I love autumn time. Nature's crisp embrace and colourful transition from green to warm yellow, orange and red — not to mention cozying up with a good book and cup of tea. At this time of year we can hear the distant knock of winter and the wonderful festivities that await us during the holiday season. I credit four years in Switzerland to my ability to get organised for holiday shopping earlier than I used to, and when it comes to gifts I have a deep appreciation for unique handicrafts, local artists and craftspeople. We have become so addicted to cheap and disposable stuff that I, for one, would forgo all of it for a few quality handmade items that truly celebrate the inspiration, energy and passion of an artist.
Road to Switzerland
I met Meghan Howard when we both landed in Basel in November 2014. I was making the short leap from life in Zurich and she was moving to Switzerland with her husband and daughter from Columbus, Ohio. I was instantly intrigued by this born and raised North Carolinian woman who holds a master's degree in architectural engineering and courageously left an established career in engineering to open a pottery studio in Ohio — only to move to Switzerland five years later with her husband's job and do it all over again in new country. For Meghan the decision was pretty straightforward, "pottery started out as a hobby but after working for a number of years, I realized that I liked pottery a lot more than engineering."
It is clear that her background in architectural engineering, studies in architectural history and design, and work in "new product development" for a Fortune 500 company have contributed to both vast knowledge and endless inspiration for her pottery. Meghan creatively fuses architectural design elements with her talent at the potter's wheel. The results are mugs, platters, vases, and bowls each illustrated by hand with a pattern inspired by architectural details from cities throughout the world as illustrated by the Prague, Savannah and Venice collections.
Meghan created the name TRö for the Basel-based studio from the first two letters of her studio in the US — Tulane Road Pottery — and added the "ö" to make it Swiss'ish. When asked what she loves about pottery, Meghan smiles, "I love making something to be used — your favorite coffee mug." As I peruse her collections I can relate to the clean forms and practical shapes Meghan creates at studio TRö. The pieces are solid but not heavy, and feel good in the hand. I'm visualising a delicious chai tea when she shares the design inspiration for a mug I am holding "this is part of the new Basel collection — it's from the window at the entrance" of the main train station.
It must be fun to know your pottery is used in so many homes, I drool. Nodding in agreement Meghan says "a customer stopped me at the grocery store once and shared that her husband has a bowl that he bought at my holiday show. He uses it every morning for breakfast — to the point where if it is dirty, he'll go get it out of the dishwasher and wash it himself. She also added that this is the only time he ever washes dishes."
Opening up shop
When the opportunity to move to Switzerland came up, Meghan's original plan was to wait a few years before jumping in and setting up her pottery studio in Basel. She had hoped to find a part-time job to balance with her young daughter's schedule and work for a little while before reopening her studio. However, after speaking with local career counsellors she decided it made more sense to get going with the ceramics because the job market is limited without level B2 German and ceramics was really what she wanted to do here.
The challenge in setting up an atelier space was more than she expected and she spent over four months searching and applying for a studio space.
"Making ceramics is a pretty messy process and requires a special electrical hookup for the kiln and this is not something most landlords want to deal with," she explains.
Fortunately for her, she found the University of Basel's online Marktplatz which had lots of ads for shared atelier space. She now shares an atelier in Münchenstein with a jeweler, a photographer and a printmaker.
Pottery is clearly not a clean, light or simple business to transport and Meghan acknowledges there was definitely a bit of a learning curve in moving to Europe. After finding a space, she set out to learn the subtle differences in how ceramics are done in Europe versus the US, as well as repurchasing a kiln and the other essential materials she had sold when moving from the US. Meghan admits that understanding the industry here was no easy task and it meant finding a common language and being forced to put her German language to practice. Clay is the basis for all potters, and finding the right clay was critical to the process and took a few months of testing before she found her "studio clay" — white stoneware from Spain.
Coming from a city in the US that had poor public transportation, Meghan has enjoyed making use of Basel's (and Switzerland's) fantastic network. However, she confesses that not having a car to get materials and pick up packages is now her biggest challenge since settling into her studio. Clay is heavy and not a lot of fun to transport by tram so, after finding out the hard way that her "little wheelie bag doesn't support very much weight," Meghan signed up with Mobility, a car sharing service, for times when she needs to run to a distributor or the shipping company.
Meghan offers suggestions to expat artists and craftspeople who wish to sell their work in Switzerland, and honestly the advice can be heeded by everyone who lives in a foreign country.
- Stay flexible — In terms of where you work, where and how you sell, my assumption is still that what worked (in terms of product line, online sales, art shows, etc.) for my ceramics studio in Ohio doesn't mean that the same will hold true here. So, I'm trying lots of different things and seeing where there is interest.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions, especially about the language — My A2 German course has not covered that a Tonabscheider is a sink trap or that Drehschiene is a throwing rib. Now, when I'm at the clay distributor, if I don't know what something is called in German, I ask.
Photos: 1st & 2nd: © Catherine Murray; 3rd & 4th: © Meghan Howard