Anyone tried to figure out how to balance their life this year? Success? Yeah, us neither. At least Connie makes us feel A LOT better about it. A beacon of real-life experience, sincere rooted passion, and a “martini glass half full” type— Connie Matisse is your childhood best friend, grown up and in cute clothes. This interview gave me the same feeling as when I was younger, watching a scary movie holding hands with my BFF. A little bit of comfort and joy, and a lot a bit of “we’re in this together.” Enjoy!
East Fork has grown so quickly! We know how that feels and have noticed that we seem to have a lot of crossover among our thoughtful and often highly engaged communities. What do you find the most interesting about an expanded customer base and the big-company expectations often placed on little-companies? Do you feel as if you & East Fork are finding your stride, or still playing catch up? Asking for a friend ;)
Ah, the million dollar question, eh? I have a lot to say here and I’m already nervous that I won’t be able to make it all make sense in an interview question. It’s so complicated! The real wacky thing for us is that it’s so damn hard to buy our work. With demand wildly outpacing supply for so long now, and with this year’s COVID-induced switch to pre-order after our factory closure means that there are just a few little windows during the year where people are able to place purchases online for first quality pots. It really means that if you’re not opening every newsletter and reading every caption on Insta you just don’t know how to order a damn mug. Of course, I love and am so grateful for our dedicated return customers, but with production capacity doubling next year, I have to start thinking about how to acquire new customers, which is really tricky when you never have on-hand inventory! So that’s one thing.
We’ve always taken the radical candor and transparency approach, just cuz we really didn’t know any other way to do it, so for the most part our customers really trust us. They believe us to be “good” people doing the very best we can with what we have available, and that trust is strengthened by the consistency with which we display our values in action. That said, I kinda think of business transparency as amniocentesis. For all the parents out there, you know how you have the option to learn a bunch of information about your fetus before they’re born but it’s kinda only enough information to give you a fuzzy picture of reality and open the door for a million more questions? That’s how it feels showing folks the insides of our goings on. I stand behind the decisions that we’ve made in our business 100% and do my best to “show our math” so customers can understand why we came to a certain conclusion, but ultimately our customers are always going to have an incomplete understanding of our business. Because they don’t work here!
Being blunt, I’m finally starting to get a little desensitized to customer disappointment and outrage as 99% of the time it feels—how do I say this?—overblown. I’m a lifelong people pleaser that’s finally coming to understand that someone’s always going to be mad and that’s just not my problem. Sometimes I do just wanna look people in the eye and say, “Please just take a deep breath. It’s just pottery.”
We all know the highs and lows brought on by the roller coaster of 2020. How has the meaning of home shifted for you over the past few months? How are you finding solace and comfort at home while maintaining a “balance” with work, family, and desire for community?
It feels so cruel saying this knowing that so many folks are going stir crazy in their homes, but never have I ever been so grateful to live in remote Western North Carolina. Before quarantine, in early March, I’d booked a week at a cabin owned by our friends Helen and Josh of Fuzzco. My parents were planning on visiting from Los Angeles but things were just starting to feel weird so they canceled their plans and we ended up going just the four of us. Meanwhile, everyone who’d booked a vacation in that cabin for later that spring and summer started canceling, so I told Alex to start packing bags cuz we were getting the hell out of dodge. We ended up moving our family out to a little cabin in Flat Rock, North Carolina, just a 6 minute walk above the Hungry River. Our family needed quarantine. I’d spent the previous year traveling for work every other week, living out of a suitcase, going 5 days stretches without seeing my kids and then I was forced to stay put. It couldn’t have come at a better time for us. We podded up quickly, too, with friends that we also work with. 2020 has been the year of the adult sleepover. COVID has made way for intentional friendship in a way I needed so bad. I hate small talk. I hate getting lumped into a group of colleagues based on my career/demographic/age of my children. And COVID gave us a reason to get so particular about who we spend our time with. My close friendships feel closer and richer and sillier and sweeter than ever. I’m privileged to be able to afford childcare so I get to go to my office for work and then I come home and cook a stupidly involved meal (cooking is my own and only “self-care” practice) and smoke a lot of weed and watch Sing for the millionth time and eat so many chips and don’t give a shit that I’ve gained 25 pounds in 6 months. There’s no balance—it’s all working and playing and raising kids all the time—but truly embracing the chaos instead of trying to control it has been my hack.
What has your journey through your professional and work-life looked like as you’ve carved your path toward working and thriving in the creative world? Any words of wisdom for those of us out there who are striving to lead artful lives and build something beautiful?
