December 27, 2012

Skowhegan artist finds pottery business slow to take shape

Skowhegan Pottery to close by month's end, owner says

By Rachel Ohm
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN -- Yvonne Bollenbacher sat in her half-empty pottery studio Monday morning as her boyfriend, Joey, packed pieces of art and ceramic.

click image to enlarge

Yvonne Bollenbacher, 24, stands in the studio of Skowhegan Pottery, surrounded by brushes, pottery and clay to be packed. The studio is closing this month.

Staff photo by Rachel Ohm

It was one of their last days in Skowhegan Pottery, the studio Bollenbacher, 24, started just more than a year ago in the Somerset Grist Mill and former county jail.

The studio is closing this month, Bollenbacher said, because it's too challenging to make ends meet as a young entrepreneur in Skowhegan with student loans and personal bills to pay on top of the costs associated with starting a new business.

"I guess I just seemed stuck. I really feel like Skowhegan is starting to have some good stuff happening, but it's been hard," she said.

Bollenbacher started making pottery while growing up in Suffolk County, N.Y. She moved to Skowhegan with her mother after her parents divorced, and she graduated from Skowhegan High School in 2006.

"She's the kind of young person that grew up in this area, graduated from Skowhegan High School, went to college and found a reason to come home. That's the type we need to attract here," said Amber Lambke, who owns the Grist Mill downtown.

Bollenbacher majored in painting with a minor in ceramics at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. She then spent a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer at Skowhegan Area High School, where she mentored high school students in an after-school program.

During that time she took her idea for a pottery studio to Lambke, who already had a pottery wheel and kiln and agreed to rent her a small studio for $400 per month, plus utilities. Skowhegan Pottery opened in September 2011. Up until this month it was one of five businesses in the Grist Mill, which is also home to the Skowhegan Farmers Market.

Over the course of the last year Bollenbacher has offered private and group lessons and sold her own work. She has also come across a number of challenges as a young entrepreneur in an arts-based business.

One of the challenges, she said, was limited access to supplies. The only place to buy clay in the state is Portland Pottery in Portland, she said. The shipping charge for the clay would be $80, she said, so she drove nearly 100 miles one way to buy clay for the studio every other month.

Advertising was also expensive and hard to get, she said. Aside from some money her father had invested in her new business, Bollenbacher said, she didn't have any money behind her and struggled to recruit people to sign up for classes. Applying for grants was difficult because although she did community outreach, such as the Empty Bowls program, a program that raised money for local Food Cupboards through the sale of soup bowls made by local elementary school students, and taught classes to groups of the mentally disabled from the organization Family Matters, her business was not a nonprofit.

Jim Batey, executive director of the Somerset Economic Development Corp., said that marketing and establishing a Web presence is essential for any small business today.

"In any cottage industry such as pottery, if you are going to be successful you have to be on the Web and expand the market because the local market is not going to support you," he said.

In addition to a website and Facebook page, Bollenbacher worked with local organizations such as the Skowhegan Community Center and the adult education program in the local school district, but she said there didn't seem to be a high level of interest in the community for pottery classes.

"It seemed like a really good way to go, but I got very low numbers of people signing up," she said.

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