Annie Hanks Ceramics Interview
In the midst of a senior year scheduling mix-up, I found myself enrolled in Clarion’s practicum for three days and then unenrolled again. I thought I needed elective hours, then I really didn’t.
I could bore you with the details. All that to say, during those three days (before Clarion’s practicum even had its first session), I contacted a couple businesses in Chattanooga for interviews. I thought I might as well go ahead and reach out to some people if I had the chance to write more interest/column-type pieces. A few locals got back to me, including Chattanooga’s Katherine Hanks McAlister and Stephanie Anne Martin, the two ceramicists that make up Annie Hanks Ceramics.
I decided to go forward with the interview even though I wouldn’t be getting class credit for it, and I’m so glad that I did. I’m happy to call Katherine and Stephanie friends after doing this interview, and I implore you to dive in and read what they have to say about creativity, influence, and their artistic process. Their studio in Chattanooga is absolutely beautiful and so much of a home to them both that they even have a stocked closet in the back. Talking with them inspired me to yearn for the development of my own artistic style, and reminded me to keep moving forward and stay confident in my art. Read on to meet Katherine and Stephanie!
In the meantime, I’ll be working on issue two over at Vindagua, preparing our next editor-in-chief to take over when I graduate. If you want my advice, head over to the Annie Hanks Ceramics website and order a mug. Their work is simply stunning!
Katherine & Stephanie were interviewed by Cariann Bradley in their private Chattanooga studio on January 18th, 2017.
Q: Can you both just give me a background on when you started working with ceramics? When did you start this business?
Stephanie: We both moved to a little apartment complex on the North Shore called City Green about five or six years ago. We were neighbors, and we met each other at one of those really corny ‘young professional’ neighborhood parties that those types of places hold. And we instantly became friends. I had just started taking pottery classes and Katherine, I think, had just started taking pottery classes as well. We happened to be in the exact same class, we just didn’t know it yet. We did a lot of pottery together or took those classes together. Then we started climbing a lot and actually hanging out together.
Katherine: We found out we had the same birthday, so we started celebrating our birthday together. Really, our friendship started through just being neighbors, having pottery classes together – just normal friendship. But then we got really serious into pottery. We both picked up this apprenticeship together and that’s where it was kind of like ‘best friends for life’ type status. That was maybe a year after we met.
Q: And how many years ago was that?
Katherine: That was probably 2014. And we had kind of grown as much as we possibly could in the studio where we had begun and it was one of those things where we said, “Either pottery remains a hobby, or we make something out of it.” We had a lot of support from our fiancés, Stephanie’s boyfriend at the time, family and friends.
Stephanie: It was kind of one of those things where we were both a little shocked that everyone was just ‘just do it, just go for it.’ I was working in insurance, bored to death, and you were having a great time with the kiddos, though, working as a preschool teacher. But we both quit our jobs to start this internship at another pottery studio.
Katherine: After being there for about nine months or so, we were like ‘we have to make something out of this. We can do this.' We had a vision that aligned really beautifully, we have an aesthetic that aligns really beautifully, and I think we both have these natural talents that complement each other. And it just made sense. We were at this point in our lives – we were both engaged, we both knew we wanted to stay in Chattanooga for a while, and we both loved pottery. I was a part of this program called Holmburg, where we kind of learned about the arts of Chattanooga. Through that, I was introduced to this place called Workspace,which is downtown. I brought Stephanie along to tour that place. It’s a place where there are about 40 artist studio spaces and a community of artists that help each other out, and there are events held there and that sort of thing. It just made sense. It was a perfect fit for our first step. So we ended up going for it. We started a business plan, found the space, rented the space, and started building our studio. Through that we determined that we wanted to work together as a team rather than working as Katherine Hanks and Stephanie Martin, but instead working as this collaborative name. This collaborative artwork. It’s really unique. Not many people think it made sense.
Stephanie: It didn’t make sense to some people when we started. And people that didn’t really know us told us this was a bad idea.
