Maker Profile: Martina Thornhill - Portland, OR
Hi Martina! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I'm a ceramicist and mom living in Portland, Oregon.
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
My formal education really didn't play much of a role in current creative profession, but I have always been creative and loved learning how to make anything I possibly could on my own. I took sewing lessons as a child and then pattern drafting as an adult. I learned upholstery, natural dying, spinning, knitting, weaving, screen printing, photography. Basically any craft I could get my hands on the supplies for I wanted to learn. I made and sold children's clothes for a few years, then home goods. I worked in a fabric factory printing custom designed fabrics. I always really wanted to be able to work for myself in a creative field, but struggled to find a niche that really worked for me. And I was so hard on myself about my "hobby jumping". I looked at it as an inability to stick to my guns. Like a series of half assed failed attempts to figure out what I was good at, but now I use so many of those skills in running my business and the different processes I went through to learn those skills are useful in unexpected ways. Running all the aspects of your own business is no easy feat and I don't think I could do it successfully without those earlier experiences.
When did you begin working with clay and how did that transition into becoming a regular activity in your life?
I took a couple ceramic classes in high school and through the local community center during college and, although I enjoyed the classes, it never really came naturally for me and I didn't pursue it any further. Then in 2011 my husband and I moved to upstate New York and were living in a tiny town with not a lot going on, but it did have a ceramics studio so I signed back up again and was determined to stick with it this time. 6 months later we moved to North Carolina and I continued classes there. Although I was making progress I was still feeling really frustrated with throwing on the wheel and after some serious pushing from my instructor I started playing with hand building instead and, for the first time, clay and I finally clicked and I was hooked.
How long after you began doing ceramics did you decide to start a business? What steps did you take to build it (buying equipment, deciding on designs...)?
I actually had no intention of trying to make ceramics as anything beyond a hobby, but I had been posting pictures of my pieces on Instagram to share with my friends back home on the west coast maybe a year after moving to North Carolina and I started getting messages from stores asking to purchase pieces. Everything has sort of organically rolled from there. I worked out of the spare bedroom in our house with the bare minimum of hand building tools (rolling pin, canvas, a handful of hand tools) and would fire everything at the community studio. After my first big order I bought a tiny slab roller that I still use today and a few months later I was loaned a little 30 year old kiln from a friend's mom that I set up on our porch for bisque firing. I used all the community studio glazes and did all my glaze firing through them as well, but by the end of our time in North Carolina in 2014 it was getting a little out of hand and I definitely needed room to expand my business. That fall we moved back to Portland, found a barely used kiln on craigslist for a steal, bought a house with a tiny little garage and converted it into my studio and I've been happily building away in there since.
During your creation process, do you go in with a plan or do you let your hands and clay lead your making?
When trying to settle on a new design like to start with holding some basic shape ideas in my head, but I mainly just let the clay lead and see what comes out. Sometimes it's good, quite often it's not, but the beauty of clay is you can always squish it back down and start over.
Do you have a favorite piece to make?
I am constantly playing with new ideas so my favorite piece to make changes by the month. Lately I've been really enjoying coil building large serving bowls, carving funny little grouchy faces into mugs and cups, and hand sculpting my little puffer pipes.
If someone wants to transition to having a home ceramics studio, what should they know/prepare for?
That it doesn't have to be your dream studio right from the beginning. Work with what you've got, invest in the bare minimum and go from there. Also there is so much used equipment out there, and much of it is barely used. My kiln had literally been fired once and I purchased it for half the price of a new one from a funny old man on the coast that had bought every piece of new equipment you could think of to start his own home studio and the never really ended up using it.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
As many places as possible, and as minimally from modern sources as possible. I spend a lot of time researching antique and primitive crafts and going down the rabbit hole of mid century artists and their acquaintances. The Black Mountain College alumni roster is a wealth of inspiration that I've been really feeling the last few years, as well as ancient greek amphora. I also try to really look outside of the ceramic field for inspiration as much as I can. I look at nature for color and texture inspiration and love digging through 70's craft books.
How do you connect with your customers and community?
