Business

Potters' Obsession paint-your-own pottery studio gets creative with takeout during pandemic

'It's not just about the pottery'

Beverly Trudeau, 7, of Cedar Rapids puts the finishing touches on a sloth figure at Potter's Obsession in Cedar Rapids o
Beverly Trudeau, 7, of Cedar Rapids puts the finishing touches on a sloth figure at Potter’s Obsession in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The business will mark its 20th anniversary this summer, and has adapted to coronavirus concerns by offering pottery kits for pickup, spacing out tables and sanitizing bottles of paint after each use. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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During Michelle Kline’s childhood in Hiawatha, a neighbor ran a ceramics and pottery shop out of her garage. Kline dabbled, but the experience didn’t seem to have a lasting effect.

“Sure, I did a little bit, but not like it is today,” Kline recalled one afternoon this past week at a work table in her northeast Cedar Rapids studio and shop.

A couple at a smaller table painted some unfinished vases while a few customers came in to collect their pieces that had been fired in Kline’s kiln.

Her next experience with clay didn’t seem to go well at first. Kline was working for a marketing company in the late 1990s when she visited some friends in Des Moines, who took her to a paint-your-own-pottery studio.

“I spent two hours picking out a piece of pottery, and 45 minutes picking out the colors,” Kline recalled one afternoon this week. “I was so angry when I sat down, I thought this was the stupidest thing I’d ever done.

“Then I started painting, and it turned out to be the most relaxing thing I’d ever done. I spent the afternoon painting, and I painted two or three pieces.”

Soon after, Kline’s job was lost to a corporate restructuring

“I contacted the people in Des Moines who had opened their own studio, and they were kind enough to share,” she said.

“They helped us get in touch with the right people, and one thing led to another.”

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Kline and a cousin opened the Potters’ Obsession in August 2000. The cousin left the venture after about three years.

“I was single, and it was just my income,” Kline said of launching her own business. “So it was scary, but this community completely embraced us.”

Customers select unfinished ceramics pieces prepared by Kline, whose inventory includes mugs, plates, picture frames and piggy banks.

They decorate the piece with paint, stamps, sponges and other tools. Kline glazes and fires the piece, which the customer can pick up in about a week.

It’s a popular format with birthday and bachelorette parties, bridal and baby showers, scout troops, day care groups and first dates, Kline said.

“There was nothing like this in the area. When we first opened it was really geared toward kids, but over the years it grown to include adults, families,” she said

Customers who spend a few hours at the work tables often find it as relaxing as Kline’s first experience.

“It’s not just about the pottery that people paint,” Kline said. “People go away with the experience of just having quality time with whomever they’ve come with.”

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The sole full-time employee, Kline draws on a pool of about eight part-timers to staff large group gatherings or busy weekends. There’s plenty of advice and inspiration on hand, but she’s reluctant to offer much instruction beyond the basics.

“I don’t want to take away from somebody’s creativity,” Kline said. “We have lots of books with lots of ideas, photos of things that have been done. As far as actual teaching techniques, we don’t do a lot. It’s meant to be a creative activity.”

The coronavirus has dealt the business “the most stressful time in all of our 20 years,” Kline said. She found a supply of disposable plastic cups and began filling them with paint.

“In 24 hours, we became a takeout, rather than a come-in situation,” she said. “We figured it out as we went.

“We took orders from Facebook, we took orders over the phone. We were squirting paint and packing up pieces of pottery and sending them out the door. I never thought my business plan would change so drastically after 20 years.”

Takeout business sustained Kline through the isolation period.

“Everybody was in quarantine, so they needed things to do,” Kline said.

As the initial lockdown eased, business slowed, Kline said, although she expects the carryout-and-drop-off trade to continue.

“We’re much slower,” she said. “We’re a carryout, we’re a come-in. We’re a, ‘Hey if you can figure out how to do it, we’ll make it work for you.’ We’re just trying to stay flexible.”

The pandemic forced Kline to cancel some events planned to celebrate the Potters’ Obsession’s 20th anniversary. But studio time will be half-price Friday, Aug. 7, with free ice cream.

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Kline noted the studio was barely into its second year when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks upset the American economy.

“That was really hard on a lot of businesses, but we plugged away and stayed with it,” Kline said. “That’s what I keep saying now when people are talking about how to get through this.

“We made it through 9/11, we made it through (the Great Recession of) 2008. We’re going to make it through this, too, one way or another.”

Know a small business in the Corridor that might make a nifty “My Biz” feature? Email us at michaelchevy.castranova@thegazette.com.

At a glance

• Owner: Michelle Kline

• Business: The Potters’ Obsession

• Address: 1941 51st St. NE, Cedar Rapids

• Phone: (319) 743-9824

• Website: thepottersobsession.com

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