Katherine: The way we thought about it was sort of like as musicians. People collaborate in a certain way to create a song or to create an album, and it’s really no different. It’s the same way that we collaborate to create glazes and create forms and create a cohesive body of work. As we continued, it just made more and more sense. It fell into place really beautifully. We started our business in October of 2014. We were at Workspace for a year, and moved here exactly a year ago. We just grew out of that space. It was too small. There was a lot of equipment that we needed to be able to get to be able to grow our business; we couldn’t have done that had we stayed in Workspace. It was a great spot to start. We found this place, and it was so disgusting.
Stephanie: We had to put our ceramics on hold for like three months while we renovated this place. It was dingy and disgusting and we had to tear the whole ceiling grid down. Before us it was basically a sweatshop, it was crazy. The shape that it was in was awful.
Katherine: But we are two people that are very inspired by what is surrounding us. Whether its landscape – a lot of motifs that work through our body of work are these landscape themes. I was raised in Texas, and for me that started there. Just this love of place. This love of the natural world and landscape. I think that Stephanie is the same way. Her love of the mountains and hiking and that kind of thing. To be working in a beautiful space in important for us. To feel inspired within the place where we are creating our artwork is important. We did spend a lot of time on the interior of this space, which is because this is home to us. I’m awake here more than I’m awake at home.
Stephanie: We actually have a closet with clothes.
Katherine: I mean, it’s a home to us. To feel comfortable and to feel inspired and to feel like this is a home that creates within us this desire to make. We did take a long time perfecting the interior of this space.
Stephanie: And we still have little projects we’re working on, too.
Q: Did either of you attend art programs? Or did you start doing pottery when you took those classes together?
Stephanie: Katherine went to Sewannee for photography.
Katherine: I was an art major at Sewanee for photography. But I grew up making clay figures out of mud. It went way back, but pottery didn’t go way back for me. Pottery didn’t start until after I graduated in 2012. I was teaching preschool, and I needed something for me, and that’s when I started taking those classes. It was just something I took to really quickly and loved really deeply. It just made sense to me. Almost more than photography ever did. It just clicked. Photography just became so academic that I was just burned out. To have another means of expressing myself through art, this worked. It continues to. So I did go to school for art but not for pottery. And then the internship, and then I’ve done little week-long programs to further my education. That’s actually something we hope to do more of this year is finding great workshops and learning from people who know a lot about the medium.
Stephanie: I don’t have any formal background in art. I grew up in one of those families…I had a brother who was a child prodigy when it came to art. It was insane the work he was producing when he was six years old. I think I was always interested in it, but I thought that what I had to be doing was exactly what my big brother was doing. I just developed that later in life – now.
Q: How has Chattanooga influenced your style or your business?
Stephanie: I think the biggest influence is having so many businesses and other artists within the city. Chattanooga fosters this beautiful place for businesses – from restaurants to the internet crew to builders, contractors, and artists – to thrive. They all really support each other and we have such a great community here. Within Annie Hanks its incredible. We have worked with 10 or 15 different businesses or other artists.
Katherine: We’ve worked collaboratively with some artists doing some medium-scale projects. And then we’ve worked with businesses like Wildflower Tea Shop to create their mugs, teacups, teapots and those types of things. Doing so has fostered a sense of community. I’ve met more people through this business than I could have just going out. Not just met, too, but developed friendships. And a lot of it is small business owners or artists. And artists that are small business owners. I think in a lot of ways, business owners allowing us to do what we will with a project they’ve given us and artists that have this idea or aesthetic that we merge together with our own. We have found this neat balance between all of those things and have been able to create what we will and develop friendships through those projects.
Q: On that same note, what’s your favorite business that you’ve collaborated with in Chattanooga?
Katherine and Stephanie: Wildflower.
Q: I was thinking you might say that!
Katherine: Here’s why. Go ahead.
Stephanie: Hillary, the proprietor of Wildflower, she’s just a gem/angel/amazing/loving/incredible/inspiring human being. You can quote me on that! We just have so much love and respect for this woman. She came into our studio in May of last year and she said, “Hey, so I’m going to open up this tea store,” and gave us the background, the purpose, and went into detail. And she was like, “I found your stuff on Instagram three weeks ago, and I just love it. So I would like to hire y’all to make x-y-and-z,” which is like literally everything that they have in there. She was like, “And y’all are just really great at designing so do what you think.” She told us the ounceage that each vessel should be and then just let us go for it. The fact that she came into our studio and found our art, liked our art, and wanted us to do our thing and create what we wanted for her space was just the biggest compliment.
