Interview with Chuck Palm,
owner of Palm Creative Studios
As a pottery student, I was looking for someone to share their story of how they got into the business, and maybe give me some pointers. Chuck Palm, a Ceramicist from Tampa, FL. agreed to answer a few questions. This interview was conducted to shed some light on who Chuck Palm is, what he has done to build a business in Pottery, and why he has switched focus from technology to art, after 25 years as a Computer Network Engineer.
Q. – Explain if you can, why the shift away from technology, after such a long time as an Engineer?
- I’ve always had a passion for ceramics and sculpting. My great Aunt and Uncle had a ceramic shop when I was a kid, and they taught me how to make ceramic molds from things that I sculpted. It was really amazing to see a pumpkin jar I sculpted get mass produced, and sold at ceramic shows all over the nation. I owe a lot to my great cousin, who was patient enough to teach a 12 year old how to finish a piece and pay attention to detail. When I took up pottery during the Covid pandemic, it felt like a natural progression, with a medium (clay) that I felt really comfortable with.
Q. – What was your motivation to give up tech, and focus so much time on something that is so risky?
- I’m the kind of person who can’t sit still. I need to stay busy. I was in the Army during the start of the Gulf War, in the Communications Corps, and sat in a radio station for long hours on end. I tried to stay busy, and was always looking for things to do. I worked on a lot of computers, and took some mail-in classes, as well as electronics, and found I had a knack for it. When I got home, I worked for IBM for a while, and other small Tech companies, before starting out on my own. I loved my career, but it’s a much younger man’s job. The longer I worked in Tech, the more I realized 35 years old was really OLD in computer years! I still loved to make things, and did a lot of Halloween props and makeup, which lead to a career in the movie industry, making props, building sets, and horror makeup. After about 6 years of working on various films in Florida, most of the jobs moved to Georgia, and then came the icing on the cake, Coronavirus…and shut it down completely. Starting another business seemed like the natural thing for me to do. When you reach a certain age, you ask yourself, “What am I going to do for the rest of my life?” I changed that a bit to “What do I WANT to do for the rest of my life?” The natural answer for me was…Ceramics.
Q. So you went from Computer networking, to Film, then just stopped making movie props and monsters to make pottery?
- Pretty much! I still make a few things on request, but if it does not fit my schedule, I have to decline and pass it to someone else. I would be happy to make custom vases or dinnerware, something unique for a movie set, that would be fun, but every day I get to do what I love, get my hands dirty, and make stuff that hopefully other people can love.
Q. You mentioned being in the Army, how, if at all, did that prepare you for working in the pottery business?
- It’s funny, I think that the Army prepared me for a lot of things, but especially being a small business owner. This is not unique to the pottery business. You have to think on your feet, go with your gut, and do things you may not be comfortable with, like learn marketing or bookkeeping. If you are thrown a curve, you have to find a way to solve that problem before you can get back to work. Even something as simple as your website not working right can set back from your kiln firing schedule, and put you behind the 8 ball for the rest of the week!
Q. So, this is not the first time you’ve done this kind of thing, like you may have learned a few things before you started this business. How is this different from any other job you’ve had?
- HA! For sure, this is not my first rodeo. I did learn a lot from being out on my own. First of all, there are a lot fewer people to blame when things go wrong. You have to take responsibility, because you’re the only one who can fix your problems and get back to work. Also, I’ve never had more fun doing the work. I really try to love any job I do, it makes going to work that much easier. I’ve always said you should finish what you must, but do what you love. With this business, it’s really the first time I get to do what I love all the time. The work, actually making pots, and mugs, and stuff, it’s more than just building things, for me, it’s therapy. I’ve worked in a lot of high-stress positions, so I made myself a promise this time, if it stops being fun, I stop doing it. It’s that simple. There are still mundane tasks that you have to do in any business, but in this case, it makes it all worthwhile.
