At the beginning of the pandemic, Emory senior Kate Bachman moved back home to Northern Kentucky, where she created a makeshift ceramics studio in her grandmother’s 100-year-old garage. It was a decision that not only saved her from going “absolutely crazy with boredom,” but gave her the freedom to pursue both her passion for clay and build her new business getting into the hands of the world. Not that it’s been all perfect bowls and mugs in the studio; far from it. Kate’s Instagram feed includes a highlight called “broken pots.” Her point is not to amuse with a “blooper reel” of sorts, but to inform and inspire: “You work so long on something and it breaks. That makes it a great meditation, because you're constantly having to not be attached to what you make.” Indeed, for Kate, her art is more than a creative outlet and burgeoning enterprise. It’s the window through which she sees the world -- an ethos of intentional community and the practice of meditative non-attachment.
Kate’s pieces are both functional -- think big comfort mugs and ramen bowls -- and artistic, in opalescent colors and rustic textures that make you want to reach out and touch. Moreover, many of her pieces are inscribed with quotes from great thinkers, such as Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou. But Kate’s goal is not just to sell housewares infused with meaning, but to use her ceramics to live out a mission. To that end, Kate recently launched “Shared Table,” a business committed to “fighting for racial, economic, and food justice to ensure everyone has a place at the table,” by donating a portion of her proceeds to causes on the front lines of these causes. The business is, aptly, named after a very special meal she once had -- 10,000 miles from home, in Australia.
To learn about that meal, plus Kate’s journey from artist to artist-entrepreneur, Quadio caught up with her recently at her studio, where, as she explains, she’s found inspiration in some very unexpected places.
Have you been playing with clay since forever?
Actually, no! I started at a community class when I was a senior in high school. It was six weeks long, but you could go in every day of the week to practice if you wanted. Nobody else did, but I went every single day after school. I totally fell in love with it. For college, I moved to Atlanta a little bit earlier than my friends did, so it was a pretty lonely time. But there was a studio right near campus. Having a community of potters who were welcoming and kind to me, and also the process of pottery to take my mind off of things, was so helpful. The time that I spent at MudFire Studio really helped me learn the process better, and eventually I even started teaching. I taught date night classes, which was hilarious.
You made a pretty quick transition into selling your pieces. How did you even learn about starting a business?
I'm studying business at Emory, actually, management consulting. But it’s not just what I’m learning in classes. When I was at MudFire, I did an apprenticeship where I got a key to the studio, and in exchange, I worked eight hours a week. Just from being around the other people who were mostly full-time potters, I learned so much about the business of pottery. Also, when I had more time to make pottery, I started to accumulate a lot, and it became necessary for me to grow my social media following so that I could give it away to people. That was when I started posting really consistently, trying to get the photography up and running, doing online giveaways, and building the website. All of that came when I started to have more time to make the pottery. And it's also fun to get to share your work with other people and figure out what hashtags work and what photo layout gets the most saves or shares. It's kind of like a game.
How did you come up with the name “Shared Table” for your business?
Before my freshman year, I was a nanny in Sydney, Australia. One day, I made my way to this neighborhood an hour train ride from where I was living. It was a ridiculous journey to go to a restaurant, but I was just exploring. I went in and they sat me down at this long table, and there was one seat in the middle and the rest of the seats were full. I was in a country that I'd never been to before, I didn't know anyone, and here I was, at a full table of people. The restaurant was a pay-as-you-can model, so the whole idea was so that anybody could eat at this healthy vegan restaurant, even if you were unable to afford nice healthy food ordinarily. Or if you could afford more, you just pay more, so that the person next to you who maybe couldn't pay for the meal could also eat. I was sitting at a table with all of these people who I'd never met before, who were so different than me, and they struck up a conversation with me. The guy sitting across from me was a Buddhist bookseller, and his partner worked at the botanical gardens of Sydney. That's exactly what the world needs; a place where everybody sits at the table together, no matter where you're coming from or how much money you have. I left the restaurant on a high and that's been my long-term vision. I don't know when it'll happen or how, but I want to have a space like that eventually where my pottery is on the table of that space. I'm continuously working towards that, and I want to keep the ethos of my pottery in that vision.
