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The studio is filled with kilns and ceramics wheels and pottery of every shape and size. Children’s Santa Claus sculptures are on the drying racks alongside the delicate work of professionals. When I was there this past weekend, owner Rae Barney was smoothing the edges of a wall pocket that featured a face. The place had the baked apple smell of freshly baked clay.
“Everyone thought this was ‘pie-in-the-sky,’” Rae said, looking around. “But here I am.”
Sometimes you meet those people who make you realize dreams can come true. One of those people for me is Rae. The tall, 40-year-old blonde owns Fire and Mud Studios in Escondido, a place where she creates art from clay and teaches as well. Two years ago, the studio was little more than a left-over dream from youth.
This story is about how Rae Barney got from there to here.
Rae grew up in Corvallis, Ore. Her grandmother was a tole painter, a folky style of decorative painting on furniture or pottery. Her mom was a crafter who taught her to knit, crochet and paint ready-made pots. In high school, Rae made money by silk-screening T-shirts for classmates. After she graduated, she went to Arizona, where she took business classes and helped a friend in his business making outdoor waterfalls.
She couldn’t find the right kind of bowls for the waterfalls, so she decided to make them herself. After a community college class in pottery, Rae says she was “hooked on clay.” She thought the perfect life would be to have a combination restaurant/clay studio where she could sell her work while teaching others the joy of working with their hands.
She took teaching classes in college and began working with kids. She studied with a master Raku artist. Raku is a Japanese style of firing pottery in which the pieces are brought out of the kiln while still glowing with heat, producing iridescent luster, white crackles and flashes of satin color. Her work progressed. After a few years, she realized that she needed a different market for her art.
“Where I lived, I couldn’t sell the work I could make — the only thing that sold was Southwestern art,” Rae said. “If I was going to go anywhere with my art, I needed to go to a more open-minded public — New York, Chicago or California.”
When she explored San Diego’s North County, she knew she was home.
In 2002, she bought a three-bedroom, two-bath home in Vista for no money down. After a year and a half, she refinanced it and took a year off of full-time work to spend more time on her art.
And she began making bronze sculptures, because that’s what “real artists” created, as opposed to the pottery.
The works were accepted in some shows at the San Diego Art Institute: Museum of the Living Artist. In 2005, she put the house on the market and sold it as she began to run out of money — but continued to work.
She rode the market at the best possible time, putting her house on the market and selling it as she began to run out of money.
Rae thought she had reached the pinnacle when she was invited to have a solo show at the museum in 2008.
“I sold some pieces, but never got into any galleries,” Rae said. “It felt like a dead end.”
In discussion with the group’s mentor at the time, Yoram Gil, she realized that when she talked about the bronze pieces she was making, she focused on the labor and money involved in making them.
“But when I talked about the Raku, I lit up,” she said.
Although she had done well working in bronze, her love was clay. She tried to go back to teaching, but no jobs were available.
“I decided there had to be a way, I could do it myself,” she said. She thought of her youthful dream of the restaurant/clay studio — and dropped the restaurant.
April Game, the executive director of the Fine Art Society, told Rae about an ad for kilns — the ovens you need for pottery — in the newspaper. When Rae went to check them out, the landlord said a previous clay business had abandoned them in his building. Would she like to rent the space as well as buy the kilns?
But she and her fiance, Jon Holton, had just bought another house in Vista. There was no money to start a business. The couple fought.
“I worried about how she going to pay for everything,” Jon said. “With the economy and stuff, it is a tough time to start all this.”
He said, though, he learned to bite his tongue: “She’s a very strong person. She can tackle and succeed with anything she puts her mind to.”
The landlord let her rent month-to-month to help her get started. The Fine Art Society gave her some money to help her buy equipment, part of her graduation from the mentorship program. She gave up haircuts and pedicures and new clothes. Students started to come through the door. One was Kent Scott, her fiance’s boss at a fence company.
“Rae has a lot of patience,” Kent said. “She doesn’t mind sitting with someone who doesn’t know anything, but she can also show you as much as you can handle.”
It’s been more than a year now. She offers classes, opportunities to make things on the potters’ wheel, workshops to learn to fire Raku. (And she’s even offering a 10 percent discount for people who sign up for classes before Christmas.)
“I just feel blessed,” Rae said, with tears in her eyes. “I know a lot of it, the work I put in and the determination and sacrifice and the belief I can do this. But I look around and it is amazing. It is so me. It’s not the building. It’s the fact it is my dream come true.”