Persistence Pays Off

The first ten years of R.Wood Studio was a tale of constant growth - and being constantly behind on the bills. I had no credit and couldn’t get a loan. As mentioned before, it was a lot of financial stress, but only made worth it by the fact that our product was successful. At the end of every year, exhausted, I would ask myself, “Can I do this another year?” On one hand was the fact that I had no real job skills and was looking at getting a minimum wage job if this didn’t work out. Then I always looked at the investment of time and effort I had put in so far. Knowing next to zero about business and finance, I had never figured out what would get us to the break even point, but I figured if we had a successful product it would eventually float our boat.


In 2000, around our tenth year, we did three huge things that we were sure would finally tip the economic scale in our favor. We got our first website up, after many nerve wracking delays and frustrating disappointments. We also designed and printed ourselves a wonderful color catalog to send out to stores. It was so different and appealing. Lastly, we decided to apply for a booth at the New York gift show, which, at the time, was notoriously hard to get into, and usually a waiting list. Well, there was a jury for the handmade section, and my fellow crafter friend, Crispina, who I hadn’t met yet, told the committee, "This is exactly the kind of thing we need in this show!" and so we got in on the first try. Everybody knew that when you went to the New York show, you got thousands of dollars worth of wholesale orders. It was the big time. I was confident we’d finally hit the big time and would soon be in the black.


Well, a few months after all that got going, I looked at the finances. We were still desperately low on cash and the stress level was still the same. I got so depressed. I just couldn’t anymore. I went home, (which was across the street), and just didn’t come back. I set up my painting gear on the front porch and went back to painting still lives. I just didn’t have any more energy to put into R.Wood studio. Thankfully, everyone pitched in and carried on all the work. They tried to get me to come over a couple of times, but I couldn’t even walk across the street. I was spent.


After 3-4 months, I decided I had to pull myself out of it, and realized there were things I could do to help the business along that didn’t require enthusiasm on my part, they just needed doing. I can’t for the life of me remember what those things were, but it was probably basic p.r. stuff; sending out press releases and such. I made a list and checked everything off, and sure enough, it generated some business and some ideas, and made me feel better. So I went back to work, and you know what? Soon after, we finally started making enough money! I finally could get and cash a regular paycheck! There were still a few rocky periods here and there in the years since, but I’ve been able to live off making things people love and enjoy for a long time now. One of my mottos has always been "Persistence pays off," and I am SO glad I persisted with R.Wood studio!

If You Like the People

I only ever had two regular jobs in life before I decided to pursue self-employment. Besides babysitting, my first real job was being a check out girl at an Eckerd’s drugstore at Lenox square mall. I was terrible at math, so making change was anxiety producing. And I’m pretty sure I got scammed one day when a guy came in asking for change for a twenty. One summer, I was a busgirl at a busy steak restaurant. All I did was bus tables and restock the salad bar. I was too shy to wear the low cut outfits that the waitresses had to wear. The pay was $2.10 an hour. I remember thinking, "If this is all they’re paying, surely I could make at least this much selling my art.” And so I decided that’s what I’d do.


I set to painting still lives in oil in my tiny apartment and showing them where ever I could for free. I had shows at churches, banks, and libraries. I always gained fans and sold a few paintings, but I still wasn’t making enough to live on, so I still had jobs: I worked at a frame shop, I worked at a clothing store, I worked in a tailor shop, and I even worked at a Waffle House. The one thing I learned from having regular jobs is that it’s the people that make the job. I don’t think I remember anything I learned about how to “do” the jobs, I just remember the relationships and humor on the job. I learned even the most boring job is enjoyable if you like the people you work with.

Fast forward to the beginnings of R.Wood Studio. At first, I got my friends to come help glaze the orders, but I realized I couldn’t keep asking. Then I met Kristina. She was a hippy lady who was witchy with plants and herbs and things I wanted to learn more about, so I hired her. We sat for hours glazing together, or me rolling out clay to make the plates while she glazed. We got to talk about so many things and I learned so much from her about herbal teas and plant healing. from then on, I just kept hiring bright, creative people, as needed. People with good energy. People with diverse interests and skill sets. People interested in cool stuff. People you want to be around.

