Maker Profile: Sarah VanRaden of Notary Ceramics - Portland, OR
Hi Sarah! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a potter and a mama, and I have a wonderful husband that I get to go through this crazy life with.
What was your first job?
I shoveled out llama stalls at farm down the road from my house.
What are the origins of your brand's name?
My husband and I came up with the name when we learned about Tulip Notaries in the Netherlands. You used to be able to trade the most prized tulip bulbs for food, livestock, land and even fortunes. I loved that a Notary was created to offer a certificate of authenticity and originality to these bulbs. What I attempt to create with my line of ceramics is both authentic and original. It felt like a good fit.
What led you to begin Notary Ceramics?
My uncle is a lifelong potter. I approached him about 7 years ago to start a small side project with me that we would call Notary. Basically I helped design the pieces and he created them. I did all of the marketing and photography and it took off pretty quickly. Unfortunately he decided that it was time for him to retire from ceramics right as our business was really taking off. I always thought in the back of my mind that one day I would hire another potter or two to throw for me and I would get it going again. I even kept paying for the domain name in those years when nothing was happening with the line. Long story short, I started taking a weekly evening class at a local ceramics studio and fell head over heels in love with everything about creating with clay. The studio was over an hour from my house and that made it impossible to get there more than once a week. decided the only way I would ever get better was if I had my own wheel and could work from home. I bought a cheap $300 wheel on craigslist that came with a very old kiln. The wheel was an old shimpo from the 70's. It worked ok but it was so loud and the only way to stop it from spinning was to unplug it.
What draws you to working with clay?
I love the earthiness of it. I love the texture of clay and how it is easily shaped in my hands. I love that it has made me strong and that I feel capable in a way that I have never felt before.
Your designs are simple and minimal, yet innovative; can you go a bit into your design process?
I feel like inspiration is everywhere. It is the same as when I was working as a photo stylist. I love colors and design and texture in all of its forms. I often come up with designs based on necessity. For example, I will soon be adding a spoon rest to the line because we needed one in our own kitchen. I designed one that I loved and when friends and family came over they wanted one as well. I have given enough away that I know there is a need for these. I also just love having greenery around my house. I am constantly inspired to make new and interesting vessels to display all of the foraged flowers we seem to amass.
We see your work all over and it makes us so happy! What are some of your favorite projects or collaborations?
Oh thank you! I have loved working with Alder and Co. from the beginning. They were my first stockist and the wonderful women who run that shop have an exquisite eye and have pushed me to make things I wouldn't have otherwise. I love working with Heart Coffee on our valentines day collaboration. It was so fun to make a big run of pale pink cups for their customers to enjoy. And I prize my relationship and collaboration with Maru Coffee in LA. I have made every piece of ceramics in that shop and have been working with those guys since the beginning of my business, as well as the start of theirs. The owners are inventors and innovators. They are brilliant and have come up with some incredible designs that I have been able to make for them. My favorite is a traditional Korean Hangari jar with lid that we did in a 12 oz cup size for their aromatic chai.
Your work is extremely beautiful, but you also capture your pieces so well. Does your background as a photo stylist play into the cohesive way you showcase Notary?
I am very lucky to have a background in styling and photography. I think that a good photo can do as much for a piece as the thing itself.
How do you connect with your customers and community?
I try to have an open door to people when they are interested in visiting my studio. That has been hard lately as the business has grown and I have still been working from home. I am really looking forward to having 'play with clay' evenings at the new studio. I hope that this will be a good way to connect with my new community, as well as give people an outlet to create and play with clay that might not have that opportunity otherwise.
What are some brands/designers that you are excited about that we should know of?
I love Rennes for gorgeous simple clothing design. Non-Perishable Goods for all of my linens. Sessun in France is a store and brand that I really connect with. I adore Not Perfect Linen for the dresses I will be wearing all summer, and I recently had a custom Hackwith Design jumpsuit made to throw in, but it is just too damn pretty to dirty up!
Why do you think it’s important to shop small and support local makers?
I guess I think it is important to spread your money around your community. It just feels good to support a company where you can actually connect with the individual or people that are creating your products.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
I have a bit of a fever for pottery. I dream about it, I miss it when I am on vacation and I feel so at peace when I am working at the wheel. There is something innate in this work that I think will keep me passionate about ceramics for as long as my body will allow.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you faced when starting Notary?
I was a true beginner at the wheel when I started creating this line with my own hands. It has taken a long time, and I'm not sure that I am truly there yet, o feel confident in my ability and my work. I do it because I love it and I am blown away at how well it has been received. The other tricky thing has been making the line alone. The volume of orders that I now have has nearly tripled in the past year. I hired my first employee in the fall and it has made all the difference. Not only is Petra an amazingly talented potter, she is also one of the hardest workers I have ever seen. She recently had to man the whole business when I was traveling abroad and she killed it. I am very lucky to have found her when I did.
What tools or resources have been most helpful for you as a designer and business owner?
I recently did a crowdfunding event to raise money for a new kiln. On top of all of the money being spent on renovating and moving into our new studio this was an expense that I simply couldn't afford but that we seriously needed to expand our production. I am in awe of resources like this that are based on kindness and generosity. It made me pretty emotional to see all of the support pour in.
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?
For one I feel that women have had a bad wrap for a very long time for being competitive in a negative way and for stepping over one another. In this process I have found so many like minded and creative women that continue to amaze me with their support and care for one another. There is quite a strong bond between women that is often unspoken but that is ever present. I am so grateful to be in a position to support and collaborate with other creatives in general, but I particularly enjoy the friendships and kinship I have formed with female entrepreneurs along this journey.
What creative women do you find inspiring?
My dear friends inspire me endlessly, they are designers, bakers, gardeners, etc. I am also inspired by the women that went before me - Imogene Cunningham, Lucie Rie, Frida Kahlo, Louise Josephine Bourgeois, Georgia O'Keefee to name a few.
What have you learned from owning your business that you think can apply to any creative endeavor?
Hard work, perseverance, finesse, generosity and kindness always.
What are you looking forward to in the coming months?
Moving into my new studio!!!
What do you wish more people knew about you?
That I am a mother first and that my family is incredibly important to me. Also that this business did not come easily and that if you truly want something you should scratch hard to make to make it happen.
How do you manage a work/life balance?
I work three days a week and I have two days home with my girls and weekends with my family. It keeps me sane.
What are some of your favorite places in Portland?
I love the Sellwood Riverfront Park - there are always interesting people docked there who live on their boats and we usually find pretty amazing conversations. I also find it incredibly soothing to be near the water. For shopping I love Alder and Co., Spartan Shop, Orn Hansen, Goodwill and the various thrift stores and antique shops in the Woodstock and Sellwood neighborhoods. For great food and an even lovelier atmosphere I like Gino's. It happens to be right next door to me new studio space!