CONNECT – An Interview with McQueen Pottery founder Leanne McQueen
If you haven’t yet heard of McQueen Pottery, I’m excited to introduce you. This small pottery shop near the mountains of east Tennessee is quickly earning its spot as a southern maker. Just a few minutes away from my home in Knoxville, McQueen Pottery makes its studio in the quaint town of Maryville, Tennessee.
The founder and ceramicist, Leanne Moe-McQueen, was enjoying a successful graphic design career when she decided to go in a different direction. Driven by her passion for pottery, Leanne feels that the tableware we use on a daily basis deserves to have the same care and thought put into it that would go into a well-cooked meal.
Since starting the shop in 2013, she has grown to work with renowned chefs in the Southeast including Joseph Lenn and Sarah Steffan (they also work with Blackberry Farm). In fact, Blackberry Farm serves many of its world-renowned meals on a custom McQueen line that’s literally created with ash from the hearth in the resort’s barn!).
I was fortunate to sit down with Leanne McQueen and ask her a few questions. I’m always intrigued by creative folks, especially those who have gone “all in” to pursue their passions and make their art. I hope you enjoy hearing more from this incredible southern maker!
Kate: Where are you from?
Leanne: I grew up in North Dakota, and I consider both Tennessee and ND my home. My daughter Ollie and I spend the month of July in North Dakota with my family, and I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to do this. But, the rest of the year I spend in Tennessee where I have built my own family, a business, and have a great community around me.
K: Can you share a little bit about your background and what made you want to be an artist?
L: I have always had an obsession with setting the table since I was a little girl. My grandma and mother always had the china hutches full of cups, saucers, plates, serving pieces and I loved to rifle through them and find my favorites. As a child, I never sat still and was into everything. To tame down my wild spirit, my mom put me in every activity she could when I was growing up. I remember taking pottery classes in the summer at the University of North Dakota when I was 8 or 9 and loving the responsiveness to the material and how physical it was. That was my first interaction with clay. Fast forward 10 years or so, and I was taking a class on the pottery wheel. At that time, I thought I wanted to study painting, and was taking all of my studio art classes to fill my requirement for my BFA. I wish I could say that I sat down at the wheel, and BAM that was it…..Nope, I was awful at it. Clay is something that takes patience and at 19, that was something that I lacked. I scraped my way through the course, and towards the end of it I got to help and watch the kilns being fired. And that was it….I loved the technical aspects, the preciseness, the fire and I knew this is what I wanted.
K: Who was the biggest influence in your life/Who encouraged you to hone your creative spirit?
L: My parents. I come from a large loving family that I am grateful for every day.
K: What is the biggest challenge you face as a creative entrepreneur?
L: Time management. I would love to sit at the wheel all day or play with creating new forms and shapes but running a business takes time and commitment.
K: What is the best advice you have for other women who would like to pursue a full-time career as a creative solopreneur?
L: Just jump in and go for it. After graduating from college in 2009, I was making my way in the world as a potter (not an easy feat) in an old brownstone building that I had bought in downtown Maryville. The top two floors were apartments (we lived in one and rented the other), and the bottom was an old barbershop with 5 sinks. To say the least, it was perfect for a pottery. In 2012, after three years in the old shop I made the decision to go back to graduate school when an opportunity came along that I could not pass up. My neighbor came over, knocked on my door and told me that the printing shop next door (it had been there since the 60’s) was closing its doors and they wanted to know if I wanted the space. I talked it over with my husband, and decided that I needed to do this. My small shop of 750 square feet was being upgraded to a studio of 3750 square feet. We thought I would pour everything into it for five years and then we could reevaluate after that. I opened up the teaching school of Studio 212 in the 2012 and founded McQueen pottery in 2014 and I am never looking back. My advice is to grow slow, thoughtfully, and honestly. Surrounded yourself with a community of creative artists, work with people you love, consider yourself lucky to enjoy what you do everyday.
K: What do you do when you are feeling stagnant or in a creativity desert?
L: Honestly, I watch Antique Roadshow. I know, I know….it is my guilty pleasure. It is the story, the province, that turn an everyday object into a important part of our history. Looking at a dove tail joint from an early New England piece of furniture gives me an idea for a new foot. Or the fat rim of a Grueby pot with it’s thick unctuous glaze gives me an idea for a new form, or the pull on a high boy dresser can give me an idea for a new handle. I really think I will make it as an appraiser on the show one day. I think I would like to do early furniture, or decorative objects (in case Antique Roadshow is looking).
K: What is your favorite southern city?
L: I love Charleston. The food, the architecture, the feel…If it was not so damn hot, I might move there.
K: What is your favorite southern saying?
L: I really like “Bless their heart.” No matter what you say about something or someone, as long as you say “well, Bless their heart” afterwards all seems to be forgiven.
K: What’s your favorite way to spend a Saturday?
L: With my family in the mountains hiking or on the river.
K: What was the last great book you read?
L: I just finished “The Botany of Desire.” It is a look at four plants, and their evolution into the plants we have come to know today.
I also chatted with Leanne about how she is seeing more and more brides choose handmade pottery over traditional wedding china for their registry. She says modern brides are likely to inherit multiple sets of china from their mothers and grandmothers, so something more personal to them is seen as a great option. A bride-to-be can set up a wedding registry for all her favorite McQueen Pottery pieces by contacting the studio through its website.
McQueen pottery is perfect for any home, offering all the main essentials for the table. Products have a timeless, comfortable, welcoming, and un-fussy aesthetic (much like that which we embrace in other aspects of life here in East Tennessee).
Currently, McQueen Pottery is available wholesale, in the Maryville studo, and online.
Leanne was so gracious to let me visit her studio and snoop around. It has the most wonderful atmosphere, with other artists working in a variety of other mediums, and everyone seemed to be part of the creative process. Stay tuned for more to come from this great southern maker!
[All images courtesy Heather Anne Thomas – Beall + Thomas Photography]