Creating Bridge & Burn required a leap of faith. Founder Erik Prowell quit his job as a software developer, lit the proverbial match, and threw it—burning the bridge of working for anyone else behind him. With no formal training, he trusted his smarts and his strong work ethic, and took the plunge. In that spirit, Bridge Burners is a series showcasing people who are taking a similar leap. This month, we chatted with Sarah Wolf of Wolf Ceramics.
What was your first foray into the world of ceramics? Did you always know this was a career you wanted to pursue?
I definitely didn’t know that I would find my way to a career in ceramics! I always loved making art and had the good fortune of having a mother who was a professional painter and parents who encouraged both creative practices as well as math and science, which I also enjoyed. I was attracted to making objects that are useful and functional, from sewing my clothes, to making beach forts and knitting hats.
After earning an undergraduate degree in geochemistry, and seriously considering a masters in architecture, I decided that I just couldn’t quite bring myself to commit to a career that would likely leave me sitting at a computer much of the time. I had worked intermittently as a climbing and backpacking trip leader for high school students, but didn’t want to do this full time. Ceramics had been a long-time hobby, or perhaps I should say addiction.
Sarah wears the Roscoe overalls in Black and the Greer top in Pewter Floral
At the age of 25, I decided to go back to school for ceramics and spent a year and a half at the Oregon College of Art and Craft immersing myself in the more technical side of ceramics, as well as many aspects of design. I gravitated toward production style ceramics partly as a way to help cover the cost of my tuition and began to feel like I might actually be able to make a living off of this craft that I love so much. Bit by bit, my business evolved and grew, constantly reminding me that if I follow work and ideas that are exciting to me, that things will most likely work out just fine.
Sarah kicks back in the Emery dress in Burgundy
Can you define one pivotal ‘Bridge Burner’ moment, when you decided to forego a more traditional path?
Yes! October 2014. Rock bottom. For a while I had been building up a sense of dread that if I went to architecture school, I would be giving up so many other aspects of my life that I love. It felt suffocating to me. I decided to apply to art school instead, even though I had no idea how I would end up making a living from it. It's crazy how hard it was to make this decision, even as the daughter of an artist! The act of intentionally leaving behind a clear path to a career and income is terrifying.
If you weren’t a ceramicist, what would you be doing?
I might be about to graduate architecture school with a mountain of student loan debt. I might be working as a geologist. I might have continued to work in the realm of outdoor education, leading outdoor trips for students.
I love having the power to continually work on things that are exciting to me! Of course there are some days when the work is tedious or stress permeates other parts of my life, but I feel ownership over my goals. My work usually leaves me energized and I often work long days because I am deeply motivated to reach my goals and deadlines. Sometimes this leads me to overdo it and feel burned out. But I also have the power to choose to work like crazy one season, and take it easy another. Having a small team of employees here working with me is a delight and also a good challenge. I continually learn so much from working with others and trying to create a space where people feel community, autonomy, support, and also feel valued.
Is Portland a supportive community to start a business in? If so, why?
Portland is such a wonderful place to have a business, it’s almost overwhelming because there are so many people that I want to connect with, work with and collaborate with. I have almost never felt like it is competitive, but rather that that there is simply enough to go around.
I am pretty loose. One of the luxuries of being the sole owner of my business is that I can be spontaneous with new designs. When sitting down at the wheel or at the glazing table, I often leave a little extra time to try a random new idea, shape, or color. Sometimes it leads to something and sometimes it doesn’t. Often new ideas come from prompts from others, like a restaurant that wants a plate or bowl in a different shape, so that it will be more ergonomic for their servers to pickup or carry.
Sarah wears the Boardman chore coat in Indigo
What advice would you give to someone that wanted to start their own business or do something different than the typical 9-to-5?
Its easy to say, “just take the leap” and harder to actually do it. One thing that was incredibly valuable to me was spending some time working for a small and growing, new business. The pay certainly wasn’t great, but it was exciting and I got to witness many challenges and absorb so many lessons that new business are forced to learn. One other tool that I love is intentionally choosing to frame a new endeavor as an opportunity to learn, rather than to make money. Think of it like free school! Tell your self, “I am going to give this a go for 6 months. I might make money, I might not even break even, but I will learn so many things by diving in and giving it a try.”
Something comfy that I can get messy in! Anything from sturdy work pants to leggings that I can sit in comfortably for hours while I do intricate glaze work.