Becoming a Potter at 61: Kristine’s Story
Making small clay creations embellished with her mother’s Norwegian sayings was an outlet for Kristine’s grief after her mom’s passing. Little did she know her porcelain art would become a business, Beanpole Pottery, with orders from as far as Australia.
Tell us a little about your background…
My family moved to Oregon from Southern California when I was thirteen. It was an excruciating move. I was 6 ft. tall, weighed 92 lbs. with all of my clothes on, and wanted more than anything to disappear, blend in, go unnoticed. But being the new girl in a small rural town—instantly nicknamed “beanpole”—didn’t leave much room for invisibility.
Today, I live in Portland, Oregon with David, my darlin’ husband of 35 years. In all of those years, there have been more than a few occasions when I wished I had followed through with my original idea of being an eclectic, if not deliberately crazy, artist; I’d be living in a flat in Paris…alone. But I must admit, as the hairs on our heads get whiter and whiter, I can’t imagine a day without him.
We have two daughters; both have traveled the world and now are settled back in the Pacific Northwest. We are thrilled. With one daughter, Kate, come monkeys—their care, research, and protection. With the other daughter, Sarah, come two grand-girls, Eloise and Sylvie. Am I devoted? Oh, that’s putting it mildly. These two little girls have captured my heart like I hadn’t really anticipated. We live just a mile from them, so regular sleep-overs and tea parties keep my calendar rather full.
In 1997, my best friend, Molly Davis, and I co-authored Letters to Our Daughters: Mothers’ Words of Love, a book filled with letters from women around the country and around the world. Each one speaks to a different issue that mothers and daughters navigate regardless of culture, age, education, or income. Our book was featured on the Oprah Show. We were hoarse for a week following.
The book led to a public speaking career (my worst nightmare) that had us traveling around the country speaking to remarkable groups of people about the matters that matter most. The name of our business just had to become, Matters That Matter.
When did you start to think about making a change?
This past June, my mother passed away. It was an honor and a privilege to share her last six-day journey. During that time, it was clear that her lovely days were numbered. It seemed to be so very important to her to look into the eyes of each loved one or visitor (including doctors and nurses) and tell them how much she loved them or what was so special about them, and what she would miss most. This love and affirmation encouraged others to express similar sentiments to her and often to each other. I started writing down words and phrases that I knew I would want to remember.
After she passed away, I wanted to capture her words in a meaningful way…one that I could share with family and friends.
I have always made art. So therefore I have managed to have a place to make it for as long as I can remember. In the past, that has been the kitchen counter, dining room table, living room floor or driveway.
I had taken a pottery class in college…mostly because there was this boy!!! He had a ponytail, wore flannel and made art. Sitting side by side on our kick wheels was a little bit of heaven. Most of the work I did that semester turned into ashtrays…not unlike those treasures our second graders build, paint, and offer up to us with the greatest sense of satisfaction.
After my mother died, I took a beginning ceramics class at the Community Class. I needed a diversion for my grief. I always picked the most undesirable table so that I was alone at the back of the room. The first couple of classes I attended, while everyone else hopped right onto a potter’s wheel, I rolled out balls of clay with a rolling pin and using rubber stamps, stamped my mom’s name, birth date, her famous Norwegian expressions into the clay. I smashed the balls, rolled them out again and stamped and cried.
My oldest daughter, Sarah, had been making ceramic pieces for nearly a year. She had decided to buy a wheel for herself. She shopped on Craigslist for a couple months and found a sweet deal that included a wheel and two kilns. She didn’t really have a place to house all of that equipment so we offered up our garage. That potter’s wheel in the garage turned out to be my sanctuary. Yes I am wedged between my husband’s tools and his ginormous table saw, but I’m ok with that. Sawdust and clay however are terribly incompatible. So we’re both careful with our messes.
In this makeshift home studio, I started making pottery and embellishing it with my mother’s words and phrases. My family loved the pieces, friends were interested in ordering for themselves…the rest is history.
What is your next act?
I am a pottery artist with my own business, Beanpole Pottery, which I launched earlier this year at the age of 61. My line of pottery was designed to be more than just another dirty dish, thing to dust, or receptacle for spare change. While I loved the idea of making practical ware, I wanted each piece to be a “bright spot” in someone’s day. I have tiny vases, only 2 to 3 inches tall. Perfect for those imperfect bouquets from our tiniest admirers. There are cups/mugs; small, medium and large Affirmation Bowls, Pour Your Love On Me pitchers and Bird On A Wire bowls. I have come up with a list of words and phrases that seem to be common threads we all can relate to.