And so the studio has always been a place of interesting people. there is daily discourse, discussion, brainstorms, insights, laughter and creativity. It’s always been a great place to work because of the people who work there, and I think that’s the hallmark of r.wood studio: great people enjoying working together. We smile through the good times and stress together during the bad times, but always working together for solutions and success. We all want to keep working together, so everyone steps up with ways to become better. We problem solve not just work problems, but life problems. We all learn so much from each other as we keep on making or glazing plates. At R.Wood Studio, it’s the people that make the job, and it’s the best job I’ve ever had!

Kindness and Risk

It was nice to start out my new fabric/hat-making/pottery business with such a bang in 1991. I had ongoing accounts with the two biggest stores in New York, pictures of my handmade hats in the New York Times, and more stores wanting plates. I was bolstered by the fame, but my nerves were a wreck from the financial stress of trying to grow a business with no capital. Starting a business and raising two children was taking all my time and energy. My sole income at this time was whatever checks I got from selling plates. Since my business was always growing with more orders, I was always in a situation of not having enough money to buy the supplies to make the plates, to pay the employees, or to live on.

Many months it was a choice between paying the electric bill at home or being able to buy more clay and packing materials to get the orders out. Being a broke artist with questionable credit, I couldn’t get a loan. I couldn’t even get a credit card! Instead, I spent many a phone call with our suppliers, telling them, "I know we owe money, but if you could just send us the boxes, then we could ship out this big order and then we’d get paid and then I could pay for the boxes." I was always begging for credit from suppliers and trying to get my big store accounts to send the money they owed. As the big name stores usually stretched their payment cycles to 2 or 6 months, I was desperate to get them to pay me! I could barely afford to even call them in the daytime to ask them about the status of my payment. (Note: calling long distance used to be so expensive that one would only call after 11 p.m., when the rates went down, or in the daytime if it was an emergency!) Even though I was feeling anxious and insecure, I told myself to think like a successful business person who’s confident and together, and use that voice on the phone. In the first few years, it was like this all the time.

Now remember how I said I had a vision of selling hand painted tea sets at Neiman Marcus? Well, after I’d been in business only 3 years, I got a call from a buyer at Neiman Marcus named Bill Mackin. He said he would like to place a $30,000 order! Having gone almost completely broke from waiting on big checks from big stores already, I could only imagine the stress of being left hanging for $30,000. My mind was screaming, "No way!" but I was sort of in shock, and so I asked him when they wanted it. He said in two months. I was glad he said something so unachievable because I was not looking to risk it! I told him I was sorry, but there was no way we’d able to do it. I didn’t have the personnel, the kilns, or other equipment to do an order that size in two months, but then he said, "Well, why don’t you make a list of everything you’d need in order to be able to do it in that amount of time, and let me know?" I was skeptical, but i told him I’d figure it out. Really, I was just curious to know myself. I figured out we’d need another slab roller, two more kilns, 3 more workers, plus all the clay and glazes and electricity to fire the kilns - and the boxes to pack it all up. It all came out to $19,000. When I called and told him what it would cost, he said, "Well let me send you a check for the $19,000 and you can get started."

I was surprised, but still feeling wary. However, when the check actually arrived, I jumped on it. I quickly ordered all the things we needed and we got to work. The whole order was for different colored salad plates with fruit on them. I think we were charging $9 a piece then, so you can only imagine how many plates there were! They were stacked all over the place. We finally got them all made and accounted for and boxed up and sent them off. It’s still the biggest order we’ve ever had! As you can imagine, that was incredibly unheard of for a store to pre-pay that amount, especially to a little inexperienced pottery girl in Georgia with a barely three year old business. They even paid the balance in a timely fashion. I will never forget that kindness and that risk. Bill had never even met me, but somehow he trusted me. Thanks to his generous help, we were now fully equipped to do more and bigger orders. This was an incredibly lucky thing for me, something I’ve always been thankful for.


When I was a little girl, I never knew I would grow up to be a potter, let alone one with a successful pottery business lasting decades. I was just a shy, introverted soul who loved being outside in the woods, or else in my room reading or drawing pictures. My first ambition was to be an egyptologist and discover a new pyramid. Then I wanted to be a weather girl, and spent hours at the bedroom window studying clouds and weather books, looking for signs of tornados. Soon, I got into a phase of doing pen and ink and watercolor drawing fairies and ferns and, later, designing fashionable outfits for ladies. I decided to become a fashion designer, but the more I thought about all the deadlines involved, I thought better of it. after that, by the time I was 14 or so, I just decided my general direction would be artist. 

