Pottery business supports Linneus family
Out of a decision to remain a local resident despite economic downturn, David Gricus found what he enjoys doing for a living. And, his business, that as a self-employed hand-crafted stoneware potter, has survived numerous ups and downs in the marketplace while he continues to live in Linneus.
"We decided we didn't want to leave..." notes Gricus. That decision didn't come easy.
Gricus came to Aroostook County in 1966, accepting a teaching position at Ricker College where he was to start up a ceramics program.
"The college wanted to expand the art department," he explains. While his discipline, studied at the Mass. College of Art, was in painting and drawing, he liked the area and decided to 'learn' what they wished to provide to the students. With his brother an accomplished potter, Gricus used this family resource to learn the basics and then got on with developing the new program.
"That first year...we did a variety of slab work, and not just the wheel."
What initially brought Gricus to the job is what has held him here ever since – a great love for the outdoors. The job market for artists was particularly tight in the '60s, he recalls, but the opportunity to fish and hunt in the areas he had always enjoyed as vacationland was too appealing to turn down.
Gricus enjoyed the teaching, and expanded, adapted and evolved the program year after year. That is, until the mid-'70s when the college closed down. Then it was decision time for Gricus and his wife, Susan, who had a teaching job as well.
"We had just had our first child," reflects Gricus. "We'd also invested in a small farm with 140 acres that we thought would be a good place to bring up our children."
Reluctant to give up the ties they already had, the couple put much thought into future planning. Susan would work, and he would become 'Mr. Mom' while developing a home-based business using his now finely-honed pottery making skills.
"I don't know how I got anything done when I started," laughs Gricus. "My son was two and it was hard to find time to do what I wanted. I worked a lot at night.."
Gricus didn't have a set direction. The first summer he took his mugs to crafts fairs, went door-to-door in Bar Harbor, and got a shop in Orono to carry his pottery.
"The Network development was important. You'd talk to people at the fairs and get ideas and recommendations on where to go," he says. Most times, after a fair or visit to a shop, there would be no feedback for several months. Then he'd get a call from a Mom and Pop shop three months later for a small order. A few places in Houlton also started carrying his stoneware.
"But all those little orders added up, and I just kept making things and experimenting with clay, firing and design. I also knew I had to do some level of production work. I had to be realistic," he adds.
Instead of being 'an artist with high principles' who had to make his statement in the art world, he looked at ways to be artistic while turning out numbers that meant an increase to the family income.
In the '80s, Gricus developed a line of pottery with a blue fern. He plucked real ferns after the first heavy frost, harvesting the tops in October and November. There were mugs and bowls, lamps and vessels, dishes and vases...the line was quite popular when, as he says, the wholesale market fell apart.
"I couldn't meet the quantity demand for the price they wanted. I didn't want to grow beyond a one-person operation. When could I go fishing, and do things with my family?" Doing wholesale had hem working every day of the weed, and there was no balance to the life he had chosen to remain in the area for.
When he noticed interest in the blue fern waning, he played around for a new 'signature' piece. The love for fishing somehow made the design happen...it must have, for his new trout-embellished pottery is attracting buyers of sportsman-type.
"The trout line is growing fast, just as interest in fly-fishing is increasing," he says.
Mugs, mugs, mugs. That remains the best (always) of what he sells. Though pie plates no longer sell that well, trout on bean pots, steins, casseroles, lamps and covered dishes are all doing well.
These more specialized items have also taken Gricus away from wholesale – 70 percent of all he sells is back at the fairs, and at small specialty shops throughout New England. The Maine Made Shop in Waterville, Earthly Delights in Hallowell, Country Bumpkins in Patten, Blueberries & Granite in Freeport, Camden Pottery and country shops in Greenville are all part of his smaller network of retail outlets.
The discipline of the marketplace is timing: there's only a six-month summer-to-holiday season that, he says, 'the stuff has to be out there.' Though he's been featured in a national exhibition in Wooster, Ohio, and included in the 1994 Functional Ceramics edition, he muses, "You can't take the 'big' recognition to the bank!"
A niche, he finds, is the way to go in making a small business – and one that is desired to remain that way. He finds the current market to be open to more specialized items, and the crossing-over to the trout design has been good for business.
Being small, Gricus also knows he must count on his own resources and network for continuing business. Each year, he tries to attend one new show. In Rangeley, he'll go anyway: the camping and fishing are much to his liking. He also feels fortunate to participate in the Common Ground Fair with its high level of activity and statewide exposure.
To get the new line looking just right, Gricus built his own gas oven that he can fire to over 2200 degrees. The correct clay, proper temperature range, glaze temperature range and the timing are all needed to produce the consistent stoneware at a quality level he won't sacrifice.
"I didn't know if I could even get the trout to work on the pottery," says Gricus. "I made the wood [fish] model and started trying it out."
Gricus and his wife have been pleased in their decision to stay. Where else, says he, could they have acreage, such an abundance of nature and the friendships that continue since the Ricker days.
"I rediscovered myself, coming to Maine," he notes. He's never tired of the fishing and hunting, nor of the solitude of his country land. He's been up to the challenge of the roller-coaster economy, and kept his own and his business dollars locally.