Maryfrances Carter is a wife, a mother, an artist, and the owner and creative force behind MC Art + Clay. In her studio in North Carolina, Carter handcrafts and paints beautiful vases, dishes, and mugs from North Carolina clay that are both works of art and functional pieces to be used in everyday life. And she does this in the brief windows of time she finds as a mother of four children. I spoke with Carter about the value of bringing art into the home; what it means to be an artist and her path to becoming a ceramics artist; the inspiration her children bring to her art; and how her business model grew out of a fail.
Can you tell us a little bit about your business?
Well, I am first a wife and mother, and I have always loved creating a home for my family wherever we live. Because we’ve moved all over for my husband’s work, creating a home was vital for us to be able to settle wherever we were. In doing so, I learned to value simplicity (in part because I didn’t want to move so many things).
So as an artist I hope I can convey simplicity, but as a mother, I really love things that are functional. MC Art + Clay started from a love of both: simple beauty and function; art that we can interact with—particularly our children as they grow up. We take them to galleries and things like that to see art. But I wanted art that they could hold and touch and use and see every day. So that’s kind of how it started.
It’s true that when we want to see art today, we usually go to museums. But a lot of that art used to hang in people’s homes; it was something to be enjoyed as part of everyday life.
I was most impressed by that when we visited a few galleries in New York where you see medieval tapestries. They’re just sitting there for you to observe whereas they were used originally as partitions in a home and were being touched as people moved from room to room.
I think partly it could be because we live in a faster paced culture. We are rather instantaneous. We want things quickly. There isn’t a cherishing of things that take time, so you’re not going to put art or things that take time in your life because either you don’t have it in your life (because you don’t want to wait for it) or because you almost cherish them more than they should be. That sounds odd because they should be cherished. But I do think they also should be used.
I think about my home growing up and the pieces my parents selected around our home, be it furniture or paintings, and how they influence what I do in small ways. It could be a detail on a frame or the texture of a certain painting or even the dishes we used.
That’s why when I found ceramics it just kind of clicked. I think that you can have valuable things at home, and hopefully it will teach us to be slower in that we take care of them and not just rush through expecting to be able to instantly replace something should it break.
How did you come clay as your medium?
I came to it through different mentors; I’ve had different mentors in various different mediums since high school, in textiles or tatting (which is lace making), fine upholstery, and painting (acrylic, watercolor, or oil). I was running a watercolor business, primarily creating wedding suites and stationery, when my husband gave me ceramics classes for Christmas. I kind of laughed when I got them—which is really embarrassing when I look back—because we had just had our third child, Beatrice, and I was like, “When am I going to have time to do this on top of everything else?”
But I did, and he was very gracious, and he’s always been a huge encourager and supporter in the art that I pursue. And I’m so thankful for that. Because as soon as I felt the “dance” of the clay, its spin and movement, I felt at home in the medium (ballet was also a huge part of my life growing up). Combined with the fact that the final product was something we could use and interact with on a daily basis in our home and to serve others with in offering hospitality, I knew that I would never go back after I took those classes. Then I found other clay mentors who have been incredibly gracious.
How do you decide what kinds of objects you want to make?
When I first started throwing more full time, I made a mental note that I didn’t want to make mugs, because everyone makes mugs. But I had a lot of requests for mugs. And despite my dislike for them I decided, “Okay, I’m going to find a form that is not overly chunky, that has a cleaner line, that’s simple in its design, and can be more of a canvas for what I want to do.”
Because ceramics is such a huge world and can get overwhelming quickly with different materials, surface designs, or glazes, I thought, if I can just find one thing that I can practice, then I can explore other things. So that’s where the cup and the indigo floral design came from. From years of different notebook sketches and playing with so many different cups.
Starting with the one cup also helped my customers and friends and family to appreciate one thing at a time as opposed to: “Here are five different collections with ten things in each collection” and overwhelming them.
Then there are the vases. I do love flowers, and doing vases was always a goal. And I still would love to do more vases. Which is where the newer tumbler shape that I’m doing now comes from. It’s functional art and can serve so many different functions, from a simple penholder on someone’s desk, to a bud vase, to a tumbler.
What is the process from clay to finished piece?