Your pottery is often decorated with quotes. How did that start, and why?
I was reading the poet Mary Oliver once, and I really liked one of her quotes, “Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually. Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” I put it on the bottom of the vase, and I took a picture of it and posted it to Instagram. It got so much more attention than any of my posts have ever gotten, and it barely even showed my pottery. And months after that, I was still getting comments on it and still getting people who were following me because of that post.
So in a way, your customers led you!
Yes, I love that! I love that idea of people washing their dishes and having a positive reflection for the day.
You seem to delight in your broken pots on Instagram--
I think the whole beauty of handmade pottery is that the process is slow. Even though you could buy a mug at Target, the story behind every piece of handmade pottery is this slow process that happened because of the patience of one person who went through this whole process. That's my ethic, slowing down and trying to live sustainably and consciously. It's a meditation on non-attachment, because you spend so much time working on this plate, and then it just breaks, and it's all cracked and on the floor. Honestly, at this point in my pottery process, it's kind of beautiful. When I drop a cup on the floor and it shatters, it's almost cathartic. All that effort, all that time, and then it's gone. I can remember one time in particular where I was rearranging some cups and then one of them fell on the ground with a loud crash and it shattered. For some reason, I just laughed. It just felt so good, because you spent so much time and you're worried about it, and then it breaks and it’s not a problem.
I think it's important to make sure that people are aware that there are ups and downs to the process, and when you're making one piece and selling it, it's not just the one piece that you're selling. It's also all of the mistakes that you made and all of the things that you had to learn to get to that piece.
It must be amazing to have your own studio. It came about very organically, right?
When the pandemic hit, I moved home from Atlanta, and at first, I was at my childhood home, which had a little portable wheel and I just started making pottery on my back porch. I put it on an upside-down crate, and I would just sit on my porch and I was using all of these household items to try to substitute for items that would be at the studio. I was using a spatula instead of pot lifters and all of these crazy things, just trying to make it work. At the time, that was when I needed pottery the most. My life was turned upside-down and I had nothing to do. But then my family actually moved in with my grandmother, and she has this detached garage in the backyard, and it was completely empty. A couple weeks before we moved, I walked down there, and I was like, "This would be the perfect spot for a pottery studio. There's all this exposed brick and wood ceilings." I took my little tiny wheel and I put it there, then I got tables from around the yard or around the house and put together a little studio, and it was awesome.
Your glazes are insanely beautiful. Did you copy them or invent them, or how does that work? Glazes feel like trade secrets --
That's actually something that I love about the pottery community. Everybody's so eager to share what works for them, and it’s beautiful. Sometimes people message me what glazes I use, and my first thought can be, "Oh, you got to keep secrets." But then I’m like, "No, absolutely not. I got this idea from somebody else." I definitely draw inspiration from other potters on Instagram, but my favorite pieces are inspired by mugs at my grandmother's house. She has a big collection of handmade pottery all around her house, which I really didn't notice until we moved in here, but she's kind of a collector of this stuff. And looking at the glazes that she displays and they're not the colors that I was using before. I didn't really do bright blue anything before the pandemic but my family just really likes the blue, so I've been doing that.
Pottery can be a very quiet pursuit. Or do you listen to stuff in the studio?
Oh, I love that question. Last week, I listened to a lot of Quadio tracks like Un1ty by RUSHIL and Loner by NERIAH. I don't know if this is a personality thing or if this is just weird, but I like to listen to the same three songs over and over again. Obviously, right now, I'm loving Taylor Swift's new album. Another playlist that I've been loving for making pottery is the Pride and Prejudice playlist, which is almost entirely piano music and so relaxing. Highly recommend. I'll listen to it on repeat all day. I also listen to a lot of Splendid Table, which is the NPR podcast about food.
You’ll be graduating soon -- where do you want to take your pottery next?
Right now, I'm super into making sets. I love the idea of being able to set a full table with plates and cups and bowls, just because my whole vision is for people to gather around a table. But I think the last few months of doing it full-time has made me realize I don't want to rely on pottery for my income just now, just because lots of things go wrong. I have so much respect for people who do it, but I'm not ready just yet. Someday, I hope.