It’s hard to believe how much time has gone by! The woes of 2018 seem so far away, but sadly not far enough. The last post I made discussed the very early stages of the new studio property purchase and impending studio construction, and here I am nearly 2 years later. How you ask?
Well, it happened.
Im currently sitting here in the office at the new shop, front door is wide open, Mosa is snoozing away on her couch, sunlight pouring through the windows, and the brisk fall air is filling the space, signaling yet again, the passing of time. How did I get here? The easiest way to describe that, is to say…..
…. it happened.
In all actuality, even though it was a furious blur of activity for nearly 9 months, I could, in painstaking detail describe to you every mud puddle, pile of dust, mountain of stone, deluge of concrete, pallet of nails, and everything else that went into making this building what it is. For your sanity I wont go into every detail, but I will tell you the story of “the shop”.
In October of 2018 my wife Heather sent me a real estate listing which piqued my interest; 6 acres, creek, large barn, privacy, oh and did I mention the historic schoolhouse? I almost immediately began envisioning renovating the 1970’s tobacco into a studio with cathedral ceilings, large exposed beams everywhere, and charm out the wazoo. After a few visits by just myself and our realtor I was very intrigued, but not entirely sure it was the one for me. The asking price was more than we thought it was worth, especially considering the absolute shoe string budget we had coaxed from our bank. We submitted an offer, and it was rejected; we went back and forth until it seemed like we just weren’t going to come together.
So, back on the trail; we scoured the internet, I drove every back road in 3 counties, turned over every stone, all without much luck. Heather, our realtor, Mosa, and myself were out one day looking at a dismal property, which after leaving I asked Heather if she wanted to go see the Schoolhouse property as she had never actually been out.
Within seconds, Mosa was romping through every overgrown thicket and pile of junk, returning continually with new bones she found. Heather was picking apart the property with judicious scrutiny, commenting at the sad state of everything, and I was still falling in love with the place. Hard to imagine, but amidst the gray Ohio winter skies, the cold & wet heavy slush of an early winter, romance was in the air. On our drive home I asked Judy and Heather, “…..so, you think I should meet their last offer?” I dont like to admit it often, but Heather was right.
We signed closing documents in early February and the very next day I was onsite, starting the project. Unfortunately, between submitting an accepted offer and closing the sale, investigations into using the old barn turned up bad news. It would cost more to fix it up, than to buy all the materials to build a new barn, so the decision was made that it had to go. Plans that I had been designing in my head and drawing on paper for years were suddenly thrust into an engineers hands to be turned into official architectural drawings so we could submit to the county for our construction permit.
To say that I hadnt thought of everything was an understatement; while I had been building this in my head for years, created meticulous lists of all the materials, technologies, and design concepts we were to use, received quotes from numerous companies to compare pricing on materials, asked for quotes from numerous contractors to build…… I forgot so many other things which I didnt even know I needed. Instead of beginning construction in March like we had planned, it wasnt until early April that we finally had all of our permits approved. While we waited on our permitting we got the old barn torn down, the site prepped, and a LOT of cleanup done (did I mention the MOUNTAINS of garbage the previous tenants left?).
One thing that was plainly evident from very early on was that our pitiful budget would not be enough to pay a contractor to build this shop for me, so it was up to me to do it all. Through a coincidental set of circumstances I had hired two hands to help me with this project, both of whom are from the area where I grew up.
So finally; heavy machinery is on site, plans are approved, hired hands have been acquired, measurements have been set up and we are ready to go! This post frame barn (pole barn) is all supported by massive posts which are sunk into the ground on concrete footings; simple, use an auger attached to a skid-steer, drill on the “x” and in 10 minutes you have one hole down and 30 more to go.
Oh how someone has a sense of humor; the auger didn’t make it 10″ into the ground before rock bound the auger up and it wouldn’t go anymore!
Do you know what contractors do? Yes, the build “stuff”, but do you know what they really do? Yes they cut boards, drive nails, and everything else that goes into building “stuff”, but that’s not what they actually do. In reality, contractors are really problem solvers.
So here we are, Adam and I, standing next to our non-existent holes in the dirt, scratching our heads trying to figure out what to do next. Surely there’s machinery that drills through this kind of stuff all the time! How about explosives? All of our ideas are trying to weigh the financial cost in comparison to the physical challenges and time overages. Guess what? When you don’t have any $, you get to do it the hard way and spend just a little more money. One call to my heavy equipment guy and the next day we have a hoe on site ready to dig.
