Purity in Art vs. Monetizing Passion: Anna Eaves of Arrow + Sage

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Ceramicist Anna Eaves is living every DIY maker’s dream. Inspired by her potter ma and log-cabin-building pa, this NCSU art minor has made a stunning ascendency. Less than a year after launching her ceramics shop, Arrow + Sage, on Etsy, the North Carolina artisan landed prestigious mentions in the pages of Vogue and Elle Decoration.

When that happened, orders started rolling in, her wares started selling out, and she found herself in an entrepreneurial conundrum usually only faced by a later-career artist: Should she keep her art contained or expand exponentially?

The question is clear, but her answers aren’t as easy. Flavorwire caught up with the ceramicist to talk craft, purity in art, and the pleasures and pitfalls of successfully monetizing your passion. It’s a conversation and balance that’s all too familiar to Woodford Reserve‘s Master Distiller Chris Morris. But more on him, later…

Flavorwire: Lots of artists start Etsy shops, but few have had their work take off quite so quickly. What were your expectations when you decided to sell there?

Anna Eaves: I had zero expectations, and I think that played in my favor… I started making things because I had the time and energy, and then started having friends ask to purchase pots I made. After that, I thought if my friends wanted to buy my work, maybe other people would too.

FW: You have other art / design education and experience. How did ceramics become your focus?

AE: I grew up in a home full of art and creativity… It was a part of life. When I entered my young adult years, I ended up choosing a minor in art and design, but, I never touched clay in any type of class. My mom is an artist and a potter. She has a home studio and had always tried to get me interested in clay. She actually taught me the basics of handbuilding. I remember making this cream and sugar bowl set. It took me about 8 months… And when I took the completed, glazed set out of the kiln, something clicked. I suddenly realized what all the fuss was about. It’s so satisfying to take something formless and make something useful and beautiful.

FW: You were featured recently in both Elle Decoration and Vogue. And it appears that many items on your site subsequently sold out. What was it like for you when orders started to pile up?

AE: Overwhelming. I learned pretty early on that I didn’t want to use a made-to-order platform when it came to selling. I lost a lot of sleep worrying that things people ordered wouldn’t turn out right, or would warp or crack at the last minute. This in turn led to incredibly long lead times that most people didn’t understand. I switched to a stock-and-ship platform so that everything listed on my site was already completed and ready to be sold. I’d list things, announce a shop update, and people would go buy the items. It was a much smoother process and allowed me to enjoy making things again!

FW: In a recent blog post, you said, “I’ve made a conscious decision to slow down this year. Goals include: enjoy my art again…” I know from my own experience as a writer that nothing is more dangerous than monetizing the thing you love, because you lose a lot of freedom…

AE: You’re so right. My mom actually told me pretty early on something one of her art professors told her: “Be careful not to make your art your work.” It’s true. In a sense, you lose something when all you’re doing is making things for people who bought them. There’s nothing wrong with selling your art — I mean, that’s what I do — but, when the focus becomes the money, something shifts.

FW: And you have to either shift with it or against it…

AE: This year is going to look a lot different for me. Last year I dove into wholesale, and wholesale is tough. In some ways, I think it helped launch me move on to a bigger platform. I’m so grateful for the relationships that I built, and the people I met through choosing to go that route. The exposure was huge! But, it was exhausting and really took the life out of my art.

This year I want to step back, make things that I find pleasing and beautiful, and then offer them up to the world. If they sell, great… It’s risky, but I’m lucky enough to be in a position to do that and I’m so thankful… It might mean having less cash flow, but, it’s important to keep life in what you’re creating, otherwise you’ll burn out.

FW: I noticed a line you wrote on your site that made me smile: “slight variations and imperfections in shape, size, and glaze color or coverage are to be expected. These are not considered flaws; but rather, they are coveted, organic notes, true to all handmade work.” I’ve spoken to other makers for this series who mention that the pricing for artisanal goods is especially difficult to understand for people who are more used to cheap, machine-made wares.

AE: Oh gosh the pricing. Yeah, it’s so tough. But, I think people are starting to get the idea these days. Handmade items are special, highly sought-after, and coveted. Oh and my website wording! I put that little blurb on there to be transparent so that people would place orders with the expectation of receiving something with subtle variations, piece to piece. I want to be part of the movement of people seeking out the handmade, the small quantity runs of artisanal work. If you’re buying something handmade, don’t you want it to look handmade? I do.

FW: You’ve said that your parents were both makers (and that your dad even built a log cabin). How have they influenced your ethos and approach to your art? Similarly, how has the place you grew up (rural, southern) influenced your approach and take on design?

AE: It’s had a huge, huge impact. My parents are just doers. They’re always knee-deep in some project they love, either together or individually. I mentioned that my mom is a potter, too. She makes beautiful, beautiful things. Our styles are completely different. My craft and art came from the way she taught me to do things. My early work looked a lot more like hers, because she was my teacher. But my work has evolved into something more unique to me; I’ve developed my own aesthetic. I think it’s so incredible that we can use the exact same technique in building our bodies of work, but do so with an outcome completely individual to each of us. My roots are in the more traditional ways of the craft, but I’ve taken it and made it something that is modern and mine.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length. Photo of Anna Eaves by Chasing Skies Photography.