As the story goes it was 2008—I was 24, freshly dumped, freshly mass-laid off from my at a non-profit doing urban environmental education, freshly ready to get the fuck out of New York City so I spent a summer helping out at a friend of a friend of a friend’s parents’ beef ranch in Montana where I met and had a little fling with a little pretend cowboy decked out in Marlboro reds and Townes Van Zandt tattoos who was actually a Warren Wilson College undergrad lying about his age (found that out at a bar in Santa Monica where he finally got ID’d). In any case, I followed him to Western North Carolina, got a “job” making $2.50 an hour at a farm owned by a former ballroom dance teacher from Chicago who’d left the city to pursue her cheesemaking dreams. I shoveled goat poop, milked goats, fed goats, tended to sick goats, disposed of dead goats, fixed fences, did farm stuff, and was absolutely taken advantage of under the guise of an “internship.” I was living with a hermity couple in a single-wide trailer on the farm, spiraling into existential crisis—and then I met Alex!
Alex was my opposite. He’d known since he was in 6th grade that he wanted to be a potter. He’d just bought a piece of property with a neglected 3 room farmhouse and was making plans to build a kiln and start pottery. The phrase “start a pottery” was absolutely foreign to me, and despite him endlessly scribbling sketches in a graphic ruled notebook I didn’t really have any idea what he was talking about until he did it in 3-D and suddenly it was our life. In the meantime, I moved from the goat farm to a chicken and lamb farm where I got a $5/hr raise. Then I started bartending again, which had always been my back pocket job. I thought about trying to learn how to make pottery like Alex but our first “lesson” was so damaging to my psyche and our relationship that we cried and yelled about it for a couple of weeks then made a truce to just never really revisit the idea. So I applied to a local university for a Masters program in Social Work. I didn’t get in, which was a real blow to my ego and pretty confusing to me (I’d been an overachiever in college). I sulked about it and kept bartending and when I wasn’t at work I was helping Alex prep clay and glazes and other workshop chores. On weekends we travelled around the Southeast selling pots at craft fairs. Then I applied to a program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Then I got pregnant. Then I started getting really creeped out by the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program (was very problematic). I was really unhappy for at least six years and wanted to blame it on being stuck in Asheville living in the shadow of my soon-to-be-husband’s dream.
In 2015 I faced the fact that Asheville wasn’t the problem. I’d been unofficially working for East Fork since we’d met while trying to find the thing that was “mine” and not his. But when we actually sat down together and with our now business partner, John, about what East Fork could be, I started getting excited and started seeing how I could use my skills to make it something that Alex and John couldn’t make it on their own. And so that’s what happened. I started collecting a paycheck and told Alex that I needed an equity stake in the business if he wanted me to keep helping him. Once that change became official and the business felt like ours and not his, I went full force.
Yeesh, what was the question? Advice about how to live an artful life? I don’t know if I really do. The thing about having a creative business is that it’s first and foremost a business. I love styling photoshoots, I love the objects we sell, I love storytelling in our newsletter, but 99% of my day, 50+ hours a week involves staring at a spreadsheet, preparing for 1:1s with my 10 direct reports, working with our Culture & People team through personnel issues, and a million and a half similarly unartful but indeed very artful looking tasks. So advice? Really it’s always the same: if you love to make things, paint things, create in an artful way, think very long and hard if you want to strip the joy from the making of that thing in order to commodify and capitalize on it. Some things can and should stay passions, hobbies, after work activities to preserve the core of what got you doing those things in the first place. Start a business if what you want to do is run a business. Personally, I fucking love it. It’s terrifying!
Tell us about how you take care of yourself. What are your favorite rituals for balance, grounding, and self-care?
Ah, this question. I don’t drink water, I don’t sleep enough, I don’t exercise, I don’t take time for myself. I’m a high-speed training cruising straight toward a brick wall if I don’t do something about it at some point. My poor body. I drink too much, eat too much junk food, sit behind a computer all day without standing up to stretch my low back or blink or whatever you’re supposed to do. My business coach reminds me that I will destroy everything in the wake I leave if I don’t do everything I can now to prevent an inevitable mental breakdown at the rate I’m going so I’m trying to really listen to her. I’m considering making some changes!
But I make elaborate meals for my small group of friends, jump into the icy cold river when I’m having a panic attack or feeling hungover, snuggle my babies all night long and watch them sprint through the woods when I get home from work, have Mama Mia dance parties by the fire pit, and let myself fall asleep at kid bedtime whenever I need to. It’s a good life.
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