Conversation 05: Seedling Clayworks
Our new series features refreshing conversations with Tucson’s makers, creatives, and small business owners via long-form interviews. We aim to share their multifaceted stories, processes, and inspirations through the lens of beginnings, risk, and creativity.
Photography by Meredith Amadee
Samirah Steinmeyer / Owner & Maker
Tell us about your path to what you’re doing now; how did you start Seedling Clayworks? What is your background?
My path to pottery-making began simply as a need for an artistic and creative outlet while I took leave from my career as a landscape architect to stay home with my kids. I was drawn to ceramics for several reasons, one of which was the ability to make dishes with my own hands. I specifically wanted to make dishes for my children, adorned with what they loved most: tornadoes, dinosaurs, insects, etc. I quickly realized that I had opened a floodgate of ideas for ceramics projects and that I didn't want to stop making pottery. I decided to sell what I was making while I was developing my skills and all proceeds went right back towards funding my new ceramics addiction, which became Seedling Clayworks.
My academic background is in painting, illustration, and design. I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts and a Masters Degree in Landscape Architecture. I would have loved to return to school for a Master’s Degree in Ceramics, but the cost of going back to school was too steep. Fortunately, my mom has over 40 years of experience making and teaching ceramics and she taught me how to throw. Interestingly, I never had any desire to learn from her before this time, despite having an amazing ceramics teacher at my disposal. Something shifted after having my children.
How has your style developed as you’ve grown?
My style started off experimental, creative, and personal to my own interests and tastes, which was challenging and a lot of fun. Once I began trying to build a pottery-making business, I fell into the mindset of wanting to produce what I assumed would sell, based on what seemed popular at the time: simple, minimalist pottery and personalized items. They did sell, but I have to admit that I became bored. I began re-introducing my previous experimental ideas into what I was making and found that this also sold, albeit to a different clientele.
I'm now finding a good balance between expressing my artistic ideas and responding as a businesswoman to feedback from the market. I have developed a range of designs that are evolving and that appeal to a wide range of customers. I've been very conscious about trying not to pigeonhole myself artistically. I leave room to follow whatever new ideas may arise, without my customers feeling like my style has shifted dramatically. If I want to make a painterly tree cup one day and a gilded, polka-dotted cockroach cup the next day, I want those who support my work to think nothing unusual of it. I love the freedom and flexibility that comes from this approach.
“I quickly realized that I had opened a floodgate of ideas for ceramics projects and that I didn't want to stop making pottery.”
“I leave room to follow whatever new ideas may arise, without my customers feeling like my style has shifted dramatically.”
When did the idea of starting your business feel like something you could achieve? Was there an “aha!” moment?
The instructor for my first ceramics class was selling her work on Etsy. I realized that there was a demand for pottery online and figured that I had a shot at a successful business in making ceramics. I have always felt confident in my artistic abilities. It seemed to me that if I committed to making distinct, high quality work, my customers would eventually find me. I had no experience in the business and marketing aspects of selling online but I jumped right in anyway and learned along the way.
If you weren’t running Seedling Clayworks, what would you be doing?
If I weren't making pottery, I would probably be back in the landscape architecture field or maybe back in college working on another degree. I looked into studying microbiology or ceramics at the University of Arizona a few years ago but returning to college doesn’t seem like a great investment right now, especially after finally paying off my student loans!
I can’t say that I miss working in landscape architecture. I worked on so many designs that I never got to see constructed, either because they were built years after I moved away from Philadelphia where I was working or because the funding never came through in full. Making pottery is much more satisfying to the part of me that is eager to see my creative ideas in tangible form.
Does your process come pretty naturally or do you find yourself fighting against creative block at times?
I think maybe because I'm not making one of a kind work every day, I don't struggle much with creative block. I have already developed a series of designs and generally work on fulfilling orders for those designs. When a new idea for a design emerges, I try to make room to develop that idea as soon as I can. Lately, I have more ideas for new designs than I have time to develop them.
Have you taken big risks to move forward? Do you see a connection between risk and creativity?
