A conversation with Sarah Wolf

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I met with Sarah on a Sunday morning, with sort of a time-space limitation, we had to take our chat to the downstairs coffee shop. There was just so much I wanted to ask and she is such an amazing person to be around, I am happy she didn't mind changing scenery mid-conversation.

An incredibly talented ceramicist, a lover of the mountains, and a fearless entrepreneur. Sarah Wolf is the force behind Wolf Ceramics. She spends her days designing and producing beautiful pieces at her studio, in Northwest Portland.

Sarah's purpose, through Wolf Ceramics, is to create pieces that people will make a part of their lives, pieces that will have a home.

You may see more photos of Sarah and her incredible work here.

+ Where were you born?
Portland, NW Portland, across the street from my studio.

+ Have you left Portland at all, or have you always been here?
I left in 2007 and I was gone for 7 years. I went to college in Eastern Washington, in Walla Walla, and I was in Asia for half a year, in Thailand and Myanmar. From there I moved to the San Juan Islands, where I lived for a year before eventually moving back here, 4 years ago.

+ Wow that sounds adventurous! Would you say this is home?
Yeah, this is definitely home. In general, the PNW is home. I love living in small towns and more rural areas a lot. I may end up near Portland but not in it. My friends and community and my family are all here.

+ What do your parents do?
My mom is a painter, she’s been painting for as long as I can remember. She actually used to be a print maker. She went straight to art school right out of high school and she’s been doing it ever since. When I was growing up, there was actually a huge printing press in the attic, which then became her painting studio.

My dad is a physicist. He’s a consultant, works with fiber-optics and lasers and does various biomedical applications with that. I was in the sciences originally, I studied geochemistry in college and was thinking about going to architecture or engineering but couldn’t stop doing crafts and various hands-on things.

+ Geochemistry, that’s quite the change! Would you mind expanding on how did you go from that to ceramics?
Growing up I always made art. My mom’s studio was in the house so she’d let me draw on the floor and make things in the corner, we always had various craft projects going on. My whole life I’ve been obsessed with hands-on work, like jewelry making, knitting, gardening, farming… I like physical work a lot!

I found ceramics in high school, I did it all through college and I thought about majoring in art but decided I really wanted to do geology and chemistry, so I did geochemistry. That allowed me to continue doing chemistry, and also doing field classes and lots of trips into the mountains. I’m a climber. I got my degree in geochemistry and while I lived in Walla Walla I did work at a lab at Hanford, at the national labs in Washington; although the work was very interesting, I just couldn’t picture myself doing it full time.

I really felt like I needed to go and adventure, so I bought a one-way ticket to Thailand with my friend, after college.  I was also very interested in farming at that point, so while I was abroad I applied to live on this homestead where my friend had lived, on Orcas Island, and I ended up getting accepted. It’s sort of an internship program in homesteading, basically you just go live with people on a piece of land, there’s a couple families that live there permanently and invite guests to come for a year at a time. After traveling, I moved to Orcas Island to farm, grow food, eat food, and preserve food… then I started doing ceramics again while I was there.

There are several potteries on Orcas Island. Towards the end of that first growing season, after living outdoors for 8 months in the woods, on a platform,  I moved to Orcas Island Pottery and I got a job working for another ceramics company, I really liked the work. I lived in an apartment overlooking the ocean at Orcas Island Pottery in exchange for making mugs and planting fruit trees. That was my rent.  At that point, I still thought ‘oh this is fun, but I’m probably going to go to architecture school, because, you know, I need a real job, eventually.’

I moved back to Portland and started working for a design-build company, as a way to get a feel for the architecture industry. I worked on a construction crew for a while, doing home remodels and things like that. I also did a summer architecture program at the U of O and had a sort of building anxiety, a feeling of it not being the right thing.  Being a little bit turned off by the culture and the fact that I would have to be in front of a computer for years and years, I actually hit a pretty low point and then just decided to quit my job and rent a studio space at Radius Studios. Soon after, I applied to OCAC, the Oregon College of Art and Craft, to do a post-bacc in ceramics. That was three years ago, in the winter of 2015. I applied, I got it and I spent a year and a half there, just building my technical skills in ceramics, making and thinking. I started my business while I was at OCAC.

+ So, your business is relatively new! How did you turn your passion for ceramics into an actual business?
You could say it started 2.5 years ago, because that’s when I started my mug club, which is a subscription for a mug every season. That idea came about as a way to pay my tuition, because I didn’t want to take loans. I succeeded I made my final tuition payments with money from the mug club.