Now, while we only needed (30) 2′ wide x 4′ deep holes, because of the darn rock, we now were digging a full 4′ deep x 2′ wide trench around the perimeter of the 48’x72′ barn. Two full grueling days of digging, moving mountains of dirt, building forms, and prepping to pour concrete footers which was happening tomorrow, on Friday. We’d have the concrete just hard enough so that when the small crew of 3 guys who were gonna come help us get the barn raised showed up, they’d have something to work with.
But wait you say?! I thought you were a potter? Dont you go to art shows in the summer time? Isnt that how you make every dollar you desperately need to build this studio? Well my keen reader, you are correct. You see, not only had I been juggling all the hundreds of details of planning and building a new home (technically what the shop is), I had also been making work throughout the winter and prepping for my shows which I was going to do all while building this shop. But, how you ask?
I was leaving the job site at the end of the 2nd day of digging footer trenches and installing forms. The second hired hand, Chris, was going to be on site the next day to help Adam finish up and be ready for the barn raising crew to show up at 4 am on Saturday morning. It was 10:30pm as I was leaving the site, when “splat”, the first big rain drop hit the windshield.
I had to wake up at 1 am so I could drive to the Oxford studio, unload a kiln, price and pack the pots, load the van, and get on the road before 9:30am so I could make it to Knoxville in time to setup for my first show of the season. All is going well when I get a call from the guys at the site at 7:30; “…ughhh, Sam, I think you need to stop by the site…”. 9:30 and Im on my way to the job site, only an hour late, the days not ruined, it will all be ok!
11am and I’m on site finally; remember that 4′ deep trench? It was 3′ full of water that morning after the heavy rain overnight(…we had the 3rd wettest year on record here in Cincinnati in 2019)! The guys had been running pumps, and chasing water around all morning, trying to install the last few forms before our County footing inspection was to take place. Tennis shoes on I jump into action and we scramble, drudging our way through the ankle deep mud trying to keep it all together.
Here in Clermont Co Ohio, the building codes stipulate that the contractor must provide a dirt free, safe and stable entry/exit for any inspector on the job site. Thankfully, we did not!
The inspector peered from the last bit of dry, mud free gravel on his tippy toes trying to see every nook and cranny of what should be a water and mud free trench. We received our Pass for the inspection and the call was made to the concrete yard “Send it!”. We inhaled lunch standing around equipment trying to figure out how to move 4 yards of concrete around an absolute mud pit, and concocted another brilliant solution; strap the wheelbarrow to the skid steer forks! The concrete truck operator looked at us a little sideways when he first saw our contraption, but as we poured the last footer, with zero excess concrete in the truck, we looked a little less like kids with tonka toys to him.
Now, I had to leave town to head to Knoxville at 9:30 am……NOT pm. Arrive in Knoxville at 2 am, set up in the dark until 5 am, sleep until 6:30, back on site by 7:30 to finish setting up for the show which starts at 10 am, and work the show until it closes at 10 pm. Sunday I was at the show trying to sell to customers and also line up a new crane operator because the last one fell through. Drive home Sunday night, get to sleep by midnight, and up at 4 am so I can be on site by 5.
I did say I wasnt going to go into every nitty gritty detail about this build, and you’re already exclaiming that Week 1 isnt even over and this saga will contend with the “Art of War!” Fear not; I wanted to belabor the details about the struggles I went through in just the first week because as it turns out, this is how the rest of the job went.
It nearly killed me; even though I ate probably the worst I ever have ( a steady diet of caffeine, sugar, and gas station food) I lost nearly 50lbs during the construction of the shop(screw keto, low carb, etc: severe financial duress and two jobs is WAY better). Im also the new proud owner of more gray hairs that I never had in 2018. I learned I can sleep just about anywhere, even with your head on your chest in the plate of food your wife graciously cooked you. I had one of the worst cases of poison ivy in my life, and plenty of “small” injuries. This was, without a doubt, the most stressful, anxiety ridden, physically taxing, and emotionally traumatizing experience of my life!
