One of 2020’s irritating catch words has been “pivot.” Restaurants have pivoted to carry-out, then to outdoor dining. Schools have pivoted to remote instruction. Arts organizations have pivoted to online concerts and shows. For Neil Estrick, pivoting has been an integral part of his artistic life, beginning with a realization that Mathematics was a boring college major. This prominent Chicago-area potter and owner of Neil Estrick Gallery in Grayslake has always employed a practical analytic sense, softened by the nudges of his heart, to make adaptations to his work, never fearful of going in a different direction.
Estrick’s gallery was affected by the world pandemic this year in a way similar to so many other studios – an initial period of closing, followed by a reduction in offerings. While these alterations caused some consternation, Estrick has a long history of seeing the transformative nature of change. As a graphic arts student at the University of Northern Colorado (after that short stint as a Math major at Regis College), Estrick realized he liked his ceramic classes more than his concentration. Although graphic arts held a greater potential for future employment, he followed his instincts and changed his focus. After earning his BFA at Colorado and his MFA in Ceramics at Utah State, he was primed to begin an academic career. But changes were in store for Estrick once again.
“I had never planned to have a life as an independent potter,” Estrick says, “but by the time I finished my MFA, I was very burned out by the academic environment.” His future wife was enrolled in veterinarian school in Iowa, so Estrick moved there to be with her. He took a job at a commercial glass company, making pots in his free time. His wife’s work took them to Chicago where he found work with A.R.T. clay company as a technician. “I eventually was working in clay and glaze production,” he says, “but came to a point where I wanted to leave and had to make a decision: I could get any job; I could pursue a corporate job; I could make pots. I chose to make pots.”
Estrick’s first task was to find space. “I needed space to work,” he explains. “I needed space to sell. Then I thought I may as well sell for other artists, so I set up a gallery that represented about 25 other artists from around the country. Then I added classes, because classes always paid the bills.” He found a huge location with 4,800 square feet of space and opened his business, adding a kiln and equipment sales operation that put to use his experience at ART Clay. The gallery and classes ran smoothly for three or four years, but Estrick’s analytical side made him take a close look at how the business was faring. “I took a hard look at the income and how it related to the use of studio space and time,” he says. “I saw that 90% of the gallery sales were for my own pieces, so I decided to stop representing other artists and look for a smaller space.”
In 2008, Estrick found a much smaller 1,600 square foot facility and concentrated on his own work. He continued his kiln sales and repair business and offered a variety of adult and children’s classes. He says the gallery has grown steadily over the last twelve years. He has built up a strong clientele of schools and studios for the kiln portion of the business.
When the pandemic closures hit in March, there were 45 students enrolled in five classes. “I faced what so many other small business owners were facing,” he recalls. “Kiln sales came to a halt. Parts were difficult to get for repairs. And there were no classes for eleven weeks.” Estrick used savings to meet his relatively low overhead expenses and was able to receive unemployment compensation for the self-employed from the federal relief aid. He began to make plans for a reopening, reducing the number of wheels in use in the studio from ten to seven and reducing class size.
Like previous “pivots” in Estrick’s life, this one has triggered some positive changes. After the initial adjustment period, kiln sales began to pick up. He explains, “People were sitting at home a lot and were reluctant to go to studios, so they began to set up home studios.” He is beginning to see the school business pick up again, too. His next class session is nearly full. “I think in a way, this has helped smaller studios. It is harder for the big art centers to scale down and people are more comfortable in small classes,” he says. “I’m fine, really, for all the craziness. I’m doing just fine.”
While Estrick is making things work on the business side, he says his creative work slowed somewhat. “I haven’t made many pots,” he says, “because I’ve been busy with so much else.” Estrick works in porcelain and had been experimenting with underglazes and transfer techniques before the pandemic hit. Since then, he says, “I’ve had some things rolling around in my head and have been doing more illustrative work, more painterly things, on the pieces. Recently, I’ve been doing fish, which I think are very interesting creatures.”
Estrick ranks the areas of his business according to their economic importance. The instructional classes are primary, followed by kiln sales and repairs. Making and selling his creative work is third on the list. While the first two areas are starting to recover, he worries about the impact of the pandemic on summer art fairs, an important part of his business plan. He intends to make a significant amount of work this winter in preparation for summer sales, hoping some events will continue, albeit with restrictions. Estrick is a moderator for Ceramic Arts Daily Forum online, where there has been much chatter about the future of art fairs and festivals.
Estrick’s studio is a short three
-minute drive from his home, where he has been supervising his two children in their online schoolwork. His time at the studio has been significantly reduced. “Surprisingly,” he says, “this has been a positive thing. I like being home.” His sons are old enough to work independently but enjoy having their dad around to help and break up the tedium of screen-time. Estrick says he does not plan to add any overnight festivals to his schedule, even if and when they come back. “I'vehadsummers where I’m away three out of four weekends,” he says, “and I don’t want to do that anymore.” Once again, Estrick will take an analytical look at his business and his life and “pivot” in a new, and hopefully, better direction.
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