I always loved making things, whether sock puppets, barbie outfits, troll houses, embroidery, stained glass, or homemade mincemeat, but I’d always been a drawer, so I decided to go to art school. I studied drawing and painting at the University of Georgia in the heyday of the art department. Even though the art dept. was right above the pottery department downstairs, I never even went down there! Of all the crafts and things you can make, I just wasn’t interested in pottery. At the craft fairs I often visited, it seemed like all the pottery I saw was either an uninspiring brown, or this (to me) bone chilling shade of blue grey. I was not turned on. My whole world was about color.

Ideas often pop into my head, and I have no idea where they come from. When was about 17, the new Neiman Marcus opened at Lenox Square Mall and it seemed like the most sleek, swanky and modern store I’d ever seen. I was enthralled and immediately had a vision of selling hand painted tea sets there. I could see them displayed on pedestals! The years went by, and when my daughter was one year old, I saw an ad in the paper for a lady teaching china painting in a nearby town. My Neiman Marcus dream came back to me and I signed up. China painting is a painstaking process, and I had to paint and fire many times to get the colors as saturated as I envisioned them. Still, I enjoyed it and came to love the idea of making something people would really use and enjoy every day. Unfortunately for my china painting career, I found it is not at all a durable surface for daily use. I decided then, that I really wanted to create plates in pretty colors that would be durable, but it was years before I got to it.


After art school, I had a painting career going for about 10 years. I painted still life in oil and loved it. I started out with exhibitions wherever it was free to have one, like churches, bank lobbies, and libraries. I also had ‘art parties’ at friends homes in Atlanta. They would take down all their art and I would hang mine, and then they would throw a cocktail party and invite their friends over. I’d sell some paintings and get commissions, too. Everything was going swimmingly till October 1987. I was having a show at the Swan Coach house gallery in Atlanta. There were several red dots on the paintings already, and I was hoping for more to sell, but then there was a stock market crash. All the red dots disappeared, and I knew I needed to switch asap to something with lower price points!

I tried making costume jewelry, painting furniture, and painted clothing. Finally, I ended up painting yards of velveteen, loving the rich colors and soft textures. I made some hats and matching scarves and sold as many as I could make locally. My friend and shop owner from D.C.,Nancy Lenved, kept telling me I ought to sell them in New York. I didn’t know anything about how to go about that, but she kept telling me about these two stores she could picture them in, called Barney’s, and Zona. I did not know these were the two most fashionable stores in New York! This was 1990. Nancy was so sure about it that I called Barney’s and Zona and asked who their hat buyer was. I got the information and made some little notebooks with pictures of the hats and fabric swatches, along with prices. Barney’s ordered right away, featuring my products in huge ads in the New York Times! I was all of a sudden in business, but I didn’t even know how to write an invoice yet! The buyers at Zona loved the pictures I sent and ordered some hand painted velveteen and children’s hats I made. They told me if I was ever in New York to come see them. Well, I told my sister who lives in New York that I was coming to visit, then I called Zona and told them I would be in town.

Meanwhile, right before this, I had decided to go ahead and try to make some durable plates to sell. I ordered some red clay (because it’s what I grew up with) and some colorful low fire glazes. My friend, Nancy, bought me a used kiln at a yard sale for $200, and I got to work. All I had was a table, a rolling pin, and a kiln, but I made some shapes I liked and came up with some designs of fruits, flowers and oak leaves. As I was packing my little suitcase with hat samples to show to Zona, I threw in a few of the new plates. When I got to Zona, we were upstairs in their offices and I was showing them my samples and I pulled the plates out. Their buyer for Japan took one look at them and briskly turned on her heel and left the room, without saying a word. I felt I’d somehow made a bad impression, but then she marched back in and handed me an order for $1500 worth of them! It was so many that I had to get my friends to come over and help me glaze! Soon, Barney’s was ordering plates, too, and I saw I was going to need employees. I hired my first employee in 1991, and r.wood studio was born!