We had the good fortune of connecting with MaryMar Keenan and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi MaryMar, as a parent, what have you done for you children that you feel has had the most significant impact?
I have 2 kids. My daughter is 10 and my son is twelve. I’ve been making pottery for over 20 years and they have grown up in my clay studio. MMclay is my third business in clay and my kids were 2 and 4 when I started developing MMclay. As an artist, it’s extremely important to me that my kids find ways to express their own creativity. As a business owner, I want them to know that being creative and successful, takes hard work but that believing in what you do and doing it well is essential. My kids see how hard I work, but they know how important my work is to me and they know how important my team is to me. Beyond teaching them the importance of handmade, I hope that I am teaching them the importance of ingenuity, creativity, resilience, determination, kindness and of course design. Admittedly, I would love for them to work along side me one day, but of course I want them to pursue their own dreams. I can’t wait to see what they do.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I am immensely proud that I have been able to build and sustain a successful business from the ground up producing unique, made-to-order pieces in a city as dynamic as San Francisco. In 2015, I was given the opportunity to design and make almost 2000 custom pieces out of a small studio behind a coffee shop. This is where MMclay emerged. I now have a phenomenal production studio along with a brick and mortar retail counterpart housed in an iconic Airstream, both of which are located in vibrant Hayes Valley, SF. With the help of my talented team, we now produce five separate lines of handmade wares for restaurants and homes all over the world.
I’ve considered myself an artist from a very early age, but I was first introduced to ceramics specifically as a college student. I haven’t left the medium since. Clay has an unmistakable allure and I have been wholeheartedly captivated since we first became acquainted way back when. To say that the tradition and relevance of handmade pottery moves and inspires me, would be an understatement. I regularly reflect on the vessel’s place in history. Doing justice to that legacy is something that as a ceramic artist and a potter, I do not take lightly. I recently read the following quote in an article and am thinking of having it painted on my studio wall as it demonstrates my feelings about the relevance of functional ceramics.
“Pottery is a place, folded and fired. It is soil, stone, flora, topography, climate, massaged by human tradition and technique.”
-Cameron Allan McKean
Pottery is not only about form and function, but also energy. It can easily change the very experience we have of a moment, be that a meal, a glass of evening wine, a morning coffee or a warm bowl of soup. A well crafted plate has the ability to lend meaningful reflection to a meal. It elevates an otherwise potentially routine experience to something more significant. The right piece can alter the very taste of what it holds, with both aesthetics and intention. Great ceramics quite literally bring art to the table for our collective comfort and utter enjoyment, whether we mean for it to or not.
Cups are my most favorite object to make. They are the most personal. The very act of cradling a cup tight in one’s hand is an intimate experience in itself. Whether it’s used in a morning routine each day or in the evening as part of a more serene experience, a cup becomes entwined with our daily rhythms and personal story. It consoles as a close companion might. Making pottery for people to enjoy in their everyday life evokes a quiet exchange between the maker and the user. It is this conversation (or energy) that excites me.
While there are many plateware choices in today’s market, what sets MMclay apart is that every piece continues to be meticulously handmade. It is a laborious and time intensive process but one that distinguishes MMclay from the many alternatives. Made-to-order ceramics are ultimately well worth the wait and the investment on so many different levels. I often say that each piece is not complete until it is in use. That’s when it’s worth becomes truly recognized.
As far as the challenges and lessons learned along the way, naturally there has been an abundance of both. MMclay is my third entrepreneurial pursuit in clay, and thankfully the most successful yet. However building a small, niche, handmade business in the heart of an exceedingly expensive city like San Francisco, is admittedly much like swimming upstream in a torrential current. With a “learn as I go” mentality, it has been imperative to think outside the box.
I wanted a storefront in one of the most expensive and bustling neighborhoods in the city, so I bought a vintage, 1964 Airstream trailer and converted it into a retail shop. When I needed a bigger studio space and kiln to meet production demands, I ran a Kickstarter and developed a strategy that far surpassed the goal that I originally set. Just two years after opening that new studio, I am now already at a point where I need more space. Yet again, a challenge is presenting the opportunity to meet the moment with both enthusiasm and ingenuity. Stay tuned to see how this pans out. I am still trying to figure it out myself, but rest assured, I will.
The last 7 years have been some of the trickiest, but most rewarding years of my life. Having to negotiate the delicate evolution of both my children and business simultaneously has been a precarious balancing act. At this point, I am incredibly proud to be able to model what the successful outcome of hard work looks like to my kids. I’ve also learned not to take good employees for granted. Turnover is hard and costly in the end. I want my employees to earn livable, equitable wages and want them to feel appreciated for the invaluable work that they do. My hope is that I have facilitated an inspiring and supportive place for them.
