Ceramic artist and business owner Grace Brown on resilience, routine and wearing the many hats of marketing a small business.
Interviewed by Jade Roberts
A mindscape where time stands still – a freeze-framed upon your desk, shelf, or wherever it shall be placed in your home. There’s something about Grace Brown’s work that suspends you at first glance, instantaneously.
Her works posses a childlike imagination, places you’ve spent time well, and that hold your memories. Or are yet to be created but which can be imagined; the cities predestined to be explored. A common thread in her projects are the utopian places we have been or shall go, and it is easy to be drawn to the minimalist law and organised-world-order of her ceramic geo shape-inspired objects.
There’s no doubt that Grace has a creative mind, with uninhibited flow and her work, a unique language of its own. With ceramics Grace takes you on an exploration of identity and is transforming the way art is both made and consumed. But as well as this she has been able to build a strong and steady small business and recognisable brand with loyal fans around the world, while wearing all of the hats including creator, maker, designer, social media manager and of course PR.
There is heart in her hustle and an unrelenting determination and resilience anchored in the ability to dream and keep on dreaming. Her story is one that includes building from the ground up when up something is lost or rather taken, and it’s the character in a nonlinear path with challenges confronted, that such an experience is so relatable and relevant for us all. Now, more than ever.
What are you reading, watching, loving, eating, buying right now?
Reading: “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo
Watching: I’m loving revisiting SBS on demand and exploring cooking shows
Loving: The changing colours of the leaves as we enter Autumn.
Eating: Due to lockdown, I’ve been taking the time to dive into some slow cooking with my husband. Instead of heading out on the weekends, Saturday night now finds us choosing a country on a map and cooking traditional foods.
Buying: Unfortunately nothing! I’ve lost a lot of work this year due to Covid-19 so I’m trying to safe guard for the coming months.
Name four favourite tracks one from when you were a kid, a teenager, early adult and now?
Kid: Prince – My Name is Prince
Teenager: The Smiths – This Charming Man
Early adult: Notorious B.I.G – Juicy
Now: Tyler, The Creator – EarfQuake
Tell us about your childhood? What was your personality as a kid?
Growing up in a rural community on a farm meant that life was pretty slow. There was 14 students in my primary school and when I went to high school the bus ride took an hour and a half. So it was a very different lifestyle to how I live today. I was always creative and made the most with what we had. I wanted to explore, and I loved going to the city, seeing the lights and exploring new things. I had so much energy and felt like I wanted to explore a million and one places at once…difficult in the country. Now that I live in the city and have travelled to a lot of places, I’m feeling the call to head back to the country…funny how things change!
Tell me about your relationships with art, design and creating from when you were younger? Was it always present in you to be creative?
From a young age I was always creative. We didn’t have access to a lot of the same things that you would have in the city so I was always making things; whether they were sculptures made from wood, bottle caps and found objects or making artwork from flowers and petals. When I became a teenager that turned into a love of textiles and fashion which I pursued until my mid 20s. Eventually I realized it wasn’t for me and I took a huge shift and tried a pottery class which changed everything.
Did you think sculptures, art, ceramics was the end game for you? Is it now?
I definitely didn’t think I would end up in ceramics…I didn’t discover clay until 2014 when I took a class spontaneously to try and reconnect with my hands. But as soon as I started working with it, I knew it was what I wanted to do and work with for the rest of my creative career.
Help us to understand what draws you to creating structures and in particular cityscapes, as well as shapes and geometry inspired ceramic objects?
Many years ago when I was a teenager, our community was hit hard by bushfires. It took a long time for everyone to rebuild emotionally and physically. For my family, although our main home survived, we lost everything else around us on our farm. Since then I’ve been very interested in the significance of place and what it means to be ‘home’.
Much of my work is imagining and building Utopian cities, dwellings and miniature communities as a response to the often Dystopian reality outside…whether this is from drought, natural disasters, displacement or as of this year, a virus.