I don’t feel like I’ve taken big risks to move forward. I have moved at a fairly steady and somewhat measured pace, initially borrowing an old potter’s wheel and a small kiln from my mom, and then gradually investing in my own used equipment using the proceeds from pottery sales. My husband was no longer using our guesthouse as his home office, so that became my studio with no additional costs attached.
Without this ability to grow in small increments at a low cost and the safety net of having a partner with a stable job and steady income I think starting this business would have felt more risky, financially.
The most significant risk regarding growth that I’ve had to consider happened last year, when I had the opportunity to make a huge jump into a wholesale order for a major corporation. After much deliberation and cost benefit analyses, I realized I was not ready or willing to set up a factory-style operation. This kind of opportunity is what many makers dream of, but it was totally wrong for me and for the work I want to produce.
Expressing my creativity and putting my work out into the world haven’t felt risky. In college, I was used to public critiques of my artwork or designs and learned not to take it personally. I’m not afraid of people disliking my work or thinking it could be improved. There’s always room for improvement. I also went in knowing that I had a lot to learn about running a business and expected to make some mistakes along the way.
Have you had any memorable collaborations? Why do you think it’s important for creatives and makers to come together and collaborate?
When I started selling pottery, I did so through Etsy and ended up meeting lots of makers selling all kinds of beautiful handmade work. There were teams you could join and with the support of teammates, it was possible to gain more exposure within Etsy, have access to all kinds of useful advice, etc. As Etsy grew, the corporation began to make decisions that worked against a seller’s ability to continue to thrive within the platform and many sellers became frustrated and wanted to find an alternative platform for selling their work.
One group of long time Etsy sellers decided to venture off on their own and create an independent online collaborative shop by the name of Tributary Goods. I joined this group of seriously talented, experienced businesswomen and makers from all over the United States. I learned so much by absorbing and participating in all of the discussions they were initiating. There were discussions about everything from wholesale, SEO, social media marketing, branding, their preferences for shipping software, and all sorts of details that had previously not been so fully on my radar. Those who participated in Tributary Goods each had a role within the collaborative: marketing, contributing to blog posts, web management, etc. It was the first time I saw clearly how to organize an online business in its entirety.
Tributary Goods eventually ended, but a Facebook group was started with many of the same members, continuing these discussions. One important topic that came up often was how to leave the comfort of Etsy and launch our own thriving online shops. I saw how successfully many of my fellow makers had ventured off on their own, so I felt confident in my ability to leave Etsy as well.
I attribute a lot of my growth as a businesswoman to this invaluable collaborative experience with my professional peers. I learned specifics about how to develop an online business from women who were already successfully selling their handmade work, which is something that I don’t think I could have learned so well or so quickly with college courses or a stack of business and marketing books.
To this day, I feel comfortable asking for advice from many of the women I met through Tributary Goods. I follow most of them on Instagram and have enjoyed watching their work and businesses evolve.
“I’m not afraid of people disliking my work or thinking it could be improved. There’s always room for improvement.”
What advice would you give to someone who is starting out?
Start as inexpensively as possible and grow at a rate and direction that makes sense to your particular business and financial situation. Over time you will grow your following and develop a reputation that will result in more sales, more profit and more freedom to make larger investments in your small business.
My very first sales were for pottery I had made while using the ceramics studio at Reid Park, while my mom was teaching me and I was just testing the waters of online sales. Proceeds from those sales went right back into more studio/class time until I realized that I had a legitimate business with customers requesting custom work, which required me to find my own space to work. As mentioned earlier, I was fortunate to be able to expand my business into my home at a very low cost.
Customers who visit my studio are sometimes surprised that it’s just a small guest house in my backyard. My kiln is several decades old. They ask if I have a store they can visit but my business is too small scale for that. I think they expect my business to have more of the appearance of a large scale production studio but that’s not my gig right now. The cost of having a sweet studio downtown or a brick and mortar shop would create more financial risk than I am willing to take at this time--although I certainly daydream about it. This pace of investment and growth has worked perfectly for me thus far and I think it’s important for those just starting out to find their own pace and path.