First, I select the clay. I buy my clay locally and used a mix of a stoneware for the everyday. But I’m also moving into porcelain. It’s more expensive but also sturdier because it’s fired at a higher temperature. Then I wedge it, which is a compression of the clay to remove any air bubbles. It’s an interesting process to see what the clay has to go through. There are a lot of allegories and metaphors about clay. And it is really true that the clay has to endure so much to become a finished piece.
After wedging, you create a ball and put it on the wheel and start a slow spin. Then you perform another form of wedging on the wheel—again to make sure there are no air bubbles. Because if there is an air bubble, it will explode in the kiln—which I’ve had happen many times, unfortunately. Then you center the clay, cone the clay, and then press it back down on the wheel while it’s spinning. Then you find your center, poke a whole while the clay is spinning, open up the piece, and pull the walls.
It has to be really slow and even pressure between your fingers, otherwise you’ll pinch the clay off and it’ll fly off the wheel. I’ve done that so many times; it’s very humbling. Once you cut the piece off the wheel and it’s dried for a while, you put it in the kiln for the first firing, which is called a bisque and it’s about 1900 degrees. Once it’s bisqued, I like to say my canvas is ready. I’ll paint using different stains. I’ll have all my different botanical books and sketch books open. And I’ll paint from the pictures I’ve taken. It’s a bit tricky because you can’t erase once you’ve started. You just have to keep going. And it dries rather quickly.
Then I paint my glaze on the piece and put it back in the kiln for the glaze firing. Hopefully it will come out! I’ve had so many different pieces—larger pieces in particular can be rather sneaky—where it’s worked all the way up to the final glaze, and you pull it out of the kiln and there’s a nice little crack right down in the center, and you think, “Wow, I wish I had known that before I painted it.” But you don’t know until it comes out at the end. That can be discouraging, but I think it’s more of a challenge for me: that was great practice.
When did you start thinking of yourself as an artist and using that term to describe what you do? Did you have any hesitation in doing so?
I think “artist” has so many different meanings today, especially when there’s a certain path or artistic pedigree that’s required to use that term. But I love this quote by Picasso, “We’re all born artists, the trouble is staying one when we grow up.” I think there’s a bit of an artist in all of us; we all see beauty.
There’s another quote, I think it was Ralph Waldo Emmerson, that the “viewing of beauty is taste; the creation of beauty is art.” I’ve made things with my hands my entire life. From my earliest memories, my gifts were handmade. I supported myself through college by my creative practice with things that I made or taught. So, I think the question was not whether I considered myself an artist, but was I a good one? To me, it’s not a question of either-or, but a spectrum, from student artist to accomplished artist. I’d like to think I’m somewhere in between in that I know what to do, but I still have a lot to learn.
What was the path to your profession?
I was encouraged, as most people are, to pursue a safer degree. I loved caring for people, so I began to study nursing. But, ironically, while I was pursuing those studies, I was supporting myself by my creative practice. I started a sewing camp for young girls during the summers. And that was my income for the entire year. Looking back, I think, I was pursuing this safer study with something I was already passionate about.
As much as I absolutely respect anyone in the medical field, I realized that was not where I was called. After I was married and had two children, I went on to study interior design. And through that, I came to watercolor. In interior design you really need to be out in the markets. With two very young children I knew that was something I wasn’t going to do; it was possible, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do. But with watercolor I could create wedding suites, stationery, and prints from my home. At the same time, I was sewing for an ethical clothing brand to jump start my cost, so I wasn’t going into debt in starting the watercolor business.
I don’t think there’s always a clear path, but there’s usually one next right step. And with each step you can walk the path.
The first thing you said about yourself was that you are a wife and mother. How do you see those roles in relation to your art?
I’ve never known art to be separate from the family. I’m from a larger family and I was home schooled growing up. My mom started a cookie-decorating business and did different food shows in Philadelphia and incorporated us. (I was the brochure folder, and I think I made like a penny a piece and thought I was so wealthy). My grandmother also had a little popup shop at Christmas, and we’d come together with all our aunts and create something. We each had our own name and branding and product. We’d open for a couple of days to friends and family. It was incredibly formative.
One of my artistic mentors in particular—she’s an acrylic modern painter, who exhibits with SFMOMA and other wonderful galleries and museums—greatly influenced me. She taught me to incorporate my children in my work and encouraged me to stay home, because that time with little children is so fleeting. It’s hard to think of that when you’re in the middle of it, because, as the saying goes, “the days are long, but the years are short.” But it really is true.
