Columbus native Mollie Jenkins is a force.
When an artist is a steady presence of consistency, they quickly become a testament to what commitment and determination can produce. Jenkins is a great example of this. Though her contagious and endearing humility would never allow her to tell you that herself.
A graduate of Auburn University, Jenkins majored in ceramics before moving to Nashville to begin her career as a ceramic artist specializing in functional work intended to be used for a lifetime.
After landing in Nashville, Jenkins opened Mollie Jenkins Pottery, a business that grew into a household name across the South after she was chosen by Garden & Gun as a runner-up for their 2017 Made in the South Awards.
She accomplished all of this before her 25th birthday, and has since returned home to continue her work and be nearer to family. Her modern take on traditional pieces caught the eye of designers and collectors quickly, and has provided her a way to be close to home while doing what she loves most.
We sat down with Jenkins in her studio last week as she prepared for Small Business Saturday and the start of the holiday season. Read on to discover more about her journey to becoming a potter, what she loves about working as an artist in Columbus, and what's next for her in 2019.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: It's not every day that you meet a ceramic artist, Mollie. What got you started?
A: I was born and raised in Columbus. I went to Brookstone, and I took a ceramics class my senior year of high school. I will say that the arts were never really my thing. I played sports, and we were taken out of P.E. for piano lessons, but it was just not my scene. So the fact I ended up in ceramics was really by happenstance.
I had seen people throw on the wheel, and I was interested in the forming of the pottery because it looked really cool. It just happened that I needed to take an arts class for credit, so I decided to take ceramics. Senior year in the spring semester I took ceramics and really loved it. To the point where I would schedule dentist appointments in every other class, but I would not miss ceramics. That’s when I knew something was up.
Sally Bradley was my teacher, and we did wheel throwing and I really enjoyed it. Of course, I didn’t think this would be my occupation. I mean, how many potters do you hear about in your daily life? So I went off to school at College of Charleston in South Carolina. It was a wonderful spot. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. They didn’t offer ceramics at the time. They had a bunch of art classes, so I went in taking some art classes and also exploring the idea of becoming a veterinarian. I love animals but I am terrible at science though. So needless to say, I didn’t become a vet. (laughing)
Q: What did you end up majoring in?
A: I went into school really not sure of what I was doing. I kept just coming back to the idea of wanting to take ceramics classes. So mid-way through freshman year, I decided I would transfer to somewhere that offered ceramics classes. I looked at Georgia and Auburn, and Auburn was just more convenient. My brother was there, and my family is here, so I ended up there.
I went to Auburn and went in as an art major. But as a bachelor of fine arts, you take all arts classes. That summer prior to going to Auburn, I had taken some ceramics classes at Britt David. That’s when I was like, “Okay. I really, really like this.”
I also had Teil (Duncan) and Lulie (Wallace) to look up to. They were already doing their thing as professional artists and it gave me the confidence to pursue an art degree fully. I went into my time at Auburn thinking that I wanted to throw pottery for the rest of my life.
It was really nice to see Lulie and Teil paving the way and showing young artists they could make it on their own. Growing up, you don’t hear people say, “Oh, they’re an artist.” Most of us just don’t really know people who’ve done it. Being able to watch them work and grow gave me the confidence I needed to do it myself.
Q: That's beautiful. How did you make it happen?
A: I took ceramics through the university and then joined a city studio. I was there any free time I had. So that’s where I feel like I learned the most. At the studio, I was out on my own and able to figure it out. Then, in class I was able to ask questions and be guided. It was great.
While I was in school, I did a few art shows through the city studio and thank goodness, all of my family came over and bought all of my stuff. It was so nice. It gave me the push I needed to see that I could make money selling my work.
I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a concentration in ceramics. I came back to Columbus for about six months or so. I had a small wheel, and was throwing pottery in our basement at home. I would take it over to Auburn to fire it. It was a huge pain. Then, some of my friends from here decided that they wanted to move away for awhile. We’ve all been friends for a very long time, so we decided to move away to a new city together. We ended up going to Nashville.
