Featured Maker: Jenna Vanden Brink
Operating an independent business is a journey, and no two paths are the same. We welcome you to meet the folks behind some of our favorite businesses as they share their stories, the fuel behind their craft, and the passion that keeps them making.
This month, we are so excited to introduce you to Jenna Vanden Brink and Jenna Vanden Brink Ceramics!
About Jenna Vanden Brink Ceramics:
Q: Tell us about how JVBC came to be.
A: When I first moved to Pittsburgh, with 11 pals from college in Michigan, I worked at a nonprofit organization managing the ceramics program. I did non-profit management work for seven years before leaving to start my own business, which was a scary move for me mostly because I loved my job so much. Working in my neighborhood, empowering other artists, teaching clay to kids in schools, hosting visiting artists all brought me so much joy and were such a fun challenge that is was hard to imagine leaving to work alone in a studio just making pots.
But, I connected with three other potters who are good friends and we moved into a charming little spot in Sharpsburg, about a 10 minute drive from my house. I already had products developed and quickly sunk my teeth into the work of running my small business amongst the company of a couple of brilliant, beloved pottery pals.
This summer, the last of them moved out and I have the whole studio to myself now, which is great for my growing business but a bit bittersweet.
Q: What does a typical day or week look like to you?
A: I work four days a week 9-5 and take Fridays off to be with my two daughters. After a mad rush to leave the house in the morning, I drop my kids off at daycare/preschool then head to the studio (I always call my mom on my 15 min commute). I usually have someone in the studio two days/week to help with shipping, studio maintenance, and production work. I typically dive into whatever is on the list for the day--ceramics is so cyclical that I rarely do the same thing many days in a row which keeps it fun! We work our way through a production cycle then start all over again.
I try to keep work at the studio and spend time with my fam when I'm at home. My kids are little (2+4) and I want to soak them up as much as possible. We have "family dinner" with our college friends once a week, often go for walks in our neighborhood, and putz around the garden when it's warm.
Q: Is there any interesting trivia or a fun fact behind your brand you'd like to share?
A: Both my earthenware collection and porcelain floral collection were created specifically for very dear friends of mine who were getting married and commissioned dishes from me. My earthenware collection, which features lots of fruit+veg drawings, was made for my friends who run a small, organic farm in Michigan. And, the porcelain collection, featuring floral+blueberry drawings, was created for friends here in Pittsburgh who love growing flowers and have connections to MI+ME.
A variety of Jenna Vanden Brink Ceramics necklaces.
I also made my first porcelain jewelry as gifts for my lady friends for Galentine's Day, only the best day of the year.
Q: Can you divulge your secret to staying energized and inspired?
A: I have a really great team right now and they keep me energized. Often when I get tired or down, they're there to say "we got this!" and help me through.
A variety of Flower Studs.
Q: What’s your advice for overcoming challenges in the independent biz space? Is there any advice you'd give your younger self starting out?
A: There are two things that have really helped me:
1) Ask for help. When I had my first kid, I realized I couldn't get through that holiday season working alone and put out a call for help. The response was a game-changer for me both in the people I connected with and also realizing how much my business could grow if I didn't do everything alone. Now I have a kickass team--my days are way more fun for it and my business+balance are healthy.
2) Figure out when+how to say yes, but mostly say no. When I first started my business I said yes to everything and it's all led me here, but now saying no is such a powerful tool. I say no to lots of commissions, custom projects, wholesale orders and it gives me power and control over what we spend our time on. I still say yes selectively if I feel it'll push me to design or learn something new or will be a fun project or I get to work with good people.
Right before I had my oldest daughter, I was approached to do a big wholesale order of pottery for a department store and I said no but pitched my line of porcelain jewelry instead, which was way more manageable to execute. They went for it and it paid for my maternity leave. I think it's always wise to keep in mind where you want to go/how you want to grow so that if an opportunity comes along you know what call to make.
Q: What do you feel sets you apart in the independent biz/maker space?
A: The variety of ceramic products and the handmade touch on each one. I often incorporate hand-drawn elements and fingerprint impressions to give a reminder that my pieces were made my a person--it's part of what helps connect me to the people that use and wear my pieces. I also get to reach a wide audience by offering such a range of products.
Q: We love that you make products for the home and jewelry—which came first and how did you make the decision to explore the other?
A: Pots definitely came first. I studied ceramics in school, my dad was a potter, and I started out making dinnerware. I added the jewelry for fun when I wanted to make some gifts. I enjoyed making the jewelry so much (it's such a different process and allows for more play, working from home, more flexibility since things aren't food functional) that I kept making it. The jewelry was well received at markets and I actively decided to grow that part of my business. It is a nice balance to my pottery work and I have lots of fun with it!
About Jenna - and, go!
Q: What’s your go-to coffee and/or tea order?
A: Large drip coffee, or if I've been good, oatmilk latte xtra espresso.
Q: Markets or Online Shop?
A: Online Shop
Q: While working/making: Podcasts, Playlists, or Streaming?
Q: Early Bird or Night Owl?
A: Night owl
Q: Instagram or TikTok?
Q: Summer Markets or Holiday Markets?
A: Holiday Markets
Support Jenna Vanden Brink Ceramics:
Where to follow Jenna Vanden Brink Ceramics:
Anything else you'd like to share?
A note from Sara: Jenna and I collaborated on a 7-style collection that launches on Small Business Saturday, 11/27! More to come on our Instagrams and email lists. :)
Are you a maker or small business owner interested in being featured in a future maker story? Contact us!