There likely is no independent artist who at one time or another hasn’t longed for the age of patronage, imagining the luxury of creative freedom without the practical worries of paying the bills. The challenge for artists today is finding an income stream that will support their art without cutting too deeply into time in the studio. Teaching and the festival circuit are common solutions. Akron, Ohio clay artists Michael Martell and Claudia Zeber-Martell operated a small sales room out of their Northside District studio for many years before economic development in the neighborhood presented an opportunity to expand into a full-scale gallery and shop. This collaborative duo is learning ways to integrate a successful and growing retail operation into their lives as artists.
Claudia and Michael met in the 1970s, when Michael was studying art in college and Claudia was developing as a painter. They became friends and decided to share a studio together. Michael was working on functional pieces in stoneware and porcelain. Claudia had done some clay work previously and began to experiment with painting on clay. She explains, “I found that I preferred painting on the dynamic clay surface more that canvas. I had always been intrigued by shape and form in my work. Michael’s pieces offered a new element.” Michael says that over time, their work and lives intertwined: “It grew into a whole life thing.” His work began to evolve, too, moving away from the functional and emphasizing elements of form and design.
The couple set up a studio in Akron’s Northside District, a blighted neighborhood that was affordable. The space was small. Michael says, “It had water and power, and the bones of the building were sound.” There was just enough room for a side gallery that they would open for occasional events – holiday open houses, special sales. There were no regular business hours. They sold most of their work at art festivals. Just as the recession of 2009 was hitting hard, a large space in the same building became available. Claudia recalls, “We weren’t looking to expand right then, but we knew if we didn’t take the space, we would lose the opportunity. We took a big risk.” After years of talking about leaving Akron, the couple made an investment not only in their future, but in Akron’s future. The space opened at 43 Furnace Street as Zeber-Martell Gallery & Clay Studio in 2010.
Quickly, Michael and Claudia realized the space was too big for only their work. Michael says, “We just don’t have that much inventory. So, we started to ask some of our friends – other clay artists, jewelry artists – to add their pieces. We chose artists whose work we collect ourselves – things that complement our own work.” The pieces are purchased upfront by Zeber-Martell. Because they feel strongly about investing in other artists’ work, they chose not to sell pieces on commission. As Michael says, “As an artist, I want to sellmy work, and therefore I should buy other artists’ work.”
Over time, Michael and Claudia have become more adept at marketing. They have learned that their inventory must fit their market. Though it is tempting to buy only pieces they love, they try to match their offerings to their public’s tastes. Michael tells about stocking a lot of wood pieces and finally realizing nearly four years later, that it doesn’t work for their clientele. Conversely, he and Claudia never expected metals and jewelry to sell so well. Regardless of the medium, they want to sell artists who continue to grow and change their work.
Integral to the gallery is Michael and Claudia’s own work. Michael’s signature pieces are huge thrown vessels of a low-fire earthenware clay body. He throws sections individually and joins them on the wheel, using a ladder as the piece grows. “It is an exhausting process,” he says. “You have to stay on it. It’s a very organic process. There is so much torque on the clay, it can go off-center very easily. I’ve become very sensitive to how the clay stiffens as it dries. I wrap the whole piece in plastic for a couple of days, allowing the moisture to redistribute throughout the piece so that it doesn’t warp.”
Claudia takes her inspiration from the form of Michael’s work. “I look for patterns within the shape,” she says. “I mix stains with a slipped-based underglaze, using brush work or air brushes to layer in the colors. I aim for a transparency of color. I don’t have a hard and fast system. The shape dictates the design. Each piece is different – there are no rules.” Finished pieces stand alone as sculpture, are transformed into lamps or tables, or serve as accent design pieces and wall art.
In recent years, the city of Akron has invested in developing the Northside District. A new mixed-use neighborhood is anchored by a hotel, restaurant, and retail space. Recreational trails connect the neighborhood to greater Akron and the adjacent Cuyahoga National Park. A successful tourist railroad operation brings in vacationers and cyclists. The new hotel – Akron’s first within city limited in forty years – is adjacent to Zeber-Martell. The hotel has brought a whole new clientele into the shop. Claudia says, “It’s as if we now have two markets: predicable Akron and the fresh eyes of tourists.” The business has had to shift with the market, tweaking inventory and finding new artists.
Michael recalls the days when he spent 80% of his time creating art and 20% of his time managing it. Today, he laments that the balance has flip-flopped. The reality of owning and running a business surprised both Michael and Claudia. Even with the studio adjacent to the shop, both find it hard to have extended periods of creativity. Michael says, “The creative process is very isolating, in a good way. You are totally engaged. You lose yourself. Luckily, we have Sundays, when the shop is closed.” Though the balance is skewed toward the business, these artists have solved the problem of surviving as artists in a patron-less society, and in the process, have contributed to the revival of a dying inner-city neighborhood. As more Akronites move into the lofts and apartments in the Northern District, as more tourists stay at the hotel, as more people hike and bike the trails and ride the train, Zeber-Martell Gallery & Clay Studio will enrich their experience with unique works of art to peruse and take home.
To learn more about Zeber-Martell Gallery & Clay Studio, visit www.zeber-martell.com.
View “Claying’ Around,” a short 8-minute time-lapsed video of how Zeber-Martell pieces are made and decorated, at http://zeber-martell.com/about.
Zeber-Martell is located at
43 Furnace Street
Akron, OH 44308
Email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gallery is open Mondays and Tuesdays, 11-6, and Wednesdays through Saturdays, 11-8. Closed Sundays.