It’s not easy. I have absolutely no hobbies. I don’t have a show that I watch. Every ounce of free time that I have is spent doing this. I’m learning to try to manage that better. But my husband is an incredible help. A dear cousin and another gal also help me out with finishing the pieces, shipping, and office work.
It is hard. But my children do inspire me, just seeing their excitement. They’re also very ruthless with the way they look at their own artwork. If they mess something up, they just ball it up and start again. There’s absolutely no, “Oh, I spent hours on this piece and now have to toss it.” It’s just, “No, I didn’t do this right, and I have to start again.” That’s very inspiring to me.
They also notice details in the world that we, with our bustling schedules, pass over. Something even as simple as a flower growing through the crack in a sidewalk. They’re the ones who stop to look at those things. It could be just split-second. But that tiny moment is really precious to see.
Then, when they create pieces alongside me and see it come out of the kiln and use it, it’s just another layer of excitement and special meaning: “You created this with your hands! How wonderful is that?”
What have been some of the most rewarding parts of running your business? And what have been some of the most challenging?
The connections that are made and seeing these pieces go live in places all over the globe have been some of the most rewarding parts. I still get tingles up my spine that this is real. And you hold on to those moments of beauty to encourage you through the harder moments.
In fact, the entire business kind of blossomed out of a fail. I had these pieces, maybe five, and I was going to photograph them before putting them up for sale on my new website which was about to launch. While I was going downstairs into the studio, I broke all of them. There was nothing to sell hours before my website was supposed to launch. So, I had the idea that I could launch the site by offering items for pre-order. It was scary because no other businesses—particularly art businesses—had started the pre-order model. I asked a few friends and they said, “That is terrifying, don’t do that!” But I had a launch in three hours on a new website, so I knew I had to risk it. And so I did. During that first launch, when I thought I was going to sell five pieces, I ended up receiving over a hundred orders for multiple pieces. I had to shut it down because I had to budget my time to what I could physically make in a healthy way.
But that’s how we run the business now; it’s based off of pre-orders. It’s very helpful for me to know exactly how many pieces to create, so I’m not making extra pieces that people might not be interested in—and it shows me what people are interested in. It also makes the pieces even more special because they’re semi-custom; I’m making the pieces specifically for the person who ordered them.
I’m still tweaking the business side, just like the craft itself—it’s a learning process for sure.
What are some of your goals for MC Art + Clay?
I’m always dreaming! My husband says, “You think too far ahead!” (He says it very lovingly). I would love to continue seeing these pieces bring a moment of joy or calm or beauty to the person using them. And I’d love to continue sharing them around the world. I would like to work more with interior designers for larger pieces that would be styled in different homes. Or with different stores, though wholesale is tricky. Or maybe even one day having a store. I don’t know. But I like to explore all of it before I say, “no”
I’m always trying to create different statement pieces that you can use. For example, a pitcher you can serve beverages from but also keep flowers in and that is also a statement piece. So, I’m aiming to create many things that have multiple functions.
And then I want to continue taking painting classes. Even if it’s foundational, you can always learn something new from a different teacher, even if it’s something basic.
What sort of interests or passions might lead a woman to this kind of career?
I think it could be for any woman who loves working with her hands, loves exploring forms, color, interior design, and line contour. And someone who doesn’t mind losing a lot of sleep and sometimes failing but loves the process in spite of it. It’s kind of how motherhood is: you don’t get to have the perfect moment, and sometimes you fail more than you succeed, and you just have to ask for grace and start again the next day. Each piece is definitely a labor of love. I do think anyone can do it—but it just might consume your life—in a good way.
At Verily, we love our “Daily Doses”—quotes or phrases that motivate or inspire us. Do you have a mantra or phrase that you love or live by?
I have many. There’s this quote from Leonardo di Vinci, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Then there’s this one from Myquillyn Smith, “Do what you know, use what you have, and finish what you started.” That would be second only to the Scripture passage: “Work with your own hands and lead a quiet life” (1 Thess. 4:11). That doesn’t mean you don’t care about others, but to be steady in what you’re doing, and whatever your had finds to do, do it with all of your might.