard-won advice to share for those who want to run their own creative business?
Our main advice would be to fully embrace failure, because [stuff] will happen. Most of the time something completely new and unexpected comes from it. Second, collaborate as much and as often as possible with friends, other artists, and customers. Sharing ideas and getting feedback propels ideas forward much faster and kills the concepts that aren’t strong enough before wasting too much time. Be an active part of the community, not just someone who takes from it. Be patient! Your dream likely won’t happen overnight, but if you continue to work passionately towards your goals things will fit into place.
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