Emily Reinhardt’s Halcyon Days: An Artist Comes Home
The story of Kansas City-based ceramic artist Emily Reinhardt begins like this: she graduated from Kansas State University with a BFA in ceramics, stayed in the college town of Manhattan, Kansas for two years, and then moved to Wichita for six months before heading to Omaha for a relationship. “We have since gone our separate ways,” she says, openly and without melancholy. Ironically enough, Reinhardt’s journey in the arts led her back to where she started: her hometown of Kansas City. “I wanted to go where I felt my business would thrive instead of following someone else. I think we all have one of those stories where we’ve gone after someone.”
Today, she is the artisan behind her own Etsy-acclaimed ceramics shop, The Object Enthusiast, selling uniquely crafted ring dishes, miniature planters, mugs, cups and more. It was in Omaha that Reinhardt was able to jumpstart her career as a working artist. She rented a house with a basement that doubled as a studio, and while there weren’t many retail stores or art fairs, the advent of Etsy made it possible for her to begin an online shop. “When I moved, I told myself, ‘I’m going to try really hard not to get another job,’ even though I probably wasn’t quite ready for that leap” she says.
Now back in Kansas City, a decade after leaving it, she tells me how she spends most of her time these days: tending to thick slabs of wet clay and all their visceral beauty.
When you were starting out, how did you balance your creative interests and paying your bills?
I waited tables at night, and I was also a social media coordinator for a bank. I did a lot of side jobs, but was strategic in picking jobs that had flexible hours and allowed me to make work on the side. After school no one wants to say, “I’m waiting tables full time.” But that is what helped me launch what I really wanted to do. I worked at a casual deli and a bar at night in the college town where I lived, where locals would go. I was there every day serving lunch and doing some night shifts, too. I still keep in touch with some of the regulars. They were there when I said, “I think I’m going to be a ceramics major.” And they were like, “What?” So now it’s exciting to get to tell them that it worked, and that I’m doing it. I still think fondly of those days. I think everyone should wait tables. It’s a tough gig, depending on who you’re waiting on.
How did Etsy change your business?
A couple of weeks after I moved to Omaha, Etsy ran a front-page feature story on me. That was truly the moment that launched my business. It was a matter of one or two years after school when my online business started thriving. In art school, no one told me that was a possibility. So I hadn’t planned on this, and I wasn’t working towards it because I didn’t think it was going to happen. But Etsy was big for me at the right moment. It’s kind of amazing what happened in just a short period of time, with the possibility of selling artwork.
At first I was just selling work that I had made in college—I was really tired of moving it from apartment to apartment. And then I had access to a studio again and I thought, “Well … what can I make now?” I worked really hard, but I also got lucky with the timing.
It’s very human to assign value to an object, isn’t it?
It’s why I want to make things. I have several pieces made by one of my former teachers, Professor Yoshi Ikeda. He passed away a couple of years ago. To have his work—and I have accumulated old pieces of his that are worth some money—to me it’s worth it that it’s his, and his signature is on the bottom. I open my cupboard for a cup of coffee, and I often see the maker before I see the cup. I think, “Oh, that’s a Yoshi cup.” I reach for a cup and think of that person, instead of just a cup. I tend to attach value to normal things, and then they’re much more special. Coffee tastes better out of a cup that a friend made.
What has been the importance of mentors in your journey, and what did they teach you?
Professor Yoshi is a huge part of my journey. Two years after I finished school he and his wife were moving to Portland, and he gave me his kiln, his wheel, glazes and a bunch of studio equipment. He told me, “You worked the hardest out of all of your classmates, and I think you deserve this stuff.” There’s no way I would be doing this if he hadn’t given me those tools. He is the whole reason I’m doing this. I wish I could tell him that. He’s a special guy—he was really a jokester, very sarcastic, and gave tough love. He’d say things during class like, “You guys better marry rich, or else you won’t be able to make pots after school.” It’s funny—I’m single. But that is part of the starving-artist mentality.
Another thing he taught me was to make tons of stuff. Make the bad stuff, and make lots of it. Eventually it’s going to be good. He was in the studio all the time, even when his health was failing him. He worked in the same room as I worked. Sometimes on weekends I’d be the only one in there with him, and we’d just talk and make work. Just working next to him taught me a lot—not necessarily talking, or having those heart-to-heart moments. He worked really hard, all the way up until the end of his life. Teaching, I think, is a really selfless thing to do as an artist because you’re taking time away from your practice to help others. It’s a special gift.
Photographs by Attilio D’Agostino