Q: Interesting. How many of you were there?
A: Three of us. We moved and found a house up there and then that’s when I was doing it full-time on my own.
Q: How was it? What was that like?
A: Fun. Wonderful. Challenging. I mean, I worked hard. But it was amazing. I kind of look back now and wonder how it even panned out, but it did. I’ve been very fortunate.
Q: Where did you work up there?
A: I joined a studio up in Nashville that was comprised of a bunch of woodworkers and metal workers. Needless to say, I stuck out a little bit. It was fun. It was a whole group of people I would have never come across any other way, so I loved that. I had a nice little nook of a studio. It was so small. Really, really small. I made it work. I had purchased a kiln so I had everything I needed right there. It was a little one. I just had it sitting right next to me where I worked.
Q: How did you make that work?
A: Looking back, it wasn’t the most ideal circumstance. But I made it work. The studio didn’t have heat or air, so I was either freezing or burning up. It definitely was character building and I just learned what the deal was.
Eventually, about half way through my stay in Nashville, we ended up moving studios. I went with a bunch of people from there, and it was a wonderful space. It felt very upgraded from my first space.
Q: How long were you in Nashville?
A: I was there about a year and a half. I moved back here because my dad isn’t well.
Q: I’m so sorry to hear that.
A: Thanks. It's okay. He was diagnosed with ALS right when I moved to Nashville. It was about a month after I had gone up there. I stayed up there until I felt like I needed to be home.
Q: I see. When did you come back?
A: I moved back here in September of last year. It’s been a wonderful move. I do not have a single complaint about it. I do miss Nashville, but Columbus has been amazing as far as support and family goes. And I’m with my dad and family. We are all here. My brother moved back as well.
Q: That is very, very sweet.
A: Yes. It’s been wonderful. If we don’t kill each other, it’ll be really nice. (Laughing) No, but it’s been fun. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Q: How did you find this beautiful studio space?
A: Murray Jones ended up with this space when I was moving back. I called him and asked him for a studio space. When I moved in, they weren’t done working on it. It has been amazing. It looks very different than it did when I got here. I love it here.
Q: How has your business changed since you returned home?
A: I’ve been trying to grow a bit in regards to social media and wholesale accounts. It’s been great. I kind of feel like I’m living a dream life as an artist, which is amazing. It’s been really, really fun.
Q: Isn’t it funny how Columbus tends to foster that lifestyle for artists?
A: It is. I can’t believe my job is my job. I tell people all of the time, I’m really happy right now and I’m going to do this as long as I can.
Q: What can you share about your work in particular?
A: I create all functional work. All of this is very permanent once it goes through the process, so I like to think it’s going to be worthwhile. It doesn’t go away, so the thought of someone using it over and over again makes me really happy. I try to strive for functionality.
Q: Who have been your big inspirations for that? Growing up not necessarily knowing you wanted to do this, did you just kind of find your own style? Or do you have people you’ve looked to along the way?
A: I guess a mix of both of them. As far as individuals, that would be hard for me to say. Although I do follow larger pottery businesses who employ individuals to make their products. It’s really nice to see that. I do love that each piece is a little wonky. It’s all handmade, and ideally I’d like to stick with that, but it is nice to see that some groups are doing it with four different potters making the work and then selling it through one central location.
I’m inspired by the process. I love making it. Of course, I do love the finished product. It’s kind of bizarre that I can look at a hunk of clay and then in two weeks know it’ll be a useable, functional, and tangible product.
Q: Do you find that Columbus is different in the way it nurtures artists?
A: Very much so. I don’t want to say that it’s been unexpected, I love Columbus and I’ve lived here for 25 years. But so many of my friends back at school would say, “Mollie, is Columbus really the place to support that?” I would tell them, “Yes.” It’s been great. I didn’t expect coming back that people would have such a interest in my work, but they have. It’s been really nice to see. Especially with such a diverse group of artists here. The Columbus community is like, “Paintings? Love it. Pottery? Into it.” And that’s been really nice. People can appreciate the handmade side of things. It’s rare and it’s great to see.
