For some, being an artist is something to consciously work at and push yourself to become. For a lucky handful however, it seems to be intuition, woven into the fabric of who they are and something that seems to come naturally. For Louisa Podlich, creating and making things has always been a part of who she was since as early as she can remember. She was what she refers as a “childhood entrepreneur”, creating lanyards, cards, and jewelry for neighbors and friends. Over time, her creative energy has taken her wandering down many paths, eventually convening into her own ceramics business, A MANO, coming to fruition. After working a few odd jobs post-graduation, working as a portrait photographer, and eventually running a website that sold various goods by other artists, Louisa became inspired by (and a bit jealous of) the artists she worked with. This lit a fire that helped make the leap towards creating her own ceramic business. Since then, A MANO (which means “by hand”) has evolved into a multi-faceted business that sells an array of kitchenware, planters, and spirit rocks (more on that below!), all while staying true to the handmade sentimentality. Each piece is, as Louisa promises, made with love.
We got a chance to visit her studio in Minneapolis and chat with her about her life and work. Read on below!
Photography by Jenny Li.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your work.
I was born and raised in Minnesota and have spent most of my life here. I’m a life-long maker: as a kid I made friendship bracelets, lanyards, greeting cards and beaded jewelry and sold my creations to neighbors and any other unsuspecting victims I could find. I went to school in Madison, WI and came back after graduating college with a BA in Spanish literature. I tried my hand at multiple jobs for years after graduation, including working at a law firm, a tuition aid company, the catering division of a big restaurant and a jewelry store. Over time, it became clear that I would be most successful as my own boss, so I launched into professional photography, where I’ve been working with portrait clients for almost 10 years. Three or four years ago I got back into ceramics and haven’t stopped creating since. My work is bright and fun; I make my pieces with intention and try to consider how they’ll be used in peoples’ homes. It’s really important to me that at least some of my pieces always remain affordable to people of all ages and income brackets. Art is not a privilege, it’s a right and everyone should have access to the joy it can bring into our lives.
What is your background in ceramics?
Before A MANO became my ceramics brand, it was the name of an online shop I created, where I sold work by other designers. For over three years I had beautiful handmade objects arriving at my front door on a weekly basis and I was so inspired by all of the talented makers that I started itching to get back into making art and not just selling it. Although I took a ceramics class in high school, I’m mostly a learn-by-doing kind of girl. I took some wheel-throwing refresher courses through community ed and begged advice from my ceramic artist friends and just played with clay in all of my spare time. Eventually, my voice started to emerge, I got my own kiln and wheel, and that’s where we are today.
Tell us about the spirit rocks!
I wish I had a profound origin story for the spirit rocks, but the truth is that they were sort of an accident! I had been making small animals out of clay for a few months and one day I had a little lump of clay that was too small to be a critter, so I decided to make it into a miniature sculpture. It was so satisfying that I made a few more, and put a set of three on Instagram once they came out of the kiln. That first set sold in about 5 minutes, at which point I realized I was on to something, and I haven’t stopped making them for the last three years. They’ve taken on their own identity over the years, and serve a surprising number of purposes. Making and glazing them serves as a sort of meditation and they make great glaze combination testers. The rocks themselves speak to people for myriad reasons. Some people buy them as cute little art objects, and use them to dress up their instagram feeds. Others choose to put them in fairy gardens, terrariums or rock collections. I’ve had people buy them to use in therapy practices, to offer comfort and to keep in a pocket during tough times. Every time I turn around they’re taking on new meanings for my clients and it inspires me to keep making them with good intentions.
Where do you seek inspiration for your designs?
It’s tough to pinpoint any certain inspiration for my work, especially because I do a lot of production, making the same thing over and over again. When I make new work I usually turn to nature for new color combinations and shapes. I’m especially intrigued by lichen, moss and tropical fish.
Tell us about your studio space.
I LOVE my studio. Having a place that’s bright and full of my treasures and artwork is a gift. My space is in an industrial warehouse in Northeast Minneapolis. The building was built in 1917 and was a seed packing and shipping facility for years. Now it’s an ever-changing labyrinth of artist studios. My space is just under 800 square feet and has high ceilings, old hardwood floors and giant windows that face south. There’s no time of day or season where the light isn’t glorious, and when I turn the key in the lock and walk in I always breathe a sigh of relief. I often wish my space was as clean and tidy as it is bright, but the reality is that it’s a working studio and there are jars of glaze and bags of clay and half-finished projects on every surface. In my next life I hope to be more organized, but in this life it looks like it’s controlled chaos from here on out.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
Because I have a few part time gigs and work as a photographer in addition to being a ceramic artist there’s no truly typical day. There’s lots of bouncing from task to task to try to finish everything on time. I’m definitely most productive in the morning, and I like the studio when it’s quiet, so I’m often there by 7 or 7:30. I might unload the kiln, or print orders from the previous day and lay them out to be packed. Throwing is always easier in the morning too, before I get too tired, so if I have wheel work I usually do that in the early part of the day. I might do some glazing and then run errands in the early afternoon. In the spring and summer I have to do lots of plant shopping to fill planters for art shows, and there are always bowls drying on my porch in the summer sun. Evenings are for building spirit rocks and working from the comfort of my sofa. I might answer emails, send invoices or make to-do lists for the following day. Add photography and editing into the mix, along with making time for friends and family and it’s easy to see how there is no “normal” in my daily life.