Katherine: To trust our style enough to be like, ‘Here’s what the interior of the space is going to look like, here is how I want to welcome people, here is how I want people to feel when they are in the space,” – go for it. That is simply incredible. And she did that with every single person.
Stephanie: Yeah, it wasn’t just us. The girl that painted the windows outside and did the logo. She did that with every single artist that was involved. I want to say there were quite a few different artists involved in the creation of her space. With each one she was like, ‘I’m going to give you autonomy over what your personal style is. Go for it.’ I think that’s one of the main reasons why that place is awesome. She just let the people that create, do their thing. She’s awesome.
Q: We had a Lee student intern here – Laura Johnson. What opportunities for involvement do you offer to the community here in Chattanooga or even Cleveland?
Stephanie: We’ve had Laura and then we also had a student from Covenant, her name is Caroline. Those were our only two interns we’ve ever had. It was really a great experience for us. We are so used to working with each other, that the idea of bringing someone else in – we happen to be like sisters and best friends. So bringing a stranger in was interesting. It was a really incredible experience. I think we will continue to be open to that at some point. Right now we’re trying to focus and set our sights on developing more of our fine art. And understanding what that looks like for us.
Katherine: Beyond that, we do work a lot with different artists and makers. We’ve had some events here, and we’ve had some events in Wildflower and different places. Events selling our work alongside other people and creating those events, too. That’s something that we’re always trying to push ourselves out there to do so we can meet more people and that kind of thing. Those kinds of events are – we probably do that about four times a year or so – they’re really good for us.
Stephanie: We love hosting things here.
Q: Do you ever do workshops or anything like that?
Stephanie: We haven’t. But that’s not something we would ever be closed off to.
Katherine: We’ve done little things, like day-long workshops. Such as a bachelorette party. Things like that. Those are definitely things that we are open to. At this point, we’re busy with commission work, so we haven’t been able to open up our studio to the public for teaching opportunities. But if anyone is ever interested, we love talking to people that are interested. Also, there is this killer studio that’s opening up downtown. Scenic City Clay Arts is what it’s called. There will be a lot of teachers there. We may end up teaching with a potter on Lookout Mountain for a six-week course at Scenic City Clay Arts. We’ll teach with him – Mark Issenberg. We haven’t set any dates yet though. That will be fun when that happens.
Stephanie: And I understand that Lee has a strong ceramic department?
Q: Yeah, our art department is definitely growing.
Stephanie: The Scene City thing would definitely be a great thing to tell the students about.
Katherine: Yeah, definitely.
Q: So, do you want to tell me a little bit about your style and your pieces?
Katherine: Yeah, maybe we can talk about how our pieces evolve and how they start.
Stephanie: Let’s talk about the indigo stuff. That’s better than trying to explain it all.
Katherine: Yeah, here’s an example. Of the evolution of a glaze and a form. Not this past Christmas, but Christmas of 2015, Stephanie’s brother–
Stephanie: My brother is super, super particular. About everything. He lives in Charleston and works there. He called me and he’s like, “Stephanie, I think that you really need to start making some pottery that has Charleston blue in it.” And I was just like, ‘Charleston blue?’ First of all, Katherine and me don’t live in Charleston. That’s not really in the forefront of our minds. We have this hilarious conversation and he was basically just trying to convince me of what we should do. I just sort of disregarded it. That was in the summer. Then, approaching Christmas, I thought that I could make a Charleston blue cup for Nathan. That would just be the best Christmas gift for him. It was one of those points during the Christmas season where we were trying to get everything through the kiln and just get it out. I had a couple of thoughts like, ‘If we combine this glaze and this glaze and then brush this on’ and whatever. So I just ran one test through the kiln. Then we saw the potential in the test when it came out of the kiln. We were just like, ‘Oh my god, that’s it.’ We knew what we were supposed to be doing. Which is crazy. It wasn’t even like a full glaze; we were just educated guessing. It happened to come out really great. I made a cup for Nathan and it was great. Then Katherine was working on something – I don’t even think you had a specific idea of what you were doing, I think you were just–
Katherine: I was just throwing.