I have been so touched and honored to receive requests to make pieces with very personal words or phrases. One woman contacted me, telling me that her mother, Grace, had recently passed away. She ordered cups with the word GRACE as Christmas gifts for all of her children and grandchildren. Another woman sent me a treasured quote that her daughter used to say all the time. Her daughter was killed several years ago and that quote has become this mother’s daily mantra. Creating such pieces has been an honor and a privilege.
I am in love with this new “calling.” While I still travel and speak about Matters That Matter, I also get to wake up most mornings, go out to my home studio with a good cup of coffee, and create pieces for people that, miraculously, seem to matter as well.
I love that pleasing myself, not worrying too much about what others might think, or that I am far from achieving perfection has actually had me laughing out loud. I love that at this age I care more about learning then about an absolute end result. I won’t compete with anyone. I won’t say I’m sorry for the imperfections. I create what I want, when I want it…and if someone else finds pleasure in it or it makes them happy, I am thrilled.
I recently sent an order of 50 custom porcelain cups to the nonprofit, Depressed Cake Shop in L.A. All of the funds they raise go to help the mentally ill. Working on these cups was an incredible experience. I worked hard putting—I know this sounds weird—extra love into each piece. I wanted the recipient to sip from their cup and somehow feel affirmed. So the cups carry words like Courage Dear Heart, Loved, Cup of Grace, Cup of Hope, You Matter, You Are Brave.
Why did you choose this next act?
I have needed to make art all of my life. I’ve tried children’s clothing designing, wood carving, stone carving, painting. But each past endeavor became a HAD TO, not a WANT TO. It was the passing away of my dear mom that opened the door to Beanpole Pottery. I did it as a way of grieving the loss of her. Taking her words and working them into clay like sacred sediment, was like touching her, touching her words, responding to what mattered most to her.
Not unlike most women, caretaking has been at the top of my list. Caretaking loved ones can be rewarding and at times depleting, not leaving much room for self-care. That lack of self-care quickly becomes a lifestyle and a woman becomes part of a system, often loosing herself, her dreams and desires. I wouldn’t change a thing from what lies behind, but when looking ahead, I am determined to make time for me…for what is just about me being fulfilled as a human being.
The expression, “work at what you love, and love your work” has been my motto. Our book, Letters to Our Daughters: Mothers’ Words of Love, was an act of love. It came from a place of what I loved most, found that I thought of and fought for, most. Beanpole Pottery came from a place of deep, deep love.
How did you end up selling your pottery?
I took one step…then I took another. I considered what I was doing and why. I followed the desires of my heart to extend goodness into the lives of those I cared about. I kept it simple and refused to get overwhelmed. I refused to get overwhelmed.
I am a novice, but with passion. It’s been seven months since I threw my first piece. I think the reason this has been as successful as it has, is that I didn’t do this to please anyone. I found something I loved, I practiced like crazy, and loved every minute of it. I wasn’t afraid of failure, because success wasn’t really my destination. Therefore I was free to learn, discover, make dreadful mistakes and not be deterred.
I started right off throwing porcelain. This is probably the most difficult of clay bodies to work with. Being a novice, I didn’t know better. I loved the white clay, wet and fired. It was silky as opposed to sandy. It had a sensual quality, like touching soft skin. Like I said, pot after pot that failed, I just thought it was me and my lack of experience. I have come to understand that porcelain is not a clay for beginners. Oh well!
I made tiny porcelain vases (3” tall) each one stamped with one word…Loved, Forever, Sacred, Pure…These were what I could do with the time, energy, sadness that I had after my mom’s passing. After the tiny vases, I started making Affirmation Bowls. These were small, often wobbly pieces that were perfect to stamp sacred words and phrases on. My intention for the bowls was that the user would wake up every morning, fill the bowl with their favorite cereal and sit down with “You are the stuff of stars, twinkle twinkle.” Everything after that became about affirmations. Anyone’s day is just a little bit better if somehow, somewhere, they feel affirmed.
At first I gave my pottery pieces away. I actually love that. No strings attached, no expectations.
I posted my first pieces on Facebook as a means of sharing what I was doing with my grief. Lovely human beings there encouraged and supported me. There were people who offered up their own significant words or phrases connected to their personal challenges or losses. Someone asked me if I would consider making a piece for them with the word GRACE. Grace was the name of their own dear mother who had passed and was now their personal motto. I was honored to make it and send it. I didn’t ask for compensation, but a check arrived a week later. More requests came. I loved thinking that something I could do would offer comfort to another person. More checks showed up in the mail. Soon, requests were hard to keep up with and still stay true to my commitment of not getting overwhelmed.
I came up with a few standards—words or phrases that I thought might appeal to and comfort any number of folks. I started doing some research on pricing. I scanned my favorite stores and understood what handmade pottery sold for. Initially my pieces were less than half of that amount. As my work improved, my prices went up to cover my costs and a latte. Now I feel like my prices reflect my ability, my commitment, and my product.
