Birmingham native Tena Payne was inspired in high school to check out the world of pottery. It was an instant match, and she’s been doing it ever since. Today, many folks eat up her work … or rather, eat off of her work, as her gorgeous settings are found in some of the city’s best restaurants. Today, Tena shares with us the things that inspire her, how she enjoys spending her free time and the best piece of advice she’s ever been given. Welcome today’s FACE of Birmingham!
Where did you grow up and what brought you to Birmingham?
Birmingham is my home. My early years were spent in West End, then we moved to Homewood in the early ’70s during my high school years.
How did you get your start as an artist?
My high school art teacher brought in Dr. Lowell Vann from Samford University, who demonstrated “throwing” on the wheel. I was forever hooked. I worked nights and weekends from that point forward, even to today.
How do you describe Earthborn Pottery to someone who is unfamiliar with it?
I want it to look like a rock that’s been dug up and polished. Rugged edges, semiprecious gemstone colors, total functionality.
Being asked by Chris Hastings to feature your pottery in his restaurant, Hot and Hot Fish Club, was a huge breakthrough. How did this happen?
My husband and I were growing Shiitake mushrooms as a hobby and were getting huge yields, so I went downtown and knocked on the back of restaurant doors … he was one of many who bought, but he had some broken pottery, and I told him I’m a potter, too, which began the conversation and collaboration that developed into what the product is today. He had already experienced using pottery when he was in California, so he knew what could happen. I didn’t. :)
Why do you think so many notable restaurants are using Earthborn Pottery in their dining rooms?
It’s a beautiful presentation really, a WOW look when put in front of customers. It’s extremely durable, so it actually adds to the bottom line, because they’re not replacing it as often. And it makes people talk, which is one of the chefs’ best forms of advertisement.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Never price your product too low. I was told that by a mega producer of ceramics worldwide. Actually, when my rep showed my work to the Bellagio, he added 30 percent to my prices, and they still bought it. So all my prices had to go up relationally. And if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.
What upcoming local event are you most looking forward to?
Well it’s not till December, but The Blue Light Special is a fantastic event on so many levels. The artists are encouraged to bring seconds, which could be anything from a style they’re not doing anymore, to a chipped frame, fissured pot or any number of flaws, and artists can’t take those items to a show except for this show, where the savings are heartily embraced by the public. There’s also a fundraiser at this event we call Empty Bowls. Our chefs donate the soup and bread, and we donate the bowls. One can enjoy a gourmet lunch, keep the $50 bowl, all for $25, which we donate to First Light Women’s Shelter.
Favorite thing to do on a Saturday night?
Sip whiskey on the porch with my husband
What’s your favorite local restaurant?
What else could I say? Hot and Hot!
What books are you currently reading?
I’m rereading Diana Galbadon’s Outlander series, treat historical fiction, and also Haruki Murakami … very different, interesting reads.
How do you enjoy spending free time?
We have a pair of Tennessee Walking Horses that we love to ride on trails wherever they are … we travel with the animals and get to see places that not many people get to see. A beautiful walk in the woods without the walk. And I love to solo whitewater canoe. It’s a great place to rest your mind ’cause you can’t think of anything but the river or you’re in it! Again, the walk in the woods without the walk. Both are challenging, both physically and mentally.
Name three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends.
1. Fresh air. Gotta breathe. I hate conferences and trade shows because of the “canned air.” We live as close to nature as possible.
2. The autonomy and freedom to make and enact my decisions. When I have an idea, I wanna see it happen.
3. The ability to transform materials … creative outlets. I’ve always got something going, whether it’s a watercolor painting, flameworking or any other “make something from nothing”-type endeavor, which captures the garden, too. It keeps my mind fresh with different perspectives.
Thanks, Tena! See more of Tena’s work and learn more about Earthborn Pottery at the Earthborn Pottery website. In addition to being able to purchase the pottery at the studio, it’s also available at Bromberg’s and The Cook Store.
And many thanks to Meg McKinney for today’s beautiful photographs. See more of Meg’s work on her website, megmckinneyphotos.com.