Walking up to the warehouse, I’m greeted by an inquisitive black dog called Phobe, who is followed by Jen Lanz of Good Grief Ceramics. Jen is dressed in her usual work attire—a set of blue overalls and boots. Jen, American-born, greets me, with the local slang noticeably mixed with the lingering sound of an American. There’s a beautiful southerly, gently blowing as we enter the warehouse. I can’t help think what a wonderful place to sit and create all day with Jen’s list of tracks playing in the background.
Jen immediately makes you feel welcome and is busting at the seams to share her passion for her love of clay; she comments that it’s nice to have someone new to share her enthusiasm with instead of her family, which—she is certain— are sick of hearing about ceramics! I can see now why her workshops are so popular; she is so easy to talk to and has a knack for explaining the technical aspects, plus this workshop has a simplistic creative feel about it.
Ceramics line the walls either waiting to be fired or basking in their beautiful finishes, while three pottery wheels sit on the opposite side of the workshop, Phobe the black dog makes herself comfortable on a cane chair as I settle in to listen to Jen talk candidly about how she ended up taking the leap into ceramics full time.
K: I love that your designs and finishes are so unique that you can pick your work when you enter a shop. I was only recently over at High Swan Dive, one of your stockists, and I noticed a pot and knew it had to be yours. Do you approach stockists or do they source out your work?
J: Most of the time they approach me. I have been really lucky to have the support of Soph and Jessie at High Swan Dive. Lots of people have seen my work there and then reached out to enquire about taking on my work. It was really their initial support of my work and championed it in the beginning. It’s been solid partnership over a really long time, which is quite important. Having those relationships is really important when you’re starting out and they are accepting when you go into different avenues, like I’m starting to do a few more house wares instead of just planters and they just know their clientele so well they can give you an idea of what will work and what wont.
K: Do you think design conveys a message? What message are you trying to achieve in your designs?
J: Design does convey a message, just like paintings. I like to have designs that people want to use around them everyday. That’s the key for commercial success, you need to know what people like to use and have around them and in their home. My design message is the juxtaposition of a well-made object alongside the idea of the wild surface — the two elements are quite opposed, but I like to bring them together in one. It’s asking a lot of the object to have these ideas; one structured and one quite unstructured, but it works successfully. Some of my pieces are very intimate objects, that you hold or put to your mouth, and I want them to have that personal feel to them instead of having a clinical purpose.
I make sure my designs are ethical too, my keep cup lids are sourced in Australia and made from recycled material. I know where they come from and even if it doesn’t save my consumer and myself money, I’m happier knowing that the people who make them are paid fair and I’m not contributing to more landfill. That’s really important to me.
All of Jen’s pots have an extra element with little secret faces in the bottom of them, which is just a wonderful reflection of Jen herself and how she doesn’t take life too seriously. She adds ‘There is too much serious stuff in the world already.”
K: Do you release range by range and change it up?
J: My first range was just the planter pots, and they went so well that I had a few releases of them. Then I noticed that there was an overlap of stores that had more than just the planters, because they are their own little sphere of retail, so I decided to try some different things like the keep cups. I make them until I’m comfortable with how they look and then send them out to wholesale. Then I’ve just added plates, bowls, teapots and citrus juicers.
K: What makes you start a new range?
J: Its kind of just a natural progression. The new ideas and design development only really happen in the quite parts of the year, this allows me to really get the design polished and where I want it to be and then I can put it out to my current stockists to see if its something they want to take on. I hopefully will have the new range out to some stockists for Christmas.
K: Do you focus on a particular colour?
J: I’ve gone into the cooler tones and sometimes it’s just about what works well with the glaze. I have to formulate as I go, because sometimes what you want doesn’t work out. It’s a bit of jugging, which is nice because it makes my job easier when deciding colours; it narrows down my selection and what I can achieve, instead of having to choose from this whole rainbow. Then I just work out what I can do to make it interesting and unique.
K: Is it a long process from the start to finish of making an object for wholesale and trying to keep them all looking the same but still having that unique handmade feel?
J: From the outside it looks hard, but to me it’s a process I really enjoy. Anyone who creates handmade objects usually wants it to look manufactured and all be the same size, even if the surface decoration is varied. I enjoy the symmetry and get huge satisfaction when they are all almost perfect, the glazes don’t always work the way you want them to —I’m ok with that, because it stops the process from becoming mundane. You never know what the piece is going to look like when you open then kiln door.
At some point I’ll want to change my designs, and have more simplified glazes and objects, but for now I enjoy the challenge. I could spend the rest of my life just learning more about how to perfect the process and it never stops being interesting. Ceramics is such a fluid art.
K: Ceramics is a very grounded creative art because it’s been around for thousands years and has very deep roots in all of our history. How does that make you feel as an artist?
J: There’s thousands of years of information that have been written down and discovered, and there’s tons of information that hasn’t. With new technologies and different pigments and glazes that you can do, the possibilities are endless in this art. Being in the middle of that is like this huge ocean of inspiration and learning. It can be overwhelming but I find it comforting to know that the journey is never ending. There’s nothing more joyful than that.
With ceramics every single object gets touched hundreds of times by the artist, that’s the beauty of the handmade journey.
K: From a business point of view, how do you ensure you are productive?
J: I’m always looking at ways to make my process more efficient, working in batches with wholesale orders and then at each step making sure that the details are enough, and if the details are worth the time investment. You are constantly checking your process, and trying to figure out how to make it all work while not exhausting yourself, or spending too much time on things that don’t make you money, or aren’t productive to the process. I enjoy trying to achieve efficiency in probably the least efficient art from there is! Always trying to find new ways to do things better. Even on a personal level, preparing clay is really tough physically, so I do that the day before. This way, when I come in the following day I’m not tired, and it’s just about working on the wheel instead.