I was stressed out about money in school, because I had to pay tuition and I was working on weekends and breaks. So, I decided that I needed to figure out how to make money from ceramics, because I wanted to keep doing it. I started with the Mug Club, and the other parts of the business came gradually. I kept working other jobs, during this transition. For years I worked in outdoor education, leading trips for high schoolers in the mountains.

+ What would you say is the purpose of your business? Why do you do what you do?
Above all, I love making things that I know will be used by other people. When I went back to school I thought maybe I’d get into sculpture, and I liked making sculptural art, but I really gravitate towards things that I know for sure will have a home. I like knowing that someone will drink coffee out of this mug. That feels good.

I also love the production work. I like getting my hands dirty and doing a really physical, hands-on type of work. I love having a tangible product, what I accomplish throughout the day is very concrete, I can see it, I can hold it in my hands.

+ Tell us about an aha moment along your journey:
I may have mentioned this briefly before, but during the first semester of my post-bacc at OCAC, I was stressed about money and I had just found out that potentially half of the outdoor trips I was going to lead that coming summer were going to be canceled. I was so full of anxiety about money that I was suddenly filled with determination to turn ceramics into a business. That was a moment for sure.

I’ve had lots of little moments along the way, getting my studio that I have now was another moment. It really freed me to do a lot more because I had a decent amount of space.

+ Now, you’ve said sometimes you feel like it’d be easier to work for someone and be done, how do you power through those ‘not so sure’ times?
On harder days, when things go wrong, or just at times when I’m struggling to accomplish what I want in the amount of time that I want it, I can feel less confident on whether or not this was a good idea. In the end, overall, I think my attitude is that well, if it doesn’t work out in a financial way, I’m learning a lot from it. I’m learning how to run a business, I’m learning about ceramics, about working with people;  I’m learning how to work with other businesses and put on events, maintain a website… You know, I’m learning so much that it would never be a waste.

That said, things are going well and I’m really excited about a lot of projects that are coming up. The most exciting things are collaborations and working with other businesses, because I’m a people person.

+ What are your best sales channels?
Well… it certainly would be good for me to have better statistics on that! For example, this last year my summer sale and my holiday sale were really big opportunities for me to sell a lot of work. What’s also exciting about those is that I get to meet a lot of people face to face, invite them into my space. I also get to make and sell all kinds of one-offs for it, so I can have fun with the designs. Studio sales give me the opportunity to be more creative.

My website has become more profitable in the last year, too. Instagram has been a great source of sales by leading people to my website.

+ And you manage your own Instagram, right?
Yes, I do everything. I definitely know that there are some parts of my business that I need to delegate, but it’s just hard, because so far I’ve always done everything myself.

+ Speaking of that, how did you know it was time to get help for production and how did you take that step?
It’s a hard transition, for sure. The first time I had help was from my friend Samantha, I knew her in the context of a studio already because we had shared a studio at OCAC and I knew she was a really good potter. She was open to doing a little bit here and there, so I eased into it. It was scary financially, to be spending money on people rather than supplies.

Then, after the holiday season of 2016, I brought on my current studio assistant, Rachel. She uses the space as her own studio and she also helps me.  I was able to go into that next phase having a boost in revenue at the holidays, which made it much more comfortable. The challenge with ceramics, and probably with a lot of businesses like this, is that you make a lot of money around the holidays and not very much at other times, which can be hard. But then at the same time it is kind of like a bonus, you just try and live within your means during the year and then when the holidays come it’s like ‘oh okay, phew!’

+ You’ve mentioned that one of the things you love about your work is being able to collaborate with other businesses, how do you know who to work with?
For the most part, I have made connections with other businesses and other creative people socially and if someone has a good vibe and you like them then it’s like okay, let’s talk about it.

I’ve done various collaborations with one of my best friends who owns a furniture company called Folk, we actually live together. Then just through various social events, I’ve met people involved with restaurants, I’ve met people in other mediums and it’s led to many amazing conversations. At times I’ve felt completely overwhelmed by how many wonderful people there are here who want to collaborate and everyone’s so nice, not competitive, and I want to collaborate with all of them.

Often, people come to me, for example Portland Razor Co. wanted scuttle mugs, they’re like shaving mugs, I did not know what they were before! So, that was a fun project and I hope we continue to work together.

The one other thing with collaborations is that, for the most part, they’re always so beneficial to both businesses like taking this approach of doing what you can to help them get what they need and they’ll do the same for you, and then you get all this cross-exposure that is just good for everyone.

+ Would you mind sharing a little bit about how you got partial funding for your business?
Great question! I, for many years, lived very frugally, partly because I was paying for school.