What, in your experience, have been the biggest challenges in starting and sustaining your own business?
If you were to take a poll of makers around the country, I bet the biggest response would be time. There are only 24 hours in a day, and even if you only spend 8 of those hours doing things like sleeping, eating, getting dressed and commuting to and from work, there still aren’t enough minutes to complete all of the tasks that need to be finished. In my own practice, I spend less than half of my waking hours actually creating things. The rest of the time is gobbled up by answering emails, sourcing materials, meeting with clients, applying to shows, taking photos and posting items online to sell, social media posting… the list goes on and on and on. Plus, you know, we can’t make the same things over and over indefinitely, so we’ve got to find time somewhere in there to listen to new ideas that might creep in, develop those thoughts and ultimately create new work. I could work 16 hours a day 7 days each week and there would still be more to do. It never stops. It’s exhausting and exhilarating.
What is it like being a maker in America right now?
Having only been a full-time maker for about three years, I don’t have much of a comparison for what it’s like now, vs. a time in the past. But, honestly, it seems pretty great. People are exceptionally responsive to handmade items and the enormity of the internet, Instagram in particular, means that you can reach a global audience of visually like-minded individuals, for free, 365 days a year. You can use social media tools to crowd source what your audience likes best, and you can tailor your business directly to your audience. There’s also the benefit of e-commerce and those spiffy little devices that let you turn your phone into a credit card machine. It’s easier than ever before to reach customers and make sales.
What do you love most about your community in Minneapolis- St.Paul?
Minneapolis in particular is a very special place. The people who live here hold space in their lives for art and craft and they come out in droves to support makers. Art crawls, pop-ups and markets are almost always well-attended and people actually shop. It’s not uncommon for artists to have local followings of customers who come to all of their events and promote them on social media, just because they feel passionately about the work or the maker. The artist community itself is also astonishingly strong. Most of my dearest friends are also makers who own their own companies. We are able to freely share advice, information and resources to make each other stronger. My network is made up largely of female and non-binary business owners and they are tough, supportive, creative and incredibly hard-working.
Top 5 places you need to visit in the Twin Cities area?
This one is tough, because you could pull from so many categories, but I’ll just go with my gut:
1. The Northrup King Building. This is where my studio is, but I loved it long before I got keys of my own. It was originally a seed-packing and shipping facility, but has been converted to affordable artist studios and it now houses about 250 artists in the Northeast Minneapolis arts district. I’m partial to the second floor, studio 252.
2. Young Joni. This relatively new restaurant has become so popular it’s almost impossible to even get a reservation, but if you manage to snag one, definitely try the Korean bbq pizza. And any of the salads. And any of the appetizers. The atmosphere is mellow, the food is delicious and the price tag is reasonable enough that you can go once a month without feeling major guilt.
3. Eli’s East. Most of my food budget goes to this neighborhood spot. They have a decent wine list, a great weekend brunch menu and solid sandwiches, salads and wings. Plus, they have a patio and they’re within walking distance of my studio. Eli’s isn’t profoundly spectacular or fancy at all, but the food is good and I feel right at home when I’m there.
4. St. Anthony Main. This quiet little pocket of the city sits right on the Mississippi River and has the best view of downtown Minneapolis. The restaurants all have outdoor patios and you can watch the city lights go on when the sun goes down. From St. Anthony Main you can walk across the Stone Arch Bridge to catch a show at the Guthrie Theater. The beautiful view on the evening walk back to your parked car (or a night cap) will make you feel all squishy inside.
5. Mill City Farmer’s Market. This market runs most of the year on Saturday mornings, but in the summer and fall it takes place outside, right in between the Mill City Museum and the Guthrie Theater. There are vendors selling fresh bread, smoked fish, floral bouquets, local produce and so much more. Plus, they have a selection of local maker booths as well, so you can get veggies for dinner and a ceramic bowl to serve them in…all in one fell swoop. Between the goods for sale, the live music and food trucks and the view of the river, it’s hard to imagine a better way to spend a Saturday morning.