Today, I am so excited to introduce you to the second business owner in my small business profile series. Her name is Jill J. Burns, and she is the founder of Early Bird Designs, a stunning line of fine handmade porcelain wares. Jill is based in Worcester, MA, and happens to be the mother of one Elaine Burns — who taught us how to prepare our own floral arrangements a few weeks back!
Jill works out of a community ceramics studio that she founded called The Fire Works. Fittingly, it is located in a repurposed factory building known as the Sprinkler Factory. When this factory was up and running long ago, it manufactured sprinkler heads and other fire suppression equipment. Thanks to Jill’s creative vision and entrepreneurial spirit, today The Fire Works houses an eclectic mix of artists and small businesses. How thrilling!
Below is an interview I conducted with Jill via email. She has also shared photographs of her work. You can find Jill’s porcelain wares for sale on Etsy and ScoutMob. (For a full list on where to find her work, visit her website.) As you’ll see, her aesthetic is incredibly beautiful!
Tell me about your journey with ceramic arts. How did you originally become interested in it? Is this what you went to school for?
I did go to art school, but I studied painting. I never even took a ceramics class in college. As newlyweds, my husband and I moved to Worcester, and I took a class in ceramics at the Worcester Center for Crafts. But, I have to say that from the beginning I was hooked on the potential of clay – expressive and functional. I worked in wheel-thrown stoneware using atmospheric firings for a long time, and it was not until recently that I changed the direction of my work.
Tell me how your work changed. Do you have a favorite material to work with?
Now I work exclusively in porcelain and most of the pieces are slab-built. I have a love/hate relationship with porcelain. It can be persnickety but, like all relationships, you get used to the quirks. The bonus of porcelain is the smooth white surface it provides. I use a slip inlay technique that allows me to draw directly on the clay. The lines are actually carved and inlaid with dark clay, so the illustration is integral to the piece. Many commercial ceramics use decals to add design elements that lie on the surface. This technique adds a depth that is a hallmark of handmade.
Your designs are incredibly beautiful. What, or who, inspires your work the most?
The imagery evokes many kinds of flora and fauna. I look to 18th and 19th century botanical and animal engravings for sources. I want the drawings themselves to have a naïve quality – sort of a casual vintage aesthetic. It is impetrative that the pieces are functional, too. I want my customers to feel they can use my pieces every day; that the mug feels good in their hand so they select it first out of the cupboard. For that, I look to many ceramic artists and designers.
Could you tell me a little bit about the group studio you opened, The Fire Works?
About ten years ago, I was finishing an artist-in-residency at the Worcester Center for Crafts. To continue with ceramics at that point I was going to need a studio. There wasn’t anything in my community, so I built one. I figured there were others like myself–artists who have really reached the end of guided classroom instruction but needed space and equipment. An added benefit was the community it created. Artists often work in isolation, but a group studio allows for needed exchange and camaraderie. I recently passed the torch to two members. I am still a member of the Fire Works, but they now do the day-to-day management. It has allowed me to focus on my business.
What are some things that you love about having a creative business?
The best thing by far is that you are the captain of your own ship. You make all creative decisions, good or bad. I can go from a sketch to a fully realized product, as well as maintain control of my brand.
What are some things that you don’t enjoy about having a creative business?
When you run a small business, you have to wear many hats. Creative Director, Craftsman, Accountant, Web Designer, Marketing Director… You get the picture. For some aspects of this, there is a steep learning curve, which can sometimes take more time than you’d like. This is precious time that you might otherwise spend in the studio.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a creative entrepreneur?
Be sure you are treating it as a business, not a hobby that recoups some material costs. Consider not only material costs, but also your time invested, overhead, and yes, even profit! It took me a while before I reached the conclusion that artists should be paid for their time and talent. You are worth it.