by Amy Borer
For people who want to express their creative sides without making the costly commitment of buying all the supplies, Rebecca Zenk has come up with the perfect solution: a ceramics studio where a patron can select a piece of ceramic, paint and glaze it, have it fired in a kiln and then take it home, all for a minimal price.
In 1994, Zenk turned her vision into a reality with Becca’s Color Your Own Ceramics, an alternative ceramics studio, in the Claremont Village.
“I’d done ceramics at home, just as a hobby. It was just kind of an impulse,” she said of starting her own business. “It wasn’t something that was really planned out. I just saw this place for lease and I thought, ‘That would be a great place to paint in.’ It just had a neat, airy, natural, light feel to it. I love the village of Claremont and the feel here. It’s kind of artsy. Plus, I didn’t know if this would work or not, so I didn’t want to have a huge place without knowing if it was going to fly.”
But fly it did. Now, two and a half years later, Zenk has a second, larger studio in Irvine and a new franchise company that bears the same name.
“One of the reasons I think Becca’s is successful is that I’m always thinking about it,” she said. “When my husband and I go on vacation, I’m always trying to find new and cool shapes and new colors and new techniques. I’m always introducing new products and new pieces, so that makes my customers happy too. I’m not comfortable with the status quo.”
A former segment producer for the “Home Show,” a morning talk show which gave helpful hints about decorating and cooking, Zenk started with ceramics just as a hobby.
“I went to a ceramics studio about four years ago and liked it,” she said. “I’ve always painted and always loved art. I’m a real creative type. I like to create my own things. I’m an artist in the sense that I love to paint and I love to create, but I’m not an artist in the way that I have no real formal training in art. I haven’t studied art. I don’t consider myself an artist in the way most people think of an artist, but I think we’re all artists.”
Following that philosophy, Zenk lets each patron in her studio have full reign when it comes to creating a masterpiece. While she will help guide an inexperienced painter, she does not dictate how a piece should be painted or what colors of glaze should be used.
“I don’t set any limits,” she said. “I’m not going to tell you how to paint the perfect tomato.”
What Zenk does do is explain each step of ceramic painting to her new customers and also makes herself and her staff available to answer any questions that may arise. In addition, she offers a complimentary introduction to ceramics class for novices on the last Thursday of every month.
“We go over all the basics. All the color options, all the techniques, cleaning greenware, painting on greenware verses painting on bisque, just everything,” she said. “It kind of empowers the customer when they come back to do a piece on their own. They know all their options. They walk in and feel secure with the whole thing. It’s not at all a requirement. You do not have to take the class before you come in here. It’s for the kind of people who want to read the book before they dive into something.”
In fact, most of Zenk’s patrons have not taken the class and do not have an extensive knowledge of ceramics.
“The majority of my customers know nothing about ceramics. Many of them haven’t even held a paintbrush before and they create beautiful things the first time.”
Becca’s caters to customers of all ages and experience levels, yet most of the people who come into the studio to create are adults, specifically mothers with children.
“Around the holidays I get lots of students doing gifts, but not as much as I wish,” said Zenk. “I think the college students are more into their own thing and their funds are limited. They only have bits of time here and there to do things, whereas parents are always trying to find things to do with their children, ways to entertain them, and this is healthy entertainment. It’s interactive. Instead of putting them in front of the TV, a movie or a video game, they can come here to create and use their minds.”
The good news for parents and students alike is that creating these personal pieces of artwork does not cost a pretty penny.
“You can easily come in, spend $15 or less and have a nice, medium-sized piece to take home,” Zenk explained.
Becca’s offers a large selection of ceramic pieces to choose from, ranging from $1 to $25. An average piece runs about $5 or $6.
Of all the pieces in her store, Zenk said that mugs are the best selling. Also topping the list with adults are plates, bowls, platters and vases, while children prefer jewelry boxes, picture frames and figurines.
“Little animals are popular with the children,” she said. “They love those things. I hate them, but they love them. The adults usually prefer a more functional piece.”
Zenk charges $5 an hour for patrons to paint their pieces, using her colors and glazes. The hourly rate does not include the selection and planning, only the painting.
