By Emma Kent // Photos by Lauren Wood
This time last year, Charis Brightwell wasn’t sure what would become of Taproot Pottery, a small business she’d been working on starting up from her backyard studio in Starkville.
One August night, Brightwell, her husband, Jordan, and their daughter put some pieces of pottery in the kiln and left the house for the evening. Not long after they left, they got a call from a neighbor. The shed that housed Brightwell’s studio had caught fire.
By the time they returned the fire department had arrived, but the shed was unsalvageable. It burned to the ground. Luckily, the family’s home was untouched.
“That was really heartbreaking and scary,” Brightwell said.
So the couple got to work rebuilding the studio. The building is still a work in progress, but they got enough done that a few months after the fire, Brightwell was back to work throwing, glazing and firing her original pottery pieces. But the rebuilding process didn’t come without its share of uncertainty.
“After the fire, I was so discouraged and scared to pursue a home studio again,” Brightwell said. “I prayed that the studio wouldn’t come up again unless it was something God would push forward and take pleasure in.”
Things started falling into place. Between insurance money and a GoFundMe started by her sister, the Brightwells had enough money to rebuild the studio and even make it better than it was. Then, a friend of Brightwell’s gifted her with a new pottery wheel to replace the one she lost in the fire, along with some tools and glazes.
“It was rebuilt out of the generosity of so, so many,” Brightwell said. “There was no denying that God was using others to push it forward when He knew I was too discouraged and fearful to push it forward myself.”
Back on track
More than a year after the fire, Brightwell’s studio is brimming with mugs, bowls, platters and other pieces. Natural light pours through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the new studio, and a loft Jordan built is decked out in string lights, the perfect spot for their oldest daughter, Rivers, to play.
In the past year, Brightwell has worked hard to build Taproot Pottery. She’s been selling her pieces at local events and markets as well as showcasing her work on Instagram (@taproot_pottery). Her pieces are also being sold at George-Mary’s in downtown Starkville and she’s started an Etsy shop.
Her handmade pottery pieces range from plates to mugs and wine glasses to platters and pie dishes. She’s also begun making coffee to-go cups, which aren’t typically made with clay, and they’ve been selling well.
Like the name “Taproot,” Brightwell wants her pieces to reflect the Earth with all its forms, beauty and function. That’s why her pieces are glazed in earthy colors, made perfectly imperfect around the edges and with speckled clay peeking through.
“I hope it can be a moment to feel something between your fingers that, like you and me, is dust of the Earth that has been harnessed into something beautiful and made for a purpose,” she said of using her pottery.
Finding a balance
With two young children, Rivers, 2, and Juniper, 5 months, Brightwell admits she spends a lot of time trying to figure out what a healthy work-life balance looks like for her.
“I have to take it a day at a time,” she said.
She does most of her work at night, after the girls go to bed. It’s easier for her to focus that way, she said. Although sometimes, she gets going and ends up staying up way too late.
“It’s so energizing for me,” Brightwell said of creating pottery.
Brightwell graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree in interdisciplinary studies which allowed her to combine her love of fine arts with creative writing. She began her college career studying graphic design, but with most of that work done digitally, Brightwell missed getting her hands dirty.
She’s loved working with clay since high school. Once she found out her school in Kenya (her parents were missionaries) had a ceramics studio, pottery became a way for an angst-ridden teenage Brightwell to work through her emotions in a healthy way.
“I would just spend hours and hours up there,” she said. “It was more than learning a skill or creating something — it was therapy.”
When she comes in and sits at the wheel these days, Brightwell knows what she’s making, although she wishes she had more time to experiment. Most of her pieces are made to order, but she’s working toward creating a stock for her Etsy shop of ready-to-ship items.
Brightwell said Etsy is working really well for her at this stage in her life. At first, most of her orders came from friends and family. But now she’s receiving orders from places as far away as California, Maryland and New York. She said she loves the thought of someone across the country using her mugs and plates to break bread with friends and family.
Sharing a cup of coffee or a bottle of wine, serving food to friends and family — these are the types of moments that bring us together as people.
“Those are all, to me, really intimate things, so making things that someone is using in those moments is exciting to me,” Brightwell said.
That’s the other element behind Taproot: human connectivity and rootedness. Brightwell thinks about those things often. What does is mean to be rooted? To be human? To her, it’s being connected to others through community, connected to the Earth and connected to her faith. And so when someone orders a piece of her pottery, she sends along her hope for them that it’s more than just a plate or a mug, but an opportunity to connect.