If you ever wondered about the current state of Oregon Craft and its critical role in providing creative fuel for innovation and economic development that goes well beyond the beautiful pieces the artisans create, look no further than the current exhibit at Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft (MCC), on display this summer.
It is a curated cross-section of the craft activity throughout the state, aptly demonstrating the depth and breadth of our rich creative resources. It’s also a showcase for the entrepreneurial spirit of the companies and individuals who combine their passion for craft with a knack for business.
One of those creator entrepreneurs is Lilith Rockett, whose handmade porcelain ceramic pieces feature prominently on the second floor of the MCC exhibit. They feature clean lines and unglazed polished surfaces. These are pieces, like simple cups and saucers, that are meant to be used as well as displayed – using simple shapes that “evoke rather than impose”.
I recently visited Rockett in her SE Portland studio to see the artist at work, and to sit down for a chat. Turns out, while she always had the maker itch, it would take a lot of years before she scratched it.
The Long Road To A Revelation
“I always enjoyed making things, since I was a little kid, when I would make stuff an and try to sell it to neighbors – things like Christmas ornaments, going door to door”, Rockett noted.
“Art was the thing that mattered to me most, but I really didn’t get into it until my 20s, when I took a ceramics class at a San Francisco community college, and loved it”
It was the first time she did something where, in her words “time completely disappeared”. But she still didn’t dive headlong into it because, in the late 80’s it “wasn’t cool”.
While still doing art as a hobby, Rockett did a lot of different things to pay the bills–she was a flight attendant, worked at bookstores, coffee shops, and spas, anything “to make enough money to go to school and have a lifestyle that I liked”.
She also opened a self-defense school in New Mexico, and got in the film business as a camera assistant in Los Angeles, where she met her husband Eliot.
In her late 30’s, Rockett’s love of ceramics was reignited when Eliot bought her a bag of clay and a membership at a clay studio. She would work all night making pots, teaching herself the craft. She fell in love with clay, and “made a lot of stuff for the house.”
Then, she attended a firing workshop, and it changed everything. Rockett noted “It was the first time I realized that people could make a living doing that – it was quite a revelation”. It was there when she knew “I was going to be a potter”.
Rockett then worked at a clay studio for a short time learning more about the craft and the business, and eventually decided to go off on her own in 2005, opening a ceramics gallery and studio in Chinatown in Los Angeles.
She noted “It wasn’t a popular move then, doing ceramics, but I was really into them. I never really approached things as a business. I’m super entrepreneurial, but not in the most ‘capitalist’ way, I look at it more like a community project.”
For 3 years, the gallery represented a wide variety of studio potters and designers and artists. Because of her enthusiasm for the craft, Rockett was putting a lot of energy in other artists’ careers, but her own work was stifled, so in 2008, when she moved to Portland, she started doing her own work.
She started with a garage studio behind their house, and then, thanks to a robust demand for her work, moved to a two-level larger studio in SE (just off Belmont Street). To this day, the work is all hers – Rockett has assistants that prep and recycle clay, and clean the wheels, but she does all of the making.
The Business Supporting The Craft
Working with creative restaurateurs was a great opportunity for Rockett . “I love the collaborative relationships with the chefs”, she noted. “We do a lot of design work, which is really exciting, and they don’t want me to dumb it down at all. They want what I do. They want that esthetic. It puts my work in an environment with super creative food, and I create these platforms for it, and that interplay is really exciting.”
For Rockett, finding the right balance between craft and business is about finding the right partnerships. “I need to be represented well, with the full range of what I do – otherwise you’re just busy making widgets. With too many small orders it’s just too diffuse.”
She works her way through the business side of things by “feel”, especially pricing. Rockett notes, “I work at the high end of what I do, but it’s hard to figure out. You just play with it and find your comfortable place.”
Is she worried about things like competition from other ceramic makers, from artisans like her to mass-produced dinner sets from China? Rockett looks at it this way – “You just have to go to work, and you’ll figure it out with your hands. What I do is not mass production, but there is a market for it, and there will always be a market for it.”
In the end, however, it’s still her passion for craft, and the live well lived, that drives her. “I just want to lead an interesting life. I just want to do what I love. That’s why I only take projects I’m interested in. I have to be selective because it’s just my two hands. It has to work for me. I know I have to be able to make ends meet, but it’s not for the money, it’s for the love.”
Lilith Rockett is a maker, designer, artist, and entrepreneur, now living and working in the Oregonian way, using a unique mix of talent, moxie, passion and love to produce beautiful work that blurs the lines between craft and sculpture, consumer product utility and fine art.
Don’t miss her work displayed (and for sale) at the MCC State Of Oregon Craft exhibit, through August 15, 2015, or, you can find it for sale in Portland at Canoe in the West End, at Beam & Anchor on N. Interstate, and at The Joinery at their Woodstock and downtown locations. Built Oregon is happy to be one of the media sponsors for the MCC exhibit.