I caught up with Leslie Green Guilbault, a professional potter and bone carver, at Riposo 72, a wine bar on the west side in NYC.
I have bought a bunch of Leslie’s “Tiny Pots” as gifts, which I do highly recommend; everyone seems to love them. I kept a few for myself as well, and I think they’re just beautiful.
Leslie was in town for a short visit to celebrate her mother’s 70th birthday, but managed to squeeze in a little time to tell me about her artwork and her somewhat unusual career path. It was great to see her and enjoy her enthusiasm firsthand, and if we hadn’t both had separate dinner plans to run off to, I would have gladly sat for hours.
Here’s what she had to say:
Photo of Leslie Green Guilbault; Courtesy of Marc Goldberg Photography
Date: August 4, 2015
Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA
Current town: Hamilton, NY—home of 2,400 people and 70,000 cows
So I understand that you had a major transition in your career path, a bit later in life, when you left the world of business and became an artist. How did that happen?
My career path has definitely been interesting. After graduate school, I spent 13 years as a senior administrator at Colgate University, quickly working my way up from a temp to Book Buyer, Department Manager, Bookstore Director, Staff Affirmative Action Officer, and finally, Director of Operations. When the recession hit and the University consolidated jobs across campus, I was offered the Dean of Diversity position. Most people I know would have taken that title bump, but I knew in my heart that it was not the job that I wanted as a career, so I resigned with a heavy heart. Twenty four days later, I found myself in a job interview at a local pharmaceutical company. Although I didn’t know the industry, many years of project management and customer service experience positioned me well for a job as a Customer Account Manager. I spent three years in that role, lasted through several rounds of down-sizing, and made some really great contributions to the growth of my department, and yet I never felt comfortable in the manufacturing environment. Maybe it was working in a windowless building with flickering fluorescent lights and a steady stream of intercom interruptions, or maybe it was the realization that I was becoming more and more unhappy in my job with each passing day, but after much soul searching, planning, and serious discussions with my husband about leaving the cubicle life, I resigned—this time with a joyful heart.
About a month later, I was taking a walk in the woods with my son, and we found the skeleton of a fawn that had been killed by a coyote. Sammy wanted to take it home and put it back together in the garage, so we filled our pockets with the tiny bones and did just that. The next day, I couldn’t get the image of the fawn femur out of my mind. I had this intense desire to carve it, though I had never carved anything in my life. I had no tools, no place to do it, no knowledge of how to do it, but the desire was overwhelming. I found a utility knife (which is absolutely the wrong tool to use) and started carving a totem out of the bone. It was a slow, meditative process, and I enjoyed the feel of carving away the surface until the image in my mind appeared. I was hooked.
During that winter, I researched how to clean and process the bones, how to carve them safely (it’s quite a dangerous profession), and bought myself all of the right tools. When spring arrived, I found myself out of bones and in search of a slightly easier surface to carve. I had taken pottery electives in college in the late 80s but hadn’t done it since. Over the years, friends had gifted me with a monstrous, old kick wheel and three broken kilns that sat unused in our garage for more than a decade. The wheel still worked and my husband reassembled the broken kiln pieces into one working Frankenstein kiln, and suddenly, I had the basic necessities of a pottery studio. Before I had a chance to talk myself out of it, I bought a spot at the local farmer’s market and set up a table. When I sold my first piece—a $15 tumbler—I cried. “Tears of joy!” I told the rather confused customer as I wrapped up her piece.
I’d been half-heartedly scanning the Sunday papers for a job in higher education, but my success at the market and my desire to spend more and more time at the pottery wheel made the decision to pursue art as a career a no-brainer. We built a tiny studio in the garage, I came up with a business name—LGG Creative Art—got a sales tax ID number, set up a business account at the bank, and within six months I was operating as a full-time artist.
From the Botanicals Collection
What inspires your artwork?
Nearly everything. I can find inspiration in a beautiful scarf, from the design on a ring, in a pattern on wallpaper, from textural surfaces like trees and rocks. I do sketches on the fly all the time, especially in my booth at art shows. My sketch pile is more than a foot tall now, and I sort through it every few weeks for ideas.
My work is an amalgam of all of my experiences. I’ve always been an observer; I pay attention to small details. They float around in my brain all day and come out most often in the brief moments right before I fall asleep. Images and shapes flood my mind, and sometimes I just have to abandon sleep and go back out to the studio to start a project, or at the very least, sketch it out. People sometimes ask me if I’m afraid that I’ll run out of ideas, but I can’t imagine that I will. Creating the shape of a piece then determining which design best suits it gives me a lot to think about. I enjoy these layers of creativity.
