5 Local Potters Share Their Stories of Ceramic Success
For these fast friends, late nights and long conversations led to dreams and ‘what if’ discussions. “For both of us, we stepped into clay more or less as a hobby, but over time we began to wonder ‘How awesome would this be if we created something?’” says Stephanie Anne Martin, one half of Annie Hanks Ceramics. “I was working in insurance and bored to death. I’d come home after work and sit on my wheel and throw until three in the morning to fulfill that artistic need.” Her partner in the venture, Katherine Hanks, mimics her sentiments. “I was a preschool teacher at the time, and I wanted to find a way to meld my two passions: teaching and art.”
In a matter of time, ‘what ifs’ led to ‘why nots,’ and the two made the transition to business owners in 2014. “It was absolutely pretty crazy,” says Hanks, “but we had the support of our families to see what we could make out of it.”
Today, the two, who find inspiration from all aspects of their lives – from landscapes and nature to transitions in their personal lives, have perfected a less traditional process. “We’re both fully entrenched in every part of the business,” says Martin. “Katherine may throw a mug, I may handle it, she may glaze it. Neither of us is aware of who did what. It’s something we both really cherish about our work.” They agree that, while more unconventional, this way of working allows them to push each other and themselves daily. “It forces us to strip our egos,” says Hanks. “We’re going to critique each other, but it’s a unique situation where we both recognize that we’re climbing together. It’s really humbling.”
Together, Hanks and Martin have developed an impressive resume over the years, but both admit it hasn’t been easy. Hanks explains, “Proving ourselves as young women serious about creating a career in art was challenging. It was almost like everything was built up against us. But we were ready to prove ourselves as two women who were serious about our work – with a vision, a purpose, and a strong work ethic.”
As they look to the future, Martin and Hanks are enthusiastic for what could be. “There’s something exciting about shifting further into working with businesses to create something new,” says Martin. “We feel a strong sense of pride and empowerment in this business we’ve created from scratch and where we are today.”
What started as a hobby quickly evolved into a full-fledged business for John-Michael Forman of Forman Pottery. “I dabbled in pottery in high school and had a chance to visit my sister at Covenant College where she was studying ceramics. That’s when I got my first taste for Appalachian stoneware. I immediately fell in love with its rich, earthy tones,” he shares.
When it came time to select a college himself, Covenant was an easy choice. “I knew I loved the area, but I wasn’t focused on a career in the arts. Instead, I studied psychology. I took all the pottery classes I could in college, but it was mostly just an outlet for me at the time.”
Fortunately, an internship opportunity with his sister arose his senior year. “She taught me all her techniques and how to make glazes. We even developed some glazes together,” he recalls.
After graduation, Forman worked as a carpenter with pottery serving strictly as a side gig. But when orders began to flow in, he made the decision to take on pottery full-time. “It was and wasn’t scary, making the transition,” he recalls. “It was a relief to leave the job I was in before, but at the same time, it was the dead of winter; I was freezing day in and day out, all alone in my studio huddled next to my heater.”
Six winters later, Forman says he’s focused on function with his pieces, and he purposely avoids lots of flourishes. “My objective is to make utilitarian pieces that are also aesthetically pleasing, awaken the senses, and bring a sense of earthiness and warmth to the home.” He’s also hired an employee to help him with his ever-increasing workload. “The arrangement we have is like a classical apprenticeship. I love that model – imparting my wisdom and way of doing things to another person and watching those things blossom into art that has some similarities but is still distinct and its own thing.”
Looking forward, Forman is excited to explore a new area with his work. “I’m hoping to pursue custom clay home fixtures,” he says. He’ll also be moving his operation to St. Elmo, where he and his wife and children already reside. “I’ll have more room, more access to people, and most importantly, the opportunity to really take part in the community.”
Lookout Mountain Pottery’s Mark Issenberg credits incredible teachers for his passion for clay arts. “I was really in the right place at the right time with the right teachers all throughout my life,” he says. His clay journey began in 9th grade, and before he could even drive, he was invited to join the Ceramic League of Miami as its youngest member.
Following his senior year of high school in 1968, Issenberg had the opportunity to take a two-month long workshop with Charles Counts, a storied potter and artist, in Rising Fawn. “That summer totally changed my life,” says Issenberg. “The way I throw and the way I teach today comes from what I learned from Charles Counts.”
But while Issenberg has always been making pottery, his relationship with fire and nature led him to another career. He spent 18 years as a firefighter for a Class 1 fire department in the city of Hialeah, Florida, before retiring and making his way back to the area that had been so meaningful to his journey as an artist decades before.
