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Featured Artist: Ceramicist Mellisa Essenburg on Throwing as Stress Relief & The Importance of Pottery Safety

From our perspective, ceramics and tea are akin to two seasoned dancers who come together for the first time. They've thrived in separate but similar worlds where slow living and rituals reign so when they meet, it is only a natural fit.

A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to speak with small-batch artist Mellisa Essenburg of Chinook Ceramics and learn more about her journey in the craft, including how it has helped her avoid burnout as a speech pathologist and some advice she'd like to offer to beginning ceramicists. We also collaborated on an Instagram giveaway, which featured our Sakura Tea Bundle and a custom set from the artist.

Read our interview below.

Mellisa Essenburg of Chinook Ceramics

Mellisa Essenburg of Chinook Ceramics at PARU in Point Loma

Can you tell us a little bit about how you started Chinook Ceramics and the meaning behind the name?

I progressed into ceramics through jewelry making. I started out wire wrapping with silver and gemstones and stumbled upon some lovely ceramic pendants at a bead show. Once I picked them up, I didn’t want to put them back down—the textures and colors were so appealing. That sent me down the rabbit hole of discovering Beads of Clay, which was at the time a small community of ceramic bead artists online. The wonderful supportive artists I met helped me begin my journey into clay.

Initially I made beads and pendants for my own jewelry but other jewelry artists started to reach out to me to ask if I would sell components. Gradually, my focus moved from making finished jewelry to supplying ceramic beads and pendants to bead shops and jewelry designers. I started to make hand-built trinket dishes and trays to display my beads and pendants, which started the next evolution of my work in clay to functional pieces.

I’m originally from the Canadian prairies. The best part of winter in my mind is the rare time that a warm wind comes down off the mountains (chinook wind) and gives a brief respite from the cold. I chose Chinook as part of my business name because I wanted to include something that was regionally meaningful and tied to nature.

Which type(s) of tea do you prefer to drink and why?

I love teas of all kind but the spicy warmth of chai is always a favorite! As someone who frequently bakes (pastry and clay and kilns and ovens have a lot in common) I’m particularly drawn to the smell of the spices.

You mentioned being a speech language pathologist. That’s wonderful! How has this job (and any others that you’ve had) affect your creative process?

I actually began wire wrapping as a stress-relieving hobby in my first couple years working as an SLP. Pottery/ceramics has become an amazing centering and mind-clearing way for me to avoid burnout in my career as an SLP. My work ethic is a little overdeveloped, so having a change of focus in my week helps me reduce overthinking and overworking.

I have also had the opportunity to incorporate clay into sessions with school-age clients pre-pandemic. I found so many wonderful language opportunities embedded in the process and my students were able to shine creatively while working on skills that I was targeting.

What role has the community played in your work as an artist?

I have had the wonderful opportunity to collaborate with jewelry designers to have projects using my beads and pendants featured in a variety of jewelry-making magazines such as Bead Trends and Stringing Magazine.

My small neighborhood community is also incredibly supportive. I typically have the door open while I’m working in my home studio and my neighbors often stop to visit as they pass by. It’s always fun to explain the ceramic process and show what I’m working on at the time. The added benefit is getting to know neighbors that I may not have had the opportunity otherwise.

How have you stayed inspired throughout the pandemic?

Although travel is a huge source of inspiration for me, that has obviously been off the table during the pandemic. Working from home has been a gift. Being fortunate to have a home studio space, I was never limited in my ability to create other than the challenge of having to order clay from across the country during the shutdown. I saw many artists experience creative blocks or lack of desire to make during the pandemic, and I actually experienced the opposite. I saw it as an opportunity to put my focus elsewhere.

What is your dream project? Please feel free to describe any dream projects you’ve already had the opportunity to be part of.

The most meaningful piece I’ve made to date was the urn for my grandmother’s ashes. I used one of her antique doilies as the texture for the clay and attached an amethyst to the top as it was her favorite gemstone (and color). It was an incredibly difficult loss and putting my energy into something tangible that I could still do for her was a positive part of the grieving process.

As silly as it is, a dream project is to finally make myself a full dinnerware set! I rarely make anything for myself and I would love to use handmade dishes on a daily basis. 

Where do you hope to take Chinook in the future?

I like the autonomy of being a small-batch, individual maker, so I don’t foresee expanding into higher production avenues in the future.

My beads and pendants have shipped all over the world to jewelry artists. I would like to see my functional work follow that trajectory.

Do you have any advice for aspiring ceramicists?

Pottery safety is no joke. I wish that the class I took as a beginner would have addressed the incredible health risks that can be present in something as innocuous as working with clay. 

I have been fortunate to not experience any adverse effects (that I’m aware of) but I know others who have. Starting off with that knowledge is invaluable and will allow you to continue your enjoyment of the medium for as long as possible.

Beyond that, find a supportive teacher and don’t be afraid to just make things in order to cut them apart and analyze what you can improve. We often have such a desire to “make a thing” that we save work that would be better off used as a learning experience.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Nothing makes me happier than seeing photos of my pieces in use! It’s so gratifying to have that connection of something made with my hands being chosen to have a place in someone’s home.

Learn more about Chinook Ceramics:

 

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