We had the good fortune of connecting with Nobuo Wellington (Nobu) Yuko Makuuchi and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Nobuo Wellington (Nobu), how has your work-life balance changed over time?
Work life balance? Life . . . What? We’ve been in a pandemic for the last year. There is no life, only stay at home and shelter in place. Seriously the Covid-19 pandemic has been many things; scary, maddening, frustrating, lonely at times. But in many ways covid has been a big opportunity for our burgeoning business. This question kind of ties in with your question about taking risks. When Yuko and I decided to take WM Craftworks to the next level, it meant that I would not be going back to “regular” work. It was a pretty big risk, we were no longer going to be D.I.N.K.s (double income no kids). We were becoming a single income household with the same number of bills and a lot of questions. We felt like we were taking a huge risk. But we felt like we were gambling on ourselves and somehow it felt ok . . . SCARY, but ok. You often hear people say “Start your own business and be your own boss. The reality has been start our own business and work really long hours, seven days a week. In the beginning, Yuko managed to hold down her full-time job and also continue crafting and producing her ceramic pieces for our business. There were periods of times when we would only have dinner together once a week. We had that same feeling you get when you’re young, idealistic and life is full of possibilities. We’re not that young anymore, but WM Craftworks was our baby and we were going for it. As I have converted our garage into my woodworking studio, I essentially work from home. Our dog Puna has been thrilled. Daddy’s home all day everyday or most days anyway. We call Puna the supervisor because he watches me work for his spot on the porch or strolls through the studio to make sure I’m not slacking off. He’s tough but fair. When the pandemic hit and Yuko got laid off from her full-time job things got real really fast. We lost our remaining stable income, we had to pay for our health insurance out of pocket and markets and fairs were shut down. But the pandemic has also provided us an opportunity to focus on our business in ways that we might not otherwise be able to. We spent the time building relationships, improving our website and working up new ideas for products. When I said there is no life, only stay at home and shelter in place, that in many ways has been a silver lining in what might otherwise be described as a pretty dark cloud. The social pressures were taken off. There were no parties to go to (or miss), no concerts , nobody was inviting us over for dinner. Life and work sort of melted into one thing in the best possible way. Because our market days are Saturdays and Sundays and those are frequently the days when social events happen, in non-pandemic times we aren’t able to attend many of the events that we would love to participate in. If there is something that we really want to do, we always have the luxury of choosing not to go to work as it were. However the flip side of that is no work, no income. We recently took a weekend off (not so much to relax but to build up inventory). But when I got up Monday morning and looked at our bank account the lack of sales from the weekend off was very noticeable. It’s hard right now for us to take entire days off, but sometimes we’ll knock off early, have cocktails on the porch and then enjoy a nice meal.
For me the physical parts of working long hours seven days a week or the social vs. work/life trade offs aren’t that hard to negotiate. The toughest part is the mental aspect of starting your own business. I once read a quote of Napolean in which he said “I think of my mind like a chest of drawers. Every piece of information gets placed in its appropriate drawer. When I want to sleep I just close all the drawers.” I have a hard time closing the drawers. There are many nights I’ll lie in bed trying to solve one problem or another. Sometimes I have inspired break throughs and sometimes I just get out of bed in the morning really tired.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
What sets us apart from others is what sets any artist apart from others. Every artist or craftsperson approaches their work based on their lived experience. People often comment on the strong Asian influence in our work. I don’t think it’s something we consciously try to lay onto our work. But if that’s what you’ve grown up around, that’s how you’ll see the world and approach your art. The other comment people make is that our work feels so good. Or that it’s really interesting to touch and handle. That is something that we do intentionally. Part of our philosophy is that things should be as interesting to the touch as they are to the eye. This is especially true of Yuko’s ceramics. She will glaze parts of a piece while leaving other areas unglazed. This creates both a visual texture as well as a very satisfying tactile experience. I often say that it’s really nice to allow your finger to pass from the rough unfinished surface to the smooth glassy surface. Taking in the differences in textures can almost be a kind of meditation. I think one of the hardest things for me is finding a balance between making things to take to market and learning or improving skills. I recently started setting aside the first hour of every day to practice skills I want to improve. If I want to practice cutting dovetails, I’ll take some wood out of the scrap bin and cut one set of tails and pins before I move on to the rest of my day. It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle of making for the markets. Setting aside the time to practice in the morning with out the pressure or expectation of a final result allows me to get out my own way. And it gives me the freedom to fail without worrying about wasting time and materials. I guess it’s sort of like how a musician might start their day by playing some scales and arpeggios before they move onto the rest of their day.
