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Bridgette Mathews became the owner of Green & Bisque Clayhouse in Pasadena (Calif.) in late 2019 — a serendipitous purchase. The clay studio is meant for ceramics artists and students of all skill levels. It offers classes in several ceramic techniques for children and adults, including wheel throwing and hand building. In this conversation with the magazine, Bridgette describes how she started doing ceramics in high school and wanted to continue in college but couldn’t because her school didn’t offer it. It wasn’t until much later that she came back to ceramics. Now, she especially loves the social aspect of it. Bridgette found a way to combine business with her desire to work with people that share her love of ceramics through Green & Bisque. (The name comes from two terms in pottery: “greenware” and “bisque” firing.) – Emma Rose
How did you get involved with Green & Bisque Clayhouse?
I knew of this business when I was in high school — almost 18 years ago. Back then it was called Xiem Clay Center. One of my ceramics teachers held a summer program here for a handful of his students. His name is Joseph Lee and he’s actually a teacher here again. I did ceramics all through high school and expected to continue in college, but ArtCenter College of Design (where I went for college), did not offer ceramics back then — although they do now — and at our studio, no less! It ended up taking me many, many years to get back into ceramics. Shortly after I started taking ceramics classes again in 2019, the former owner announced that they were either going to sell the property and/or the business or they were going to shut down. Many of the people in the community were devastated at the thought of the studio shutting down for good. However, my family and I happened to be looking for a new business opportunity. Things lined up for us: my parents had coincidentally sold a property nearby and were looking to buy another property. This ceramics studio was up for sale too, and it ended up working out perfectly. They ended up buying the building and I bought the business, since they’re separate entities.
Do you depend on the Clayhouse for your income?
It’s a business I enjoy running and it does very well, but I also have another business as a graphic designer. I work with trial attorneys, designing presentations for evidence they have to present to jurors. I love what I do, but I always wanted to work in hospitality so I get to do that here. I particularly enjoy working with my staff.
How much of a cash reserve do you set aside to operate this business?
Let’s be honest, you can never have too much money available. With our membership program here, we can count on a certain amount of money to come in at the beginning of every month. It definitely doesn’t cover everything because there’s payroll, rent (yes, I still pay full rent even though my parents own the building), insurance, tax, air conditioning, cleaning crew, someone to empty our clay tanks, etc. There’s a whole load of stuff to pay for, you can’t even imagine, but I am very grateful for the steady income we receive from our memberships as well as classes.
How important is it to you and the artists who come here to have this dedicated studio for the work, as opposed to the home?
For this kind of art, most ceramicists need a dedicated studio. I mean, you saw the gas and electric kilns. There are so many different kinds of specialized, large, and expensive equipment at our studio, it simply wouldn’t be economically sound for most ceramicists to create their own studio. Our studio takes care of all the firing — firing bisque ware, glaze ware in cone 10 and midrange, as well as gold luster firings, mixing glazes, stocking various raw materials for the glazes, providing wheels and hand building tables. Even things like electrical, gas, and plumbing is all very specific to the ceramics studio. The list is endless and it’s all very technical. Many full-time career ceramicists choose to create their own studios once they reach a certain level but for the vast majority of artists, it makes the most sense for them to find a studio to work out of.
Can anyone come and make art at your studio or is there more to it than that?
We have six week long classes that are open for anyone to take. Students have over 40 hours to access the studio to practice outside of class. However, in terms of membership, we have a pretty tight vetting process with a 2 to 3 year waiting list. Due to the nature of our studio being open to members 24/7, it is important that we have an established relationship with the individual before they are offered a membership when a spot opens up. We encourage those interested in a membership to take a class to familiarize themselves with our studio. Ceramics is a multi-step process and it requires everyone in the community to understand each process as well as the studio rules. Students and Members depend on our studio to run smoothly so we must do all we can to ensure that it runs as a well-oiled machine.
How has the pandemic affected the Clayhouse?
Bridgette introduces us to artist Heather Rosenman, who chimes in: People definitely have been appreciating the visceral, physical relationship with the clay and with themselves. We were already so digital, but the pandemic has made us even more so. Students of the Clayhouse keep saying, “Oh, it’s so good to be here.” Bridgette continues: In terms of the business, in this last year and a half, two years, there have been challenges, but I welcome it. I just figure that if we can make it through the pandemic, we can make it through anything. There’s a lot of comfort in knowing that.
What advice would you give artists looking to run their own business? I was very lucky that this place was an established, mature business when I took over. I didn’t start from scratch. I’ve only expanded on it and developed it further. I also have an absolutely stellar team that I am incredibly grateful for. So the advice I would give to someone looking to run their own business would be to take good care of the good people in your life especially where your business is concerned. Without a doubt, my greatest advantage is having so many amazing people in my life who have a shared passion in seeing that the studio reaches its fullest potential.
Conversations with Jess Lo. Written by Emma Rose. Edited by Eugenia Macias.