In an interview by local artist and friend, Rinne Allen, Rebecca Wood tells the story of the rise of her business, R. Wood Studio, and the immense impact Athens, Ga., has had on her and her work.
Q&A by Athens Photographer Rinne Allen
Photos by Kristin Karch
Rinne Allen: Rebecca tell me, where are you from, and where did you grow-up?
Rebecca Wood: Born in Virginia, but grew-up in Atlanta, actually. Cobb County next to Atlanta, but grew-up in the haunts of Buckhead, and then I wound up in Athens when I was about 24. And I've been here ever since.
RA: What brought you to Athens?
RW: The art school. I knew they had a good art school and the school where I was at, did not have an art department, so I said, "Well, I'm going to have to go to the University of Georgia."
RA: You were a painter originally, right?
RW: Right. I came here to the University of Georgia. I got my BFA in drawing and painting in '77 and proceeded to be a painter for 10 years. That's how I got started here.
RA: What made you stay in Athens even after school?
RW: Athens was just like 'Land of Freedom, Creativity and Creative People'. It was just a intoxicating brew of creative people, free time, no money, just ideas, endless ideas, endless dilapidated southern surroundings to celebrate and just total freedom.
RA: Yeah. Not to date you, but was this like the '70s ...
RW: '75, I think I landed here.
RA: That was such an interesting time in Athens history.
RW: Totally different than what we have now. Just ... We were footloose and fancy free. We weren't tied to computers, cars, iPhones, or any of that stuff. We were only tuned into the creative wavelength that was here and that was super-exciting.
RA: I love that. Talk a little bit about how you kind of morphed from a painter and to ... I almost don't want to even call you a 'ceramicist', or a 'potter' because you do so many things beyond that, but for almost 26 years you've had a pottery studio here in Athens and tell us how you got into that.
RW: I was being a painter. I was selling paintings, but I always had wanted to learn china painting. And when I had my first child, she was a year old, I found a lady who gave china painting lessons, so I was so excited. I went and learned how to do that, and it was a great creative outlet for me. I loved it, but the only thing about china painting is it's a very delicate and turns out it would come off in the dishwasher, or with a serrated knife.
I really quickly decided I needed to get some clay and glazes and just make more permanent, hardcore plates. I had no knowledge about ceramics, but I ordered some clay and glazes, and my friend, Nancy Lendved, bought me a used kiln at a yard sale for $200.
I got out a rolling pin and some balls of clay and started rolling out little balls of clay into plates and decorating them. That's how the whole thing got started. Then it was just ... people loved them, and I had to keep making them.
Pictured above creative entrepreneur Rebecca Wood (l) talking with Athens photographer Rinne Allen (r) in R. Wood Studios.
RA: I met you when you were just a few years into your business, and one thing I always loved is your warehouse, where you located your studio, was right across the street from the house where you raised your kids and where you lived for a long time. Of course, you live somewhere else now, but you're still located in that same warehouse, you know?
RW: It was super-awesome because I really didn't start R. Wood Studio until my kids were like three and four years old, or old enough to go to school anyway.
It was great because in the morning I'd get them off to school, go to the studio, go get them after school, bring them home which was right across the street from the studio, get them situated with their snacks and their homework, go back over there and work for a couple hours and then come back so it was perfect situation... to have the time to start a business.
RA: Do you remember at the point in your business when you knew that you needed to hire an employee, or two to help-
RA: Was there a time where you did it all by yourself and then you realized that you needed extra hands?
RW: I did do it myself for starters, but once I think I got an order for like $1,500, which seemed astronomical to me at the time, I realized I was going to need people.
At first, I just got my friends over, and we'd all sit around and glaze plates, and then I realized I was going to have to get a worker to help me and hired my first worker, Christina. And we got busy, and it just grew from there.
RA: Not that we need to talk about all the dollars and cents, but by the time I started working for you, which I think I was like the third, or fourth employee ... (And for those reading, I worked for Rebecca for eight or nine years in my twenties, which we'll get to in a minute.)
I feel about the time I got there, we were getting orders for $20,000 or $30,000. I think the people reading this may be interested to sort of know the scale in that sense. I mean, that was a huge order.
RW: Yeah. After I’d only been in business about three years, Neiman Marcus had a $30,000 order they wanted us to do, and frankly, I had not had good a experience with big name stores because they often would take advantage of me and not pay on time and all that and all I could see was a giant stress attack. So, I told them 'no'. I just said, "Forget it."
He said, "Well, what ... can you just see what it would cost you to be able to do this $30,000 order for us in 10 months?"
I was like, "I'll see." I figured out how much equipment I needed, how many workers I needed, how much glaze I needed, and it was $19,000, and I said, "Well, it costs like $19,000."
He said, "Well, what if I send you a check? Will you do the order?"
