There’s a certain romance to the notion of handcrafting something that will outlive us all, carrying a part of one’s self with it. For Brit McDaniel, artist and ceramicist behind Paper & Clay, her handmade wares embody a part of her that she shares with those who use them. Her Scandinavian-inspired designs, custom dipped in handmade glazes with unique color combinations, are as beautiful as they are functional. Brit knows the struggle of owning a small business and keeping her creativity sharp, but she’s embraced these challenges head-on and talks openly about how she balances her work and life as an artist and maker. We were able to spend an afternoon with Brit (and her trusty companion, Gracie) in her roomy, bright studio space in the Broad Avenue Arts District of Memphis.
Photography by Sarah Rossi.
Please tell us a little about yourselves and your work.
As the designer behind Paper & Clay, I make modern, functional ceramics that are designed to be both beautiful and usable. I draw inspiration from my love of Scandinavian design, which you can see not only in the design of my forms and color palettes but also in the warmth and simplicity of my collection. Each piece is made by hand with careful attention to detail, and each glaze has been carefully developed from scratch to create colors that mix and match harmoniously. I love having simple but well-made elements as a part of my own home, and I strive to create work that will be a beautiful and useful addition to yours.
What is your background in ceramics? How did you get involved in this craft?
I fell in love with ceramics as an undergrad at the University of Memphis. I was a photography major, but switched after one semester working with clay. It took me a long time to find my way into ceramic professionally though. When I was in school, I felt like it was so impractical. I was paying for tuition with loans and a full-time job, and I was exhausted and honestly pretty depressed. I went through a phase where I felt like my happiness was tied tightly to my financial security, so I left school and took a job in Austin. It’s a material that is both reliable and unpredictable. It challenges me constantly, so I never get bored, but I can see measured progress in the quality of my work over the years. I’m fond of the idea that I’m creating objects that will long outlive any of us, and that will therefore carry a piece of me into the future.
Where do you seek inspiration for your designs?
Everywhere! Sometimes I find inspiration in utility. I see a need for a specific design—or an opportunity to improve upon something that already exists.
I sometimes find the desire to create after traveling to a new place or spending a lot of time outside. I find a lot of my inspiration comes from Scandinavian design and the desire to marry form & function. I want my work to be beautiful but also functional and comfortable to use.
As I become a more accomplished glaze maker, I find myself very interested in color and the way colors work together in sets. I love the control that comes with making my own glazes. I’ve created all of my colors with my overall palette in mind.
Tell us about your studio space.
I moved to a new studio earlier this year and I’m so happy that I made the jump. My space is located in the Broad Avenue Arts District, and I have a studio mate who is a really talented jewelry maker (and close friend). We share about 1000 square feet of raw commercial space. We’re lucky to have a lot of natural light and a big garage door in the back which is incredible during nice weather. We built a dividing wall separating our spaces and creating a very small retail space which we have open each Saturday. I love the neighborhood, and we are walking distance to one of the best coffee shops in town.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
When I get to the studio in the mornings, I generally need a few minutes to get into the groove of the day. This usually involves queuing up whichever audiobook or podcast I’m listening to, sipping on some coffee and catching up with my studio mate. My pup, Gracie comes with me every day so sometimes we play a little morning fetch, too. Once we’re settled in, it’s time to get to work. I try to start and end each day with making, so casting and throwing on the wheel take up the first couple of hours. Taking care of these tasks early also ensures that my new (wet) work will be dry enough to relocate to my drying shelves by the afternoon where they will dry slowly for several days. I then move on to a social media check-in, where I make or schedule any posts for the day, and check my work email. From here I prep any afternoon projects and I spend the middle of the day prepping and packing orders. My awesome UPS guy, “Sly,” comes by around 3 every day so I know I need to have any outgoing orders ready by then. After Lunch I get back to some studio work, usually completing tasks like making & attaching mug handles, trimming & sanding work, or glazing and loading up the kiln. If I’m lucky I’ll get a second peek at my email in. On days when I have errands to run, meetings, conference calls or other business responsibilities, I wrap up my studio work early to make room. I try to leave by 5 or 6 each day so that I have time to make dinner and have ample downtime. It’s taken a long time to figure out the value of really separating work & personal time. I’m a more productive and much happier person when I have time to re-set.
What, in your experience, have been the biggest challenges in starting and sustaining your own business?
I find the biggest challenge that I face is balancing the responsibilities and requirement of running a business with the desire to create and the need to design and develop new work. Eventually, I’d love to have a business manager so that I can dedicate more time to the design and production of new products.
What is it like being a maker in America right now?
I think being a maker in the US right now is probably a very different experience from city to city. I feel fortunate to live and work in a city with a low cost of living, which allowed me to obtain my first studio and start Paper & Clay. I definitely feel a renewed appreciation for handmade work in the states. I would love to see more small-batch manufacturing domestically, which is a necessity if you want to ethically scale a handmade brand without losing the integrity of the work. I think that we are collectively becoming more aware of this need, and I’m hopeful that progress in this area will not only help small makers but also our national economy as a whole.
What do you love most about Memphis?
There are so many things to love about Memphis. We are an incredibly diverse city, we have a rich history, amazing food, a thriving arts and theatre community— and we are seeing so many positive developments in the city and surrounding areas. I have to say, the most incredible thing about Memphis from a creative’s perspective is simply the cost-to-culture ratio. Memphis is one of the most affordable cities in the nation, but with SO much to offer.
Top 5 places you need to visit in Memphis?
1. Crosstown Concourse — A massive and newly re-developed historic Sears Warehouse. Eat, shop, relax. You can even live here. Dog friendly, too!
2. Broad Avenue Arts District — you can find art studios, shops, coffee, dinner, drinks & more.
3. Elmwood Cemetery — Sounds weird, but it’s a gorgeous, (I mean gorgeous!) historic cemetery.
4. The Edge District — Upcoming area with great coffee, beer & Sun Studios.
5. Big River Crossing — A pedestrian bridge linking Tennessee & Arkansas. Walk across the Mississippi River!