I did get a grant from Mercy Corp to take steps in getting my business into my own studio. I did their matching grant program, I think it’s called the IDA program, Individual Development Account. The one I did took place over a year during which I saved a set amount of money each month, which added to 2k,  then at the end of that year they matched it with 6k. In order to be eligible to that triple matching grant I had to take a business class from them - which was really great, I loved the class -  and several seminars, a couple of counseling sessions with an accountant and a lawyer, as well as creating a business plan that they approved. Then I had 4 months to spend that money on capital, so I bought my kiln that way. The money has very few requirements attached to it, it has to be spent on equipment, at least 75% of it, once you buy equipment and submit receipts, they don’t hold you to a specific plan, which I think it’s important because it gives you the freedom to really follow your intuition. I found about this from my friend Sandro, who started Pinolo Gelato on Division. Mercy Corp is so amazing, they’re so helpful and I just love the relationships that I’ve made there with people who were also starting a business.

+ What has been the biggest challenge in this journey?
The ongoing challenge that I have is simplification. How to simplify in a way that allows me to streamline my business and to keep all the day to day things going, without feeling overwhelmed. I started this business and I made all kinds of different things, I worked with all kinds of different people, and I still do. But as I grow, and as I produce more work, I recognize that I do need to simplify. I can’t always be taking tiny little custom orders for this and that project, unless I charge a lot, because the time really adds up… I know I need to get better at saying no to projects or custom orders that really don’t fit with where I want the business to go or don’t fit how I should be spending my time.

+ That said, do you think it’s good, for people trying to get their business off the ground, to say yes to every project that comes their way?
At the beginning, yes, it gives you the benefit to try different things and then see what you enjoy the most and it helps get your name out there. As things are going well, there needs to be a balance of recognizing when you should say no. It’s okay to say yes to everything, but just try to be very observant and conscious of how those projects work for you and how you want to change in the future. Do I want to keep saying yes to things like this? Or do I want to be doing more of that? Or is this going to stress me out so much that I’ll burn out?

+ What would you say has been the best resource for you thus far?
I can answer that in different ways. My friend that owns Folk, Richard, is a great resource; we have breakfast together almost everyday and we get to talk about all the little ups and downs, we bounce ideas and advice off of each other. My family has been an incredible resource, the fact that I have family here in Portland with space that I can use is priceless, because space is really expensive here. Then, of course, community; I’ve lived here my whole life, my mother grew up here, her parents lived here too, we have a lot of family friends that are always excited to see people they know trying new things. I’ve really had a supportive community since I started this. People show up.

+ Where do you see Wolf Ceramics in 5 years?
This is a question I think about a lot! And it’s one that have struggled a little bit with, lately. I want to have a really clear vision for it. Some things that are going on right now, that I would love to keep seeing as part of my business in the coming decade, are projects like my dinnerware, where I am designing and creating a line of work and working with a team of people to produce it, where I don’t have to rely completely on my body every day. Instead, I can be working in more of a design capacity. Working in ceramics design still involves lots of making, but it can be really hard on your body to do production for years and years. So, I want to see my business continue to evolve in a way that allows me to keep designing and producing lots to get out there in the world, but not necessarily relying on my two hands to do the production.

I’d like to continue to be based in Portland, but I envision myself having my home outside of the city, not far, closer to the mountains. Maybe my design studio would be out there and then I would have a studio here. I am working hard right now to create a clear vision for where I want this business to grow towards.

+ That sounds so charming, I’m sure you’ll get there! Alright Sarah, this has been an incredible chat and I certainly hope we can do a catch up in a few months! Would you like to share any last piece of advice with fellow entrepreneurs navigating these waters?
I think a lot of people have this idea of what they really want to do, but actually taking the step off the cliff and just doing it, quitting their other job and doing it, is really scary.  I’m not saying that everybody should immediately quit all the other jobs and dive in, but at some point, you really have to put in the time and just move forward with confidence. What’s the worst that could happen? No matter what, you’ll learn something. If the financial side of it doesn’t work out, that is certainly scary, but you can always go get another job later. Of course this is easier when you are young and don’t have a mortgage or people that depend on you financially. The sooner the better.  

Try it out, fail, try it again. Actually, on days when things go really bad, at first, I’m like ‘man this day sucks…’ and then I realize that if I wasn’t failing some days then something would be wrong, so I’m just paying my dues when things go poorly, so I tell myself ‘alright bring it on, it’ll go better next time.’ You know, fail lots and fail fast and you’ll learn so much.

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