Whitney Simpkins has loved ceramics most of her life. “I was like 12 or 13 when I first learned to throw at a free class for middle schoolers,” Simpkins says. She attended an arts high school in Florida, where she’s from, focusing on 2D and painting work before coming to MICA to earn a degree in painting. In 2016, she started creating ceramic pieces for family and friends, and in 2018 she began Personal Best Ceramics. Through her business, she sells bowls, mugs, plates, planters and other goods. The company grew during lockdown, when Simpkins realized she could spend more time creating ceramic works that could sustain her.
Primarily educated as a 2D artist, Simpkins found that she enjoyed ceramics through classes at varying points in her life. During her time at MICA, she took a hand building class that reignited her spark for working with the tactile medium of clay. She remembers how much she came back to clay crafts as a child.
“Atlantic Beach, Florida, has a great ceramics store,” Simpkins says of the town where she first learned to work with clay. She likened it to Clayworks Supplies on Falls Road. For a small business owner, sourcing materials and tools can be difficult. “When I started this business, I would hear other people talk about having to pay to ship like 50 pounds of clay when I’ve always been able to go and just buy it,” Simpkins says.
After graduating from MICA, she found a class at the Potter’s Guild of Baltimore, where she found more community to help nurture her. The Potter’s Guild of Baltimore has a long history of bringing ceramic artists together in community. The Guild holds classes, rents out kiln space and offers studio access to artists. The member-run organization has hobby potters as well as people who use their ceramics in a business, like Simpkins.
For three years, Simpkins served as vice president of the Potter’s Guild, teaching classes and facilitating kiln rentals. She was compensated for her teaching and kiln management. But the Potter’s Guild is a volunteer-run organization.The current president, Lindsay Miller, says that the community environment is what brings members back. “We have members who have been members for 20 or 30 years whose main focus is just the act of making and less-so business,” Miller says.
While many find community with the Potter’s Guild, Baltimore has another strong ceramic studio; Baltimore Clayworks.
Baltimore Clayworks was begun in 1980 by nine people affiliated with the Towson University ceramics program. While the Potter’s Guild already existed, “it was more of a member organization and some of our members were members of both,” says Deborah Bredwell, founding member and former director of Baltimore Clayworks. Clayworks hoped that it could provide more permanent studio space for practicing ceramicists as well as firing and glazing services.
Over time, Clayworks expanded through nonprofit status, youth outreach and expansion. Now, Clayworks has a long wait list for studio space and holds numerous classes and camps for young people, like the classes Simpkins took in her youth that propelled her toward ceramics today.
These spaces have made Baltimore fertile ground for new ceramicists to build a community. Despite their best efforts, the two spaces still can’t meet the needs of businesses because they need to accommodate numerous artists at once.
For Personal Best Ceramics, Simpkins found a large warehouse fitted for wood fabricators to address the need for more ceramic-focused spaces in the city. Upstairs, woodworkers have studios, while downstairs she hopes to build out a studio filled with ceramicists. Throwing pots, mugs and plates is a long process. Each piece is fired in the kiln at least twice: once for bisque, where the clay transforms to a porous hard surface, and once for glazing, where the clay is decorated and achieves a glassy finish. A kiln is a large oven, typically electric, that fires the class to change the chemical compound so it can be hard and long lasting.
Each kiln is heavy and expensive; Simpkins estimates that her kilns are between $2,000 and $4,000 each. One kiln she purchased with a grant while the others she sourced from her community of ceramicists. “One kiln I got because someone online said as long as I could haul it, I could have it,” she says. She stored some kilns in friends’ garages and other spaces until finding her studio.
Right now, with the grant money she has, Simkins thinks she can keep the space for about four months. Her goal is to fill the space with other artists so they can stretch her grant money into a year at least. “I have a lot of the setup here, and I’d love to bring in more Black ceramicists to keep the space,” Simpkins says. Currently, she has one studio mate. Before she had her own space, she was working out of the Potter’s Guild, but her needs were growing beyond the space they had available.
“You can’t really do ceramics without a community,” says Miller at the Potter’s Guild.
Simpkins sourced her materials and space from other artists. She got a lead on her studio from a friend who worked out of it for years, only to outgrow it and move next door. Simpkins is still active with the Potter’s Guild through teaching, membership and volunteering because she knows the value of having support.
“I’ve worked in small businesses long enough to know what works well and what doesn’t,” Simpkins says. “I want to have one part-time person who I pay really well,” she says of her business goals.
Right now, she has an intern from the Creative Entrepreneurship program at MICA. The interns are focused on using their art as their business just like Simpkins. They’ve assisted her with shipping and marketing, which she says is difficult. “I’m not big with social media, and right now it seems like all marketing is social media,” she admits. Without a focus on social media, Simpkins has continued to find customers interested in her work.
Miller at the Potter’s Guild has noticed an uptick in popularity for ceramics. “As more people are learning ceramics themselves, I get less questions about the cost of pieces,” she says. Classes at the Potter’s Guild start at $270 for an eight-week session. This includes two fires in the kiln: a bisque fire and a glaze fire. Clayworks classes are a bit more. They start at $275 for an eight-week session, and the students pay for glaze firings but not bisque firings. Prices for glaze firings at Clayworks are calculated by the square inch.
Both Clayworks and the Potter’s Guild sell ceramics from local artists. The Potter’s Guild hosts markets and “seconds” sales, sales at which artists sell off work that doesn’t quite measure up to their sales standards. Clayworks has a full gallery that is open online and at their space in Mount Washington.
As ceramics has grown in popularity, so has Personal Best Ceramics. Simpkins has worked with brands like Urban Outfitters and West Elm while also supporting local small businesses like Good Neighbor and Clavel. These partnerships range from commissioned pieces to space on their store shelves. The popularity of ceramics has also shown the greater community the value of the pieces.
Personal Best Ceramics has pieces that range from $14 to about $200. It’s important for her to have different price points to keep ceramics accessible. “People realize the amount of work for something as simple as a mug. How much experience it takes to make the perfect mug, made people realize the value,” Miller says of the growing popularity of ceramics.
Personal Best Ceramics has grown since Simpkins has time to focus on it full time, but it can still grow further. “I got the name Personal Best because I was nannying for kids who were swimmers, and at races they always had winners but also made a point to notice people who had made their “personal best.” I didn’t grow up in sports, so that really stuck with me. You may not win, but you can always try for your personal best.”