Heidi Morel has berries on her mind.
This summer, as COVID-19 crawled across Alaska and the state slowed down, the Fairbanks potter and ceramics artist spent a lot of time in the woods around her Goldstream Valley home picking berries. Those berries translated into her work: handmade bowls, cups, mugs, plates and other pieces reflecting an Interior Alaska harvest.
Now she has to get them on the market. To do that, the artist and potter has to switch mental gears from creating her art to selling it. It’s all part of the normal gig for Morel, who runs her own business, Morel Pottery. She’s learned the balancing act of creating her works and marketing and selling them, whether it’s on her online Etsy store, shipping them to galleries and stores across Alaska to be displayed, or staffing a booth at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market or a holiday bazaar.
“It felt really good to make something and then have somebody purchase it and have them send me an email a month later, saying, ‘I use your mug every day, it makes me feel really good, thank you,’” Morel said, reflecting on when she first started dabbling in running her own business. “I have goals as being an artist and goals as being a business person.”
Morel received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in ceramics from the University of North Texas in the early 2000s and started graduate school at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2008, where she received a Master of Fine Arts in ceramics. After receiving her undergraduate degree but before she started school at UAF, she was an artist in residence at East Tennessee State University, at which time she also worked in a pottery gallery. That, she says, helped expose her to the business side of the art world.
“There’s just not a whole lot of those around — art galleries that exclusively sell pottery,” Morel said. “It was a really good experience because I learned a lot about the business aspect of selling pottery and ceramics and what people want to buy: Make things that feel really right to you and that is something that you want to be making for years and years because you’ll get a customer base, a collector base. So I got a lot of good advice from the gallery owner there as well as potters that were making pots for 20-plus years. I learned a lot of things there that they don’t really teach you at the university.”
That real-world experience was as valuable as the classroom experience, she said.
“I wanted to feel good as an artist and be able to explore different themes and concepts and even aesthetics that interest me but still be able to make the pots move off the shelves,” she said.
Her pottery studio — Morel Pottery Clay Studio — came into being in 2013 and grew to include her business venture, Morel Pottery. She credits her partner, Bryan Strong, with being a driving force in encouraging her to present her works at First Fridays and art shows around Fairbanks. That idea turned out to be a success as the Fairbanks market, and Alaska in general, has an appreciation for handmade wares, Morel said. Add in the tourism industry and being a successful artisan is doable, she said, especially if you consider non-traditional venues like farmers markets, bazaars or street fairs.
That’s a path she pursued, too: putting her wares in places like Black Bear Coffee Shop in Denali and the mobile food stand The Roaming Root in Fairbanks. She’s got items on display throughout Alaska, including Soho Coho in Ketchikan, The Bear’s Lair in Juneau, Dos Manos and Sevigny Studios in Anchorage, as well as Fairbanks spots Venue and Bear Gallery.
The Etsy store came online in 2014 as a way to sell her items in the Lower 48, she said, and while it’s a good tool to reach buyers, it’s also a lot of work for a solo businesswoman.
“It’s a lot of work to put into one piece as far as taking all the photos, putting up the description, getting the listing on there, packing up the pot, bringing it to the post office … It’s a lot of leg work but it’s also nice to get a direct sale to anywhere in the world,” Morel said. “That’s an exciting thing about it. And that’s always a business goal — to hit my Etsy shop more.”
Growing up, Morel’s father was a small business owner so she knew what it took to succeed — the long hours, the working on weekends, the always being on-call. As she transitioned from artist and creator to artist and creator who’s selling her own goods and tracking inventory, sales forms and paperwork, she says she was somewhat prepared for that by watching her dad’s career rather than by taking business classes.
“He’s a big mentor, watching him raise a business that he still has to this day,” Morel said.
As far as business models, there aren’t a lot out there for ceramics artists and potters, she said. With that, the best thing a beginner can do is listen.
“If you listen to enough people and ask the right questions, you can piece together from a lot of people who are running good art businesses and make your own model,” Morel said. “We’re kind of in a different place now in that, historically speaking, artists used to be represented by one gallery. Now, that’s not the case at all. You’re basically your own representative having to run a website and social media and get seen and still make contacts but you have total control over it. I do like calling my own shots.”
Morel’s work can be found online at www.morelpottery.com, www.facebook.com/morelpottery, www.etsy.com/shop/MorelPottery and www.instagram.com/MorelPottery.
Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or at twitter.com/FDNMfeatures.