We had the good fortune of connecting with Terri Kern and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Terri, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
I’ve always wanted to walk my own path, based on the ideals and goals that were important to me versus walking a path that followed the expectations of other people. Starting my own business allowed me to walk that path with its many twists and turns and create a life that fulfills me.
When I was in grade school, I wanted to be Indiana Jones…archaeologist, adventurer, explorer. My parents signed me up for a summer class on archaeology at the Cincinnati Natural History Museum. During that summer, I learned all about fossils and their origins. I became fascinated with objects that held their own histories and told their own stories. Fast forward to 45 years later. While I didn’t become an archaeologist, I did become an artist. Now, I create my own objects. Objects that hold my history and objects that tell my story.
I started studying archaeology in college but quickly transitioned to studio art. One of the jobs I had in college was as a studio assistant. It was in the course of that job that I met ceramic artists who had their own small businesses and earned a living making and selling pottery. Once I saw that it was possible to earn a living by making and selling art, I left archaeology behind. I wrote my first business plan while I was still in college and got a job at a ceramic supply business. As an employee, I got a discount on materials and equipment and by the time I graduated, I had a potter’s wheel and a kiln and I was ready to go.
The path to success, however, wasn’t a straight one. I had a day job and made work in my studio at night. I struggled to find an audience for my work and eventually decided to go to graduate school to pursue a Master of Fine Arts Degree with a concentration in Ceramics. After graduate school, I got a job teaching as an adjunct faculty member at a university in Kentucky and struggled to pay my bills. That’s when I started making and painting pots as a “side hustle” to augment my income. I started earning more money selling my work than I did teaching so I decided it was time to make a move and I wrote another business plan. I had three simple goals: buy a used van so I could travel and sell my work, start a retirement fund and purchase health insurance. I gave myself ten years to achieve those goals and started making changes.
I quit my teaching job and moved back to Cincinnati. I got another day job, moved into my parent’s basement, helped take care of my elderly grandparents who lived with us in lieu of rent money and moved towards achieving my goals. The combination of my passion for ceramics, long hours in the studio perfecting my craft, learning from my mistakes, networking and getting involved in my community by saying yes to every opportunity that came my way, support from my family, understanding that continuing education and evolution are necessary and moving forward in spite of the failures that occurred have led to the success that I’ve had in my career as a professional artist.
Even now, it’s important for my small business to keep evolving. When the pandemic hit, all of the fine art and fine craft shows (where I earn most of my income) were cancelled. It became necessary to pivot and write a new business plan. I started a series of online ceramics classes, refreshed my website and started a YouTube Channel, Terri Kern Studios, which offers free content. I’m learning to make and edit videos with the help of my web developer, who handles the IT end of my small business. The path of being a small business owner isn’t for everyone but it’s been a great fit for me.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I’m known for the highly detailed and narrative paintings on the surfaces of my pieces and for the finely crafted decorative and sculptural ceramic forms that I create.
My work has always documented my personal history. Each piece functions as a visual marker that commemorates a moment, an event, a daydream or a memory. The concept of Balance is also woven throughout my work as I reflect upon and create work about my life, which has grown rich with possibilities and complications. The documentation takes the form of highly detailed and symbolic narrative imagery that is painted or carved on the surfaces of my pieces.
As I’ve continued to imbue my work with ever more personal stories of love and loss, triumph and hardship, caregiving and receiving, the scale of my work has grown more intimate, making each piece a small treasure. It’s my hope that my pieces, with their inescapable attention to detail and deeply felt imagery, slowly reveal their stories to the viewer over time.
The symbolism in my work is explained below.
Birds represent both myself and the other women in my life: mother, sisters, friends.
Cages reveal the juxtaposition between fragility and strength.
Nests are possibilities.
Ladders symbolize doubt and the struggle to grow.
Snakes signify forgiveness as they need to shed and let go of their skins in order to grow.
Trees and leaves stand for compromise and change.
Seafaring imagery maps my artistic journey.
Chairs present a safe place to land.
Blank pieces of paper and puffballs communicate ideas to be investigated.
Pencils imply creativity.
Wolves, dogs and foxes represent the idea of being steadfast and true.
Needle and thread indicate the need to piece one’s world back together.
Compasses convey the feeling of trying to stay grounded when one feels lost.
Stars light the way when things seem dark.
The moon introduces the presence of emotion.
Dragons remind me to be fierce and have courage.
It wasn’t easy to get to where I am today. I’ve cried during job interviews, had technical failures of my ceramic materials and traveled to shows where I didn’t sell enough work to cover my expenses to name just a few of the disasters. Growing up, I was taught to be humble so I was terrible at selling my work when I started. A used car salesman gave me some pointers and taught me how to develop a sales pitch and to practice, practice, practice.The key is to never give up, keep moving forward, work hard, be willing to think creatively and pivot when necessary, learn to laugh at yourself, give opportunities to others and to be open to opportunities yourself because you never know what you’ll learn or who you’ll meet. Understand that fear is just the feeling you get when trying something new and get used to it. Learn to recognize it and work through it.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Cincinnati is an amazing city! I’d start by getting on the Streetcar and taking a quick tour. We’d start at the Banks and Smale Riverfront Park on the banks of the Ohio River. It’s lovely with lots of flowering plants, an area for kids to play and scenic views. We’d travel up through town and have lunch at Sophias. A family owned restaurant with great burgers, gyros and greek salad. From there, we’d travel down to Washington Park where they have a large interactive fountain and lawn, dog park, kids play area and bandstand. We’d visit OTR (Over the Rhine) and check out Findlay Market and some of the great restaurants in the area including Maize, Sacred Beast Diner, Bakersfield and have a cocktail at Japps. We’d walk a few blocks to the Pendleton Art Center where my studio is located along with the studios of 150 plus artists and two galleries followed by an ice cream cone at the Pendleton Parlor, a burger at Nation or some BBQ at Lucius Q. If time permitted, we’d also visit the Contemporary Art Center, Taft Museum, The Cincinnati Art Museum, Natural History Museum, Krohn Conservatory, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens and catch a professional football, baseball, hockey or soccer game, depending on the season. We also have two clay centers in Cincinnati, Core Clay and Queen City Clay, that have retail galleries and teach classes. They’re always hopping with activities. Cincinnati also has many great venues for live music, retail shopping, opera, ballet and the symphony orchestra. It’s a great town. Small enough to walk but big enough to offer many attractions.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
There are so many people that have encouraged, supported and believed in me along the way that it’s impossible to name just one. I have to start with my family. My mom’s strong work ethic and my dad’s willingness to take risks in life and business gave me the solid base that I needed for being self employed. My husband who is also an artist and understands the time commitment necessary to develop a creative business, my sisters and friends who always have my back and my mentors who have offered me sage advice and opportunities and the artist Frida Kahlo for being brave enough to tell her story and inspiring me to tell mine. I also have to thank my web developer, Michael Schmidt, who wrapped technology around my ideas and helped my business survive the pandemic.
Facebook: Terri Kern Studios
Youtube: Terri Kern Studios
Other: Check out my class offerings at terrikern.com/classes or sign up for my newsletter on terrikern.com to hear about upcoming shows and classes.