Katy Mitchell on Running a Successful Creative Business

Mike Radcliffe Photography - Katy Mitchell
Photo by

Photo by Mike Radcliffe

Last week we had the privilege of meeting up with Manx Ceramicist, Katy Mitchell in her beautifully compact studio at Lower Bishop's Court Farm. We chatted to Katy about her experience of running a creative business on the Isle of Man ahead of her next exciting venture in Australia.

How would you describe Katy Mitchell Ceramics?

I make wheel-thrown and hand-decorated functional tableware intended to be used and embraced in daily life. My contemporary forms are illustrated with delicate and colourful designs inspired by the beauty (and oddity) of the Isle of Man. Each pot is decorated with a combination of hand-painting, inlay and custom decals, often being fired in the kiln three times.

Local sales of my work have been predominantly through Manx National Heritage, direct from my studio at seasonal events, and via an online shop. Further afield, my work is sold by four independent gallery shops in the UK.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I grew up on the Island then moved to Australia when I was 18, where I stayed to study and work for five years. In early 2013 I returned home to the Isle of Man, and within six months I had re-established a practice here, thanks to the support of many individuals and organisations, including the Arts Council.

Katy in her studio

What sparked your interests in ceramics?

As a teenager I stumbled into a job at Craftworks Studio, a paint-your-own-pottery business. I worked there every weekend and holiday for four years; it's where my love of ceramics began. I would often be asked 'Did you make that?' and answer would be 'No, I painted it, but it was made in a factory in China or Taiwan...', which sparked an interest to learn how to make from scratch and be responsible for the whole creation process. So now when people ask me that question I can answer 'Yes, yes I did.'

I studied for two years on the Gold Coast, at an unfortunately poorly managed and privately owned college that no longer exists! However, my teacher Michaela Kloeckner was wonderful – a practicing artist with brilliant education skills. She was and is endlessly enthusiastic and supportive. The course was an Australian Diploma in Visual Art + Contemporary Craft, which is equivalent to a British foundation course.

What's been your favourite part about having your own creative business?

I look forward to work on Monday mornings! I'm excited when I go to bed on Sunday night, I want to see how the kiln firing turned out, I'm keen to start making the next batch of pots. I've created a workplace that I love - that's a real privilege.

A snapshot in Katy's studio

How has the Isle of Man influenced your work?

My designs innately take on a strong sense of place, reflecting the environment in which I'm working. The collection developed on the Island over the last four years is infused with Manx culture on different levels. There's a balance between my personal inspirations and nods of respect to the heritage of the Island.

The Manx landscape is a favourite reference for me: on larger pieces like vases or serving bowls I often use a varied green decoration interpreting our patchwork fields, with yellow and purple details for gorse and heather. Our damp climate has even inspired rain patterns!

Some of my designs are more intentionally inspired by the Island. When I moved my practice here I understood that using Manx iconography – such as the Loaghtan sheep, the Manx cat, fuchsia flowers – would be essential to the success and longevity of my creative business. These designs have unquestioningly been my best-sellers, providing the financial backbone for my practice.

Do you think that the Isle of Man is a good place to have a creative business? Tell us about your experience?

Yes! Locals and tourists alike have a great appetite for high quality, tasteful, well-designed, hand-crafted products that are made or devised on the Island, products that inherently reflect Manx culture.

There is a distinct gap in the local market for contemporary, quirky and fun souvenirs. We're fortunate to have plentiful unique and wondrous elements to provide inspiration – the scope is huge! Tapping into that opportunity is a strong foundation for a creative business.

Photo by Katy Mitchell

What kind of support has there been for your business whilst you've been on the Island?

There are some brilliant opportunities for creative businesses to access financial support. For my first year's tenancy in this studio, the Arts Council approved a grant to cover 50% of the rent, followed by 25% in the second year. The Artists Studio Policy provides relief for cash flow (and therefore some peace of mind!), a particular help in the first months of trading. Financial assistance can be a great source of empowerment for creatives; relieve some monetary pressure and creativity will thrive.

The Council have also approved several other grants: they've helped me attend three different off-island conferences, funded the material costs for an exhibition at Noa Bakehouse, covered postage costs to participate in off-island exhibitions, and supported a mentorship with an established London-based ceramicist by providing travel expenses.

I also benefitted from the Small Business Start Up Scheme (since revised to the Micro Business Grant Scheme). I qualified for both the equipment grant (a £1500 match) and living allowance (£50 a week for 30 weeks – another £1500!), supported by an 18 month mentorship. The mentor relationship was almost as valuable as the funding - someone to run ideas past, to discuss what I'd achieved, what goals I wanted to set, and I was obliged to keep up with my accounts! Looking back or forwards to a three month period sounds simple, but not many of us do it and it's incredibly helpful.

Retailers such as Manx National Heritage have also been great supporters of my practice. Based on my previous work, they agreed to stock my designs before I'd even moved into the studio or started production! It was a great show of faith in my work, for which I'm deeply grateful.

Photo by Katy Mitchell

How easy do you think it is to pursue an Arts based career on the Isle of Man?

Pursuing a career in the arts is a demanding commitment, regardless of location. It requires discipline and tenacity. This path is not for the faint-hearted.

I worked very, very hard to save money in the six months before launching my business. Seven days a week, driving to some of the furthest points of the Island for various jobs. I washed dishes in a tiny, freezing kitchen two or three days a week, managed a clothing and homewares online shop two and a half days a week, and assisted a picture framer one day a week, whilst preparing my business plan and arranging logistics in any spare moment. Honestly, I lived with my Dad for the first year. I'm fortunate and grateful for his support in that, though at the time we both found it challenging! My Mum offered a loan – which I paid back – to enable me to start production in time to take advantage of that year's Christmas season. My work ethic coupled with support from family and employers enabled me to save a lump sum to purchase equipment and materials, plus create a cushion for my cash flow.

It took two years of squeezing studio time in-between those casual jobs, often working early mornings and late nights, skipping social commitments and continuing to save hard before I could gradually let go of the various jobs and commit as a full-time potter. It's by no means easy. I work long weeks, no one can cover me on a sick day, holidays are difficult to take. I adore my job, I see the privilege I have in it, but I don't want to encourage any romantic notions of the trajectory of my business' 'success'. Grants alone cannot fund an arts practice.

Photo by Katy Mitchell

What tips do you have for anyone keen to work in Ceramics and indeed any Arts based career on the Island?

Study, travel and work off-island before returning to the Isle of Man to establish an arts practice, then keep looking outwards and think globally. Use social media to share your work to a world-wide audience, and follow artists around the globe to explore the fullest potential of your medium. The Island is undoubtedly a nurturing environment, but has its gilded-cage moments. The Arts Council travel bursaries – covering expenses to participate in events or access training not available on the Island – are an ideal antidote, providing an excellent resource for Manx creatives to attend conferences or exhibit work further afield. Stay restless and hungry, travel whenever possible and bring those experiences home to inspire you and others in the creative community.

Photo by Deb Turk

You can browse Katy's latest range of ceramic tableware and decorations at the annual Christmas in the Yard event held at Lower Bishop's Court Farm this weekend, 25th and 26th November. The event will also feature vintage furniture and home ware from Pinewood Studio, handmade clothing and soft furnishings by Jenny from Reap what you Sew as well as homemade refreshments from Flo the Coffee Van.

Stay up to date with all of Katy's news and latest products:
Instagram @katymitchellceramics

More information about the Micro Business Grant Scheme can be found here.

More information about Isle of Man Arts Council funding can be found here.

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Rheynn Ynsee, Spoyrt as Cultoor
Isle of Man Government
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Isle of man Government