Ken and McKenzie Stanley are artists who help others find the artist within.
The Stanleys own Driftwood Ceramics, a hands-on studio at 2106 Swift St. in North Kansas City that offers memberships and services to professional ceramists as well as classes for those who want to learn to throw clay.
McKenzie, a graduate of Truman State University, and Ken, a graduate of the University of Missouri, both have art degrees. While McKenzie has a deeper background in ceramics, Ken is a visual artist, graphic designer and painter. They met in Kansas City and embarked on a learning excursion that included stops in Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia.
In Los Angeles, McKenzie worked for a small studio, also owned by a husband and wife team. There she was introduced to the business side of studio ownership — accounting, promotion, teaching, operations and the like. Ken practiced his painting craft while making a living as a freelance graphic designer, working with color on canvases and computer screens.
Following a quick engagement and wedding, they moved to Australia where they expanded their networking capacity and coordinated an arts and music festival, Exodus, that emboldened them to work with other artists.
Struck by the travel bug, the Stanleys spent time exploring the world before returning to Kansas City and opening Driftwood Ceramics.
“We wanted to create something more permanent and larger than our own art,” Ken says.
They opened the doors to the roughly 1,500-square-foot studio last year on the financial backing of their own nest egg, but were strategic in setting up shop. That they are largely the only studio open to artists and the public in the Northland is not lost on the two: it’s by design.
“We wanted to respect the space and audience of other studios,” McKenzie says.
Artist Karen Merkel is a member at Driftwood, and says she’s happy to have a place where she can hone her art among other artists outside her own home.
“I like the creative side of what I do,” she says. “I don’t need to know how to run a kiln.”
The dozen or so artists who pay a monthly membership fee at Driftwood get storage space for their works in progress, pottery wheel time and inexpensive firings. Some firings are even free depending on the level of sophistication in the respective pieces’ finishes. It’s much less expensive than owning a kiln and less tedious than learning how to operate it, Merkel says.
While the studio is open to artists on their own schedule, it wasn’t until a recent sale that Merkel says she met the rest of the artists creating there.
“We’re learning how to run a studio,” McKenzie says. “They’re learning from each other.”
The Stanleys don’t just accept any artists as members, though. Interested artists must apply and pass McKenzie’s convivial interview.
“We’re looking for an understanding of ceramics,” she says. Driftwood artist-members must possess basic knowledge of the wheel, wedge clay and glazes, for example.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and The Art Career Project, tracking the earnings and number of ceramists in the U.S is difficult. But support services such as Driftwood are key to buoying the average earnings of fine artists ($53,000) by offsetting expenses inherent to the art.
In addition to nurturing and supplying resources to aspiring ceramists, the Stanleys keep the kilns hot by providing classes to novice artists and selling McKenzie’s own pieces, stock and commissioned. They say roughly half of their proceeds come from welcoming the public to the mesmerizing world of clay.
“We won a Valentine’s Day contest and my wife and I spent a romantic night spinning dirt,” says Jay Swearingen, a local realtor. “It was a very tactile experience. You get your hands dirty, you apply strength and pressure to create something. At one point though, McKenzie yelled, ‘Jay stop! It’s about to collapse.’ I was done.”
“A lot of people come in looking for perfection,” McKenzie acknowledges, “but making anything by hand is inherently flawed. There will be imperfections.”
Ken suggests the experience of throwing clay goes beyond the creative and enters the aura of the therapeutic.
“That time when they’re on the wheel is incredibly valuable for many of our customers,” he says. “When their hands are covered in clay, they can’t touch their phones. It truly is an opportunity to lose yourself.”
That unplugged experience is one that Driftwood’s members and students pine for time and again, McKenzie says: “Once they see what they’re capable of, they come back.”
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