“This is good, but you can do better.”
Elysia Vandenbussche, owner of Local Portion, threw away many projects in art school on her way to becoming a crazy-talented ceramics maker. One professor constantly pushed her, telling her again and again not to fire her pieces, to reclaim the clay and give it another shot.
“I was so angry,” Elysia says. “But that was good advice. I kept pushing myself, and now that I’m alone in my own studio, I’m still pushing myself and looking at the details. I recently showed him one of my cups and he couldn’t believe that I made it.”
Who has pushed you in your life, encouraging you to reach your potential? Share in the comments. We’d love to hear the advice that stuck with you!
People with Panache: When did you first fall in love with ceramics?
Elysia Vandenbussche: I started when I was a kid. My mom put me in a community class around my neighborhood. And I loved it. I was a pretty rebellious child, so I never took the basics of ceramics; I would just go to the basement of the studio, put my earphones on, blast music and do my own thing.
In high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I ended up going to a private art school in Detroit, the College for Creative Studies, at first for photography, then film. But then ceramics found me again, instead of me really choosing it. It’s like a good relationship, like how did I get here with this person?
PWP: When did you start actually selling pieces?
EV: I started selling in high school through family and friends. They would see stuff and ask to buy it from me. After I graduated from college, it took me a while to get the business set up. I had trouble finding a studio. It took me two years to find something. This past January was the first time I was able to get a space to start creating. Since then things just really took off. It’s been quite the journey with ups and downs and failing and failing again and succeeding and getting good clients and losing out on jobs. It’s been a whirlwind of figuring it out.
PWP: How did you do it? It’s like real-life Business 101.
EV: I’ve never learned more than by just having hands-on experience doing this and not giving up. It was really logical for me to make this my profession, not only because it’s my passion, but it’s the only language I understand. My job options as a ceramic artist were limited here in Detroit and outside of Michigan too. I could go to grad school and become a teacher, that was the best option, and I didn’t want to do that. Sometimes I think about grad school, but for now this is my own version of grad school.
PWP: Is this your sole source of income?
EV: Right now, yeah. This past summer I got really big jobs and big clients so it was great. I was slammed, and I worked every weekend of the whole summer. The last show I did was for Red Bull House of Art, which was an amazing experience.
PWP: What is Red Bull House of Art? We’ve never heard of that.
EV: They have two Houses of Art in the world, one here in Detroit and one in Brazil. They have a curator, a really well-recognized artist, who reaches out and finds seven or eight artists every so many months—it goes through a cycle—and they sponsor you and have a huge exhibition at the end. They do a ton of press. They cater to you and give you money for materials; it’s amazing. That was my first experience. It really showed my playful side.
PWP: That is so cool that Red Bull does that. How did they find you?
EV: From around town and seeing my work at shows. In art school I learned that you go to a gallery, and you show your work. But this is a unique situation with Red Bull because they sponsor you. They only take out a small percentage, and they package it up for you and ship it out if it sells. Most galleries take a larger percentage, and I have to double or triple my price. But I don’t want it to be that price. I want as many handmade cups in people’s hands as possible. This is more than a cup made in China; there are people behind this, it’s affecting our economy.
“It’s a story, it’s a journey, it’s a learning process.”
PWP: Is there any part about owning your company that maybe doesn’t come as naturally to you?
EV: I may be good at ceramics, but I’m not that good at business. I was talking to someone recently about this, and I was being really hard on myself. He said you’re good at business because you’re smart, you know what you want and you’re staying grounded to what you’re building.
I could become anything. I could become the next Heath Ceramics, one of the biggest ceramics companies in the US. Or I could go international. But I could still go international staying this small. There are organic ways to grow, and that’s how it happened back in the day, especially for a craftsperson and designer. I don’t want to just become a huge warehouse. It’s about the artistry. It’s a story, it’s a journey, it’s a learning process. Every day I’m learning something new about the direction I’m going to go, choices I have to make. One important thing is that I learn how to say no. It’s so tough because I don’t want to. I might have an opportunity for a big job, but I have to look at if it’s a fit. Is this the right job for me?
PWP: How do you say no? I think that’s something we could work on too.
EV: I don’t know if there’s a real answer. Every individual is different. You have to keep practicing and be aware that you can say no. Knowing that you have that option is the first step. You have to be willing to disappoint people too—sometimes even yourself. You do sometimes feel like you missed out on something. Even with press options, there’s only so much you can do.
PWP: Well, thanks for saying yes to us!
EV: It’s really great what you guys are doing. It’s also a lot about not giving up—my biggest thing. There are challenges every day, but you have to keep going. You’ll get through it somehow.
PWP: What’s your favorite thing about owning your company?
EV: I love being dependent on myself. I’ve had so many different jobs in my life. This takes discipline. I want to invest in myself. I love doing creative projects for other people, collaborations, and having the freedom to create and own my own company while investing in myself and others. That’s what fuels me. It’s endless.
[Photos by Alysse.]