Q. More than once I’ve heard you mention “this is my therapy”, can you elaborate?
- Sure, it’s really simple. Stress can take a toll on anyone. It can carry over to your personal life, as I’m sure my family can attest. I tried my best to “leave my work at the front door” when I got home every night, but it got harder and harder. Especially as an entrepreneur, and you mostly work from home, there is no place to escape to. Sculpting and clay always seem to have a soothing effect on me, so I looked into it. I read an article about PTSD and alternative therapies, and found that anything that you can do with your hands, helped you to make a physical connection, and your brain would disengage for a moment, giving your mind time to “switch over to autopilot”, and made a real difference. I never felt like I had any trauma to cause any PTSD personally, but I knew plenty of soldiers, family and friends, who suffer daily. I read up more on the subject of Art Therapy, and thought this might be a good place to start.
I’ve had some personal experiences with family members who were heavily medicated to treat their mental injuries, so naturally, I wanted to do whatever I could to help. Sometimes the world presents opportunities at just the right time, which was the case with the Veterans Art Center of Tampa Bay. They were transitioning to a new location, about the same time I was starting with my pottery business, so I did some volunteer work, and developed a couple of classes. It’s been difficult trying to find somewhere to host in-person classes due to Covid 19, but I still hope to help more vets find another outlet, something without drugs, to take their mind off things for a while, and create something at the same time. This is a personal mission for me, and I will be doing more this year to achieve those goals.
Q. What about competition? There seems to be a lot of potters out there now, what do you do to stand apart from the rest of those people in this field?
- Great question! I think the first thing I focus on with any business, whether it’s tech or art, is marketing. There are a lot of ways to get noticed nowadays, from traditional marketing, shows and market places, pop ups, as well as online and social media. The good thing for me is that I already had an edge with digital media. There was a time about 12 years ago when I ran a Podcast production company. At the time, no one had heard of podcasting, and video was too large to download (no high-speed Internet yet!) so, I opened a studio where everything was set up, all you had to do was show up with an idea, and we’d record you and make it a podcast. We did that for almost 5 years, and I loved it. It was just way before it’s time. So naturally, I’m doing a podcast about pottery now.
Q. Tell me about the new podcast
- Well, it’s just one of those things you feel like you have to do. It’s call it the “Old School Pottery Podcast”, mostly because I’m pretty old school, but also because the wheel I bought and learned on was an old kick wheel from a community college that was getting rid of some of their equipment. I’ve only taken a couple of private lessons on the wheel, but I have spent a lot of time in the past year or so overcoming the common problems you have starting out. I’ve said on the show that I probably have no business teaching anyone about throwing pottery, but, if I can help anyone get over the learning curve, then I think it’s what I have to do. I love everything about ceramics, I’ve spent most of my life in the mud, and now I’ve even started making my own glazes. I love to share shortcuts and little tricks to make things easier, so maybe someone who’s struggling with clay can embrace it, and become a mudslinger in their own right.
Q. What advice would you give to someone looking to start in Pottery?
- Don’t give up! It’s real easy to get discouraged at first…there is a lot to learn to get it right, but it’s so worth it. There are pottery studios doing a “date night” where you can get on the wheel and feel what it’s like, or take a class over a couple of weeks to know if you like it at all before you buy any expensive equipment. There are deals all the time, I’d even say do it more than once. I had a real hard time jumping in, thinking I was going to “learn as you go”. Once I had a couple of lessons about preparing the clay and centering, it got much easier. Now there’s hardly a day I don’t at least make a cup or small pot, just because I love to do it! If you think it may be too difficult, watch some youtube videos, or I may even be able to recommend a podcast for you to watch.
I watch pottery videos whenever I can, and I have to say, I’ve learned a ton from people who are just as passionate, and feel the same pain that you do when that big vase you’ve been working on twists on the wheel. You feel like you were hit in the gut, but, for me, that’s just all the more reason to get out another piece of clay and get right back to it! There is a lot of feeling your way through the experience, it’s mathematical, tactile, emotional, and very creative. What more could you want?