Monarch Pottery – Katy Flynn
For Katy Flynn, pottery is like a caterpillar evolving into a butterfly; clay is essentially mud being shaped into something beautiful. Katy, who resides in Des Moines, recently reunited with her passion for pottery and established Monarch Pottery. She makes everything in her laundry room and even has a safe space for her own kiln – a piece of equipment she recognizes as a fire hazard. I talked to Katy about balancing work with four kids at home doing virtual learning, how she finds inspiration and the importance of taking things one step at a time.
Why did you start Monarch Pottery?
I did pottery in college, and I never really took it seriously because I'm a very practical person. I knew that as an adult human, I would need health insurance, a 401K plan and whatnot. I thought, well, I don't know how pottery is going to provide that. I need to get a quote unquote real job, so I minored in art in college and then graduated and just left it, which I don't know why I did that. It seems like I forgot my spirit, but as a result, I stopped making pottery for like two decades. And then in those two decades I had regular jobs and then I had babies and all of this stuff. And then for four years later I was basically a stay-at-home mom and searching for my soul again, essentially.
When my youngest went to kindergarten, I went to a Des Moines Art Center pottery class to revisit my old self. It was just an instant ‘holy cow, there you are.’ I was so happy to be doing it again and then proceeded to take class after class and found that when class wasn’t in session, like a Christmas break or whatever, I was angsty and irritable. I decided, OK, well maybe I need to have something in our house, and I ended up buying a wheel and kiln. You need to buy all this gear, and I had never fired a kiln before because the Art Center was doing that for us, and in college, my professors were firing my work, so I really just jumped in without a net or any kind of life preserver. I went for it.
It sounds like you found your true calling and that Monarch Pottery is a result of that.
Yeah. There’s a whole lot of fumbling going on still. I mean, I feel like anybody who starts something new, it's both exhilarating and terrifying because you don't exactly know what you're doing, but your heart is telling you to do it, and so you just have to trust, right?
I saw somewhere that you started your business in 2019. Is that correct?
It’s probably a year ago actually. I had been making stuff and, as with any business, at some point you say, OK, I guess I'm going to turn this into something. So I came up with a name. I didn't know what I was doing, I just really love plants. I love flowers. I love nature and butterflies, and I love this whole sort of cheesy analogy of the caterpillar transforming into the butterfly and having that be the same thing with clay, which is mud being transformed into something beautiful, and in my case, useful. That's how I got Monarch. I have two daughters who are named after flowers. I just really love nature. Clay is a very earthly, natural thing to work with, as opposed to acrylic paint, for example. So I don't know. That's how I came up with the name. But basically, at some point I had to say, OK, I guess I'm going to start calling this something and start selling it, which again is really terrifying.
You primarily sell via your website. What’s the process of building it been like?
It's really scary to put yourself out there because you feel like you're going to be judged, which you are. I realize that I am very much an introvert. I mean, I'm chatty and I can chat with you all day long, but I am not extremely comfortable just like hanging out, hawking my wares. I don’t mean for this to sound bad, but after the Vintage and Made Fair, I learned that I don't really want to talk to people about my pottery – I just want to make it. I don't want to have to sell it. But I have what I have, and I make what I feel like making, and that's what I sell.
So I decided, I guess I'm going to have to get a website, and I am literally not the most technology friendly person you'll ever meet. I still have a paper calendar. I mean, I hate technology, so I built a website with Squarespace and cried all the time about building this thing because it was so hard. I felt like I was teaching myself a foreign language. I knew what I wanted it to look like, but I just had to teach myself how to make that happen, and it was really hard.
You mentioned you bought all your own equipment, so I’m assuming you work out of your home?
I’m in my laundry room, and the nice thing is that it has windows. It has a ton of natural light. Like right now I have the door open. I have fresh air. I don't have the lights on. It's really just sunny and light and lovely and big. I have tons of room to wedge clay and throw, and then the kiln is in a separate room because it gets crazy hot and it's a crazy fire hazard. I think a lot of potters would never have a kiln in their home because you can start your house on fire. But I have taken that chance.