That's totally unheard of now, and I was just a three-year-old ceramic business with hardly any clients, or stores and they really took a risk on that, and I'll be forever grateful for that because then with the new equipment and more workers, more everything, we were on a level where we could do bigger orders and then we could take more orders. It was a real, wonderful thing that happened.
RA: That's when I think you hired me. It was in fall of 1995, and I was just out of college and I think that was when I started. It was just full throttle pretty much from then on.
RW: Yeah, everything was a learning experience. How to be an office person, how to send invoices, how to pack ceramics, everything was a learning and doing.
RA: You talk about this a little bit when you were getting your business, or sorry; getting your creative path started. About how Athens played such a big role in influencing you. But over these 26, 30 years that you've been a creative person in Athens, what do you think Athens and the community have given you? I know it's hard to pinpoint, but would you say Athens has played a role in your development?
RW: Yeah. I would say so. For one thing, it's not an aggravating place to live. If I had to live in like a big city and fight traffic and this and that, you know things that add to your daily things you don't want to do that would be bad. There's nothing about Athens that's unpleasant; from getting here, living here, getting your food here. Everything's easy, accessible, low stress, so that's wonderful. But as far as a place to live, the real thing is the people here.
Like I always say, Athens ... I feel like it's like a creative wifi zone, and when you get in Athens, you just… it's in the air. There's so much ideas, so many high-quality creative people doing every single kind of creativity you can think of that if you had a question, or want to collaborate, or you know ... everyone's open arms here. It's just a wonderful, creative pool to be able to jump into.
RA: Is there anything you wish Athens could have more of, or things that you think it could grow into offering the community, or ... or what. Like if the community needs things-
RW: I'm not really sure. My mind is more… it goes along the lines of, "How can I get more beauty to more people?" Which is always a concern. There's a lot we can do to promote beauty and create beauty in this town.
RA: Are there any visions that you have for R. Wood Studio that either within Athens, or beyond because your business does reach much further than just our local community?
RW: I think one thing that I want to do is do more of an R. Wood outreach because people often times want to know if they can take classes, or if we have workshops and we have always said 'no' because it's kind of a space problem, but I would like to do more workshops and more things to get people doing a creative project, learning some new creative thing so they can be creative. I want to kind of take it out of R. Wood Studio more. The ideas and the creativity and the inspiration and affect more people directly; not just with the ceramics.
RA: Similar to that, I was trying to do a quick count in my head of the people that have passed through R. Wood Studio on their way to other places, and I think…
RW: Good luck.
RA: That's a hard number to quantify. I mean I don't know if it would be 50, or 100, but…
RW: I think like ... 10, or 15 years ago we counted and even back then it was like up to 100, or more people and there's ... regretfully, many that have worked there, but maybe not that long and I just don't remember them, but a lot of people.
RA: One thing that I've always been amazed by because I can speak to this myself because I'm an example, but not only have people worked there, you have nurtured so many other creative entrepreneurs. I mean, I can think of 10 people right now that are still working in the Athens community who either started their own business, or are a working artist that passed through the studio on their way to something else and you also employ many artists and musicians daily, that ... I feel like you've always given them such freedom and flexibility to go on tour with their band when it's time, or to take some time off if they need to work on their own creative outlets and-
RA: Do you feel like that you're able to do that because you're a working artist, too, or is that just your approach to being a boss? Always hate calling you a boss, too because…
RW: I know.
RA: That label doesn't really suit you.
RW: The thing is I know what I've learned in life is if you're a creative person and you for some reason, or other, don't have time to be creative, you're going to wind up depressed, low energy, like 'what's wrong with me? I don't have any zip.' Realizing how vitally important it is for creative people to be able to create, that's why when I hire artists and musicians, if they have a chance to go on a trip, go and take their band on tour, or do something educational and enriching for them, I hardy ever say 'no', hardly; unless it's our worst time of year they need to be leaving, but ... because it's so invaluable.
Why would I deny people that? Something that'll enrich their life and make their creative life stronger. That's what I do. That's a way that we have flex time at work and we have all kinds of things to enable people to follow their passions because the worst thing to me is when you have some 40 hour a week job that's maybe not what you're really that interested in, it takes a lot of your brainpower, you go home at the end of the day, you're just tired, you're drained. That's just a nightmare because hopefully your best eight hours of the day you put into your passion if possible; even if you only have two hours a day, you need to do that, but I'm all for getting that knowledge out there. Creative people need to keep their creativity up no matter what.
RA: I love that.
RA: Another thing that I've always admired about you, Rebecca, that I tell people about you, is on the surface I think people view you as this amazing, inspiring, creative woman, but there is a little business brain in your head.
RW: Somewhere in there.
RA: I think people think creative people can't be business people, too, but I've always loved your approach to business because you go by your intuition, not really what a book tells you, or what an advisor tells you, but it seems like it's steered you well so far, but complementing that is a lot of your business decisions have led to really great results, for lack of a better word.
