Maggie Furtak '02

When I finished rewiring the kiln, my husband and I went over the safety protocol. If I flip the switch and something goes wrong, the order of operations is electric breaker off, fire extinguisher on, then dial 911. Twenty years into my career as a professional potter, I remain grateful for the breadth of the art education I received at Hamilton. To survive as a working artist, I’ve needed every inch of it.

Growing up, the arts were always the place I was most at home. I was a good all-around student, but in the studio I felt competent rather than just diligent. The support I received at Hamilton finally tipped me onto a path as a studio potter. Ultimately, I could picture how I would fit into a career as a potter, and that was that. The art department stressed practical skills and independent learning. It demanded excellence to ensure students would be able to support themselves as working artists after graduation. To the credit of my professors, no one has managed to pry me out of the clay studio since. 

Today, I spend my days throwing pots on the wheel, weighing out glaze ingredients with a triple beam balance, and selling my work under the business name “Pate Ceramics.” I love making small useful things. Handmade pottery adds affordable, tactile pleasure to people’s lives. You make satisfying things with your two hands, bathe them in color, and people take them home and love them. At an event at a local museum, a visually impaired woman was carefully running her fingertips over my work when she suddenly exclaimed, “Wait! I have one of your pieces already! I recognize this handle!” Side benefits to a career in clay include a uniform of t-shirts and jeans, and the swagger that comes from starting with handfuls of dirt and making something that archeologists may dig out of the rubble 10,000 years from now.

Even in the best of times, small businesses constantly pivot and adjust, and that means embracing lifelong learning. Last night I edited teapot photos for online sales. The pandemic has canceled in-person events and made the photography skills I learned at Hamilton more important than ever. Overnight, all my business moved online. Suddenly, I need lots of pictures. 

Last year, the world reached the end of the G-200 feldspar supply, an ingredient in several of my glaze recipes. I work with natural materials, straight from the ground. When a mine seam is tapped out, the unrefined minerals dug from a new location don’t always behave quite the same as the old ones did. Time to dust off the glaze chemistry textbooks and rework my formulas to account for the missing ingredient. A rigorous science education pays dividends. Pivot and adjust…pivot and adjust… 

Last month, it was time once again to play junior electrician and rewire my kiln. Parts wear out, kilns are specialized pieces of equipment, and it’s ultimately up to you to diagnose the problem and dive into the guts of the electrical box to make the repair. I pushed the button, electric current began to flow, and fortunately no one needed to call 911.

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