Today we’d like to introduce you to Monica Leap.
Monica, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I have been throwing on the pottery wheel since 2003, and have not stopped since. I have a BFA in Ceramic Arts from Syracuse University, with a minor in Entrepreneurship (though I started off majoring in Art Education), and hold a Masters in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. At Chapel Hill, I studied Downtown revitalization, Community Development, and Public Art, among other things. I’ve attended workshops, classes, and have worked at different art centers around the country, and spent a year as a winter resident at the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in Maine.
Musings about starting a community art center began when I was in college. Though I loved working with clay and loved teaching, neither lifestyle suited me. Working as a studio potter seemed solitary and working in a traditional school setting seemed stifling. I decided that opening a community art center was the right mix of my interests and my personality – the independence of owning my own business, inspired by the community of other makers, and fortified by the opportunity to share my love of the craft with others.
Studio 550 Community Art Center came to NH because of family. I grew up in Nashua, NH and my family was still in the state when I finished school. After being away from home for what had then been all of my adult life, I wanted to spend more time with family. Anyone familiar with Tim Urban’s “Wait But Why” blog and his visualization of how much time to actually have to spend with your family as an adult will understand.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Is starting a business ever a smooth road? Starting and growing a business can be hard, but I sincerely love what I do, so it’s all fun. Any challenges are problems to be solved and to learn from, and it’s a constant work in progress. In general, though the years of work that went into rehabbing the old mill building were quite arduous, since opening the studio we have been incredibly fortunate. We’ve had some students who have been with us since we opened, and some of them have transitioned into a staff. We have had several of our teachers for years, and hope to keep them as part of the studio for a long time to come.
We held our first pottery class in January 2013, and back then, I taught almost all the classes, while handling marketing, customer service, bookkeeping, and everything else that goes into the front and back end of running a business. That was tough in its own way, but since the Studio started with quite literally close to nothing, it is what it had to be. Having my first child in late 2014 forced me to understand that asking for help is not only good for me but good for the business as well. There were people out there who were excited to be a part of the space and culture we had built. We’ve been fortunate to attract very good people, and these folks have contributed so much to what Studio 550 has become.
It has been wonderful to work in a space that welcomes my child, but, as any parent can attest to, it is tough to find a balance between work that you love and being present for the family that you love as well. I’ve learned it’s a disservice to my child as well as my students to try to teach a pottery lesson one-handed with a crying infant in my lap. Now, expecting a second child in 2018, Studio 550 is in the midst of another transition to streamline internal functions and possibly take on a manager. It’s exciting.
Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Studio 550 Community Art Center – what should we know?
Studio 550 Art Center connects people and creates community through the arts. It is a place of joy, laughter, and growth!
We are an art center for those who don’t know they are artists yet. Beginners are welcome in all classes, workshops, and events we offer. We also provide a variety of opportunities for emerging or established artists. I am so delighted by the community that has developed in support of the studio. That wonderfully diverse, nurturing, and friendly community is one of the many elements that sets us apart. (Like I said, pottery tends to attract good people!)
Though we are primarily a pottery studio, we also have a stained glass studio, 2-D drawing and painting studio, and a movement studio that is rented by dance instructors. Classes and workshops in all these subjects are offered year-round. One of our most popular workshops is the “Date Night in the Pottery Studio” which we host every Friday and Saturday Night. It’s a crash course on how to throw on the pottery wheel that you and a friend/family member/partner can enjoy together. Even though we call it a date night, it is really just a chance to do something fun with someone else you enjoy.
Another element that sets us apart from other clay spaces in the area is that students are allowed to come in and practice working on the wheel outside of their class. Many other spaces charge extra for that privilege, and since we really want students to learn while they are with us, we encourage them to get as much studio time in as they can.
We are also one of the only spaces in the area that offers an Open Clay Studio Membership. People who have experience in a clay studio (even if it is not ours) can use our studio to make their work. It can be difficult to set up a clay studio in one’s own home, due to equipment costs, the mess, and the space required. Some of our current members are hobby potters, some are past students, and some are people trying to grow their ceramics business. It is beneficial for completely new students to sit next to one with several years of experience, and vice versa. Students teach other students just as teachers teach students.
Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
Can I thank every person who has walked into the studio over the years? There are too many people to name. We are built on word of mouth and by the community that surrounds us and supports us. There are students who have been with us since we opened. It’s been great to have them as part of the space. We are all still learning together.
When we started to add staff in 2014, the community and culture of the studio just exploded! Many of the staff and teachers have been with us for years, but I would also thank the people who only worked here briefly, as they have all made an impact on our space. The teachers are all very knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and the staff are innovative and equally amazing. We are fortunate to work together so well!
Finally, no thanks would be complete without mention of family. I grew up in an entrepreneurial family of self-starters. If it weren’t for that exposure, I don’t know if I would have decided to build the space for this community of artists and makers to grow. My parents fled a war-stricken communist Cambodia in the 1980s. They started their lives over, with no money, no language comprehension, and a son not even a year old, in hopes of a better life for their children. As a first-generation American, I’ve grown up with a desire to build communities in hopes that people would not feel the need to leave.
With a background as a studio potter and dancer, art has become the way I create community. They’ve all given business council and advice when needed. My Husband and daughter have encouraged me to think creatively about how the business is structured and how it operates so that I can remain a balanced human being. My most heartfelt gratitude goes out to all these folks, friends, and family.
- Open Clay Studio Membership ($115 1-month unlimited access)
- Date Night in the Pottery Studio ($60 for a couple)
- Stained Glass 1-day Workshop ($45 per person)
- 10-week Pottery Class ($250 per person)
- 10-week Stained Glass Class ($260 per person)
- Address: 550 Elm Street, First Floor
Manchester, NH 03101
- Website: https://www.550arts.com
- Phone: 603.232.5597
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/studio550/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Studio550ArtCenter/
Getting in touch: BostonVoyager is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.