RA: I think that's really rare. To have someone that trusts their intuition like you do, but then when you put a beautiful product that's handmade by you and all your amazing workers, but if you put that together with the little bit of a business vision, it can manifest into a viable, thriving, company.
RW: I think that's why I've been able to inspire people to go do their own business because maybe that this preconceived notion of business is like this rigid thing that had rules and you don't know what they all were and you didn't know if you were going to be good at it, but once you get in there and see how I do business by following my intuition, make mistakes, just drop it, move on. Just in a more intuitive manner that's not like following rules, then I think everyone was like, "Oh. Well, I can do that" because we all can listen to our intuition and our best instincts and go with that. That's really what business is about and I don't. That's why I've been able to be successful.
Actually, I feel like my business brain is the size of a peanut, but my intuitive brain is the size of the universe, so that kind of makes up for it.
RA: I love it. I love it. I love it. I love it.
RA: I guess you kind of talked about this, but is there anything right this moment that you and the studio are working on that you're very excited about?
RW: I'm always excited to be doing new one-of-a-kind creative things. As the seasons roll through, I get inspired by dogwoods and pokeberries and different things, so that's always fun to be inspired by that.
There's so many things I'm inspired to do, I don't really have time in just in the ceramics world; like different ways of firing, different kinds of clays, different kinds of glazes. I mean I could spend a whole year just doing alternative pottery that would blow your mind out, but it's kind of hard to get enough free time. Like Josh and the people at R. Wood Studio, run my business for me. I really don't have to be embroiled in the day-to-day. My mind is free to do the more creative things, but I love to come to the studio. I don't want to not come to the studio, but I almost need another studio, where I can do ceramics, and it will feel more like play. When I do it at work, it almost feels more like I'm clocking-in, but I'm working on getting a home studio in the country where I can just go crazy and make some really amazing ceramics.
RA: Yeah. I think I'll chime in and say that Rebecca has multiple workers at the studio that all contribute in different ways, but she's had a long time studio manager and that her group of workers are so great because they can handle the day-to-day and that does allow her, like she said, the mental and creative space to try new things for the business.
RW: You bet.
RA: Which I think for creative businesses to get to that point, that's really vital because lots of times the leader, or founder, can get kind of burnt out, or worn down by the running of the business. It's one thing to create the business, but to keep it going is a whole other can of worms, if you will.
RA: If you can bring in good people to help with that and keep your creative vision, visionary and founder feeling energized, that's a really special place to be.
RW: That really is because you have to have a certain amount of financial stability and income to be able to hire somebody to enter all the invoices and make the phone calls and see that orders are getting out, but if you're trying to be the creative person behind the business and run all the numbers and the day-to-day, it will wear your ass out because I did that for like 10 years, or practically and you get so stressed about the water bill that you lose your freedom to think of the big picture of like, "Where do we want to go from here? What do I need to create today?"
When you can get to that place where you can have someone to run the daily so that you can be in charge, I call it the 'vision-eering', which has got to be done to grow your business. That is a wonderful, wonderful thing, if you can get that to happen and it's ... I know you think you're never going to get out of it when you're the creative person and the business person. You're like, "I can't. We need money in the bank account. I can't." Just get there however you can, or make it as simple for yourself as you can because it's been super-wonderful for me.
RA: Okay. A few questions. Is there anyone in your field, it could be any art field, not necessarily ceramics, that you feel like's young and doing good work? That you feel really good about and similar to that, it could be the same person, or it could be someone different, someone else in the Athens community?
RW: All right. I would probably have to think extensively because I'm a really bad person to either only stay in the studio, or at home and I'm a hermit and a introvert so I don't get out and meet people; only hear about them, but I'm more up on my potters and I would say a up-and-coming potter is Maria Dondero. She's got a great business going. Each piece she makes is unique, but they all go together so she doesn't feel stuck and trying to reproduce the same thing over and over. I love her work so much and I think she's got a good business going.
RA: One thing I love about Maria, too is she recently opened ... moved her studio to a larger space and there's now a collective of potters working there so they can all share the equipment.-
RA: They don't have the big expense that Rebecca was referencing earlier about starting up the business and then they also have formed a nice community and also, there's varying skill levels within the group and they're all producing work that has a different feel. I think that's a really interesting model for getting studio space, but also creating a little bit of a business entity, if you will collectively, rather than one person shouldering all the work-
RW: Yeah. I think it's a great idea because there's just times when you need feedback and if there's someone right in your studio that's a potter, or you have a technical question, that kind of communal aspect of working is great for that. Feedback's always good and you always have a question you need to ask somebody, but it's better to ask somebody than go and Google so, that's a good business model for all you ceramics people out there that might not can afford your own stuff and get in on a group.