STUDIO - Gopi Shah Ceramics

When Renegade Craft Fair paired me up to share a booth with Gopi Shah last spring, I gained a wonderfully kind and talented friend as well. Gopi is so warm and open, it felt like we were old friends right away. I was very excited to find out more about her beginnings as a ceramicist and see her in action in her studio in San Rafael. Her skill and artistry often made her work look effortless, though I now truly understand how much work really goes into each piece and her business as a whole. 

Ana: So, tell me a little bit about your beginnings as a creative.

Gopi: Hmm... my beginnings as an artist... I started my business in 2014 when Jake and I moved to Austin. I was living in Los Angeles before, working at an environmental nonprofit and I had wanted to start a ceramics company for a while. When we moved to Austin, it felt like a good turning point where I had no professional network and I had no friends or contacts, so I decided to try to start it. The cost of living was cheaper, it just seemed like a good, nurturing place to start. I contacted a bunch of ceramicists in the area and one actually ended up being my mentor...which is amazing. I started working under her - her name is Jennifer Prichard. She does installations. She had some space in her studio that I could rent out so I started my business there and then eventually moved into a garage in Austin. And then about a year ago, we moved to San Francisco so I was debating if I should continue or not because San Francisco is so expensive. I had a really great, encouraging community from Austin and they were like, "You need to stay with it." And so I did and here I am.

A: Awesome. How did you first get into ceramics?

G: I did it in high school. I took my first ceramics class when I was 14 maybe and I had an awesome teacher through high school who I still keep in touch with. He's great. He's actually a really amazing artist and I was very fortunate to have him as my high school instructor. I think he made me fall in love with ceramics because he was willing to try anything. If you asked him about doing something, he was like, "Just try it!" And I think to have a teacher who's that open to change and pushing the limits of what they think they can do or what the material can do was really great. So I did it through high school and I did a couple classes through the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston when I went to college out in Boston. Then I came back to California and I was taking some classes at the community college by us and had another teacher that was kind of reminiscent of my high school teacher. They were both very inspiring people.

A: What inspires or drives the direction your work takes?

G: First, it kind of started out with products that I wanted for my own house. I was like, "I think we need an incense burner, so I'll just make some incense burners." Or cups and mugs, obviously. Now I have switched over a little bit more to home decor rather than just kitchen wares, which is typically what ceramics is thought of as. And I have really enjoyed it a lot. I think it's a little more unique to not necessarily do plates and mugs and bowls, to figure out what you can create from clay that people might not typically think is something ceramic.

A: I like that approach. Like your dolls, for example?

G: Yes, like the dolls. I started making them because Jake and I actually traveled a bunch last year and we went to a bunch of museums. We were in Ireland, Turkey, and Australia and we saw a bunch of museums - and even the de Young right by our house - there were a lot of ancient cultures that have done dolls or figurines and I started to really like them. There's a Mesoamerican exhibit at the de Young that I just love. I love the clay that they used, I love the prints that they used, all the symbols. So I started creating the dolls.

A: That's really cool. So you now do this full time...

G: I just started doing it full time again. In Austin, it was a little bit easier to go full time because the cost of living was a bit less. And when we moved to San Francisco, it took me a really long time to find a studio so I took temp jobs and supplemented my income that way. Now my business has started to grow again and get a bigger following and it's great because now I am full time again with ceramics.

A: I think that transition is probably one of the biggest challenges for most makers. What advice or tips might you have, and what challenges did you go through to get to that point?

G: A big challenge for me has been... when I was doing my temp job, I always wanted to be in the studio. I think what was good for me was that it pushed me to work harder when I was in the studio because I was more appreciative of the time. So it was actually kind of nice to have a temp job in an office setting, because as a maker, you're never just sitting at the computer for eight hours a day. And people who run their business, especially if it's a micro business, they're doing everything: doing accounting, they're doing website design, they're doing product development. For me, it was funny to see an office setting where you're just siloed into one tiny position of an entire company versus you managing everything yourself and doing everything yourself. So I think the hardest transition for me originally, even starting my business, was believing in myself. And I found that a lot with people and I think it should be something that's more spoken about.

A: Yeah, for sure.

G: There's that whole "fake it until you make it" mentality and I don't really believe in that.

A: How do you see it differently?

G: What I really value in life is true friendships and connections and I think the whole "fake it 'til you make it" thing - you know, you're faking it. So everyone is going through the same challenges that you're going through and I think it's kind of off-putting to pretend like you're not going through those challenges. I think everyone starts to wonder if others aren't [going through challenges] and what's wrong with them and if they're not worthy, if their business isn't gonna succeed and things like that. I get a lot of advice and help from friends and makers and I couldn't imagine running my business or being where I am today without that help. So the believing in yourself is really hard and I think a big part of it for me was having my partner, Jake, push me because another thing that's big for me is cultural - how many Indian makers do you see out there? There aren't that many. It is a big cultural disparity. My parents originally were not necessarily supportive of me jumping off and not having a nine to five and a stable career and a retirement plan, all those things that come with a nine to five.

A: Haha. All the "smart" things to do in life.

G: Yeah. Now they're very proud of me, but it was a really big challenge for me when I first started my business. I still feel that today.

A: I really like that you bring that up - that we all go through challenges and if we don't talk about them, it seems like we're alone in that. Sometimes I find I'm comparing myself to other people, which I'm trying to get better with. It's so hard when we have so much online presence, right? But have you found the online community to be helpful also?

