San Francisco pottery artist Mary Mar Keenan began working with clay back in 1996 while earning her BFA from Roanoke College in Virginia. She went on to further her educational career at Studio Art Center International in Italy, Anderson Ranch Art Center in Colorado and Fenland School of Crafts in North Carolina.
Keenan makes all of her pieces by hand, turning out stunning, truly one of a kind pieces. Her tableware can be found in nearby San Francisco hotspots including The Progress, Goose and Gander, Bird Dog and (opening this spring) Bellota, Wildhawk, and Night Bird. Keenan has also produced custom designs for numerous homes in the bay area as well as exhibited her work at numerous galleries and stores throughout the country. The production of her beautiful pottery combines creativity, patience, and endurance. She creates all of her pieces in her own studio in Hayes Valley, San Francisco.
What inspired you to start your biz and how did it take shape?
I moved to San Francisco from the east coast in 1996. Clay and I were just beginning to become acquainted so I found a place to make pots and work on my skills so that I could eventually make it my sole profession. Over the years, my career as an artist has taken on many different shapes and gone down several different paths. I've owned and operated a ceramic studio and gallery, taught an after school clay class for kids, set up at craft fairs and consigned work in galleries and even started a separate on-line business making customized baby bowls. To supplement my income I worked part time as a server in several restaurants in the city. So, when my ceramics career became focused around making a full line of wares for a popular SF restaurant my paths seemed to converge.
About 2 years ago I was approached by my chef friend Stuart Brioza about designing a line of work specifically for his new restaurant, The Progress. Having worked in restaurants for so long, I felt I had an insight into what was needed. I know how busy restaurants work and the way the kitchen staff, servers and the food interact with the plates. This project forced me to look at all of these variables and as a result change almost everything about the way that I work. My clay body, glazes, firing temperature and aesthetic were adjusted to take on this project. Rather than just making pretty pots, I was now thinking more about how each piece would hold up in a busy restaurant and how it would look when food was introduced to it. My work became a collaboration between the maker, the server, the chef and finally the customer. Now it is that collaboration that pushes me as a ceramic artist.
Tell us about your studio/workspace.
My studio is in Hayes Valley in the bottom floor of a beautiful San Francisco office building situated behind the Blue Bottle Coffee kiosk. I have to walk through the coffee shop everyday to get to my workspace and am flooded by delicious aromas of some of the best coffee in the bay area. My studio is about 500 square feet and since re-designing my business a few years ago, it has become a fantastic collection of shelves which house glaze materials, molds, work in progress and finished pieces. I have a potter's wheel, a slab roller, a glaze kitchen, a gas kiln and an electric kiln. I share the space with the owner of the building, a successful designer and architectural developer who uses the space part time to create work for his wife's restaurant. Currently we are pushing an enormous amount of pottery out of that small space.
What kind of creative patterns or routines do you have?
I wish that I could say that I woke up and sketched every morning while drinking my coffee, but that time has been replaced by making lunches and getting my two small children ready for their day and out of the door. Working as a full time studio potter and having 2 kids is no small task. The time that I used to spend on creative routines is now spent with them, which I absolutely love. Luckily my son (7) loves to draw so we find time to sit down and sketch out fantasies and ideas together. I am inspired by children and their freedom of expression. They have no boundaries or expectations of their own art work. For them it's more about the process and the story. It can take my son 5 minutes to sit down and draw a man standing on an elephant shooting a bow and arrow at an apple tree that is situated on top of an erupting volcano. And then he is done and on to the next one. This to me is a valuable exercise for the imagination and one that I value as an artist. We can learn so much from kids if we pay attention.
I find exercise to be of vital importance to my career as it really sets my head straight and I spend that time (typically at 6am) really focusing on my day and what it is I need to make and how I need to go about doing it. Staying physically fit is incredibly important as my job is quite physical.
Finally, I find it imperative to visualize success. I believe in the power of positive thinking and visualization. Vision boards help me sort out what I want to achieve throughout the year. (Plus, they are a fun and crafty exercise.)
How long does the creative process take from start to finish?
It's difficult to say how long the creative process takes for me. Making pottery requires the ability to work on multiple pieces at once so that the kiln can be completely filled before firing. The point at which the clay is transformed into an object on my wheel can take a few minutes, but it then must be slightly dried out, trimmed, altered, possibly have a handle added, dried completely, wiped down, bisque fired, washed, waxed, glazed, re-fired and then sanded. It is amazing to me how many times each piece is carefully handled and worked on before it is finally ready for its intended use. What helps me is to make a list at the beginning of the week of what needs to get made. Completing that list every week is one aspect of my craft that continues to challenge me.
How has your business grown since you first started it?
My career as an artist has changed in many ways. Always knowing that I want to make art has been the main driving force for me. Finding ways to do that and still being able to support myself has probably influenced its many turns. Making functional pottery has been something that I have been doing for almost 20 years but creating a business to support that has been quite an experience. Being approached to make the tableware for The Progress has changed my business dramatically. The restaurant itself has acted as a living gallery for me where not only are my pots being used daily, they are complimented with gorgeous food and presented to the customers within an artful space. Being in a restaurant that is well within the public eye has grown my sales tremendously. I am extremely grateful to Stuart for the opportunity to be a part of such a collaboration and I am now being approached by several other chefs. It has certainly changed the direction of my business and it excites me.
How has your practice changed over time?
My practice has become busier. I now run a full design/production studio and because of the amount of work that is demanded of me, I have had to hire people to help. This has been a welcomed change. Being a studio potter is not quite as easy as it seems. The amount of work that needs to be done aside from making the pieces themselves is grand. Relying on the help of my studio manager, part time assistants and interns has really allowed me to focus on the part of the process that I really love.
Do you have any advice for aspiring creative entrepreneurs?
Find what makes you happy and figure out a way to make a living doing it. That was advice my dad gave me many years ago that I have never let go of. It certainly has not been an easy road, but through a lot of hard work, sacrifice and some creative thinking and severe dedication it seems to be working out. In my studio I keep a quotation by Nelson Mandela written on my blackboard. It has become my mantra.
"There is no passion in playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."