East Wheeling Clayworks: The New Artist/Entrepreneur
The New Artist/Entrepreneur
Adam and Beth Bedway stand at the intersection of many roads for today’s new potters. This Wheeling, West Virginia couple are the owners and founders of East Wheeling Clayworks, an enterprise that has grown out of their love of clay and is fed by a determination and commitment to the growth of small businesses in small economies. Both Adam, 40, and Beth, 37, majored in the arts but sacrificed full-time artistic pursuit to ensure a sustainable living. Like so many of their generation, they found the traditional work model unfulfilling. With careful consideration and planning, they chose an alternate route.
Adam and Beth met at Bethany College in 2005. Beth worked primarily in sculpture and printmaking and went on the get an M.A. in Museum Studies at The George Washington University. She returned to the Ohio Valley and found work in a variety of settings, from pharmacy work to Americorp and eventually landed in an office job. The demands of shift work relegated her artistic efforts to a secondary role, leaving her feeling unfulfilled.
Adam, too, was finding his daily work tiresome. His father and grandfather were small business owners who passed on that desire for self-employment to Adam. He says, “I started college at Tulane, in metal sculpture, discovered Clay at Ohio University as a sophomore, and ended up at Bethany, where I knew clay was my medium.” But upon graduation, he stayed with the landscaping and contracting company he had started while in college.
By late 2015, Adam and Beth reached a breaking point. “I was in people’s homes all day, doing stressful work that disrupted their lives and made them stressed,” Adam says. “Beth and I sat down and talked. Our house was paid off and we didn’t have children to consider. We both wanted to take a chance on starting a business.” Beth agreed that a change was needed. After years away from the wheel, Adam spent evenings and weekends making pots, trying to shed some of the stresses of his daily work. Beth tackled the task of wading through the rules and regulations. Adam stopped accepting new construction contracts and planned to spend six months finishing his current obligations while Beth started full-time at the new studio.
The couple started to make pots n a neighborhood garage. With a couple of shows under their belts, they knew that needed a space that would allow them to have their work on display and to host events. They rented a storefront and started their dream. “The power was not what we needed to run our kilns,” says Adam, “and we had to carry our ports back and forth between the shop and our house to fire them.” Beth says, “We started with small shows and weekend events. We were still working during the week.” Adam adds, “We knew we would need multiple revenue streams to make it work.” They sought out manufacturing contracts, began production, and added more events, along with a shop and gallery. They continued to look for a better space and found their current home in North Wheeling. They purchased the building in 2020 and doubled the usable space to 1,600 square feet with a major renovation. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Beth’s pregnancy, and the birth of their daughter, the business continued to grow and expand, with both now committed full-time.
With the new space, they were able to expand events and build a following as a “place to go” in the community. Their Sculpt ‘N Gulp events are a big draw, with varying content and locales. They have teamed with local eateries to create events that appeal to young audiences and have raised awareness of their business in the community. Adam says, “We are actively looking for new space closer to the city center.” Beth has taken on the role of networking with other small businesses and local leaders. She and Adam work with the Alliance for Creative Rural Economics (ACRE), an arm of Bridgeway Capital that supports creative entrepreneurs in benefiting their communities. Adam says that Wheeling is undergoing a building boom that is focusing on downtown housing. He and Beth, along with other business owners, are standing forefront in advocating for space for small businesses in these developments.
Today, East Wheeling Clayworks has contracts with over 250 businesses throughout the United States and Canada, in addition to the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Dubai. The signature works is a coffee cup – the “Everyday Mug.” To fulfill these orders, Adam and Beth have amassed a good-sized staff of potters and helpers. A cadre of seven production workers, mostly part-time, throw clay and keep the orders fulfilled, working as individuals in a common aesthetic. Three other “top-of-the-house” staff man the shop, keep track of order fulfillment, and oversee the events and classes. Adam says, “We try to maintain a very loose environment here with flexible schedules. I want to create good jobs for local people, to pay a fair wage. I’m not able to offer them health insurance, but as an alternative, we provide dental and vision.” Beth says, “The standard business model doesn’t work for an art business.” She values each employee for his or her special talents and individuality and knows each of them familiarly. She says, “There is no neuro-typical person in this building. No one has a business degree. We just work it out and do what works for us.”
Being a businessperson in a small city presents unique challenges. Beth points out that first and foremost, the customer base is smaller. “With a population of 25,000,” Adam quips, “Wheeling has only a small number of people who need a coffee mug on any given day.” The city also has a smaller work force and there is no centralized system for businesses like a clay studio. Beth laments, “Others don’t really understand what we are doing here, which is why we must be bold in finding resources. If I don’t understand some legal or financial aspect, I just have to pick up the phone and cold call until I find an answer. I think our generation is open to asking questions and expecting answers.”
Beth and Adam’s boldness to ask the questions, to build a place in the community, to take the new path at the crossroads of their lives has built East Wheeling Clayworks and a life more suitable and fulfilling for these young potters as they stand as a model for a new generation of artists/entrepreneurs.
Learn more about East Wheeling Clayworks at www.eastwheelingclayworks.com