Adam stayed on site with me until May 18th, about one month after we started construction, when he had to return home to his real job. Chris, thank god for Chris. Chris was a guy who I met through a friend, whom he met while at Physical Therapy. From May 18th through October he and I worked day in and out and couldn’t have done it without him. Whenever I was in town I was on site with Chris, sunup to sundown working on whatever had to be done. While I was gone, Chris was out here making sure we kept on schedule. Its amazing what two guys, a bunch of determination, a little brainpower (honest, there was a lot of head scratching), and a whole lot of sweat can do.
Chris had to peel away from the job site in early October, but thankfully had gotten me through the worst. I continued my schedule of shows (did 20 of them between April and November!) and never ending days on the job site.
The hot summer days where Chris and I sweat more than a whore in church were fading, and the building season was scarily coming to an end. One of the requirements for this building (technically a home) to receive its occupancy permit is a functioning septic system. The building itself was in the final stretches, but so were my finances. Quotes to install a septic system by a certified installer were much more than anticipated; no septic, no occupancy- no occupancy, no studio- no studio, no Sam Hitchman Ceramics. It was a real fear that I couldn’t afford to finish this build, and we’d have to cut ties and get a new career.
Fortunately we were able to scrape together the finances, I learned what it takes to become a certified septic installer, and did that! Weather is the enemy of septic installations, and no lie, we literally got the septic finished on the LAST good day of the season.
The rush was focused back to the inside of the building. Money being tight, and time even more so, the goal was to get the building department out of our hair forever so I could technically start using the building and it not just being a job site. It didn’t need to be truly finished (paint, caulking, clean….), but just enough so I could move all the studio equipment from the old Oxford Studio so that the new owner of that property was no longer upset with me (…I forgot to mention that didn’t I?).
On December 5th, I had my final inspection…….and PASSED! I had done it! I had built my very own dream studio! Now it was time to get stuff moved in, and put all the finishing touches on the shop. All of this work took me well into the new year, but we had a party to celebrate the construction of the new shop around the 1st of the year and it felt GREAT to show off what I had done (with the help of many others of course).
So, March 2018 the flood at the house happens. End of May I nearly lose my eye during an accident while setting up for a show. Middle of December 2018 the renovation from the flood is over and Im back to making new work since March. December 2018 through February 2019 I make the only work I had to get me through a whole years worth of shows.
However, FINALLY January 19th, 2019 (one day before my birthday) I throw the first pots in the NEW studio. Aside from the two months during winter 18-19′, I hadn’t made work in nearly 2 years: the LONGEST span of not making pots in 20 years since I started.
Now here we are, 3 months away from my first show of the season; 22 GREAT shows lined up for 2020. Debt up to my eyeballs, enough cash in our accounts to pay bills until that first show, and then we’d be flat broke. Im feverishly in the shop day and night making new work as fast as I can, partly because I need to, but also because I want to. I definitely wont be able to make everything that I need to by my first show, but Ill have enough, and be able to supply all the galleries with new work (they were gracious enough to patiently wait while I got my life in order), and life will go back to “normal”.
Well, we all know what March 2020 brought us and honestly, that was it; Ive never felt so emotionally distraught. 2 years of absolute struggle and in the matter of a few short weeks, all hope is gone. It was at this point that I almost threw in the towel.
We’re making ends meet, barely, but somehow we will get through this. I know we ALL, will get through this. The struggles of being self employed during the COVID pandemic are for another story, one I probably wont tell, but who knows.
So, what was it all for? Well, I finally have my very own studio; no more basements, or shared studios an hour from home. A dream of 15 years has finally come to fruition! I have a large shop, built with ease of operation, superb energy efficiency, safety, and comfort in mind. A place where I will make work for hopefully decades to come, and in which hopefully I will help many young aspiring potters find their path to a self employed lifestyle.
There’s still lots of work to be done; two years of lost time is hard to catch up on, but I’m working steadily and finding time to work on my soul too. I wholeheartedly invite you to come out to see what Ive built; I don’t like to toot my own horn much, but its pretty spectacular. Ive also gained lifelong friends; all of this couldn’t have been done without the help of so many people, all of whom I cant thank enough.
That’s it for now; I’m going to enjoy my scenic drive home along the river and get ready to pack for my first show of the year (thanks a lot COVID). Ill post some pictures hopefully soon of the build so you can sneak a peak, but honest, stop out anytime, Id Love to see you!