FRANCES PALMER is a stay-at-home mom with a full-time career.
She and her husband and their three sons live in a simple but gracious Civil War-era colonial on six acres in Weston, Connecticut.
Shortly after moving to this historic Fairfield County town, Frances found that she wasn't sure what to do with her time besides raising her family & tending to her garden.
"I signed up for a [pottery] class in New Canaan," she says, with hopes of making some vases for her flowers.
Her career with clay was born when she realized she had found her artistic medium. She promptly purchased a used wheel and kiln and began experimenting.
As Frances happily explored this newfound love, she soon realized that she needed more space. “My husband decided to find an old building for me,” she said. He found a disassembled 1790 house from Bethel, Conn., that looked like a barn and was perfectly sized for their site, and they had it reassembled on their property.
With a coffee cup of her own design in one hand, she heads through her mudroom (“It’s a mess. Close your eyes!”) out to her studio, “I have a 30-second commute!”
In this verdant section of Fairfield county with a homegrown garden of giant dahlias (a specialty), sunflowers, cosmos, zinnias, tulips, and calendulas to view as she works,
Frances has forged an ideal workspace, whiling away days in the company of Flora the cat and Sam the dog, books on tape playing in the background as she sculpts collections. “I just finished ‘Anna Karenina,’ ” she said. “Tolstoy teaches a lot about organic farming.”
Vases, platters, plates, mugs and teapots — finished and unfinished — line the broad tables and shelves. Light filtered through autumn leaves streams in the window closest to one of her pottery wheels. The antique plank building out back that looks like an old icehouse is home to a gas-fired kiln.
"I sit down at the wheel just about every day, and I never get tired of doing that. I look at a lot of contemporary photography for inspiration; I like the way that artists friends Steve Orr and Marrion Brenner photograph objects, they have a great way of seeing things."
"What I like about ceramics is that there's a certain amount of randomness that you have no control over. The process transforms it in a way you don't always foresee."
She says she's learned not to rush the process, which includes multiple glazings and firings, but to let each piece develop in its own way, even as she works on other pieces.
"It's a ballet of letting it get to the right state."
Once a piece achieves a certain stage of dryness, Palmer adds what she calls her "doo-dahs."
Tiny pearls of clay, folded or fringed edges, or clay flowers made from plaster casts of the blossoms in the riotously colorful garden she maintains just outside the studio.
There’s a photography corner where there is wonderful natural light and
once the pieces are finished, she often photographs them with the flowers from her garden, which features dahlias of all shapes, colors and sizes in the fall.
Frances takes all the pictures used on her website and in her catalogs. She finds that people can visualize the vases in their homes better when they see them displayed with flowers.
"I like my work very plain, but [customers] want me to put all sorts of things on."
The majority of her work is done on commission for private clients. She often work with interior designers in a collaborative setting on behalf of their clients, and also receives commissions from various stores like Neiman Marcus & Barneys.
“It was never my intention to be a production potter,” Palmer notes. “I wanted to have fun doing something new every day and I wanted to sell directly to the people who would use my work.”
After years of creating handmade pieces and building her reputation, Frances decided in 2005 that she wanted to find a factory that could manufacture china based on her work.
The result of her initiative is the Frances Palmer Pearl Collection, a line of vitreous china that is dishwasher-, microwave- and oven-safe.
The collection has the eccentricity of her handmade pieces but is as durable as diner china because the pieces are made the same way. The company makes molds from her hand-thrown prototypes, and because each piece is finished by hand, no two are exactly the same.
When Frances needs a break from her work, she tends the garden outside the studio door. "Though, lots of times, I just come out here and stand." She says she can’t imagine running her business and life any other way.
"Gardening will teach you patience. Pots are the same way. You have to wait until they're ready to take shape or trim or fire." Frances Palmer
Photographs and information courtesy of Frances Palmer, The New York Times and Hartford Courant