By Brian D’Ambrosio, for the Helena Tourism Alliance
For Helena potter and business owner Jeremy McFarlane, true health is the feeling of digging his fingers into squishy clay and rotating wet soil into well-formed sundries.
Indeed, the meaning of pottery in McFarlane’s life borders on salvation.
Born in Helena in 1979, McFarlane’s introduction to earthenware occurred when he was a freshman in Helena High School.
“Throwing on the wheel was natural for me,” said McFarlane, owner of Jmacs Pottery, located at 417 North Last Chance Gulch. “I learned how to center in less than five minutes. The funny thing was that I was accused of being in a pottery class before. During high school, I took ceramics for three years, being the only one to do so that I knew of.”
McFarlane re-connected with ceramics out of emotional need following a life altering injury. That is no public relations spin. It’s the hard truth of a man who needed a constructive outlet, a future, a reason to plow ahead through bitter adversity.
While employed at a Belgrade insulation company, he was overexposed to a chemical found in the panels called Timbor. After falling sick, he was treated with steroids; six months later, however, his legs “became very heavy.” Walking was painfully difficult.
Following a diagnosis of AVN (avascular necrosis) of the hips, McFarlane underwent double hip replacement. While recuperating, he finished college with a degree in Business Administration and joined the Helena Clay Arts Guild. He subsequently sold his stoneware at the Helena Farmers’ Market and hatched a plan to build a business relevant to his experience.
“I noticed an opportunity for a business in pottery production, sales, and classes,” said McFarlane.
A couple of years ago, McFarlane started Jmacs Pottery in the old dairy building on the corner of Elm and North Montana Avenue.
“This was a learning experience for me as a business owner,” said McFarlane. “I assumed with all the traffic, people would be stopping at my store frequently. This was not the case. Pottery, as I found out, is a destination business. To make up for this, I started teaching pottery. This turned out being a very rewarding experience. Helping others learn a skill and seeing the amazing work they produce, gives the teacher an amazing sense of accomplishment.”
“Two hours of throwing ruined me for a whole week,” said McFarlane. “I couldn’t mow the lawn or do everyday tasks.”
He was told that both hips needed to be replaced again. Thirteen months after opening his first store, he closed down for eight months. After re-gaining mobility in his legs, McFarlane re-opened Jmacs Pottery in downtown Helena.
“With the added space, I expanded my classes to groups of six,” said McFarlane. “This was a challenge at first…now I have four former students that share studio space, year round. Sometimes they even teach me techniques I have never considered. I can only hope and plan that this will continue and we can eventually expand to allow for others to learn the art of pottery.”
McFarlane said that Jmacs Pottery is the natural extension of his long harbored entrepreneur spirit.
“From a very early age, I was making games and devices to entertain myself,” said McFarlane. “I also started gathering golf balls that were hit in ponds or out of bounds at the local golf course and selling them. In the summers, I also would sell lemonade or have a snow cone stand.”
Located at 417 North Last Chance Gulch, Jmacs Pottery provides a venue to create, sell, and market pottery in “a low-cost but effective venue.”
“We are the longest standing business in this space in 12 years,” said McFarlane, who is one of the catalysts of First Friday in Helena (a collaborative event which next takes place Friday, December 5, from 5-9 p.m.) “This building has served as a variety of things – a German food store, the original Bert and Ernie’s restaurant, even an exotic fish store.”
“There are a lot of misconceptions about pottery,” said McFarlane. “Especially when it comes to the time involved. You can make a large, tall bowl with green speckles, but it could take two months to dry. It takes three to five weeks to dry a custom mug without cracking the handle.”
McFarlane said that his primary goal is to stoke the flames of a hobby into something even more intense.
“We are open to artists who want to take the next step and market their pieces for profit,” said McFarlane. “At the same time, on the flip side, we also provide low-cost functional ware for customers to purchase for gifts or household use.”
McFarlane plans to expand with a separate gallery and studio, a 24-hour facility for potters to experiment according to their own schedules and impulses.
The business owner in McFarlane comprehends that adaptability is the key to profitability.
“I am right at the point where there is light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve found the right stuff and the right scope of things to catch someone’s eye. Because of this most of my work is functional and affordable to most people. I love it when someone comes up to me and tells me about how long they have used a mug they purchased from me.”
“It’s calming and it’s relaxing,” said McFarlane. “I believe that it makes me more productive in other facets of my life as well. There are no thoughts of the future or this or that, and it’s hard for me to be knocked out of the zone.”
McFarlane does have to break his concentration – or at least refocus it – to help introduce newcomers to the rich, diverse, tactile world of pottery.
“I have to say that teaching is one of the most enjoyable things that I do,” said McFarlane. “It’s one of the most amazing things and I’m very happy to watch people learn and no longer struggle at it.”
While McFarlane is still getting to know what his customers want, he certainly knows what he himself enjoys. Despite sore bodily demands and the achiness of a pair of hips that will once again in the future require substitution, he has a hard time gliding his hands away from the compulsion of creativity.
“I tend to overdue it a bit,” said McFarlane. “That’s because I love it.”
For more information about Jmacs Pottery, visit www.jmacspottery.com.