Photos by Megan Favignano
Small, pointy red hats sit atop round “gnomelets” lined on a table in Pearson House
The small, ceramic “gnomelets” are a top seller for their creator, Karen Miller, the coordinator of the English and Philosophy Department at Webster University. Miller sold her crafts at a trunk show on Nov. 15.
Miller crafts ceramic figurines and jewelry at her house. She started her business, Binx Ceramics, four years ago.
Miller said she has always loved art. As a child, she would help her mom pour ceramics into molds. These projects taught her about the process of underglazing. Underglazing is what gives ceramics color before they are fired. Miller learned how to fire pieces in a kiln while she was an assistant in her high school’s art room. After high school, Miller was interested in becoming an oil painter, and attended Webster as an art major. But after her first semester, she transferred to a community college. She returned to Webster seven years later as a work-study employee for the Pearson House. She says her return to Webster renewed her interest in art.
“I kind of gave up on (art) for a little bit,” Miller said. “The department manager across the street, April Tate — she is also a crafter — encouraged me to start making stuff again.”
Tate began college as an art major, but she switched her major to psychology after two years. She said she knew her love of art would always be there.
“I knew that (Karen) had art experience and an interest in crafts, so I said ‘you should try it. You have nothing to lose,’ and she did, and she is doing great,” Tate said.
That bit of encouragement, Miller said, helped her take the step towards making and selling jewelry and figurines.
Although Miller had previous experience painting and constructing ceramics, she learned how to sculpt by using paper clay, a fiber-based clay, which is easier to mold than normal clay. She said the paper clay let her perfect her sculpting style while she transitioned from her 2-D paintings. Her 3-D pieces use the same cartoon color scheme she used in her oil paintings.
Miller completes the ceramics process at her dining room table. The first step: sculpting the characters.
“Once my hands learn the form, it’ll just do it. I don’t have to think,” Miller said. “I could sit here and make bunnies and not even think about it.”
After sculpting a piece, it takes anywhere from one minute to an hour to dry. The dry clay is called greenware. The dry clay is chalky and ready to be painted with underglaze. Next, each piece gets three coats of paint. The first steps are her favorite.
“It is the most creative part of the process and the most fun,” she said.
Finally, the piece is fired in a kiln at 1,945 degrees Fahrenheit. Miller has a kiln in her garage. After a piece is fired, it is ready for another coat of glaze. This second coat of glaze allows the paint to stay bright and shiny, and makes her ceramics washable. After glazing, the piece is fired once more at a lower temperature for less time.
One of Miller’s least favorite parts comes last: the clean up. As a piece is fired, it sits on a metal rack and the final coats of glaze will drip down and form teardrops on the bottom of the ceramics. It is important to remove these because the glaze is a glass adhesive. For Miller, the whole process is very organized.
Once the firing is done, she repaints the piece with a second coat of glaze and puts it into the kiln one final time. These are the most tedious and mundane steps, she said.
Once complete, the ceramics are ready to be sold, either online at Etsy, a website that mainly sells handmade or vintage items, or at local craft shows. Miller said the show season for local crafters, from September to December, is the busiest time of the year. Miller said she will be lucky if she gets three or four weekends without any shows during the fall.
Binx Ceramics still sells jewelry and ceramic critters, and has expanded beyond Miller’s love for art. It has allowed her to promote her talent while still working in an academic environment.
Now in her 30s, Miller said she has found her place in ceramics. Yet she still remembers to ask herself: is it cute, is it fun and most importantly does it make her happy?