Meet the maker and small business owner of Hand & Fire Ceramics – Sage Cortez. Her career path story will inspire you! Read how she’s overcome set-backs in her business, has learned to say “no” to work that doesn’t suit her, and what’s next for Hand & Fire Ceramics.
THE EARLY DAYS
Describe your childhood in one word. Shifting
Describe your childhood personality in one word. Shy
When you were a little girl what career did you dream of having “when you grow up”?
Baby bunny babysitter!
What was your first job?
Tearing down walls in a 100+ year home with my father.
THE LEARNING YEARS
Where did you attend college?
Pacific NW College of Art; Bachelors of Fine Art in Sculpture
What was your first job out of college?
Relocating to St. Helens and remodeling my partner and I’s 99-year-old home’s lower level into my first workplace for Hand & Fire! I really jumped into making straight out of school. I also continued working at the cafe I’ve been at for four straight years of weekends.
List your jobs until you started your own business.
- Demolition and clean up for my father’s construction company
- Tutoring students in reading
- Claire’s Accessories sales(girl) (I was 15.)
- Outdoor school counselor
- Na Hoku Jewelry gift wrapper
- Studio Maintenance
- Busser at Breakfast Cafe
- Waitress at Breakfast Cafe (2014-present)
- Waitress at Thai Dinner restaurant
- Home & Rental cleaning for my mom’s business
- Hand & Fire Ceramics
THE ENTREPRENEURIAL YEARS
What year did you decide to start your own business? 2015
Why did you decide you wanted to start your own business?
I’ve always been encouraged to forge my own path and engage with what inspired me. Starting H&F was an inevitable step in my obsession with clay.
How is your business different today than when you first started?
When pushed by my professor to create a dinnerware set, I was hooked on functional wares immediately. Hand & Fire was started as a dedication towards one medium and a practicing of skills, not at all with a business model in mind. Today, I sell worldwide, I teach workshops, own my own studio in the old town of St. Helens, and interact with communities of people I never thought I’d be apart of. I’m proud to say H&F has exceeded my expectations.
What three lessons have you learned running your own business?
Be kind to your emotions—when that whole kiln explodes, take your deserved quick cry, wipe your tears, and get going—you have pots to make! Accept failure as a clean slate to pick up, start again, and make something better.
Don’t overload yourself. Take time to appreciate your work and enjoy the process. Better work comes from those who are happy to be making it, not those crunching to get it done.
Say no! If you aren’t interested in a job, a trade, or a piece you are making, feel free to pass it along. Something we were always reminded in school is that as an artist you will constantly be asked to do work you’re not suited for. Instead of gritting your teeth and making something you stress every inch of, recommend a maker who would enjoy and be good for the work! That person will not only appreciate you passing their name along but in the future, they will recommend you for skill/style/etc appropriate jobs. Be supportive of your fellow creatives!
What’s next for your business? Top 3 goals.
- Teach a workshop in my space.
- Make 100x of my 10 favorite pots to see that accumulation of work in one place. (This has been a vision for a while now.)
- Start a how-to-handbuild video series or book.
What’s your strongest skill set that’s helped you succeed?
Determination! Just. Keep. Going. You’re going to struggle at times and fly at others—just know that when a good phase ends, you’ll be in the ups of the next. Take the fluctuation as a way to keep your process moving and new. The good will always outweigh the bad or stressful.
On this journey, who have been your three most supportive people?
My artist partner Joshua Hughes (@joshuahughesartist), my parents, and my four-legged best friend, Chai—it might seem silly, but that dog has seen the best and worst of me, and his unconditional love has kept me going even in the dullest moments. He reminds me that a day still goes on even in a disaster because you know what? The normal, easy routines like putting food in a dish or water in a bowl for something that relies on you are going to need to happen. Sometimes something as simple as a walk around the corner can refresh your creative energy.
THE BUMPS IN THE ROAD
Have you had any hardships or setbacks in your business or personal life?
Oh, of course. Who hasn’t?
- Kiln of 50 mugs for a custom time-sensitive order all shattered? Check.
- Boxes of original work being lost or broken in transit? Check.
- An angry customer of one of my classic “Wobble Mugs” being “wobbly”. oh my, check.
How did you overcome them – did they make you stronger or learn something new?
In the case of a ceramic disaster, I pick myself up, put my apron on, and start again. I work best under stress, so it actually weirdly helps me to have an impending deadline.
When it’s a customer upset about an item or my decision to not work on their project, it often feels incredibly personal. Because the art we make is so connected to us and loved by us makers, it can really hurt when someone is upset with it. But like any retail job I’ve had, I’ve learned that while they may think so, the customer is not always right. Sometimes their own struggles are being directed at me, so I’ve learned to take their words with a grain of salt. I try my best to relax the situation and work it out fairly.
ALL ABOUT YOU
Did you always dream of owning your own business or was it a surprise on your career path?
Total surprise! I knew I didn’t enjoy being an employee, but I didn’t think I’d be my own boss.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
Houseplants, cleaning and reorganizing my house (a tad OCD, but I enjoy it believe it or not), photography, coffee and microbrew beer enjoyment
Describe your career path to-date in one word? Exciting!
Favorite charity? Planned Parenthood
Age you’d like to retire at? From pottery? Never. From full-time making? 60.
Travel location on your bucket list? Italy
Introvert or Extrovert? Introvert mostly.
Night owl or early bird? Definitely early bird.
Favorite podcast, YouTube channel, or blog?
Podcast: My Favorite Murder
Favorite business book?
The Third Industrial Revolution, Jeremy Rifkin
Favorite business tool?
Three female entrepreneurs you admire:
- Beth Kirby
- Bella Karragiannidis
- Eva Kosmas Flores
Like reading career path stories? Sign-up for the Her Own Path Insider below.