As a soon-to-be college graduate I know the very real struggle and fear of feeling you have to decide between passion and a paycheck, or at least a paycheck big enough to pay the bills.
However, I learned at a young age that money will eventually follow passion but passion can never follow money. A River Valley business and advocate for artists and creative hobbyists alike is helping bridge the gap between doing work you love and doing work that will make you money. A Conversation Piece, perfectly nestled in Downtown Russellville, has quickly become an asset to not only local artists but to those looking for an experience.
While the contents of the building collaboratively inspire each person to walk through the door, what is most inspiring is the talent that serves as the heartbeat of the business. “We have got close to 40 people who are craftsman or hobbyist for us,” said owner, Buster Smith.
Originally purchasing the building as a business opportunity, Smith unintentionally turned his weekend hobby, making pottery, into a place to nurture and highlight creatives while giving them access to resources they need. “The reason we got started is because a lot of people would express interest in pottery, but there wasn’t a place in town to go practice or fire. Plus, who has the room for wheels and the others tools needed? So in a way it was a request from the public,” said manager, Mary Ann Knight.
In the beginning, Smith had planned on only offering studio time and not providing any classes, but word spread fast and things took off quickly. They now offer numerous learning opportunities ranging from intro to hand-building and wheel instruction, and offer wheel rentals and access to supplies for those more experienced. “I caught word that someone was wanting to build a studio space and thought I better go check it out. I walked in at the right time,” said Nick Hancock, studio director. “I’ve got experience in ceramics and other arts. I graduated with a degree in art from Arkansas Tech and had some experience teaching before, helping students at Tech who hadn’t been there as long so I was ready to give this a shot. This is one of those things that if you don’t have the equipment you’re never going to try it,” said Hancock.
Going into college, Hancock intended to become a graphic designer, but found himself taking many fine art classes. “By the end of my four years I ended up being in both senior shows, which is not typical. I had to fight to do that. It is like taking on an extra course load. I featured some ceramic and carpentry work. That sort of ignited the switch. I like that type of tactile work where you can get messy. I enjoy the process of that more,” explained Hancock.
Hancock assures that you don’t have to have any past knowledge or experience of pottery to enjoy his classes, which, according to him, are often therapeutic. “This can kind of be like a therapy. I also work at the climbing gym in town and the similarity between ceramic work or artistic adventure and climbing is that when you’re engaged with that you can only be focused on that. Your stresses, worries, any tension builds up, just come in here, get on the wheel, and you will instantly decompress,” said Hancock.
It’s clear that his passion is not for creating his own work, or even teaching, but directly for the success of his students. “When someone comes in and has never worked with clay, their face lights up when they find a little bit of success and that is so rewarding. It’s opening the door for them to express themselves in a new way. There is a creative in all of us,” said Hancock.
“Most importantly, the goal when working as an artist is always that you value the art whether or not someone buys it,” said Hancock. “Additionally, there are so many talented people who can create, but aren’t as good at the business aspect. That is where Mary Ann can come in and help seal the deal. Artists aren’t typically renowned for their social skill; that’s the reality. They work from a different side of the brain, so having someone who can bridge the gap encourages artists. When your stuff is selling it pushes you to keep creating and even begin creating different things,” added Hancock.