In Conversation with Rhea Bailey of Halona Studio

I can’t remember exactly how I stumbled upon Rhea Bailey’s Instagram feed (maybe from another ceramist??), but I do remember scrolling through her feed and thinking about how beautiful her ceramic pieces and photography was!

We hopped on a Zoom call a few weeks ago and chatted about her journey into photography, ceramics, and the story of how she began to sell her work online. She's an amazing woman and I had so much fun chatting with her.

Enjoy the interview!

Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you get into ceramics and what type of items do you make?

My name is Rhea. My studio is called Halona Studio and I make functional ceramic pieces like plates, bowls, and things like that. The way that I found pottery was really by happenstance. I'm a public health practitioner, and I left a long career in that field in May of 2018. A colleague of mine at the time was an artist and I always admired the fact that she had a creative practice in addition to her work as a social worker.  And so, at my going away party when I left, she gifted me a set of acrylic paints.

So I signed up for an acrylic painting class. On the first day of class, the instructor was a no-show, so I was told that I could either come back next week, or I could sit-in on the ceramics class that was also starting that night. Long story short, I fell in love with ceramics that evening and never left.

What made you decide to sell your pieces online? How did that manifest?

It really came about rather serendipitously. The interest in my work manifested as a result of the recent uprising and quest for the liberation of Black people.  In June, immediately following the murder of George Floyd's there was a sudden uptick in attention to Black lives, and subsequently a newfound interest in Black-owned businesses.  Somehow my work was found on social media and it began to be shared quite a bit. At that time, I gained a number of new “followers” and inquiries about how to purchase my work.  But there was one problem, I wasn’t selling my work.

To be honest, I had thought about selling my work, but I felt like that was down the line well into the future. I felt like I wasn't ready yet and that perhaps my work wasn't good enough. But with so much interest and inquiry, I decided to give it a shot. I guess the attention I was receiving served as a source of validation - a shot of confidence. So I decided to seize the moment and see it as an opportunity to further my dream of becoming an independent artist. I made a website and officially launched my first shop which by my standards was a great success! I’m working towards launching my second shop in the Fall.

That’s really moving to hear that’s how your business came about. It’s very different from the “I had a friend/family member tell me I should sell my art and so I opened up an Etsy shop” story you often hear.

I appreciate that. But it is not lost on me that in order for me to move closer to my dream, a man had to die - actually countless Black people had to die. As I sit here in my home, I am not on the frontlines as many of my brothers and sisters are. But I do feel very connected to our collective quest for liberation. And for me, that means having the space to be fully actualized, and the freedom to be fully self-expressed. I think this moment helped do that in a way I didn't necessarily think was possible.

How did you learn to take photos of your pieces? I know you do street photography and also photograph families, but how did you translate that to photographing your work?

Again, It’s another one of those “right place, right time, serendipitous” stories. In 2013, I had two small children and I wanted to learn how to photograph them better using a “real” camera as opposed to my phone.  So, I ordered a book on Amazon that would teach me how to take photos in manual mode on my husband’s old DSLR camera. 

I devoured that book and I became obsessed with photography. I love the medium of photography because it freezes time. Photos tell the stories of our lives. Anyway, my entire photography career had been spent taking pictures of people, families, and my community. So when I started doing ceramics and I had to take pictures of my products, I applied what I knew about light and composition and translated it the best I could to product photography. The truth is I learned through practice, experimentation, and making lots of mistakes. And I'm still learning!

What's your process for photographing your pieces? Do you have a certain spot where you take all your photos?

I particularly love window light, especially when it's from one direction, so I usually set-up near a window and place two pieces of foam core on a chair in an L shape. I then use another darker piece of foam core to block some of the ambient light so that window light is the strongest. That was the set-up for most of my project photos in the beginning. 

Recently, I’ve been really attracted to a different type of aesthetic, which incorporates more hot light and produces long shadows. Think of sunlight at high noon. I like to photograph outside on my deck around 1 or 2 pm. My set-up is still pretty simple and involves a couple of pieces of foam core (foam core is my best friend). It creates these wonderful shadows and shines a spotlight on the piece. I used that method for my product shots on my website. As I said, I’m constantly learning. It's really all an experiment and mostly involves what looks and feels good to be at the time.

What's one thing you wish you had learned in the beginning about photographing your products?