“When you actually take your palette, fill it up with paint and start painting, that’s when your $5 an hour starts,” said Zenk.
Once a piece is painted and glazed, it is not quite ready to be taken home. The next step in the process is the firing, which Zenk or her staff completes.
“After you paint and glaze it, then you leave it here for a couple of days because it has to be fired in a kiln for 24 hours,” explained Zenk. “I have two kilns going every day and your piece goes in line to go in, so there’s usually a two to three days turn around time to get your piece back.”
All ceramic pieces at Becca’s are either bisqueware or greenware. Bisqueware are cast pieces that have been fired in a kiln once. These pieces can be painted and glazed, as previously described, and ready to be fired in one visit. Greenware, on the other hand, requires an extra step. It is dried clay that has been cast from a mold, but not fired in a kiln. The look of a piece can be changed by adding additional clay to the piece or carving into it. Greenware is then fired, painted and glazed, and fired again, therefore requiring at least two visits to Becca’s to complete.
“The bisque is more instant gratification,” said Zenk. “It’s been cleaned and fired for you, it’s ready to be painted and glazed in one sitting, you get it back in two days and boom, it’s done. Greenware takes one extra step. It’s not harder, it’s just different.”
According to Zenk, greenware, which is used by many of her regulars as well as herself, is the more versatile of the two and the colors set better on it.
While Zenk prides herself on the selection of pieces available in her studio, she realizes that she cannot carry everything, and therefore offers to special order items for her customers.
“We have anything imaginable. If it’s not on my shelves, I can order it. I always do special orders, and real out of the ordinary stuff people want I can get. I can get anything. Thousands and thousands and thousands of different pieces.
“For instance, I have two girls that needed a huge vase for a project they have due next week at one of the Claremont Colleges up here,” she explained. “They need to make it look like a Greek vase. They showed me a picture in one of their text books and I went and bought it up so they can come paint it the way they need to and turn it in for their project.”
Not only will Becca’s special order any piece of ceramic, but the studio also hosts field trips and parties.
“Even if a group of college students want to get together and have beer or wine and order pizza and just kind of make it a fun party, they can do that. They can rent out the place,” said Zenk.
“I do lots of field trips,” she added. “Lots. I’m booked with field trips. Usually the whole class comes here and they get a good lesson with clay.”
Though Zenk enjoys her work in her studio, she is ready to move on to other arenas.
“I’ve just been approved to have other people own a Becca’s, so I have a franchise company now. I have a list of prospects, other people who want to own a Becca’s. I’m going to be very picky because this is my baby and I don’t want to give it out to anyone,” she said.
“I’m more interested in helping other people and training them on how to run their own Becca’s. Working in a studio isn’t doing very much for me anymore. I’m kind of burnt out on that, but I am excited to teach other people to do it.”
Zenk is quick to point out that running her own business takes much hard work.
“It’s a lot like school,” she commented. “You never just go home and get your homework done and be done with it. It’s just always on your shoulders. That’s how owning your own business is. You never just go to work and be done. Your always asking, ‘How can I make it better? Should I order more inventory? How should I decorate the studio? How should I do my marketing? Should I do this? Who do I need to call?’ It’s always on your mind. It can be totally consuming and if you’re the kind of person who can handle that, it’s great. But if you’re the kind of person who just wants to go to work and be done and go home and forget about it, then forget it. It’s not going to happen.
“In fact, I heard a great quote the other day. ‘The only thing more overrated than owning your own business is natural child birth.'”
Even so, Zenk also acknowledges the benefits of operating a studio such as Becca’s.
“When I watch my neighbors and hear them complain about all the problems at work and all the politics and their bosses and having to get up and 6 o’clock to beat the traffic when Becca’s opens at 12 o’clock, it’s wonderful! I don’t have to deal with any of that stuff,” she said. “Yeah, I have to deal with irate customers and I have to deal with what happens when someone’s platter breaks in the kiln, but I would take that over other things any day.”
As far as future of ceramics studios such as Becca’s go, Zenk is optimistic.
“I don’t think it’s a trend. I think we’re here to stay forever.”