Meet the Maker | Amy McNeill of McNeill Ceramics

In honour of International Women’s Month, we’re sharing conversations with the inspiring women behind some of the brands we love and carry in our store. Their stories showcase the power of determination and a true passion for the product lines they’ve created, and they sure do give us a lot to look up to!

Being featured in our series this week is Amy McNeill, a Toronto-based artist who has been making ceramic tableware and vessels for a little over seven years that are timeless and withstand years of use.

Being a self-taught artisan, when was the moment you decided you wanted to turn your passion project into a full-time business?

I decided to go into business soon after my family suffered a loss in 2017 when two of my family members passed away within a short time of each other. They both made their living and provided for the family as makers, and so to honour them and their memory, I decided that I would take the great leap as well. Craftsmanship is in my genes and after going through all of the grief, I kind of got some clarity on what really matters in life. Combined with a sense of ‘why not’ and some new perspective, McNeill Ceramics was born.

From your line that we offer in our shop, which is your favourite and why?

Vases are my favourite kind of vessel to make, hands down. When I’m in vase-making mode, time disappears—just like a meditation. I can sit at a wheel all day making vases and I am perfectly at peace. That’s when I get all my thinking done, when I work through emotions, work stuff, manifesting goals, and when I appreciate all the stuff that I have in my life: family, friends, shelter, good food, art, all of my physical abilities… Yeah, I know it’s just making a long tube on a spinny-thing, but there’s so much more to it, I promise you. Namaste, duuuudes!

What are the pros and cons of being a female entrepreneur in this day and age?

What I really struggle with is wondering whether or not people take me seriously as a ceramic artist. I have a high voice, I’m bubbly, I laugh a whole bunch, and also look quite young for my age. When people look at my stuff, whether online or at markets, I have this thing at the back of my mind telling me that they think, ‘how could this small child make this?’ or ‘where are her parents?’ It’s all in my mind, that’s for sure, and I’m working to get over it. My work, with all its minimalism and simplicity, speaks for itself and for me.

The big upside to being a female entrepreneur is the sisterhood I find both in the ceramics community and the artist community. Making art is an emotional thing. It’s a way we find release in a world that has been historically favouring another gender. Being able to rely on a physical thing I made to address, respond to and talk about issues with like-minded folks is so freaking healing, it’s insane.

The best, thing, really, is meeting people at markets. It matters not whether they like my stuff, hate it, buy it or browse through it. What matters is that I get to meet all these people interested in some aspect of art. Exchanging genuinely with another human is the most rewarding aspect of being an artist, and I feel really lucky that I have this outlet to meet super cool people of all backgrounds, experiences, and energies.

What would you say are the top three skills needed to work with ceramics?

Can we just say for the sake of the message I’m trying to send that curiosity is a skill? I think it’s a skill. You gotta have curiosity because that means you’re interested in the possibility, and you’re willing to make yourself vulnerable to a new experience. That’s a beautiful and scary quality in order to start experimenting with clay.

Patience is a good one, too. I sucked at ceramics when I first started. My stuff would crack, the glaze would run and stick my work to the kiln shelves. The learning curve is quite massive in the craft and I still (after 7ish years) make mistakes. Combining patience with curiosity, here I am, still messing up a lot but ultimately enjoying developing my relationship with clay.

Time management is huge. Clay bodies, once thrown or molded, take varying times to dry depending on the type of clay, size of the vessel, wetness of clay, the climate of your studio, the humidity of the season, and the permeability of the plastic you wrap it with. There are more variables, but you get the point. Knowing when and how to edit your pieces isn’t some innate or intuitive knowledge we’re born with, so being able to predict, plan and schedule when you work on your stuff is a question of time management. Combine that with being able to laugh at your cracked pieces and failed attempts at teapots, and you got yourself a good lil’ potter.

What tips do you have for other women who would like to start their own businesses?

Women who want to start a business need one thing in my opinion: willingness to fail. As humans (and especially being the gender that is traditionally raised to be infallible, while also somehow accommodating, bending to every curveball life throws at us, etc.) it’s hard for us to accept that failure is anything but a humiliating life experience. If we choose to see failure as a possibility and something to have a contingency plan for, it quiets the dread a little bit. If we acknowledge failure as something that we miiiiiight experience as an entrepreneur, it removes the sting of anxiety as we push our dreams further. Plus, failure is relative anyway. If you feel that you might fail at your business, the point is that you’re trying. The point is that you care. The point is that you have a dream and you’re following it. Make something meaningful and impact lives, my friends, and you’re already doing that just by being you. Think about how much more meaning and how greater of a reach you could have by starting your business. You got this.