I’ve always turned to my creativity to imagine another reality, and building miniature cities has been a way for me to process what is happening around us and open a dialogue around the significance of place.
If you weren’t running a business creating labyrinth-like buildings and ceramic domes and archways what is that think you’d be doing?
I teach part time Art in a primary school so I would most likely teaching full time if I wasn’t running my own business, although I become frustrated if I’m unable to use my creativity so I’d probably do some sort of other visual arts on the side. I think I would be unable to go day to day without using my hands to make art on a regular basis.
Your Inspiration/s/What Inspires You (Where do you find your greatest inspiration?)
I love traveling and exploring architecture. I also love the work of M.C Escher and his optical illusions. This flows into the visuals in the game Monument Valley – I find anything that challenges reality inspiring. I’ve also always loved Science Fiction, whether this is through books or movies, and in particular the desert landscapes of Star Wars. Anything where imagined landscapes and communities are explored is a huge inspiration for me.
Fear can sometimes hold us back from what our heart most desires, does fear hold you back from anything and if so what? What you do with if there were no limitations (fear/money/time)?
Where to start! If there were no limitations I would invest my time and money into building larger scaled sculptures. It’s always been a dream to make larger cities but logistically it is currently not possible. But hopefully one day I’ll be able to go really large and see where that takes me.
What is the vision for your business? The end goal?
My goal for my business it to create quality handmade artwork that people can interact with in their homes.
Business Goals: What goals does your business have in the near future? Long-term future?
I had my first solo show scheduled for this year which was a huge goal for me. Unfortunately all shows I had coming up have been postponed indefinitely due to Covid-19 so it’s been a challenging time to keep motivated and continue to make new work. My long term goals are to exhibit overseas and to do an international residency for a few months so I am able to focus on my practice without being distracted by day to day life. I’d also love to have some work accepted into a permanent collection somewhere…I can dream!
Have you had art-industry related or business mentors along the way?
I was lucky enough to do an internship at Slow Clay Centre in Collingwood and I learnt a lot from the Director of the school, Jane Sawyer, who is an incredible potter and business woman. In addition to this, when I was completing my Masters of Teaching we have a number of mentors who work with us at schools and at the university. A number of them were incredible in helping me learn how to become an educator and also how to work on my organization skills which is something I struggle with sometimes!
How will you know you’ve reached success, what does that look like for you?
I think success is a scale and I think about what it is that I would need to do to ‘succeed’ and the list is endless. But at the same time there are countless things I’ve ticked off my list. For me, as long as I am able to live comfortably, keep creating and for my artwork to be well received is my version of success.
What is the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting/running your own business?
I’ve never been super into chasing a huge pay cheque, clearly as I would not be in the arts, but I definitely think my life would be very different if I chose a different career in terms of money. I’d probably own my own house, I’d have a car that isn’t literally falling apart, I’d have superannuation and I’d feel confident in my finances if I got sick or needed to care for my family. However I also know myself and I know that if I don’t work in a creative industry I’d go absolutely mad!
Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when you started out?
I would have taken time off to travel more, to explore and to do more internships abroad. I would also have slowed down and taken more time to perfect my skills before I started selling. But when you’re starting out you’re so eager to get out there and show your work.
How did you overcome your biggest struggle?
Like everyone, I have been through a lot of struggles both inside and outside of my business, and despite everything I’ve got back up and done my best to keep moving forward. I made a promise to myself a long time ago that I giving up is not an option and to put my energy into making wherever I can.
Tell me about your routine… Do you have a ‘must do’ routine before you start you workday? What are some things you do to bring you back into balance? What’s your favourite thing to come home to after a long day at work?
I start my day writing a list. I’m analogue so these lists are usually on paper all around the house and I lose track of them. It’s shocking and I need a better system! Anyway, I write a list each day. And I try and add on nice fun things that I can easily tick off so I feel like I’ve achieved something even if I’m having a bad day. My favourite thing to come home to is my husband and my cat…I have had some instability in my life so coming home to such a stable home that we’ve made is very important to me.
