Joy O'Connor is a clay artist who designs, hand cuts, and paints all of her pieces by hand in her studio. Her pieces include ring dishes, planters, earrings and necklaces in everything from quirky to classic colors. I actually interviewed Joy for an event last year where she touched on being a parent and having a need to have a creative identity. Over the last year, I could not get her words out of my mind, so I recently asked her to be the first person that I interview to dive into this topic a bit more. Below is a look into her new studio space inside Bench and her take on motherhood, creativity, and running a business.
If you're local, you can catch Joy kicking off the holiday market season this Saturday at Bench: MADE.
What were you doing prior to starting your business? I was staying home with Delaney, my first kiddo, who we found out at three is on the autism spectrum. Once we knew that about her, we started occupational therapy to address her struggles and were encouraged to use the tools/activities that we learned at home. So that was sort of a full time job on top of being a parent, which really is a full-time job itself. My days were pretty literally filled with caring for her and when Patrick got home most nights I would need to get out and just be alone at a coffee shop or something just to decompress.
You mentioned that you were always artistic and actually worked with clay in high school. What made you want to reconnect with with the process of making things again? I really think that my mother-in-law Jane (a potter of 40 years) could see that I needed an artistic outlet and I think she knew that I was a little depressed from all that comes with having a kid with special needs. So, one day she showed up with some clay and tools and encouraged me to make some things. I fell back in love with the medium and never go longer than two days without working (unless I'm on vacation).
What was the first piece you sold? And do you remember the moment you felt like EARTHENjoy was a “real” business? I sold ornaments to friends after I posted a picture of them on Facebook. Man, I don't know exactly when it sunk in-- maybe when my husband gave me a stamp with my business name on it or when I had my first show and it was really successful. I think that probably was it. It was a tiny craft show in a school gym and although it was slow according to the seasoned vendors, EARTHENjoy did great. I knew it was going to continue to grow from there.
You started out in your home studio and recently transitioned to a studio at Bench. What were some challenges of a home studio? How has your transition been in your new space? It was so easy to get distracted at home and if I remembered something I needed to do, I would just get up right then and do it. I actually have ADD, so being in a studio out of the house is super beneficial in separating me from distraction! I felt reclusive being home alone on mornings that my son Paxton had preschool. And working at night, which is what I prefer, didn't leave much room for Patrick and I to hang. Once I get in the zone at night, there's no stopping me! Also, the home studio constantly called to me like I needed to go up and work all the time, even when kids and Patrick were home and I was a bit of a workaholic. It definitely wasn't great for the family. I hate to admit, It almost was like I was making up for all those years of not doing anything for myself by doing way too much of what I began to enjoy most for that period of life. My love and obsession for clay became almost unhealthy really. Now that I am in a new space, combined with kids both being in school all day, I feel like I've gotten in a really good rhythm. It's been a definite adjustment. It wasn't easy learning to work from 9-3 because I prefer working at night, but I have learned what to tell myself and how to set things up. That way, I can easily get myself in the head space to get right back at it where I left off the previous day. I'll be honest-- sometimes I'm disappointed that I don't make quite as much as I used to but I just have to just remind myself that it's healthier for me and the family to have boundaries between work and the rest of life.
You openly talk about having two children and the fact that some days are more difficult than others? What is your take on “having it all” and balancing family and work? Kathleen, I was thinking about you and remembered you saying that you used your creativity in the workplace (when you had a corporate job) in how you dealt with family dynamics and went about projects. I totally get that! In all the jobs I've done, even when they weren't creative, I've always found that I'm using my creativity, but in ways I didn't expect to. The biggest unexpected way has been in parenting a child with autism. Sometimes people would say to me "How did you think to do that with her?" when I come up with a different solution to some of her "problems" and it has made me so so thankful that that's where Patrick and I excel! Delaney's OT said that compared to some of the other parents, Patrick and I quickly get what she needs and implement good solutions. Anyway, I think in some ways work and family merge into each other when you use the skills you're gifted with but they also can merge with what you need to work at most.
We talked a lot about having the need for a creative outlet outside of being a mom, can you please share why that is important to you? Being a parent is stressful as everyone knows and it's hugely important to have an identity outside of being a mom. But it's easier said than done, especially when they are little-- at least for me. I sucked at that for the first five years or so. I've learned that creativity for me is a big part of being healthy mentally but it isn't for everyone. I like to say art is my workout, and that's just it: physical health, spiritual health and mental health is super important. Finding out what that means individually to you as a parent is so key to being a good one! It's not advice you're often given at baby showers and all which needs to change. "Nap when they nap" is the closest to reminding a mom to care for herself but it doesn't even begin to touch how to truly practice good self care let alone maintain your individuality. Ugh, this is a passionate area for me! I could keep going on this topic...
Your husband Patrick has been a huge supporter of your business. What has his support meant to you and how has it helped your business? Everything. His mom is the one that taught me my trade. He made me a work desk and has been supremely confident in my skills even when I'm not. He took over online orders and does the admin stuff I hate, allowing me to focus more on creating and markets which are more my passion. He built me the most beautiful website. He's genuinely interested in what I'm making and learned the tricks of the kiln. He helped run kiln loads for me in busy seasons with very few pieces getting messed up- that's not easy! He's truly my partner in this and I couldn't do it without him. He could do his job without me, but I rely on him big-time. He kinda spoils me.
Please share some thoughts on the whole maker movement. How has the Omaha community helped support your business? It's not just Omaha, but Lincoln peeps too, that make me feel so grateful that I can do what I love. It was seriously enlightening breaking out of the "mom world" and reigniting my love for people and interest in different walks of life while pursuing a passion for art. And it's the best feeling to see the faces of people that have supported me since the beginning as well as meeting individuals and inspirations (virtually and in real life). I often give free items or discounts in gratitude for the confidence that kind people have helped to instill in me. I seriously feel indebted in the best way. Bench, the people behind Handmade Omaha, Love the Locals, Clinton from Home & Closet, Hello Holiday, Scout, Aromas, Paperdoll, the True Blue team, Hutch, and Paperkite, among SO many others have really given myself and other makers a strong platform to sell our work while they also create something individually that is so special to the communities. They're all hugely inspiring small businesses! Can you tell I love these communities?! Nebraska is an outstanding place to be a creative. I do think there's room to grow, and I've actually been in talks with a couple other creatives about how to make new people feel welcomed into this community of artistic expression and how to foster growth in those of us who have been doing it for a little while now. Thoughts on that to come after the holidays!
Where do you look for design and color inspiration? What are you most popular pieces? Are there some new techniques or pieces that you are planning to try or create? I love Pinterest for color palettes and fashion magazines are helpful for keeping up with trends in jewelry. I also like to encourage people who enjoy my work to send me pictures of color inspiration they see while out and about and I do the same– "screenshotting" as I go. Recently, a good customer traveled to Malaysia and sent me some great photos that I may be using in the spring! Also, having friends come to the studio helps me to break out of my usual routine and create things that have been on my mind, while helping them with what they want to make. Sometimes my best ideas come at the strangest times and in the weirdest circumstances. My most popular pieces are faceted stone pendants, studs with gold accents, and hanging planters. As of August, I was able to purchase a larger kiln and it has quadrupled the amount of inventory I can fire at a time. I'd like to make some serving platters and large wall art as well as new dangly earrings!
Upcoming shows: Bench: MADE, Habdash Bash, Handmade Omaha, Love the Locals