Stephanie: Yeah, and then I remember – this is actually so silly – but I remember that day so well. You were throwing and I was recycling clay by hand. Side note, we used to have to recycle all of our clay by hand. It was tedious. And I looked over and Katherine had this really tall cylinder on the wheel. I was like ‘oh my gosh,’ I mean we had just started making pitchers. But they were way more bulby and round. Which, we still do make the softer-edge pitcher. But we started talking about it and we talked through the whole thing. And Katherine created this beautiful pitcher, which I think is the best pitcher we’ve ever made.
Katherine: We started with this glaze. This is something that we nearly perfected last year.
Q: So you made that glaze yourself?
Katherine: We created this glaze. And this is two glazes layered on top of one another. It’s a pretty simple, semi-matte, clear glaze underneath a crystalline glaze. And by crystalline, I mean there are crystal formations here. And so we were working on this glaze. This was the glaze that Stephanie said, “Maybe if we added some cobalt carbonate – which is this blue – to this, it would do something neat.” No idea what that meant. So we did a few things. Let’s see what the color is. What does the color do with certain layers of each glaze. How does it react. So we did four of these tests that gave us an idea of what this might look like. That was around the same time that I was throwing this pitcher and it was a form that just seemed to make sense. It was more of a modern aesthetic than we had ever done before. It was very clean – clean lines. Which, we normally work with clean lines, but this was different. These were straight up and down, inward tilt. So all of these things came together at one. I had started the form, she had started this idea on the glaze. They seemed to work together at the right time. It was like this epiphany within this one week. I think it was the last kiln load of the year that we took this pitcher out and we took some other cups out. That was the beginning of this glaze. So this is what we’ve come to after testing it for a year. A full year. We have finally perfected the glaze to where there are crystals in here and the running of the cobalt.
Stephanie: Also, painting with cobalt is something that people have been doing for thousands of years.
Katherine: I think we’ve just made it our own. That’s an example of how we might work together to bring an idea into being. And if you look around, a lot of our stuff is now that indigo. Then after that pitcher idea, we wanted to create mugs that worked with that. And that’s become our indigo mug. And some of our favorites that we drink out of every day. I think from there, we became very serious about creating glazes that fit a certain form. Or creating a form that fit a certain glaze. So that’s how we work. Our white gloss will go on these more bulbous, more feminine-formed mugs. And then our indigo will go on a more modern-shaped mug. That’s just an example. A long-winded one, but yeah. We could talk about glaze development all day long.
Q: Yeah, I guess that’s my thing. I don’t know much about glazes. I’m sure that the students at Lee might be working with standard glazes, but it sounds like you guys are actually inventing your own.
Katherine: The way I explain glazes is this: its like looking through a cookbook. It’s like building a recipe. Its like ‘two cups sugar, two cups flour,’ except instead of flour and sugar its silica and flux. You know, different minerals that come from the earth. So, again, going back to this deep devotion we have to the earth and to landscape. We are making these glazes out of earth. Its ground rock, ground mineral; its chemical that comes form the earth. And combining those in a certain level that does a certain thing in a high temperature – like 2200 degrees – that then creates these effects that we’re going for. We’ll generally start with a standard recipe and tweak that to do what we’re looking for. So it’s a lot of science. It’s a lot of chemistry that we’re doing. And we are still babies in this field, so we are just trying to soak up as much as we can.
Stephanie: Like taking something and understanding the general structure of it.
Katherine: So all the chemicals we work with are powders and we get those from Asheville. We’ll do small tests with layers of glaze just to see what affects they might have. We use test tiles. These glazes aren’t fully developed, but from the tests we can determine, “Okay do we need more water? Do we need more silica? What do we need more and less of?” It can be a process that takes a long time because it has so many variables. And then you throw in the kiln as a variable – how packed is the kiln? Are there a lot of pieces in there? Because if there are a lot of pieces then the air can’t move through as much. The heat isn’t as evenly distributed.
Stephanie: We have cones that give us a reading of temperature during the full firing to know the melting points and how the heat is doing in there. We need to have an accurate read on each shelf of what’s happening.
