Backstory: Teacher molds career out of ceramic gnomes and glazes

vbridges@newsobserver.comMay 6, 2013 

Barbara Morgan in her home-based ceramic shop. Morgan has been teaching ceramics out of her house since 1963

VBRIDGES@NEWSOBSERVER.COM — Virginia Bridges Buy Photo

  • Advice from Barbara Morgan

    •  Keep faith in what you are doing and know that you can do it if you want.

    •  Don’t get too deep into debt.

    •  Have the ability to go forward and make people happy with what you are doing.

    •  Be kind.

— Barbara Morgan’s basement is lined with shelves of unadorned ceramic figures, including gnomes, Santa Clauses and lighthouses, waiting to be personalized with glazes and stains.

Morgan, 81, has collected more than 20,000 molds after 50 years of teaching about decorating and selling ceramics out of her Carson Street home.

In the early 1960s, Morgan wanted to work, she said, but her husband, Joseph, wanted her to stay home with their three boys.

Instead, Morgan helped a neighbor a few hours a week with her ceramics shop. For a year, Morgan worked with the neighbor, firing pieces and pouring molds. In March 1963, Morgan borrowed $350 from her mother-in-law and molds from another neighbor and opened her own in-home studio. Her marketing plan started with promising a 7-year-old neighbor a 50-cent credit for each customer she brought in to take a class.

Back then, Morgan said, ceramic items cost 5 cents and 25 cents.

“And the kids encouraged their parents to come over in the evening,” Morgan said.

Morgan held classes at her home until a neighbor complained to the city about parking issues on the street in 1973. Parking on the street is limited, and her night classes were averaging 20 to 40 women.

Morgan, who also held a Saturday class for kids, shifted her service model to a one-on-one basis that allowed customers to come in, pick out an item and work on it at home.

“I fire it and I loan them glazes and whatever they need,” Morgan said. “And I charge them for whatever they use out of the jar.”

Morgan’s customers pick their piece from shelves displaying rows and rows of options. Morgan then guides customers through a course that starts with sanding down seams and progresses to various glaze and stain techniques.

The business covered its costs and the family light bill, Morgan said. Her revenue averaged about $20,000 a year, but starting declining in 2004. Morgan said she paid taxes on $12,000 in revenue last year.

The studio allowed Morgan to work, but still make dinner for her family and attend her three boys’ sporting events. Morgan also found peace in making art and was honored to be able to share it.

“You don’t get rich on this. You might make a dime out of a dollar,” Morgan said. “It is just the pleasure of doing it. I can lay my head down at night and be at peace with myself.”

Nancie Norvell, owner of the Raleigh children’s full-service art studio, Wild at Art Kids, is a former student of Morgan’s, and discovered ceramics on an elementary school field trip to Morgan’s studio.

“We made a ceramic frog,” Norvell said. “And I was hooked.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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