Working alone and in a home studio can be really isolating, and I kind of suck at standing behind a table and doing the whole market thing, so the Instagram has been a really important tool in allowing me to connect with my customers and community. Honestly, I don't think my business would exist in a viable way without it which makes me feel both a little uncomfortable and incredibly grateful. Every time I sell a piece online I still feel blown away by the fact that it happens and all these pieces are just living out in the world with people who I'll probably never meet. It's pretty amazing. In the real world I have a small local community of women who I find really inspiring and I do my best to see them as regularly as possible. It can be hard to make the time between full time mom-ing and trying to maintain some sort of consistent production, but making that time always leaves me feeling refreshed and inspired.
What are some brands/makers that you are excited about that we should know of?
The Australian and New Zealand ceramic scene is pretty incredible and I'm always blown away by the work of Holly Houston (@hollyhoustonceramics) and Chela Edmunds (@tkawei). Jessica Coates (@_jessica_coates_), Linda Hsiao (@lindahsiao), and Maryam Riazi (@maryamriazi) and Kenesha Sneed (@tactilematter) are also huge favorites of mine. Outside of the ceramic scene my friend Jen Goff of Takara Design (@takaradesign) makes really beautiful organic jewelry and I love the artistic vision of Paloma Wool.
Why do you think it’s important to shop small and support local makers?
Because the money you spend with those people goes directly into your community and towards an individual whose values you can actually know. They're not faceless and probably owned by Amazon or some other awful corporation. These are individuals with families and a stake in your community. There is so much to feel powerless about nowadays, but making the decision to shop small/local is one way we can claim some leverage as individuals and help support the causes we feel strongly about.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
I just honestly and sincerely love playing with clay. The quiet, the earthiness. I find it so grounding in a way I didn't know I needed before I started with it. Holding and using handmade ceramic pieces can give you such a connection to the actual world and inspire you to break away from the disposability of modern culture. I think that's something we all really need internally and have starting embracing again in the last few years and I feel so blessed to be able to play a role in it's return. How do you not feel passionate about something like that?
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you faced when starting your brand?
My insecurities have always been my biggest challenge. As a one person show I have to handle all aspects of my business, and they definitely do not all come easy to me. It's a constant challenge to continue to learn and grow. Plus internet anonymity can be ruthless. Mean comments, blatant copies, droves of followers disappearing if your feed doesn't reflect some sort of perfection that people expect to see. It can be hard for me to not take things personally, or to get caught up in the black hole of comparative thinking when inspiration is lagging.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
Because we can be so powerful together! The vast majority of the store owners I work with and customer base I sell to are women and most of the opportunities that have come my way have been because of these women reaching out or suggesting my work to other women. I would not be in the position I am with my business without these other women and those experiences have lead me to always be reciprocating whenever possible. If we don't lift each other up, who will?
What creative women do you find inspiring?
Any of the women I've mentioned already plus so many more. My friend Jen Vitale from Association Shop is a constant source of inspiration whether it be new reading material, parenting methods, styling, artistic vision, you name it. Alea Joy from Solabee Flowers is a business genius for all the nitty gritty details and her constant drive to fill her life with beauty and intention is a wonderful reminder for myself.
What tools or resources have been most helpful for you in creating your business?
The willingness of other makers to share their resources, experiences and opportunities has had a huge impact on me and the way I approach my business. Jen Goff of Takara Design went from being an internet acquaintance to a hugely influential mentor to me in a heartbeat. I timidly approached her for advice when I was just getting started and her encouragement and openness meant so much to me that I now try and do the same every time I'm asked. When we moved back to Portland, a place where I had never made ceramics before, Lisa Jones from Pigeon Toe Ceramics and Dina No happily shared their local resources with me without hesitation. There have been so many instances like this just in the few years I've been selling my work and I can't highlight enough how important it is to reach out to your community and find resources through real human connections.
What are some of your favorite places in Portland?
For shopping I love Association (@associationshop), Neapolitan (@neapolitan_shop), Zig Zag Wanderer (@zigzagwandererpdx), House of Vintage, and Monograph Bookwerks (@monographbookwerks), and Solabee Flowers (@solabeeflowers)
For exploring I love Forest Park, The Audubon Society (say hey to Julio the owl), and the Rose Garden.