One of Jenkins' new pasta bowls.
Q: What is the biggest challenge to you in your work?
A: One blatant observation is that in ceramics, once you’ve made the piece, there are so many ways that it can be ruined. So like last week, I loaded up some custom goblets and sat over there and heard them explode in the kiln. There was still some moisture in them from the weather. I didn’t realize it until it was too late. I can be hard-headed, but sometimes in my line of work things like that just happen. I just sat there and thought, “Gosh. I put a lot of concentration into each one of those.” But it happens, and you just have to keep going.
Another challenge, and this is certainly not anyone’s fault, but many people don’t know much about ceramics at all. I mean, I didn’t know anything about it until I was exposed to it either. So I think a lot of me being so into the process, but the consumer being more interested in the end product is a challenge. You know, lots of people think, “Why would I purchase this when I can just go to Target and get one?”
And of course, yes, you can get a version of it. But that’s when I’m like “My hands were with that piece for three hours.” That’s not a complaint though. I could sit here and no one could by my work and I would still absolutely love what I do. This is very much my chosen profession, and my only point is that the lack of knowledge about the process of what goes into creating each piece is a challenge with every ceramic artist’s audience.
Again, I don’t expect people to know this! I didn’t know anything about it either until I encountered it. Growing up, it’s not like I hung out with a bunch of potters. (laughing) So I get it.
Because of this, I love when people ask me questions. It lets me share what it is that I love to do. So again, no complaints here! But if I could choose the biggest challenge about being a ceramics artist, I think it’s that most people just haven’t encountered the process.
Q: You spoke about wholesale accounts? Where else can people find your work?
A: So wholesale accounts are just one avenue that I have for people to have access to my work. I cater to businesses in Tennessee and Georgia currently, and am looking to expand into other areas around the country. Wholesale accounts have been wonderful because it allows my work to get to people I wouldn’t have a way to reach otherwise. I have a few accounts now, and am cautious to not allow myself to get overwhelmed, but ideally I would work up into a few more wholesale accounts in the next year or two.
Locally, my work is in The Galleria. People can also find my work online at my website.
Q: How do you determine what to make and when?
A: Well, I used to just make whatever I wanted when I wanted to. Then, this year I decided, “Okay. I’ll have a dinner plate, a salad plate, a berry bowl in three sizes, a mixing bowl in three sizes.” You know, so then people don’t have to wait on one bowl in this size in green. Tailoring it back helped me to have things in stock and then know when I needed to make more of them.
In terms of new products, I’m about to launch my new pasta bowls and some more pitchers. I’m trying to figure out the sizes of the pitchers right now. I took pitchers away for awhile, but they’re coming back. They’re just so functional and I love them.
I’m not sure what else will come in 2019. I’m going to have to get back to you on that. Usually, I just come up with an idea and try it and then see if it works. Timing is a huge issue. When you take into account the time it takes to produce each piece it can really vary. From throwing to firing, an individual piece can take anywhere from ten days to 6 weeks. So I have to know what it takes and whether or not it’s possible to put something into production on a consistent basis.
Q: Last question. What else is coming in 2019 for your business?
A: Well, in addition to more wholesale accounts, I’d also like to add another glaze. I currently have four base glazes and then I mix some or combine them to make combinations of colors. That’s a whole other discussion into the science of how you figure out what makes the glazes work well. Ideally, I’d like to have a couple of more glaze options for people to choose from. You know, people want to match things to their homes and sometimes the white isn’t white enough or they need a creamier white. It’s definitely been a challenge with the lamps especially. So I’d like to be able to offer a few new glazes for my clients in 2019. That’s where the art comes into it. Taking ideas into the New Year, and then figuring out what works is what makes it fun. ◼︎
Connect with Mollie:
Via her website: Mollie Jenkins Pottery