Earlier this week, when I had the first Flair Index lunch, a few women asked me ‘Who are you profiling next?’, to which I replied, ‘Frances Palmer.’ Their response? ‘You mean, The Frances Palmer?’ Then I had the delight of introducing them to this quiet but dynamic, and enormously talented ceramist/photographer/gardener. Frances’ work, in which she photographs the hand-made ceramics she creates, often overflowing with exotic blooms she cultivates from her garden, have gained a following across the globe and made her an Instagram sensation (proof you don’t have be a millennial to master social media.)
I had the pleasure to interviewing Frances at her studio in Connecticut. What is most amazing to me, is that even after over 30 years, Frances is still, for the most part, a one woman show. She seems to prefer it that way. And she is always looking forward. Here, her story.
Please introduce yourself and tell me your path to becoming an artist/ceramist: I’m a potter living in Connecticut, where I’ve lived now for 33 years. Originally, I wanted to be a printmaker, but on a fluke, I applied to the Georgetown School of Foreign Service for college and got in. I ended up going to Georgetown for a year, which was great, but I spent all of my time on the Mall and at the museums. I thought ‘You know, I love the history of art, I love studying all the different civilizations’, so I applied for a transfer to Barnard, because I wanted to be in New York. I finished there and then did a master’s at Columbia in art history. It was fantastic because the museums in New York are so wonderful, so I studied the work and then I would go look at it.
My first job out of graduate school was at P.S. 1 in Long Island City with Alanna Heiss; it was kind of the very beginning. James Turrell was doing his first Earth work out there, Sam Wagstaff was the photography curator and Robert Mapplethorpe and Nam June Paik—all these incredible artists were out there working. They transferred me to run the Clocktower space down on Leonard Street, where there were some great shows: Debra Turbeville, David Seidner, who sadly died, Sean Scully. Then I got a job working for a fine art press called Petersburg Press that published prints by David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella. The artists all used to come; I would make tea for Hockney.
The Petersburg Press went out of business and I decided I was going to start a knitwear business. I found the woman who knitted the sweaters for Perry Ellis, and she started knitting sweaters for me, except I really had no training as a business person and I struggled to figure out how to collect money from customers.
Somebody said, ‘Oh you should talk to this man Wally Palmer. He knows all about sweaters and knitwear.’ I kept calling this man, and then I finally met him. We’ve been married for 33 years. After, I got a job working with Koos Van Den Akker, a Dutch designer. I used to pick out all his fabrics.
Then I had my daughter. We had a weekend house out here in Connecticut, and in the middle of winter, we decided to move out here full time. My husband would leave at 6 a.m. to drive to New York and he’d get home at 10 at night. I was home in the dead of winter with this baby. There was nobody to help me and that was a really challenging period. People didn’t talk about postpartum then. I didn’t really know anybody. I just started to fall apart.
My husband said to me, ‘You’re out here now. Why don’t you try something you’ve always wanted to do and never had time?’ And it just popped into my brain, ‘Oh, I think I’d like to learn ceramics.’ Because I love to cook and I love to serve dinners, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could just make all my dishes?’ That’s how I started. I took a course in throwing at a nearby art guild and I immediately loved it. So I bought a used wheel and a used kiln.
How did the business grow? I made a decision very early on that rather than go the gallery-exhibition route, I wanted to make functional work that people could use, and I wanted to have that flexibility of exploring forms. I decided I was going to somehow figure out how to sell it myself. I would write different magazine editors letters, ‘This is what I’m doing now.’ I wrote to Takashimaya, ‘I’d like to sell in your store.’ They wrote me right back. I persevered and had this idea about how I wanted to do it. I’m still trying to follow that idea.
Then you also became a photographer? And a gardener…. I’ve documented my work since the beginning. Since everything is one-of-a-kind, I felt that if I let it go without having some record of it, I would never remember. I’ve made thousands of pots over the years, and I have a record of almost everything.
I had to teach myself photography. A friend of mine, Marion Brenner, is a great photographer and many times, I’ll ask, ‘How do you do this?’ and she’ll help me. But I also feel like if you do something every day, just by virtue of doing it, you learn new things. That’s why I take a photograph every day, because every day, I’m thinking, ‘What do I want to say? How am I going to present it? What time of day is it? Where do I want the light to be? What am I trying to show here?’ For me it’s a constant exercise in communication. Because I’m communicating through my photos. I’m communicating through my work.
I started growing the flowers because if you put flowers in a vase, or you put something in a bowl, it gives your customer a sense of scale, a sense of, ‘Oh, that’s what I can do with that.’
How do you feel about Instagram? Has it changed your business? It’s completely changed my business. It’s also changed my way of thinking. It used to be I would post photos on my website, but now I’m trying to shift more into the direction of, ‘This is what I’m making now.’ What I love about Instagram is that it gives me that forum to say, ‘This is what I’ve just pulled out of the kiln. This is what’s growing in my garden.’
Again, posting everything on Instagram is like an exercise. What’s happening now, right this minute. And that’s really fun for me. And it lets customers contact me.
That’s how I found you. Really? Then, for example, the bud vases that I posted yesterday with the tulips, they weren’t for sale and somebody wrote and said, ‘Can I buy them?’ I said, ‘I’ll make a new group and you can look at those and see if anything appeals to you,’ because I don’t want to be boxed in, and I don’t want them to feel boxed in.
How many pieces do you make by the year, or by the month? I don’t count.