K: What are the biggest lessons learnt in taking your hobby to a full time business?
J: When you move from working for someone else to working for yourself you have to figure out how you work and what the day looks like for you to get the best out of yourself. There are parts of it that I didn’t anticipate; I don’t get to work in here full time like I thought. Between admin and workshops I might get a few days a week to make and now I think that’s pretty good! I come from a very different background in sociology with lots of database, order and symmetry, but running your own business means you have to be really organized in a whole different way.
K: When was the moment you decided that this was going to go from a hobby to taking the leap in to a small business?
J: It was around Christmas 2014 and my hobby was really at next level hobby because I had purchased the wheel and the kiln and had it in my house. I had a room in my house and I was just making pottery and not having any business experience or knowing what direction I wanted to take. Soph and Jessie of High Swan Dive were my neighbors at the time, and they wanted some pieces made for their shop and I agreed so they gave me some direction about the planters and I just started making them. I respected [High Swan Dive] so much that I was almost intimidated. I guess that’s a big thing when you’re starting out, the self-doubt that you have about what you do. I took it as a challenge at the time to work really hard and try really hard. My work sold really, really well and they just kept wanting more. In the first 6 months I had three more stockists requests.
I was still working part time in a café and I just didn’t have enough hours in the day to do both. I’ve always had a secret dream of making my hobby into more, but I didn’t know how, so I completed the NEIS program.
K: Do you think that the NEIS New Enterprise Incentive Scheme’s small-buisness training program gave you the skills to run a start up business? Would you recommend it to someone who wants to take the next step?
J: Initially I had no idea what any of it meant. I was literally a fish out of water but it just took some time for me to really apply it. I had no idea about taxes and so on, so for all of that it really helped. NEIS was really informative, with lots of resources. And it’s helpful to always have someone to contact if you have any questions. The fundamentals such as business plans do help. I think its good for anyone wanting to cover all their bases. At the time I was a single parent so the program itself helped in supporting me while I got up and going.
K: Is it important to have that support when starting out?
J: Yes. To be accepted into the NEIS program made me feel like someone actually thought this could be a real opportunity with real potential. And having a few outside voices supporting me is what I needed. You are sort of unsure until it’s actually happening. There’s a lot of uncertainty along the way. There were a few things going for me at the time to take the leap. I got support from my stockists, my work was really well received and it just sort of expanded naturally. It was a big decision, my son was little and I was co-parenting with his father, who has always been really supportive.
K: Is there any advice you would give to other creative startups?
J: There’s a real battle when you’re a maker, especially in an artistic avenue. There’s real potential to take your self too seriously and to let your failures get you down. Try to learn something from it, gather yourself up, and work out what you did wrong and how to improve. When you first start out there are going to be a lot of things that you either thought you knew or discover and it’s the ability to not dwell on a failure. To say, ‘Okay, that didn’t work, this is how I’ll do it.’ You may even have to abandon some ideas, and move on, and not take it personally. Be willing to change direction and know that’s normal in business. Always work on your productivity, time really is money when you are a maker. Make lists! I always use lists! And get as much help as you can, learn to ask for help and take it when it’s offered.
K: You have been so successful that you now offer classes. How did these come about and was that part of your business plan?
J: A lot of people wanted to learn and kept asking. I initially put it off because again, that self doubt that I wouldn’t be a good teacher and anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to offer them enough knowledge to teach them something that they were happy with. But now I’m booked out! So I expanded my equipment and I needed to develop more glazes. Looking back it was pretty effortless. As soon as I started doing classes I really enjoyed it, I don’t think of classes as work,
I share my love of ceramics, and share information and tips all day.
K: You have worked with some very respected artists in their own genre. One such show was collaborating with Lucas Grogan, a prominent Newcastle and International artist. You made these stunning vases that he then painted on. Is this something you are looking to continue doing?
J: Yeah, that was amazing, to see them all painted. You work together but then it’s kind of hands off for me and just let someone take what you make and add their own touch to it without any limitations. It’s really great that other artists want ceramics in their shows. I’d really like to do more critical work and sculptural objects for exhibitions. I’d really like to add that to the practice. It’s so much work, and so much focus, but I really enjoy it.
K: What’s next for Good Grief Ceramics?
J: I think about that more along the lines of how can I keep incorporating this art from into my life. Looking five years on, maybe to buy a studio. I’m always trying to look forward and take charge. I’m just lucky to be able to do this and survive.
K: You have been here for 12 years now, what do you love most about Newcastle?
J: I love that I can live so close to my workspace in a city without the hustle and bustle of a big city such as Sydney. You have so many things at your doorstep in Newcastle. Being a creative business in Newcastle has its ups and downs, you have to work really hard to be taken seriously because you’re not afforded the luxuries of big cities with huge amounts of people. The lifestyle here really outweighs the negatives for me.
Jen definitely has the passion required for a successful business, which leads to a quality of life that has allowed her the freedom and flexibility to enjoy her family and have a career. She is quite humble in giving herself credit for the amazing art that she produces and the determination it has taken her to turn a hobby into a successful local business.
I leave thinking that there’s something special about working with clay that lends itself to connecting with humanity and nature, especially in Jens little warehouse. Jen holds clay workshops every month during school terms over a four-week period. With each class holding three students at a time, everyone gets the opportunity for plenty of Jen’s attention, guidance, passion andknowledge.! Her classes sell out fast so jump on her website and check them out. I think I might just do one myself!
If, like me and many others here in Newcastle, you swoon over Jens signature crawling glaze finishes and quirky take on the ordinary, you can grab yourself a piece on her website at: www.studiogoodgrief.com .And make sure to follow her work and her fun personality on Instagram: @goodgriefceramics
Her local Newcastle Stockists include:
High Swan Dive