Outline the 3 greatest attributes you need to be a maker / creative / small business owner:
01. Persistence, 02. hard work, and 03. confidence in your personal vision/intuition/designs. I think these are all related. Creative ideas/plans are fueled by your belief in your ability to execute them, which will at times be tested by your own self-doubt, by others maybe not taking your work/business seriously (at least in the beginning), by the fact that in the early stages you may not see real returns on all of the long hours you are putting into developing your business. You have to keep showing up. You have to commit to the long term development of your products and all aspects of your business (of which there are so many, besides the actual production). You have to consistently make work that you are confident putting your stamp on and placing firmly alongside the work of others in your field. If it’s not quite up to par yet, you keep practicing until it is.
“You have to consistently make work that you are confident putting your stamp on and placing firmly alongside the work of others in your field.”
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger? What type of legacy do you hope to leave?
Lately, I’ve been feeling that it’s our civic duty to contribute to something bigger. If we all selected a cause or two that we feel strongly about and volunteered some of our free time, money, or voices to supporting that cause, we could collectively impact our communities in a significant way.
With regards to pottery, I've begun to share my studio with those in my community who could use some art-making but are not likely to take a ceramics class or workshop, mainly because of the cost. I recently invited a group of local Syrian refugees to my studio for a workshop and was so happy to get to know them and to see them smiling and enjoying themselves. I want to do more of this type of work soon!
What brought you to Tucson? How does living in Tucson influence your craft?
I was born in Tucson and have lived here for most of my life, with the exception of four years in Philadelphia. I’m one of those rare Tucson natives.
Living in Tucson, we are surrounded by gorgeous, diverse landscapes all within an hour or so from the city. From desert to grasslands to mountains, canyons, and forests, there is so much natural beauty to absorb. These landscapes have definitely influenced many of my designs.
This community also feels really cozy and supportive towards artists and those pursuing creative projects, which I appreciate.
“I stay creatively inspired by remaining curious about life and the many things I don't yet know or understand.”
How do you stay creatively inspired?
I love to spend time in nature. I don't have a lot of free time, but I try to get outside as much as possible. We're very fortunate to have so many great options for hiking and camping in our local mountains. I've also been on a few long bike rides on forest service roads and find it inspiring to ride through various biomes, taking in the views and passing by remnants of a ghost town or quaint farms. I like to imagine the layers of history within each landscape.
My husband and I have been taking road trips every summer with our kids visiting National Parks. I'm drawn to the geology and geomorphology of the landscapes I see. I enjoy pondering our position as humans within geologic time. It really puts things into perspective. I'm also interested in soil because it relates to the materials I use to make pottery. There are so many fascinating processes happening beneath our feet. I wish I had a year to just explore that concept alone.
So I guess the short answer is that I stay creatively inspired by remaining curious about life and the many things I don't yet know or understand.
What does a typical day look like for you?
A typical day starts with hitting snooze on the alarm about five times, finally getting out of bed, having a cup of coffee and helping my kids get ready for school, then dropping my daughter off. Then I come home to my studio and plan which items from my order list I will work on, while having another cup of coffee. My work generally consists of tasks such as: throwing pottery; adding handles; decorating, sculpting, and carving; firing; glazing; and sanding. Then there's the tagging, packaging, and shipping. I work until I have to get ready to pick my kids up from school. I try to check emails throughout the day so that I can respond quickly to inquiries. I also make sure to keep up on my Instagram page with a post every few days.
After my kids are asleep I will sometimes work a bit more on computer-related tasks. Some nights I pull a second shift and work late in the studio. During the holidays from about mid-September to Christmas my work days are insane. I will easily work 50-60 hours per week: fortunately, I enjoy what I do!
“I will easily work 50-60 hours per week: fortunately, I enjoy what I do!”
What are you trying to learn right now?
I'm trying to learn how to balance life with running a small business. I am eager to work more, but when I do work more I end up giving less energy to other important aspects of my life such as my family, friends, myself, and my community. I'm trying to find a sweet spot where I can fulfill more of the demand for my pottery without falling behind in the rest of my life.
Seeing where you are now, what are your ambitions for the coming years?
My main ambition for the coming years is to keep making pottery that I enjoy making and to continue selling to enthusiastic customers. I tend not to make plans too far in advance, but rather go with the flow and take opportunities as they arise. At some point I think it would be fun to start a collective studio with a storefront; that sounds pretty awesome to me.