When I thought about a name for my business, I wanted something that represented me…where I’ve been and where I’ve ended up. My childhood nickname, Beanpole, was the first name that came to mind. It cracked me up, because now it felt like a metal of honor…something I’d survived, grown into and actually loved.
As orders kept coming in, my family continued to offer suggestions and help with social media. My daughter made a website for me…simple and elegant. Before long, I was learning the magic of Instagram. I kept making and kept improving.
Orders keep coming in; my business is growing.
Did you have any mentors or guidance along the way? How supportive were your friends?
My younger brother, Jeff Patterson, a renowned ceramics artist, has been my touchstone. He is a true Renaissance man. He can tear an old Volvo apart and put it back together and it actually runs. He is a woodworker, metal smith, homebuilder, and the most incredible clay artist I’ve ever seen. He started making and selling pottery when he was 12. While he was always an inspiration, his genius intimidated the hell out of me.
When I started messing about with pottery, my intention was that no one would ever know…it was just for me. When my brother noticed the tell tale signs of clay in my life (white door knobs, stiff and dusty clothing, grinding like sand in my teeth) he asked to take a peak. I looked for, but never saw, criticism or judgment on his face. Instead he called my work “sacred” and beautiful. He offered guarded suggestions and direction, all the while commending me on my authentic and natural approach. I knew he was recalling the ashtrays from my college days, but his love and affection moved me forward. Under his wing, my work improved as did my confidence.
For the past several years, Jeff has been designing and building a replica of an antique English Pond Yacht (Constellation Pond Yachts) and selling them all over the world. Clay hasn’t held the same place for him as it once had.
My glorious daughters are the voices of continual praise and support… My daughter, Sarah, creates an incredible line of pottery (Notary Ceramics). We support and teach each other. When she has been in a pinch, I have helped her, and vice versa.
And my husband David is my rock. Because of my fear of firing a kiln that is destined to reach 2250 degrees, he agreed to become my kiln partner and spent an entire day at kiln school with me. I am one lucky gal.
I have also had unbelievable support and offers to help from many. I wouldn’t be here today without the encouragement of family, friends, and even strangers.
What challenges have you encountered?
Because this began as a way of honoring my mom during an intense grieving period, my emotions got the best of me sometimes. I spent hours, with tiny alphabet stamps, creating entire conversations we’d had and putting it into clay. Because I was new to pottery, these pieces often cracked in the drying process. My tender heart broke with each cracking pot.
There seemed no end to the learning curve. At this point I am certain that is right…there is no end. Clay pieces exploded; glazes ran and bubbled, there were cracks of every shape and size, handles fell off and somewhere along the way the wheel started to emanate a deafening squeal. With each challenge came abundant learning.
At this point, my work is simple and manageable. I would almost say, I am fairly certain of what I am doing. I am content with that.
Were there times when you thought about giving up? What/who kept you going?
Giving Up? Funny you should ask that question. I hosted my first show and sale in November, 2015. There was an amazing turnout, lots of accolades, even monetary success. When I closed the door on the weekend sale, I felt BLUE, oh so blue. I didn’t really understand why. Instead of doing the happy dance, I felt sad.
This work began as an extension of my relationship with my mother. I knew what we had when she was alive. Discovering what we had after she passed away involved time, intimacy, her words and clay. As this becomes more successful, it takes me away from my initial investment. Naturally, people have opinions. There are requests made and suggestions offered and criticism meant to be constructive. It took me a couple of days to realize that once again, I needed to re-evaluate and decide where I wanted this to go and what I wanted it to become. I get to decide the direction and outcome. Again, I get to breathe and slow down and refuse to get overwhelmed.
I’m the one who kept me going. From the first inkling that a business might be surging, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t do this the way I have done most things in my life. I have become exhausted trying to please everyone. I have lost my direction under the pressure from others. I have spent many sleepless nights being afraid with feelings of inadequacy and self doubt.
I would rather pull the plug and disappoint people than fall into a familiar pattern that never ended with me feeling energized or fulfilled.
What have you learned about yourself through this process?
I have grown up. My mom said to me a thousand times, if she said it once… “Honey, you just have to love yourself if even just a fraction of how you love others.” I used to scoff at her, thinking she just could not understand how busy I was and how I absolutely didn’t have an extra ounce of energy to slather on myself. I was just too busy being important and sacrificing for those I loved.
I am ready to try loving myself. I am ready to preserve space, time, energy, resources so that I may find fulfillment and pleasure. What a concept.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Each of us deserves a life that is rewarding. Part of why we find ourselves exhausted and depleted in midlife is because we have given everything we had to insure those we cared about would be set up to achieve that rewarding life.