Yuko and I are really proud of the progress and growth we’ve made with WM Craftworks. At this point I would estimate that well over 50% of our sales, maybe as high as 70% are return customers. No artist is going to appeal to everybody, and we make no effort to do so. But the people who like our work, really like our work. Everyday we’re at the markets we’ll hear people say things like “we bought a coffee mug and my husband won’t share it, so I’m here to buy one of my own.” “I got one of your pieces a few weeks ago and I just love it. My mom’s birthday is coming up and I want to send her something of yours because I know she’ll love it too.” When people are so enthusiastic about our work, it gives us a real feeling of satisfaction.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
So our friends (let’s say Patt and Chuck, house mates from college) are coming to visit LA. A week you say? What would we do. This is a tough one because I’m kind of a homebody and tend to be a little curmudgeony (see Patt and Chuck roll their eyes “A little?”). Day one would be pretty low key. Give them a chance to unwind from their flight. Probably do a backyard cookout. I’d grill some teriyaki glazed Hawaiian style chicken, serve it with grilled pineapple and coconut rice pilaf. Day two we’d head up to Pasadena and visit the Gamble house to see that most extraordinary example of Craftsman architecture and Green and Green design. While we were in Pasadena we’d swing by the Huntington Library and botanical garden. Even though the Huntington has a lovely tea room, we’d hop in the car and head down the 110 to have lunch at Yuko Kitchen on 5th and Main. We love Yuko’s fusion take on Asian cuisine. It’s fun food at an affordable price made from fresh ingredients. After lunch we’d take a walking tour of the arts district in Little Tokyo. Finishing the day grabbing a pint at Angel City Brewery. Day Three we’d plan a day trip up to Salvang for a day of wine tasting. I’d be the designated driver because those little tastes of wine will catch up with you. We’d most definitely stop at our favorite . . . Mosby winery in Buellton. Day four, at this point Puna is mad at us for neglecting him so we’d pack a picnic and spend a relaxing day at the Huntington dog beach. Day five we’ll trek up to the Theodore Payne Plant Nursery to look at the native plant species and get some landscaping ideas for our sorely neglected yard. After we get back to the house we’d call a rideshare to take down to Torrance to do a pub-crawl of the many micro breweries in the area.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
It’s true nobody gets to where they are in life without a little help from their friends. WM Craftworks is no different in that regard. Yuko and I are truly grateful to so many people who have supported us in our creative venture. Yuko would like to shoutout two amazing ceramic artists, Carol Williams and Dora de Larios. The time spent in Carol’s kitchen drinking coffee from beautiful handcrafted cups had a huge influence on Yuko’s aesthetic vision today. Yuko was always amazed that everything in the kitchen was either made by Carol or by someone Carol knew. Carol really encouraged Yuko to start taking ceramic classes at a local community college. Sometimes Carol will send us a piece of her current work just to share what’s she’s doing. Yuko will return the box with one of her current pieces. It’s a really sweet sharing of their process. And then there’s Dora de Larios. Dora was so amazingly generous with her time, love and support of Yuko. Dora would invite Yuko to her studio and they would spend hours talking clay and glaze and tools. Sometime Dora would just say “why don’t you take a piece of clay and sit down at that wheel and throw something.” And then they would chat about throwing technique. Dora was an internationally renowned artist, who has pieces in LACMA’s permanent collection, made a set of dinner plates for the Carter White House and has installations all over the world, yet she always had time for Yuko. I would personally like to shoutout Dora’s Chile Rellenos, best I ever had. I literally can’t order Chile Rellenos in a restaurant anymore because I always say “not as good as Dora’s”. I would like to shoutout my sister Haruko Katherine Kramer and Hank Snider. All of my siblings (Fumiko, Yuriko, George and Haruko) have always been really supportive of whatever I’m doing. But Haruko gets a special shoutout because she pushed me to buy a house in 2008/9. When I say pushed, I mean she really had to push. I had been traveling in Japan and Cambodia at the end of 08 and when I got back to LA I was looking for an apartment. Haruko said “why don’t you look into buying a house.” I was like nobody is going to loan me money to buy a house. She would not let it go, “just fill out the paperwork, if the bank says no, you can always go back to looking for a rental.” Just to shut her up I put the paperwork together and lo and behold I was approved. Buying a house changed my life in so many ways. Our house is literally our base of operations. Also had I not bought the house, I wouldn’t have started buying tools and I wouldn’t be crafting today. I would also like to shout out Robert Henry Snider the proprietor of Hank’s Woodshop in Honolulu HI. Hank was one of the kindest people you will have ever met on this planet. When I was in college I would drop by Hank’s shop and just spend time hanging out. At the time I had no idea I would one day be a woodworker. I just liked watching Hank work. If he had a particularly big project, sometimes I would help do some sanding just to be in the space and watch him work. Hank was especially kind to my mother and made some really beautiful pieces for her . I didn’t start woodworking until after Hank had passed away, but not a day goes by that I don’t think of him while I’m in my shop.
Facebook: WM Craftworks
Other: You can find us in person On Saturdays at the Los Feliz Flea Market 11:00am to 5:00 pm. And Sundays at the Wellington Square Farmer’s Market 9:00am to 1:00pm.
Credit all images to WM Craftworks