Above all, I’ve learned to roll with the punches. After several attempted break-ins, vandalism to both spaces, a destructive studio fire amidst an unprecedented pandemic, plus some other similarly daunting challenges, the lesson I have extracted is simply to “keep on keepin’ on”. I’m not sure if it is resilience, plain stubbornness or the fact that this is simply where my heart is most invested, but I believe in what MMclay is and the importance of handmade pottery enough to stay committed. I am confident that I will be able to continue to bring beautiful handmade pieces to those desiring them, largely because my clients and customers are so supportive and resonate with my work. Thankfully they recognize its importance in their lives, homes and businesses. That is the very essence of why I do what I do.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
It is seemingly impossible to narrow down the Bay Area, which is precisely its allure. SF itself is a city in perpetual metamorphosis, consistently reinventing itself and offering up fresh places and spaces. We are so spoiled with amazing options and even after two decades, I still feel so grateful to live here. I love the rugged coastline, infamous music scene, endless wine and culinary variety, etc.
I live with my family in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach with breathtaking coastal views directly out our front door. Lands End is only a few blocks from our house and my favorite highlight along that stunning hike is Mile Rock Beach. I would absolutely include this on any itinerary. Starting on the top of the rugged cliffs overlooking the Golden Gate, you descend down a steep, winding, natural staircase which opens onto a vast stretch of secluded beach and wild surf. It is Northern California at its finest. Then there is Golden Gate Park with its myriad of surprises from buffalo, to bright pink magnolia trees and towering eucalyptus groves. From the Japanese Tea Gardens to the DeYoung Museum, the park offers more variety than one could dive into over an entire month.
I can’t imagine any itinerary that I plan that didn’t include some classic hallmarks such as a show at the historic Fillmore, The Independent, or the open-aired Greek Theatre in the Berkeley foothills. Any of these can be preceded by a Mission style burrito at Taqueria Cancun (my personal favorite) or a ridiculously delicious dinner at The Progress, A16, Sorrel, Rich Table, or Nopa…I mean, the list of my favorites goes on and on. I prefer to sit at the bar.
Another scenic must do would be the curvy journey over majestic Mt Tamalpias into the quaint, seaside town of Bolinas. Bolinas is a quirky town populated by artists, eccentrics and hippies that have lived there for generations. The sense when there is that you really are at the edge of the world. The short, one hour drive from SF to Bolinas typifies my love for California. It doesn’t hurt that my husband Bo lived here for the first two years of our relationship. It undoubtedly holds a pretty special place in my heart. The windy ascent through the serenity of deep woods, the expansive arc of breathtaking Stinson Beach and the wide lagoon that connects to Bolinas, are all views that never tire.
Travel a bit further north and you can escape into the smaller sanctuaries and welcoming towns of Pt. Reyes, Inverness and Olema, which nestle up to the edge of Tamales Bay. It’s pretty special there “over the hill”.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
There are several people who come to mind as deserving special credit within my story and, without which, MMclay conceivably might not exist. Not to be trite, but my exceedingly supportive and loving husband, Bo Carper, deserves the most robust shoutout! Bo and I have been together for over 20 years, the vast majority of which we have been actively supporting each other throughout our artistic endeavors, his as a musician and mine as a clay artist and entrepreneur.
MMclay is the third ceramic-centered business that I have founded within those 20 years. Bo has been a beacon of encouragement, a loving vote of confidence, and a remarkably understanding partner throughout each of them. He continues to be a creative inspiration, technical advisor, and beneficial sounding board. At this point, he is almost as emotionally and physically invested in the business as I am. Countless long days and late nights in the studio aside, there is a deep, mutual respect for the dedication each of us brings to our respective passions. We absolutely share the same reverence for creativity and certainly recognize the value of it in our personal lives and within our family. I’d like to believe that Bo and I are each other’s biggest fans.
Our kids were just 2 and 4 years old when I started developing MMclay, perhaps slightly sooner than I would ideally have planned. It was then that Stuart Brioza, an award winning chef in San Francisco, offered me the opportunity to create a line of plateware for his new project, The Progress. I simply couldn’t turn down such a rare chance. Pouring myself into my work with two little ones at home was tricky. In fact, negotiating an opportune balance continues to be a challenge. In retrospect, the decision to collaborate on that project was incredibly pivotal and the Progress Collection continues to serve as MMclay’s flagship line. A huge enthusiastic shoutout to Chef Stuart is absolutely necessary. He provided me with an auspicious opportunity that led to the evolution of MMclay.
Similarly, I need to give Loring Sagan my genuine acknowledgement and a sizable shoutout as well. Loring allowed me the opportunity to build and utilize a ceramic studio in the back of the garage within his building. Without his generosity, the struggle to maintain a studio in the heart of San Francisco would have been next to impossible. For years and still to this day I refer to him as my “Art Angel”, and I am so grateful to Loring for his support and for giving me the fortuitous chance to kick start my business in that space.
There are a handful of others that have been integral in my story and many more that have inspired me as a woman and as an artist, but for now I will devote one last shoutout to my loving parents. My dad instilled in me at an early age that I’m capable of anything I put my mind to. That bolster of confidence has been formative in fostering the resilience and tenacity that being an entrepreneur has required. So a heartfelt shoutout to my parents. Thanks for showing me how it’s done.
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