Katherine: So that’s just a little, brief description of what goes into glaze development and things like that. It’s a lot of fun, but it can be really frustrating. And it can be really disheartening at times, too. Not everything comes out beautifully. That’s really hard sometimes when you’ve been working on a piece for two months and the last thing that needs to come out is the glaze – then it doesn’t. You know? There are times when it can really hurt. But I would say generally, we’ve gotten to the point now where we know our glazes well enough to where we can feel confident in it. Putting this in here, it’s going to come out fantastic. And that’s a good place. It feels good to be there.
Q: What advice would you give to college art students or creatives in general? Maybe for someone wanting to do art full-time or not. I think a lot of young people can get discouraged at the idea of doing art full-time. Its just rare.
Stephanie: I think it’s a really tough thing to do. Because you’re taking something that’s so personal to you – something that is coming from you, through your fingers or your voice, or whatever – and you’re bringing this permanence into the world. And then you have to balance that between other people’s opinions. Because now you’re putting out that energy, emotion, or thought into tangible form. And then someone else is always going to have an opinion of it. I think that was one of the scariest things for Katherine and I. So not to listen to that.
Katherine: I think being confident in your work, being confident in yourself. And never feeling like you know everything. Always seeking the advice of people who know more than you. We are always going to be beginners. Stephanie and I will – when we are eighty years old and still best friends – we are still going to not know a fraction of this work. Of what pottery can do. So I think its important to maintain that belief that ‘I always have more to learn’. Don’t get too full of yourself. Be confident, but no need to get full of yourself. Always know that there is more to know. There is more to learn, there are people to learn from. I think once we opened our eyes up to the idea of ‘Gosh, there are even these people in Chattanooga – potters that we can learn from.’ We have created these deep friendships through that that I think will last forever.
Q: Who are your biggest artistic inspirations?
Katherine: For me, right now, its people that I know. People that I talk to. Mark Issenberg. I trust him deeply both because he has done this for years and years, but also because he cares about us. I know that he has my best interest in mind. So, to know people personally… It’s one thing for me to like an artist’s work. Its another thing entirely for me to deeply know the person–
Stephanie: And know the art that comes from them and understand that connection.
Katherine: Yeah, there is a deeper understanding to me that comes from someone I know and love and I find even more magic in their work. I’m just going to say Mark Issenberg right now because… he’s incredible. And has kind of become a grandfatherly figure to us. In the past two years.
Stephanie: I would say the same about Mark. I would also throw in a lot of people in my family that have been artists full-time for a very long time. And Asheville, which is so oversaturated with artists, I have a lot of respect for what they do.
Katherine: What’s that Mitch guy’s name? I have one guy that – well, we actually talk about him a lot—
Stephanie: Oh yeah, he’s a guy that we follow on Instagram.
Katherine: It’s Mitch Iburg. He just has this rawness to his work. He has this raw, earthiness. And he digs his own clay, harvests—
Stephanie: He has such an intense knowledge of where he’s digging from and all the different minerals that are present in the clay. And just understanding the topography of where he is. He talks about it in length.
Katherine: If we’re talking getting to know the material that you’re using, this guy does it. And that…that’s something Stephanie and I have wanted to explore more. Digging our own clay, harvesting that from a place that we know. Creating a deeper connection through doing that. So he is one that I don’t know too much about but I look through his work often.
Q: So I have one more question that I wrote down here. What do you hope people gain from using your pieces?
Katherine: The easy answer is just a comfort. These are all handmade, they’re all a little different. They’re all going to fit differently in your hands. They’re all going to have a different personality. But to have a different connection to this piece – like this isn’t something that you would get at Target, you know? To feel – this might sound corny – but to feel the love that was poured into each piece. Because, this sounds so silly, but we talk to each piece. We care about the wellbeing of each mug, each bowl that we create. So for people to sense that when they are drinking their morning coffee or their morning tea out of a handmade mug—
Stephanie: Yeah, we look a random notes or letters where people would say, “Oh, I love your mug so much, it just brings me so much happiness.” That means the world to us. Just that people feel that and then take the actual initiative to return that feedback to us. I think seeing that it’s not only a vessel that they are eating or drinking out of; it’s a piece of art as well.