That said, not everything I make is a success. A lot of trial and error goes on in my studio. I have a shelf of failed pieces that I keep at eye level to remind me to go back to particular design and try it again. I also have a shelf of oddities behind my wheel—strange pieces that have captured my attention, like a glass eye, a bag of animal teeth, and an armadillo tail. They speak to me of future projects. Or they will.
From the Metallics Collection
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
“Do what makes you happy” and, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”—sage advice from my mom and dad, repeated hundreds of times over the course of my life.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would that be?
I have no regrets about my path. Every job that I’ve had has taught me something useful. My English literature background helped me learn how to think, stay focused, express myself, and find meaning in the world around me. My years at Colgate developed my accounting, marketing, networking, and customer interaction skills, all of which are critical to being a successful business person. Even the dreaded cubicle job taught me something—mainly, that I don’t ever want to work in a cubicle again, but more important, that I had the courage to leave a bad situation and create a job that is just perfect for me.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
From age 42 to 45, I played roller derby for the Blue Collar Betties in central New York (derby name: Killbo). I was a good twenty years older than most of my teammates, but it was a remarkable experience to play a competitive, full-contact sport during my transition from cube life to studio life. Turns out that hitting people is great stress relief!
From the Artifacts Collection
Do you see yourself pursuing art indefinitely?
Yes. I can’t imagine a better life than making art every day. If I stop doing what I’m doing, it will likely be because I am no longer physically capable. Making pottery involves a lot of lifting and bending for hours on end. Every potter I know has a bad back. Setting up for art shows, driving from state to state, working 12 hour days in all kinds of weather—it can be exhausting. Perhaps in my old age, I will shift over to painting. I paint designs on most of my pottery already, and I quite like the idea of being able to take my art with me as I travel, which I could never do as a potter or bone carver.
As your business grows, are you going to try to hire people, or make something that you can manufacture more of to sell commercially?
There are times when I consider myself a production potter. Sales from my line of Tiny Pots—delicate, small, wheel-thrown vessels (1-3” in diameter) that feature recycled fused glass—cover most of my business expenses right now. If my wholesale orders continue to grow, it will be helpful to have an apprentice sort the finished pieces, sand the bottoms, and put price tags on everything, but I would continue to be the maker. I’ve made more than 5,000 Tiny Pots in the past three years and, thankfully, I still enjoy the process. I experiment with new shapes, sizes, glass, and glaze combinations, and these variations keep me interested. But if Tiny Pots were all that I made, day in and day out, I would get bored. So I balance the commercial side of the business with a wildly creative side. I absolutely love making work that comes from my heart—pieces that have personal significance and allow me to express a vision that I see in my mind on any given day.
In addition to creating the art, I do all of the marketing, accounting, product photography, website development, order fulfillment, networking, raw material purchasing, studio maintenance, show set up, and face-to-face/phone/email customer interactions. Ideally, I would love to hire someone to set up my art shows. Roadies. I want roadies. Seriously. That would be awesome.
From the Bark Series
Is there a book you’d like to recommend?
James Joyce’s Ulysses. I could read it a hundred times and still find new meaning in it. And some day, I will travel to Dublin for Bloomsday celebrations—Google “Bloomsday.” It’s a cool thing.
Is there a movie you’d recommend for our readers?
Plan 9 from Outer Space. It’s equally terrible and fantastic! I’ve watched it so many times that lines from it have become part of our family vernacular.
What’s your strangest phobia or superstition?
I don’t like fireworks. They’re OK when they are far away, but I don’t like loud bursts of sound at close range.
From the Tiny Pots Collection
What’s the best or worst thing that happened to you this week?
My family visited a shop on Bleecker Street that was filled, floor to ceiling, with African artifacts—just this little room full of fascinating objects. Each of us bought something, and while the owner was wrapping up our pieces, the owner’s wife realized that it was my mom’s birthday and brought out an excellent bottle of rum so that we could all have a toast. Suddenly, there was music playing, the owner was dancing with my mom, and everyone was snapping photos and laughing and having a fantastic time. It became this wonderful, spontaneous party. That sort of thing happens with my family a lot.
Aww, I want to hang out with your family! They sound terrific. Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes, my artwork! Please take a moment to visit my website at www.LGGCreativeArt.com. I truly enjoy doing custom work for people’s homes and offices, and I ship internationally.
From the Polish Pottery Collection
From the Color Shot Series
From the Bone Carvings Collection
Photo of Leslie Green Guilbault; Courtesy of Marc Goldberg Photography
* Photos of Leslie Green Guilbault Courtesy of Marc Goldberg Photography
* All Other Photos — including Lead-In Image (Trivets Collection) — Courtesy of Leslie Green Guilbault
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com