What are some businesses you love or are inspired by?
In ceramics I have so much respect for the artist Ben Medansky. His work has always been an inspiration in particular his attention to detail. I also love local ceramic artist Tantri Mustika who I used to share a studio with. Her work ethic is incredible!
How do you balance work/life/business? What’s your happy place or ritual?
I struggle with finding a balance because I find it hard to switch off my brain. Because I’m running all aspects of my business; from making, to social media, to accounts and running my website, I’m often working around the clock to juggle each aspect. I find I’m a lot happier if I manage to take a weekend off here and there and get out of the city and visit family in the country. I forget how crazy it is that we can’t see an uninterrupted horizon in the city!
What has been the hardest thing about running a business and in particular a ceramic/art business so far?
Accounts. I find it so hard to chase up outstanding invoices, or to do my tax, or to keep everything in one place. I wasn’t taught those things so I’m often learning on the job, trying to make a system that works but if I’m to be honest I will occasionally cut corners to try and save time but it never works out and in the end it always ends up taking longer!
What advice can you give for balancing PRing your business on social media as well as making time to create and run the business on top?
Be honest, and engage with people as much as you can on social media. Try and show people who you are and what happens behind the scenes. I’m trying to do more of this, but it’s hard putting yourself in front of the camera and speaking. But I’ve found it works and people connect a lot more. Balancing this with making is tough but I try and avoid social media while I’m at work because I’m focusing on making. I’ll snap a few photos but I always post them at home when I can sit somewhere quiet, write the text and then post without eating into my making time.
What has worked for you on social media and what hasn’t?
Telling a story, sharing who I am, what inspires me and also behind the scenes content has worked for me on social media. I’m not a fan of telling people what to do or trying to push people to buy on social media…I prefer to share a narrative…after all, isn’t that what social media was designed to do?
Your products have an incredible emotional connection with the buyer – was sparking emotion through product intentional?
When I’m making I’m usually not thinking about want people are going to consider or see a when they look at my pieces. However when I make my larger sculptures I often create a narrative about who lives there, where are they going, what are their worries, are they running from anything and can this home be somewhere safe for them… I hope that comes through in my work and if people are reminded of a significant place or a moment of peace when they consider my work then I am so incredibly happy.
You’ve managing to establish valuable brand foundations, consistent brand aesthetic (be it through product, imagery, tone of voice – content at large) OHG very identifiable. What advice can you give to other small businesses in the arts re how they too could establish a community through content and branding in their own way?
I was lucky enough to have a friend who works in branding and graphic design to help with my logo and branding which really set me up in establishing OHG. It also gave me confidence in presenting myself…I think for a long time when you’re starting out it’s often a case of ‘fake it to you make it’ and I often felt that way. I made sure I regularly shared my work on social media and was consistent in my tone throughout that process even if my aesthetic changed. I think people appreciate seeing you grow as an artists and they enjoy that process. Without social media my brand would be a lot smaller and I would not have had the opportunities I’ve had without that platform so I would definitely recommend interacting with social media as much as you can even if it’s not your scene.
Biggest overall lesson in business?
Don’t rush! Whether this in launching a product, making pieces, packing kilns, double checking every aspect of what you’re doing, cutting corners or managing accounts…Take your time and slow down J
Oh and where did the name Oh Hey Grace come from? Naturally Grace is your name but is there a story behind giving that name to your business?
Oh Hey Grace actually started as my personal Instagram account before I had anything to do with ceramics. Whenever I would bump into old friends they would say ‘oh hey Grace!’, so when I was going through the process of branding and trying to come up with a name for my brand, it felt so serious to have just my name listed. So I kept it the same as my personal account to keep things playful and light hearted.
Interview by Jade Roberts