A really smart person observed me several years ago, and commented that my “roof had caved in.” When I asked what they meant, they said, “You know when it snows? Those light, fluffy and beautiful snow flakes falling one at a time, no two the same? Well, one at a time, they are nothing but lovely. But day, after day, after day, of those precious snow flakes and BAM, the roof falls in. Once the roof falls in, the roof has fallen in and there is no undoing that.”
I think so many of us find a change inevitable after our roofs cave in. But the trick then is where do you get the skills to rebuild, let alone rebuild something new? My advice is be patient. Gather strength and take one step at a time. Trying to step in the direction of loving yourself and pursuing a rewarding life for yourself.
What advice do you have for those interested in becoming artists, maybe even potters?
If you are a creative person, driven to create in order to be fulfilled, return to your creative roots. If your creative roots don’t interest you, consider what you haven’t tried yet that may be interesting…not profitable, not earth shattering, but interesting.
Take a class at a community college. Find artists in your area who might teach workshops. Find artists’ associations in your local area. Go to galleries and see what pleases you…what inspires you. Start a Pinterest page and collect images that make your heart flutter. One step at a time.
As far as working with clay, try different things. Hand building is a less “big tool” specific approach, one you can do at your kitchen table. If you have something that you are so proud of and want to get it fired, Google clay supplies in your area. Those places often have a community kiln and will charge you a small amount to fire your piece or pieces. Georgie’s is the clay supply store I use in Portland. Very knowledgeable people always willing to listen, offer some suggestions, or hand you a Kleenex when your glaze load bubbled and cracked.
Start with a user-friendly clay, a medium grade sandstone for example. But if you are buying clay from a pottery supply place, ask them. Level with them that you are a beginner and want clay that you can be successful using. As you get the basics, you will and should try different clay bodies.
Glazes are tricky. Again, ask the professionals. Be sure your clay and glaze are compatible. Ask lots of questions. Don’t assume that someone is going to tell you. Take notes. Take classes anywhere you can. Do not be intimidated. Clay is an amazing way to learn what you can control and what you cannot…no matter how much you swear.
Be willing to make mistakes and learn. My darlin’ dad once said to me, “You know what I like about you? You’re not afraid to break a few eggs.” I cherish that compliment. He gave them out very rarely and I knew that those words were not only praise, but respect for my willingness to learn.
What resources do you recommend?
I found a book called Potter’s Bible: An Essential Illustrated Reference for both Beginner and Advanced Potters by Marylin Scott…oh my gosh, it’s better than chocolate. I digest every word and can’t wait to try what I have read about.
I took a Beginning Pottery Class at Portland Community College. While my fellow students were hell bent on making pottery, I was more interested in our instructor’s lessons. Every week she imparted a new skill or technique. I learned to make slab roll pots, hand build with colored clay, use a spray booth to apply glazes, transfer images onto clay. I didn’t have too many ashtrays to show for my semester at the community college, but I did further my education in clay.
In Portland, there is an organization called Oregon Potters Association. As of yet I haven’t joined, but I have friends who are members. They organize community shows where members can sell their work. One of the biggest challenges a potter can face is selling your work. Artists have a tendency to be a tad eccentric if not also introverted. So presenting your most cherished work requires skills that you must develop. I was told, and believe, that stores are always looking for new fresh work. They need you as much as you need them. If they say no, go next door.
Instagram is pretty amazing; I have received orders through Instagram from France, Switzerland, Australia…even Oklahoma (smile on face). My local bank was instrumental in setting up a business account and helping me connect to my website.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
When I co-authored my book, Letters to Our Daughters: Mothers’ Words of Love, I was amazed at how many times I was asked the question, “What’s your next book?” I thought about a new mom, often nursing, not sleeping, getting used to a tiny demanding creature. I thought about how many times they are asked, “Are you going to have another baby? When?”
I know from my own experience that such inquisition made my current project feel inadequate and already passé. While I was just getting used to baby barf on all my clothes, or the feeling of facing an audience and not dying on the spot, I had to think about how I could improve, do better, give more.
I have made the mistake before of turning something I loved into something that had to become profitable or my feelings of failure consumed me. Beanpole Pottery will never become that. I am open to what is to come, but not at the expense of being completely present with what is…right now; the clay covering all of my door knobs, the sandy dust that lays on the top of my morning coffee or the warmth of the kiln making me feel like it will soon be Christmas morning.
I think I will always throw my own work. Yes, there have been those words of encouragement to “go have it made in China.” I nod my head in gratitude, then laugh as I put my clay covered slippers on and head to my studio, 15 feet from my kitchen door. I think if I keep loving what I do, being open to what comes, my business will grow as it is destined to grow.
Contact Kristine Van Raden at firstname.lastname@example.org