“IT’S ABOUT MAKING SURE I’M CONTINUALLY TRYING TO MAKE STUFF AND MAKING SURE I KEEP PUTTING IT OUT THERE AND SEEING WHAT STICKS”
After I climbed a few flights of warehouse steps, a muscly mutt named Billy came bounding down the hall at me, panting and sliding to my feet.
Billy’s owner, Helen Levi, soon rounded the corner in clay-speckled overalls, welcoming me to her workspace and assuring me Billy meant no harm.
Helen is a photographer and ceramicist who runs a made-to-order pottery operation out of a studio in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park.
What began as a hobby has evolved into a full-time livelihood for the native East Villager, whose mother describes Helen’s style as “playful and careful,” just like her childhood drawings.
After his introductory celebration, Billy settled in for an afternoon nap on the studio floor as Helen went about shaping bowls and mugs, telling me about the evolution of her business.
“This whole experience has been flying by the seat of my pants,” she explained, “It was a blessing that I didn’t plan it out.”
Helen is humble about her talents and open minded about the future of her enterprise. Her perspective and experience suggest that great opportunities may pop up when we’re least expecting.
THE JALEPEÑO: Do you run this operation by yourself?
HELEN LEVI: There’s always 10 thousand things going on at once in here.
I have a studio assistant two days a week. She helps with glazing, packing orders. There’s a lot of stuff that needs to happen for a piece to make it out the door.
I’m the only one throwing on the wheel, but I have help with other stuff.
This allows me to be more efficient.
THE J: A balancing act of figuring out where to use your energy.
HL: Definitely. It took me a long time to accept that. I wanted it to be just me. I was trying to do everything. It was insane. I was so burnt out.
THE J: How long have you been doing this?
HL: Two and a half years as a job, much longer as a hobby.
THE J: How’d you learn?
HL: Doing classes as a kid after school.
THE J: Are your parents into art?
HL: My mom was a writer, my dad was a musician. They both got different jobs once they decided to have kids. My dad ended up as a lawyer, my mom’s an English teacher.
They made the decision to have stability, which makes sense when you have children. But before that, I don’t think you have to worry about it.
THE J: Were you in to other kinds of art?
HL: I was in to photography. That’s what I was really pursuing.
THE J: Does that experience inform your pottery? Are they related?
HL: I don’t know if they’re related visually. But I am drawn to certain things. Landscape inspires me directly. Light. I wonder about this. On a practical sense, it has been good for me because I need nice pictures of my work so people will want to look at it.
THE J: What’s most important to you when making a piece?
HL: I find sometimes when I design a product I think is going be a big hit, it’s not.
Sometimes I’ll make something that’ll sell out in one minute, then next time it won’t sell at all.
It’s very hard to predict what people are going to want.
It’s not so much trying to come up with products that I think are going to be hits.
It’s about making sure I’m continually trying to make stuff and making sure I keep putting it out there and seeing what sticks.
The key is letting myself try out new ideas all the time, letting myself play around constantly.
THE J: And presenting yourself with new challenges.
HL: Yes. And continuing to put work out, that’s something that doesn’t feel natural to most people. Especially at first, you feel like you’re tooting your own horn all the time, which is an annoying feeling.
But if you don’t do that you’ll just be making work in a cave somewhere. You have to put it out there. That took me a while to feel comfortable with.
THE J: In design, you have the question of function versus aesthetic. Do they hold equal weight?
HL: It varies piece to piece. If I want to make a planter, the function of that planter is most important, the aesthetic is second.
Other times, I’ll have a visual idea that’s much more about shape and color and experimenting with color blocking. It’s me experimenting with a technique. It all depends.
THE J: There’s a quote: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing to take away.” Do you agree? Is that relevant for your work?
HL: I like that way of thinking. My work is varied. Some things are very simple. When I first started, I didn’t present in just one style. I thought it’d maybe hurt me that I didn’t have this extremely pared-down vision.
Instead, some of it looks different from the rest.
That’s what makes it fun and exciting and fresh for me.
I tried not being self-conscious about that. Instead, just make things I want to make and hope that if you look at a large enough sampling, you’ll see they’re made by the same hand.
Sometimes I want to make something that’s so simple, other times I don’t think simple is best. At the same time, I don’t always want to be flashy and bright. It’s a balance.
THE J: When you chose to go for this as a full-time business, did that change the energy with which you were creating?
HL: My way of ending up here was pretty roundabout. It wasn’t like: “I wanna be a potter. Let me make a plan for how I’ll do that.” I was teaching kids pottery classes as a side job because that’s a skill I have.
I happened to go to a pop-up shop at a Steven Alan store and noticed they had some pottery. Steven Alan was there and my friend introduced me, we started chatting.
My friend told him I did pottery. He asked me to send him some pictures. At the time, I had never photographed my work.
I borrowed a camera and took some pictures of stuff I had made, and he wanted to order some for his store.
Now, I make something and if I like it, I put it out there. It’s not like I release a collection that’s concise.
I just make stuff and I see if people respond to it.
THE J: You let it flow naturally.
HL: Yes. And there have been times I’ve thought that wasn’t a good thing.
I worried I should have more plans. It’s easy to feel self-conscious about the way you’re doing anything, and I guess this is a weird way to do it, just kind of throwing stuff against the wall.
But that’s what felt natural to me.
THE J: And it shows that, in creating, you don’t need to be too tactful. You just want to follow your instincts and make something of quality.
HL: Yeah. And it’s not like I had a ton of experience. I just started doing it.
THE J: Do you think you’ve been able to set yourself apart by making everything by hand, made-to-order? Is that the norm for ceramicists?
