Erika Novak and Drew Darley spend their working days in a studio in Avon, CT surrounded by masterpieces. Decadent vases and eloquently carved planters, mugs and fruit bowls cluster around each other in the front showcase window. Filling the space there are two spinning wheels, two kilns and tables covered with works in progress. Tools are scattered throughout the room and there is a makeshift chemistry lab taking up a few shelves tucked in the back. The winter sun dances around the space and bounces off the glazed ceramics and white walls, making this small studio feel a lot bigger.
Erika and Drew are recent college grads. They realized their passion for pottery while taking a ceramics course at Central Connecticut State University. Today they are the owners of Round Trip Clayworks. While their peers prepare their resumes and stress over interviews, Erika plays with geometry, carving shapes and patterns out of clay to decorate an array of objects. Drew plays with chemistry– using elements like copper carbonate, chromium oxide and manganese dioxide– crafting a unique painting style on his simple, well-structured vases. Creativity never runs dry between the partners. “Our work is constantly growing. I don’t think either of us are the type of person to become too complacent where we’re going to keep making the same thing over and over. We always have new ideas and we always want to keep pushing our product,” Erika says.
The duo has reached success– kind of. “We’re very poor. Very poor,” Erika says, rolling a piece of clay between her fingertips. Her hair is long and vibrantly purple, her face bare of makeup. Drew nods in agreement. But they say this with no contempt.
Starting a business is something most recent grads don’t consider. According to a 2019 survey on small business trends, only 4 percent of small business owners are between ages 18-29. The great majority prefers a stable job, steady paycheck and will all-too-easily settle to work for someone else’s company or dream. Robert Kiyosaki, motivational speaker and author of best-selling financial advice book Rich Dad Poor Dad, revealed in an interview for London Real TV: “The moment you accept a paycheck, your brain goes dead. That’s the trap. Entrepreneurs work for free. As long as you’re hungry, you’ll think.”
And that’s how it started for these two, by working for free. “Living by the skin of your teeth is worth it,” Erika admits. Pouring everything they have into their craft comes with its own set of benefits. It’s their craft, their dream and its growth will directly correlate with their effort. They also find themselves in a position where they have the autonomy to build their own schedule. But work is work, and after any hiatus they find themselves compelled to put in overtime to complete projects and assemble their inventory in preparation for the busy warmer months.
“If you never take a risk you’re never going to make it.”
Drew, who sports a full beard and man-bun, earned his degree in mathematics, and at first struggled with the idea of pursuing art professionally. “The hardest part for me was just doing it. Once I’ve made the decision I’m okay, but it was the initial, ‘I’m gonna quit my job and do this for a living?’” He admits the initial decision was difficult, but he had someone special coaxing him along.
There is an undeniable spark between Erika and Drew, who met in a ceramics class at CCSU. Once they graduated together in 2017, they took off on a cross-country road trip. They drew inspiration for their art from the colors, mountains and valleys of America’s west, and in the meantime, fell in love. They balance each other impeccably. Erika is the dreamer of the two while Drew asks the questions like how? And where will the money come from? “It’s nice for me to [say], maybe we shouldn’t do this and for her to [say], come on, let’s just do it, and then finding a nice middle point. Sometimes you need that, you know, if you never take a risk you’re never going to make it.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an intimidating statistic; that roughly half of business startups fail in the first five years. To truly succeed, especially as a creative business, it takes grit and tireless resolve. David Noble, the University of Connecticut’s director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation responded to an email asking what it takes for young people to become entrepreneurs. He answered: “Anyone can be an entrepreneur but most people do not want to make the sacrifices necessary to be a successful entrepreneur.”
Among those sacrifices include free time and, especially for young artists, financial freedom early on. Erika and Drew seem to cope with this just fine. The only social place they frequent is the climbing gym. When they do have money, it always gets dumped right back into the business. They are happy to make these sacrifices.
Besides being self-described as “poor,” the artists are faring well– pottery is their full-time gig. They’re not spending their nights and weekends bartending or waiting tables. They even began offering pottery classes in their studio this winter for extra income. Instagram and social media have played a big role in their achievements. Their Instagram page has racked over 8,000 followers and their posts often get well over one thousand likes. They have gone viral. “We love Instagram,” Erika admits. Most of their online sales are through the app. She even sold some of her planters to a customer in Australia. For a potter to have an outreach that extends across the globe is unique to the internet age and our increasingly globalized world.
The future of Round Trip Clayworks is hopeful. “I know we’ll make it, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s not going to work. And maybe that’s just me being ignorant of the fact that maybe it won’t work because I just won’t accept that for an answer, so I’ll just make it work,” Erika says confidently. “The next big purchase for the business is a van,” she reveals. In the future these two will continue happily driving down the road less traveled, blazing their own path along the way.
Featured image courtesy of Round Trips Clay Works.
Kelsey Murray is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine.