I bought my first piece of Sarah Kersten pottery when I came across her work at the Remodelista market in San Francisco a few years ago. It was love at first sight! I bought a beautiful deep navy vase with a patina that drew me in completely. From that moment on, I was hooked. Sarah not only understands how to make a beautiful piece, she also creates work that functions well.
What drew you to ceramics initially?
I started taking classes in my early teens. I liked the way that working with clay engaged me. It’s very grounding. As a teenager, I felt like pottery wasn’t very cool, but I really liked making it. In my early twenties, I started to appreciate pottery for the role it plays in our lives, and I realized that it was something I was interested in pursuing.
How did you manage to evolve your passion into a small business?
I decided to get serious by really focusing on Fermentation Jars. Making them was challenging for a number of reasons, but actually, I really like fermented foods. That helped me stay motivated. I made the jars by hand on the wheel for the first three years, which was lovely because I got to learn about my craft and explore my aesthetic with every piece. In Berkeley, people were looking for locally made fermentation jars, and they found me through word of mouth. Sandor Katz included me in the resource section of his book, The Art of Fermentation, and after that came out, sales became more steady. Eventually, I got a mold made of my Fermentation Jar, and increased production. After that happened, I was able to start working with stores.
I worked part time as a server while I was learning to make the jars, waiting tables on the weekend and making pottery during the week. Before I made the leap to full time, I took a course with Women’s Initiative for Self Employment, a great organization that sadly is no longer around.
I knew very little about having a business/brand when I started. I’ve learned from asking a lot of questions, and I’m still asking a lot of questions!!
What advice do you have for others trying to do something similar?
I really suggest narrowing down a broad focus to just one or a few things, and learning to do them well and consistently. Having a niche is great; I think that by focusing on something small, somehow it’s easier to understand a bigger picture.
Where do you find inspiration for new pieces?
When I moved to California, I was lucky to be working at a studio where I had access to a gas kiln. I fell in love with it, and now I have my own. Gas kilns fire in such a way that the tones of the work tend to be soft and neutral. A lot of my inspiration comes directly from my materials and process. Often I’m reminded of the wild and huge nature of the California Coast. I try to mimic and reference that when I’m making choices about the look of my work.
What’s the most rewarding part of your creative process?
I love seeing my work leave my studio, and I love knowing that people are going to use it.
Working with clay is remarkable and inherently rewarding. It is the experience of interacting with earth in a tactile way, with some transformative heat thrown into the mix. When the piece is finished, it’s a different material than it was during the process of the making. The piece becomes a record of the interaction, of the energy that created it. It’s very cool.
What aspects of your business are the most frustrating?
Needing to wear many hats, often on the same day, can be frustrating. I don’t switch gears quickly.
I also develop my work slowly, over time. A new glaze will sometimes take me months to perfect, and new pieces can take years to bring to production. We live in a fast world, and often I wonder how compatible my slow process is with that pace.
What other makers or small businesses do you admire?
We have a really strong community of makers and small businesses here in the bay. It’s impossible to really make a list!! It would be so long. Jacob May Design and Marisa Mason Jewelry happen to be my neighbors, and I really appreciate what they do. I’m going to leave it at that.
A big thank you to Sarah for allowing us into her beautiful space! We’re so excited for what’s to come out of this utterly charming studio.
Photos by Ali Hartwell for Sacramento Street