HL: There’s a range. It’s very interesting. I didn’t study pottery at a high level. I learned so much from visiting my peers. I’m trying to figure out what I want my business to look like in five years. There are people like me. There are people who still have full-time jobs but you’d never know it because they’re producing so much pottery work.
There are people with an assembly line of assistants that aren’t even there themselves. It really differs.
THE J: I imagine people are attracted to the fact that each of your pieces is molded by the idiosyncrasies of the same hand.
HL: I think that’s integral to my brand. I wonder if that could change over time, or if that’s so crucial to what I’m doing.
I want this to be sustainable and something I can do in the future. I don’t want to get burnt out. I’m open to change.
THE J: In order for it to evolve, I’d think you can’t have your mind made up about everything right away, you have to be ready and willing to adapt?
HL: Yes. This whole experience has been flying by the seat of my pants. Learning as I go. Making tons of mistakes and saying “Oh well, not gonna do it that way again.”
THE J: What’s an example of a mistake?
HL: A lot of technical stuff. I had never done production, like a hundred pieces at once. Physically learning how to do that was a steep curve. It feels cool that I can identify that my skills are better, that they’ve grown.
I can see that difference. I remember how hard it was for me to throw something gigantic when I started versus how I feel now.
THE J: You put yourself in a difficult situation, looked for the challenge and rose to meet the pressure. Your performance rose too.
HL: That’s true.
THE J: How do you see your business in the future?
HL: I don’t know yet. I haven’t yet seen a business that I want to emulate. I don’t know what the structure is going to be. I don’t want it to lose its specialness.
THE J: Any influences you can pinpoint?
HL: Sometimes you know where an idea comes from and other times you just feel like you’ve always had it. It’s hard for me to know.
Some of the things are clear. I like the colors of southwestern deserts. And I identified that as a fantasy, that landscape. So I spent a lot of time working on that technique.
There’s a lot of accidents in pottery all the time.
THE J: Do you ever collaborate with other artists?
HL: I work with a woodworker who makes really amazing things. We’ll sell some things as a set. It turns out wood grain looks great with raw clay.
I love getting ideas from other people. I love when someone comes to me with an idea. Then I’m almost a fabricator, but inevitably my touch will be there.
THE J: Do you come in here every day?
HL: Pretty much. I try not to be obsessed with work, but it’s hard when you run your own business not to be.
You get out what you put in. If I work more and make more pieces, I see the results.
So it’s tempting to be in here all the time.
THE J: What makes you feel like you’ve done it well?
HL: I don’t make something with a specific outcome in mind. But I’m happy if I enjoy making it. Maybe that stuff does well because I feel passionate about it. I’m glad, then it pushes me to do more with it. If no one was interested in it, then I probably wouldn’t have explored it as much in as many ways.
THE J: What drives you?
HL: What I have feels like a fantasy. I come in, I make stuff. That’s my job. Could that be real?
People talk about when you love what you do, then it’s not work. I always wondered what my job would be that I love. What career will I have? What office will I work in?
It was always hard for me to envision. I could never picture it, what the perfect job would be. I kind of fell into this by accident, but as soon as I started doing it, it felt so right. If I could make this work…
The feeling of freedom having your own business can’t be matched. Sure, there’s stresses and downsides and anxiety and instability, but the fulfillment from doing your own thing is hard to beat.
It’s very hard to imagine going back, now that I know it’s possible. At first I didn’t know if it could be real. Could this work?
Before I felt confident, I didn’t believe it. But over time you see it working. I’m not in debt. The lights are still on. I guess it’s working.
THE J: Most might be too scared to take that leap, writing the fantasy off as out of reach, without ever mustering the courage to try.
HL: I wonder how different this would have been if it was more planned. It just wasn’t that way for me. It was a blessing that I didn’t plan it out, because then I felt so happy for each thing I got, because it felt unexpected.
And I also felt like, well, if this doesn’t work out I’m not gonna be devastated because I didn’t even know that I wanted it.
Photography, I felt so tied to it. Every rejection, every time something didn’t pan out, it was devastating. I felt a very burnt out feeling like I wasn’t good enough.
But when I started this, I said if it doesn’t’ work out, it’s OK.
Now I’ve invested so much that I would be devastated if it fell apart, but that was kind of a nice freedom at first, it wasn’t my plan, so I’ll give it a go. I’ll just try it.
THE J: Was it challenging, starting out?
HL: For the first year I was so insecure. I’d be dismissive about it.
Now there’s something empowering about saying I have a small business. I have my own design space. It’s something I want, I take it very seriously, I put a lot into it.
I’m a small business owner. It feels good now to be able to say that without blushing.
THE J: What’d that take, for you to start believing it was your thing?
HL: When someone who doesn’t’ know you takes you and your work seriously.
Seeing that over time certainly made me think that the way you view yourself doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how others view you.
Photography felt so personal, like every photo was an expression of myself. This potteryis an expression of my ideas, but some things are truly about function.
A mug is a mug.
There is an element of me in it, but I don’t feel like I’m bearing my soul by making a mug. So there is this kind of nice humility about it.
When you’re making strictly functional objects, there’s less pressure.
There’s not so much scrutiny about what it means and if it’s good enough.
Do you like it? Does it feel comfortable? Does it serve its purpose? Then it’s a good mug.
THE J: And it gains meaning as it becomes ingrained in the life of the person who uses it.
HL: Yeah, it can become elevated.
It’s freeing. I haven’t yet felt like I get writer’s block. That hasn’t happened yet. I don’t feel much pressure. At the end of the day, a bowl is a bowl.
THE J: And someone can use it.
HL: Yes, and that’s fine.
THE J: If this wasn’t your job, would you still be doing it each day?
HL: Yes. I’ve always loved pottery. Days of the week don’t mean much to me.