How many hours a day do you work at the kiln? If I’m here, I’m here every day.
When you started the business what was easiest? What was the hardest part? This is going to sound so corny, and it’s almost the same answer to both–to be really true to myself. To make work I believe in and hope that it’s something that interests you. Sometimes it’s really hard to put it out there; there’s a real vulnerability, in a way. You’re putting your heart and soul into something. I say to myself, ‘You just do the best you can. Believe that you have made something that you like, and hopefully it will appeal to other people.’ The same thing with posting photos. Sometimes when I say, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t post this. Should I post this? Should I?’ Then I think, ‘You took this photo. You believe in that photo, so you put it out there.’
It’s the vulnerability of being an artist. Right. When I send out an e-mail, I’ve stopped looking at who opens it and who unsubscribes, because I would see people unsubscribing and it was like a knife in my heart. Then I thought, ‘Get a grip. It’s a bloody e-mail.’ The other thing is that people have such a short attention span. So you have to kind of capture them and don’t take it personally. That’s hard.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: Perseverance. I just push on through. I get up and I go out and I do my best.
How do you define success? I don’t know if I would call it success, but I feel grateful that I’m able to do what I like to do every day. I am very disciplined. I get up every day and assess what is it that I need to accomplish, but I don’t have to show up in an office, and I don’t have to deal with the politics of coworkers. I spend a lot of time by myself, but I really enjoy that. It’s great that I produce work and it continues to be shipped and sold and I’m able to start all over again and do something new.
The other success is that I have three grown children that are out in the world making their own lives. I guess more important than my work is that I think they’re really great people and we need good young people. Maybe that’s my biggest accomplishment. And it’s not over yet.
Role models: I would say that the women that I’ve known in my life have been great role models and I have some great friends and mentors who’ve really helped me. But I can’t say anybody specifically that anyone would know.
What would your advice be to somebody who was starting out: The most important thing is you have to begin at the beginning. I always use that metaphor of the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy says, ‘How do I get to Oz?’ And the Good Witch says, ‘Well you have to start at the …’ and she literally starts at the first yellow brick of the Yellow Brick Road. You have to start at the beginning if you want to get to the end. You can’t jump in in the middle. The beginning is the most important part because you want to start out with a good intention and take your time and really understand where you’re going and just see the whole process through and not rush.
What inspires you? So many things. Yesterday I went to the Met and looked at the Irving Penn. Then there’s all the Met’s Cycladic and the Greek ceramics. A friend of mine was just in Egypt and she sent me all these photos from King Tut’s tomb. The ancient civilizations are incredibly modern. You look at Cycladic art and that’s Brancusi, or Etruscan art, that was Giacometti. I was just in Japan and how everything’s presented: the ceramics, the linens, the flowers, the food. It’s all so perfectly curated. But it’s not seeing something specific, that ‘oh, I want to go make that shape,’ but a whole aura that makes you think ‘I want my work to have that kind of presence to it.’
How hard would you say you work? Hard. Really hard.
How do you keep focused? I love what I do.
What motivates you? There’s always more in my brain than I’ve actually made. It’s like, ‘I want to get this made, I want to do this now.’
What’s next? I have a couple things, but I can’t talk about them yet. Actually, that’s not true. I met a really interesting man through Instagram. Do you follow Ben Pentreath? He’s an English architect and he reached out to me to buy some work for his husband, Charlie McCormick, who’s a gardener. Ben shares a store in London, Pentreath & Hall with Bridie Hall, where I’m having a two-week pop-up in London in September. I have a couple of shows with friends in galleries in Maine in July.
Three words that describe you: Loyal, inquisitive, disciplined.
Three words that describe your work: Elegant, whimsical, eager to be used.
Life goals: Be healthy. Watch my children have great lives. Stay as fit as possible as long as I can.
Daily goals: Look at my flowers and my bees. I’m very attached to my bees. I try to do a photograph every day of something that is inspiring to me around here. And get some work made that I’ve wanted to get made and haven’t had time.
Daily rituals: Strong coffee first thing. I read a lot of newspapers online. And I try to do Pilates or take a walk or something for exercise and get into the studio by nine.
Favorite inspirational/motivational reads: I listen to audio books while I work. The past few months I’ve listened to a lot of Anthony Trollope. Now I’m listening to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. A friend of mine who’s also an artist listens to the same book at the same time so that we can discuss and articulate some of the themes. She usually gets ahead of me because sometimes I just have to have silence, but it’s fun to have somebody read something at the same time.
How do you unplug? I don’t answer e-mails after 6:00 p.m. because I find I get tired and cranky. I wake up really early, so I’d rather get up and answer it at 5 in the morning. That’s how I unplug. I don’t respond.
Do you collect anything? Flowers and books—design books, ceramic books, photography books.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: Books. And most recently, the trip to Japan I took with my daughter. I think travel is always worth the splurge, because I come back so excited and inspired to get back to the studio and to work.
Favorite small indulgence: Going out to restaurants for dinner.
Album currently on repeat: Because I mostly listen to audio books, I don’t listen to music so much, but I was quite obsessed with Hamilton for a while.
Scent that brings back memories: I love Frederic Malle. He has a great lily of the valley scent.
Lucky charm: A friend of mine made me a little felt elephant to travel with for good luck.
Favorite hour of the day: Early morning, 5, 5:30. It’s so fresh and clean and quiet. There are new possibilities every morning.
Follow Frances: Instagram.
portrait: Jane Beiles; all other photos, Frances Palmer.