G: Yeah, definitely. I think the ceramics community in general is a very shared community. You can find glaze recipes online, people are always willing to share "secrets" or how they do things. If they're creating a technique or doing something in a certain way, there are a lot of videos online of people making their pots or doing their techniques so you can learn a lot. Also, Renegade Craft Fair has really helped me connect with other makers in my community. For example, I'm working with P.F. Candle and one of the co-founders, Kristen, has been a really great resource for me and kind of a mentor also for small business. Most people are so encouraging and so helpful and so supportive and I think that's a large reason why I'm still very driven to do what I'm doing.

A: Awesome. So are you doing a collaboration with them?

G: Right now, I am doing just some pieces for their online store. Incense burners and strikers - things that go along with their candles.

A: Sweet! So because the focus of this series is on makers and small businesses, I like to have everybody talk a little bit about why it's important to support smaller businesses and shop handmade as opposed to the norm of mass produced things and giant corporations.

Being a maker has really made me more in touch with my own community. I think it’s incredible that there now exists this space where people ... who are good at making things and craftsmen to actually have a voice in their community.

G: One thing that I've learned in the last year is something that's really important to me is community. When you support local, handmade, you're supporting your community. Not just a maker, but a shop, or an idea, or someone's dream. And I think that that's so special. Being a maker has really made me more in touch with my own community. I think it's incredible that there now exists this space where people - you know everyone has strong pursuits in life and different capabilities and I think it's great that there is this space for people who are good at making things and craftsmen to actually have a voice in their community. I'm making ceramics and home goods and eventually I would love to start making public art installations that tie a community together. Hopefully I'll get more into that space.

A: Oh, that's really interesting! And actually kind of where I was going to head next - so what are your goals for your business and for yourself as an artist?

G: Actually, my business has been more of a success than I thought it was gonna be, so everyday I'm really appreciative of that. I just didn't know what I was really getting into when I first started. I remember telling Jake about it, I was like, "I just wanna work 20 hours a week. It would be so fun." And now I'm working more than I've ever worked in my life. So I'm very happy with where I am right now. I think it would be great to continue on this path for a little bit but I would really love to get in touch with other designers and - you know, my background is in community engagement and environmental advocacy, so I would love to basically put together sustainable development with an environmental focus, community health, and do art installations based on that. It's a very specific field.

A: Tell me a bit more about that. It sounds like it could entail a lot of different things I'm not totally clear on. Haha. 

G: So actually, when I was living in LA there was this duo who did a roundabout that when you drove around it - it had faces - so the faces would change as you drove around it. But also, it was a storm water catch, like a drainage catch. So when it rained in LA, which isn't very often, it would catch the rain and it would filter it. And I just thought that project was amazing. So projects where you can convey something about the community that it's being put in and something about material science, like using a concrete that could take CO2 and convert it into oxygen - just combining all of my interests in that way would be really fulfilling.

A: Is that a thing that exists - that concrete?

G: Yes.

A: Woah. You're blowing my mind a bit right now.

G: Haha. There's just so much out there. I think with that though, that's a completely different route, right? So I'm gonna have to work with a group of people, I'm gonna work with a material scientist, I'm gonna work with a designer, I'm gonna have to get state or local funds and grants and go through that whole process. Work with city developers and city planners. But that would be really exciting.

A: So do you see it as this current part of your business coming to an end and then you would do that? Or maybe you would hire on staff here and then move your own focus?

G: I haven't thought about that yet. Right now, my little art project that has been trying to pull me in that direction has been my mushrooms. I've been making these little ceramic mushrooms and planting them in different places. I love hiking and I love seeing mushrooms and there's just so many different varieties that are so interesting. We were on a hike once and it was like a group of ten people and half of us took a really long time and we saw all these things. There was this giant mushroom that was like as big as my face. And we asked the other group who ran through it basically, "Did you see that giant mushroom?!" and they were like, "No." I think it clicked for me then that I'm more of a person that takes my time and likes to smell the roses. And I just wanted to do something for the people who are like that also. So it just came to me - if I made these little ceramic mushroom installations, maybe somebody on a hike would see it and would be really stoked about it. That was my move to some sort of public art. I have only done a couple installations. All of the mushrooms have been taken.

A: Oh, how do you feel about that?

G: At first, I was kind of mad, because I planted them there for a reason. At the same time, I think another thing that would be really exciting, especially living in San Francisco tech world, would be if I could plant a little chip inside all of them and see where they all went. I think that would be really fun. Haha. Now I'm assuming the people who are taking them really like them and enjoy them and as long as that's happening, I think that's fine.

A: Thats actually interesting, you could invite people to track them. A friend of ours did that with a series of handmade books he crafted and so now you go on the website and you can see a map of where all of the books have gone. To me, the question of people taking public art home is very interesting. Is the purpose of that art to be out there and stay out there or is it okay that people take it?  Because the idea of ownership changes once you leave it out in the world.

G: Yeah and also with street art, I'm assuming people put it in a certain place because they think that that's the best place for it. So when things get moved, and everyone can't enjoy it... but at the same time, yeah, you put it out there. It's like people who do sand sculptures, you do it because you love it and you know it's not gonna stay there forever.

A: That's true. Well, this has been really great! Is there anything else you feel like you'd like to mention or touch on?

G: I think the thing that's been really amazing about starting my business has been the community that I've developed from it. It's just very interesting people, all coming together for a common goal: doing what they love and what they're passionate about and that makes them really happy. It's just been very supportive and uplifting, so it's something I'm really excited to be a part of.

A: Awesome!

Further exploration:
Gopi Shah Ceramics Website
Gopi Shah Ceramics on Instagram