Living on 15 acres with his wife Nona, their dog Elvis, and a prodigious homegrown collection of exotic plants, he has cultivated a true potter’s paradise. “I have a gas kiln and a wood fire kiln, and I let my mood and inspiration guide my direction for the day.” Known for his proficiency in all types of functional pieces, Issenberg’s favorite thing to make is a teacup. “They’re so much fun! Throwing pots that are six, seven pounds are fun, but these tiny pieces are so interesting and involved. I love adding inclusions like chunks of feldspar and iron that I get from a machine shop – they melt and look amazing.”
In addition to his time spent throwing, glazing, firing, and gardening, Issenberg has recently begun teaching at Scenic City Clay Arts in town. “I like to teach because I’ve had influential teachers all my life.”
And as for the future? Issenberg says he hopes to keep making pots until he’s 150. “I never want to stop making pottery. There is so much to learn, and I’m always trying to educate myself and expand what I can do.”
Though he’d been trained in the art of ceramics, Alaska-native Shadow May didn’t originally see it as a viable career option. “I went to culinary school and worked as a carpenter. At one point I thought I wanted to be a Porsche mechanic,” he laughs. “But my hands were always in the clay.”
May began his foray into the world of clay before he even hit high school. “I had a friend whose mom worked in clay, and she’d let us play around with it,” he says. He took his first official ceramics class his freshman year of high school and continued to hone his skills over the next four years. Upon graduation, his guidance counselor and ceramics teacher helped him line up a two-year apprenticeship with Allen Monsarrat of Monsarrat Pottery in Friendsville, Tennessee.
Years later, working full-time and continuing clay work on the side, May was introduced to markets and art shows. “I just kept up with clay for so long, eventually a few people in my life said, ‘Hey, you know you can sell this work if you want.’” Things really shifted when he juried into his first show in 2001. “I had to learn to present myself to the public and sell my pieces. That’s when I realized I could make a living. Essentially, in one weekend, I made more selling my pots than I did working 40 hours as a carpenter.”
Thanks to a CreateHere fine arts grant, May and his wife relocated to Chattanooga in 2005. Today, May owns and operates his own studio where he creates both functional and sculptural pieces. His inspiration, he says, comes from life experiences. “I try to let every experience I have dictate the direction I’m going. Several years ago, I had a studio fire and lost everything – that had an impact on my inspiration and direction. Then I had my first son, Rocket May, and that really shifted a lot of my work. When my father passed away and then when my second son, Birch May, was born, my work shifted again. It’s all just very intuitive,” he says.
As his work continues to evolve, May’s main focus remains providing for his family through art. “It’s one of those things that I’m just really glad I have the skillset to do.” He’s also teaching the next generation at universities and art centers across the nation. “I stood on many shoulders to get where I am, and now it’s time for people to start standing on mine.”
A need to fulfill his elective credits led Seth Cathy, local potter and owner of Ember Ceramic Gallery & Studio, to his passion. “I was originally a business major at Berry College but decided to switch to history, so I needed to take some additional electives. That’s when I took my first pottery class, and I had a great professor. From there, I just pursued it as much as I could in college,” shares Cathy. He continued his education in ceramics with an eight-month long apprenticeship in Watkinsville, Georgia, and a bevy of courses at the Penland School for Crafts in North Carolina.
Time and experience eventually brought Cathy and his wife, Sara, to Chattanooga, and more specifically, to Main Street. “We were looking for a space where we could live and work, and the space on Main was the best of both worlds,” he says. “The building was built in the early 1900s, and it had been completely vacant and boarded up for decades when we bought it.” The two worked to convert the space into a mixed-use gallery and studio, with living quarters on the second floor.
Today, Cathy creates his own unique pottery in the studio and represents approximately 45 local and national ceramic artists through the gallery space. “There’s a large community of ceramic artists in town. It’s fun to be able to give them the avenue and space to sell their work,” Cathy explains. He also says he finds inspiration in the artwork around him. “Just being surrounded by other great potters helps to raise the level and quality of my own work. The goal was always to have artists that were head and shoulders beyond my level of experience.”
Part businessman, part artist, and part chemist (“You feel like a mad scientist when you’re mixing glazes!”), Cathy appears to have it all figured out, but he admits there are times he’s struggled. “Pottery is very labor intensive. The goal is always to create at least one thing a day, but that can sometimes be tough, especially when I’m running the business side of things,” he explains. “I want to do a good job of representing the other artists but also creating my own work.”
While he says it can be stressful to have “the monster that never sleeps” on the main level below his home, Cathy readily accepts the challenge. “My wife and I are committed to Chattanooga. We love it.”