Profile: Whitney Smith

Really great design, as we always say, is about stripping away the extraneous, and getting down to the essence of both function and feeling. Great lives are about doing the same.

Case in point: Whitney Smith, ceramic artist, whose work–and the way she works–is an ongoing search for what’s essential, what’s meaningful, what fits. Shaping a life like this takes constant dabbling and changing course when necessary. Like great design, it takes guts and conviction balanced with humility, confidence, ease and openness. And Whitney’s got it.

Whitney’s work–from functional vessels to cake stands (for cupcakes and more – mmm!) to delicate nesting bowls–is often inspired by botanical forms and frequently features intricate, delicate carving that is only apparent when you actually hold her work. Her style is that intriguing combination of girly and grounded. In this case, I’m not being disparaging when I say girly (as I usually would be). In Whitney’s case, I mean joyful and witty, fresh and feminine, warm and life-affirming. By grounded, I mean substantial in form, detail and quality – a quality that calms and nurtures. Together, they’re the classic yin yang that creates visual and psychic satisfaction. And they’re what has given her a following that’s passionate, unwaveringly loyal and increasingly global.

We chatted in her sunny, cozy shop/studio in a quiet residential section of Oakland, not too far from Lake Merritt. It’s all very integrated: retail out in front, her wheel smack dab in the middle, her kiln in the background, and her store room nested in the back….she’s got a mini “factory” going on there and has help from time to time to fill her orders.

While the studio’s not in her home, it’s just up the street (the best of both worlds) and during our conversation, her husband (a baker) drops by, and she dashes out to deal with a plumber.  There’s something intensely natural, easy and laid back about Whitney…but you also get a sense of the sheer discipline and focus it’s taken to get her here. (Back to that yin yang thing again.)

As we talk, she’s also experimenting on a new piece…and I get to see it come to life while we chat.

How’d you start? I had always been into painting and drawing…always knew I wanted to be an artist when I grew up (even as a kid in Washington State). I ended up taking a ceramics class at a community college in Santa Cruz, and it blew my mind how happy it made me. I dropped painting like a hot potato: it was like being in a relationship and falling in love with someone else. This was in ’93 and I haven’t looked back. (Some things are just meant to be?)

But when did you know it was about making a living, and not just a hobby? I was committed to making this work early. I worked for another artisan in Santa Cruz and learned the mechanics of both the craft and the business. And it is a business, believe me.

You’ve been doing this 17 years…what’s changed in your style? In the beginning, I had no real “style.” Then there was a sea urchin period. And then I got more flowery and Art Nouveau/Arts and Crafts. Then someone asked me to make a set of dishes for them that had a poppy theme…and that set off a whole series of work based on botanicals.  What’s changed is that they’re less literal than they used to be…increasingly, my designs suggest nature, rather than depict it. But even as it evolves, I have a feeling that my work is always going to have a nature-y feel to it. That’s who I am at heart, a nature girl and hippie. (A pretty sophisticated one, I think…)

And what have you learned in business? Wow–there’s been a ton of learning along the way: it’s all a matter of figuring out what’s right for you and your audience. In the beginning, I used to do street fairs, but I don’t do those any more, and it’s really not where my audience is. Then I did the big craft fairs, but I’ve pulled back from those, too. They’re a huge amount of work… Although I did do my first Renegade Craft Fair in December…the energy was great. To me, the only reason to do a show anymore is to have fun… Then I used to do a lot of wholesale. I still do it, but I’m pulling away from that.

Why’s that? (Diplomatic grin from Whitney). Not all retailers understand that when you buy custom work, it’s not all cookie cutter. There’s variation in glazes or shapes a bit. So these days, I’m trying to manage the wholesale work a little better…I stick to selected stores where they have a clientele who understand hand made work…and I sell through my own website and through Etsy.  A lot of people also find me through open studios. (Yup. Given the number of pieces I was fantasizing about buying as we chatted, I can see how this works.)

The key thing, though, is that I’m really trying to get away from doing a lot of wholesale. I want to be able to do more custom or creative work. And for that I need not to be producing the same pieces all the time. Wholesale is great but there are real limitations to it. I need time and space to create. So I’m really working to get myself back on track with my creative side and not be a slave to what’s selling. But, I also have to treat it like a business. It’s really about doing things that feed your soul. (Oh yeah.)

So what inspires you? Lots of things…Good people. Painting. I go to NY frequently and love to go to galleries and museums and see what people are painting. You know, I love pottery, but I’m not interested in most of what goes on. I love contemporary painting, but I’m drawn to the early moderns as well. Mostly though, what inspires me is having time to think: the space to do nothing and stare at the walls. Time to think is so vital.

Do you have collectors? I guess I do, yes. What are they like? They have excellent taste, of course! And it’s both men and women. The work definitely fits in a wide array of decors; the seed and pod work fits in more modern decors, while the flower line is more Craftsman. (That’s the thing about her work – there’s a timeless quality to it without being “classic” and expected.)

And do you collect? I’m not a huge collector….I don’t like being surrounded by a lot of  stuff. But I do have work by Christa Assad, Rae Dunn, Diana Fayt. I love their work and I love who they are. (I have to say, this is what I really love about the ceramicists we’ve profiled: they’re an incredibly generous and supportive bunch.)

(Above her work area, there’s a sign from a pottery course she took to Goshogawara in Japan in 2007.)What did you learn there? I learned how to fire in a wood kiln: I’d never done that before…it’s a way more hands-on approach to firing things. I learned more about Japanese pottery.

What’s different about it? There’s no sense of limits in Japanese pottery. Their approach is very loose…really off-the-wall compared to what we do. There were lots of young people who were doing fabulous, fresh, interesting things. But you know, I also learned how important it is to get away from – out of – your environment. I learned how to manage my own stress. Ryoji, who was planning and running our whole stay there, was the most relaxed, chilled guy…and just the nicest man. One day (I’d had a nightmare client from hell…) I asked him what he did when things got crazy. He said, “if you have a problem, you find a solution–you probably already know what the solution is–and then you just move on. Let it go. Don’t struggle with what’s the “best” solution for you….think of what’s best for the situation. Then you’re done.” That’s been magical advice. It changed my life. The things that used to freak me out just don’t anymore. (Good one.)

And what things define you? My old kitchen implements: I love cooking for friends. I love a really sharp knife….We have a collection of knives from [husband] Andrew’s grandfather… juicer….kitchen things from my grandmother: canner, meat grinder, stuff that’s useful (even though I don’t really use it). I also love my calipers, my sgrafitto tools, my knives. And… wedding dress.


Whitney Smith Pottery

Studio: 539 Athol Avenue

Oakland, CA


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2 Responses to Profile: Whitney Smith

  1. ron says:

    Thanks for this great interview with Whitney. Super advice from Ryoji too, I’m sure I can put that to use.