One of the things I wish I had learned, and still want to learn, is artificial light - flash photography and studio lighting. I do have some lights and strobes, but I don't really use them very much. I use them for self-portraits when I'm inspired, which is not very much these days.

What advice would you share with somebody who's learning how to photograph their products?

Find a window and turn off all the overhead ambient light. Place your piece on a chair or a table and use a sheet, a piece of foam core, or whatever you have as a neutral background. Shoot your piece from various angles. Play around with it.

In what ways has photography been important for your business and your art?

It's really everything. I’ve never done craft fairs or in-person sales. The way I get my art out into the world is through social media. People generally find my website through social media and I think the higher the quality and the more attractive my images are, the greater the opportunity I have to sell my work. People are introduced to my work through photos, and my hope is that they are both intriguing and tell a story. 

What’s happened since getting yourself out more in the maker/artist world? Have you dealt with any challenges?

As a maker and a ceramicist, I feel like I'm still playing in the shallow end of the pool. I feel like I'm still quite new to this maker/crafter/artist space in a way. 

I do feel like I'm part of a really loving and supportive community. I’ve found fellow artists and makers to be so helpful and encouraging. One local artist saw on Instagram that I had lost access to a kiln due to the pandemic and connected me with a local maker who was renting space in his kiln. I have to give her a shout out. Her name is Niki Shelley of Manu because she's just a beautiful person. She's been an incredible support. 

In terms of challenges, I’m still not super comfortable with putting myself out there in terms of social media marketing, and marketing in general. I’m a bit shy and private so tooting my own horn it’s a strong suit. I'm learning how to show more of myself and not be so self-conscious. But I know it’s something I need to do to be successful. 

What do you love most about what you create?

I love the process. I appreciate the slowness of the practice - the many, many, MANY stages and steps that must occur in order to make one ceramic piece.  This art form is a daily lesson in patience, staying present, and in nonattachment. It has healed my soul in many ways.  The process that it takes for clay to manifest from its raw form to a bowl or mug is pretty extraordinary. 

What’s one thing most people might not know about you?

I think most people that know me as a ceramic artist would not know that I am also a trauma-informed, public health practitioner, and social worker by training. I have a consulting business called Radical Joy Consulting. I’m still very much focused on public health. From the healing of communities and populations to helping shift power from those who historically had it to those who have been shut out of it for generations.

I don't share much about that side of me on social media so I imagine folks don't necessarily know that about me. I'm an entrepreneur 3x right now with consulting, ceramics, and photography.

Who or what are your biggest influencers? 

The first person that comes to mind is Justina Blakeney. She is a designer, artist, mother, and woman of color. I really love her work, but I mostly love what she stands for. She is grounded in her identity as an artist and an overall free spirit. I view myself in a similar light, but I don't always know how to communicate that to the masses in a way that feels authentic. She models that for me.  I admire the way she tells her story, her vulnerability, and how she celebrates herself in a beautiful way. 

There's also another ceramicist Golden Ratio Clay Works that I love - both her work and her as a person.  She's someone who (back in the day without knowing me) got on a zoom call so I could pick her brain about how to run a business as a ceramicist. This was a long time ago when I first left my career and well before I had sold a single piece. She didn’t have to do that and I will always be so appreciative of her generosity. I'm enjoying seeing her trajectory and how she's come into her own as a businesswoman in this field. She’s a huge source of inspiration for me. And fun fact: She’s also a fellow photographer turned ceramicist. 

What's your favorite thing about having your business?

The first thing that comes to mind is freedom and flexibility. As a mother, that’s very important to me. I feel really lucky that I now have the freedom to set my own schedule and have more control over the pace of my work in a way that I haven't had to this point. 

I’m also working in a field in which I feel extremely passionate. As the old cliche goes, my work doesn't feel like work.  I understand what people mean by that now. When you are doing something that lights you up and you get paid for it, there's nothing better. It’s really a dream come true. And even though my ceramics business is still very new, it's been amazing to pour myself into something that feels so right. 

You can find Rhea online at her website and on Instagram for her ceramics and her photography.

About the author

Imelda Jimenez-LaMar is a product photography coach and former Etsy seller, who said goodbye to her corporate job to create a business teaching photography. She is on a mission to demystify product photography for makers who want to create product photos that sell their handmade products online and grow their handmade business.

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