Interview with Ceramicist Courtney Reagor of Sandwich Shop

I met Courtney through one of my longtime girlfriends when she was having a get-together for another lovely lady's birthday - a bona fide gathering of amazing women where we talked careers, aspirations, wardrobes, partners, jokes, jokes, and more jokes - we even busted out "Girl Talk" that night, a collective nostalgic nod and knowing laugh on how much we'd all changed from our adolescent selves. I immediately responded to Courtney's warm, cheery, silly, and down to earth demeanor. There is an authentic and effortless delight about her that I see translates very directly to her work as well. Her pieces are candid and evocative of an earnest sense of play and charm. I'd love an entire home dressed in her stylings - one where I can smile, laugh, and live easy and content. I got to ask her some questions about her work, her process, and her inspiration. Enjoy!

How did you first delve into the art world? I know you went to SCAD for Illustration, what was that experience like, and how did you transfer over to ceramics?

So, I never really delved into the art world, I was raised in it. My parents, both illustrators, met in art school in Denver, and they put a crayon in my hand at a very young age. They let me paint on my walls, and I had the steep advantage of having a color copier in my mom’s home studio, so my class projects were pretty on point.  When I was awkwardly deciding what to do after high school, there really was no other option other than art school. Doing things with my hands was all I ever knew and the idea of getting to do that ALL day in college was too good to be true. My parents and I visited Savannah to take a tour of the school, and they were so jealous of all the things I would have available to me, so I took that and ran with it.

Art school is so weird, but it was the best possible decision I could have made at that time. I graduated with a Bachelor's in Illustration, took more art history classes than illustration, and only had one basic math class. We only had 4 days a week of actual class for 10 weeks a quarter, and it was pretty mellow. I remember having a little fire under my ass every time I got a new assignment, and I worked so hard and loved it. I was a little naive and unselfconscious about what I was making… My parents have a life-sized, full-body, self-portrait, pencil drawing, framed and hanging in their house. It’s ridiculous looking. But I look back at that time and remember having so much creative energy swirling around me. I met a handful of people that were funny and weird in the same way I was. Everyone had different disciplines, but we all really encouraged and influenced each other in a positive way.

Pottery came years later. Having just moved from Chicago to Brooklyn and struggling to find my niche in the freelance illustration game, I felt the need to work with my hands in a different way. I love to draw still, but the freelance thing didn’t work for me at that time in my life. It was too isolating, and I needed to be around other people doing something creative. So I reached out to a potter I admired, Clair Catillaz of Clam Lab, and she gave me a list of places to look into for classes. I ended up renting a little tiny shelf for 2 years at Choplet in Williamsburg, sort of quietly observing everyone, but taking the time for myself to learn and struggle with something new. One day at Choplet, I bumped into Josephine Heilpern of Recreation Center Ceramics and we got to talking about a studio she was going to join that needed a few new members. She introduced me to Helen Levi, Isaac Nichols of Grouppartner, and Rachel Howe of Small Spells and that changed everything. I joined the studio with them and learned what kind of discipline it took to make this kind of work into a job. I acquired and fulfilled my first freelance order while renting in that studio, before I ended up moving down to Atlanta. 

Your Artifact Collection is so lovely. You say it's meant to convey the spirit of handmade objects from a time before ours, which I think is definitely implicit in the naturally emerging hues, shapes, and patterns you employ - have you done any specific research or are there particular historical/cultural concepts/ideas that inspired this collection you can tell us more about?

I hadn’t done any specific research before the Artifact collection came to life. The squiggles and lines were certainly influenced by years of compiling things that caught my eye, but it wasn’t until I had unknowingly created a rudimentary body of work, that I realized it looked like it could have been from another time and culture. Working with clay is one of the most ancient art forms, it's hard not to feel connected to the past.

 What does your creative process look like from cultivating the design to executing the piece?

I still draw a lot. But it took me a long time to know what forms were mine from trial and error at the wheel. I spent a long time just letting the thing make itself during my explorative years at Choplet, so it feels really good to have a deliberate process as I grow my line. Making a piece is not instantly gratifying. There is a long road from throwing a piece to being able to use it. I prep the clay, throw on the wheel, have to wait for the piece to dry to a specific point to trim, dry again, bisque fire, mix the glaze and let it rest, hand dip glaze, clean the bottom of the piece, and glaze fire. Then sacrifice something to the kiln gods to make sure it all survives the firing process. 

You used to live and work in Brooklyn and have now relocated to Atlanta. How has this move and environment change influenced your work?

The south has always tugged at my heartstrings because I have roots down here, but I was also ready to live a slower life. My fiancé, Bryant, is a custom home-builder and when I got down there, I had hearts in my eyes and more space than I had ever imagined. My cost of living was drastically reduced, which allowed me to buy a used kiln, wheel, etc. Plus I have the luxury of walking downstairs to my studio as opposed to fighting for a seat on the train. But I am still attached to NY because my sister lives there and because of the community of creative people I have there. It can be a bit isolating in Atlanta, but when the hustle and bustle fell away, it really allowed me to focus on building my brand.

What or who or where is home to you?

Home is where my inhaler is.

Who are three women creators/artists that inspire you?

Wendy Lionheart Reagor, my mom. She had her own illustration/design company, Riverwoods Art Farm, in our basement studio when I was growing up and was always coming up with a new way to make work. She has evolved so much over my life and her eye for color and innate wabi-sabi has always inspired me. 

Leanne Shapton, an illustrator in NYC. She is very prolific and has such an honest looseness to her work. She was kind enough to answer a couple emails of mine while I was going through a creative crisis in Chicago.

Robin Cameron is someone I have admired for a long time. Her range in disciplines is vast but it’s all connected. Drawing, collage, sculpture, it all has a great relationship with shape and color, and that’s something I find very appealing. 

What do you do to de-stress?

In NY my favorite thing to do to de-stress is to run errands with my best friend and designer, Artemis Millan. In Atlanta, I like to go for a long lunch and then to a matinee with my fella.

As far as starting your own business - Sandwich Shop - what kind of support system did you have when you started out and what kind of system have you maintained to get you to this point?

My parents are endlessly supportive and have freelanced and started their own businesses before, but having the community in the Brooklyn studio was really encouraging. We were all working in the same material and sometimes shared retailers, but there was never a sense of competition. Everyone had their own style and respected each other’s intellectual property, so we could share our experiences and frustrations and help each other. I feel really lucky to still have access to those people from afar. But Bryant has been hugely helpful with the business side of things, and I have made a good friend out of Courtney Hamill of Honeycomb Studio. Community building is an ever-evolving process, and I feel like Atlanta has a lot to offer creatively, so I look forward to finding more like minds.

What advice would you have for novices interested in learning more about ceramics? Where should they start?

Take a class! I was so thrilled to make my brain work in a new way and to have that same fire under my ass that I had in art school. It’s hard and takes a lot of patience, but there is something very satisfying about making something one can use.  

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

To be honest, I have never really thought about it. I was raised by people who empowered me to do it all. I have always had strong women and supportive men in my life and in my tiny bubble, I have never felt lesser or had my abilities questioned because of my gender. If anything, I feel like the work I have created and the way I see, has been enhanced by my sensitivities as a woman. In this particular business, I deal with a lot of  independent business owners, and I feel supported and encouraged as an artist, regardless of gender. I have always been proud to be a woman. I just have never used the word feminist.