Someday I might get down to Mainframe Studios in Des Moines, which is like a little artist colony, but right now – especially right now – I've got my four kids learning online and they pad in and out all day long while I make, and it's a perfect thing because I can be home because they have to be home. And if I were at a studio somewhere outside of my house, it wouldn't work. My work in some ways is like my baby, so I check on it often throughout the day. You feel like you have moisture management, like it's drying out too fast before you need to work with the next phase. So I am covering and uncovering all day, and I like put it to bed at night. I'm a little wacky.
How do you balance everything?
I am a crazy time manager, so the kids really get that this is my side hustle and my business, and they understand that mom’s working and they're at school even though they're in their bedrooms. We have established a good routine to our day in that they log on to school, and I get to work right away. Then we all sort of break for lunch, so I work at least three, four hours in the morning, and I keep working in the afternoon.
In addition to my time management, I'm very organized, so I put out a schedule essentially for the week of what I need to accomplish in that time, and I know how long it will take me. I have become a well-oiled machine in terms of setting expectations of what I can get done, what I can accomplish in a morning or in a day, and then go from there.
Your work is beautiful. How do you find your inspiration?
I am a Europhile. I love Europe and European style. Like I love IKEA, even though I know that's not totally European; it's Americanized now. But I love simple, clean, functional, and I don't like a lot of stuff. So I have to trial and error.
I started by making stuff that didn’t reflect me, and I started to realize that I follow different potters in the U.K. or Scandinavian potters, and I was like, what is it that I love about their work? I realized just the simplicity. It's beautiful. I really consider what my eye is naturally drawn to, and it kind of goes back to nature.
When I first bought my glaze, my husband was with me. I have to go to Minneapolis to get all of my supplies, and I'm staring at this wall of tiles that feature their glaze lines. I mean, it's like hundreds, hundreds of colors and it's totally overwhelming. And I knew that I liked white and I thought, oh, white is so boring, right? I can't just pick white. And so I told my husband to pick a color, whatever you like. He picked this color called fiesta blue. It was a really pretty shiny blue with speckles of purple. And then I was like, OK, well I know I like black, but I don't think anybody does in pottery. So I picked up just a tiny amount of matte black. I started making stuff, and I just did not like the blue. Everybody else was like, oh, I love that blue. It's such a pretty color, and I was really conflicted because I thought, well, I know that everyone likes it, but do they like black and white? I found after a while that people who like my style will in fact buy my stuff.
I just really love neutrals because I feel like they're timeless. I love the juxtaposition of an on glazed clay, which is the color that you see, just raw after it's been fired, with a glaze next to it and how it plays off of each other and its simplicity. And the black or the white, it accentuates the beauty of the natural clay. I'm not interested in working with a lot of color.
Finally, what’s your advice to someone who’s ready to take a leap and start their own gig?
I'm a list maker, and it is just take one step at a time. And while a big goal is great, I think that you can get really overwhelmed if, you know, if I would have started this and said ‘in a year's time, I'm going to be producing X number of stuff and making X number of dollars,’ there's just no way I would have ever started. I literally started with, OK, I really love making pottery. I'm not getting enough of it at the Art Center, so I'm going to buy a wheel, and it was really expensive. It was scary to make this investment, because I thought, oh my gosh, what if I am a failure?
And then my first big leap was selling at Vintage and Made Fair. I sweat my way through the weekend because it was so nerve-racking, and it wasn't necessarily fun for me, but it was affirming. And I think it’s all about taking the next step. And some of it is just sort of tedious, boring, like, oh my gosh, I've got to make a business card. OK, how do I get a business card? OK, I Googled business card. Vistaprint comes up and OK, I've got to design the business card, and it's literally like five thousand things. Five thousand steps and list after list after list. And once you finish a list, you start another one, but then you realize, oh my gosh, I've just thrown away four lists of stuff that I've accomplished. I've gotten this far and you kind of look behind and think, wow, I can't believe I'm here. It’s totally stressful. It's totally exhilarating. I think that if it weren't any of those things, you probably weren't on the right path. If it's not exhilarating and stressful, if it's just stress, then maybe it's not the right time.
It will continue to evolve, and of course you'll make mistakes along the way, but as long as you're learning and growing, it will come together.