"Could I speak to Jan please?”
"Sorry, she’s away until Wednesday.”
"Jan? Oh, she’s at the other studio today.”
"Just a minute please. No she’s not here. …..she’ll be back this afternoon though.”
Jan Sell, potter and artist extraordinaire, is just a little busy. With a growing business, huge renovations to the new location in Campbellton, and a family – albeit self-sufficient – this business owner has a niche for unique, practical and stunning pottery that sells wide and far. With husband, Mike Sell, this couple has developed a style and function for their art and business that can only be great for the changing tide in Campbell River.
With the need in Campbell River to shift from its dependence on a resource-based economy to a goods-and-services based economy, small businesses are in just the right place to take advantage of new economic trends, creating awareness and demand for niche markets that will help our community-turned-city prosper. Mussels and More Pottery brings a diverse business dynamic that can only help grow Campbell River into an innovative, more attractive city. Located in Campbellton, the newly painted building and studio is on the old Island Highway right across from the Campbell River Lodge. With renovations underway Jan feels that "upgrading is the best advertising” and hopes this will "help Campbellton become an artsy part of Campbell River.”
Its mass of 11,000 square feet gives room for the elegant front studio/sales room housing large antique tables, dressers and china cabinets that display exquisitely made, functional pottery and fine art work and jewelry by other artists that "may not be found anywhere else in Canada”; a huge work area with long tables, presses, sinks, green ware and drying racks; a kiln room for two bisque-firing kilns and a huge glaze kiln that’s "bigger than the crematorium”; a drying room with dehumidifiers and heaters and plastic-wrapped wooden shelves for slow, even drying; storage room with plastic bins of bisque ware labeled Platters, Mugs, Starfish, Razor Clams, Cockles, Bear Claws, Sunflowers, Oysters; and more storage and office space upstairs. There’s lots more work to do and Mike and Jan are super busy with renovations like seismic upgrades, firewalls and general structural stabilization for an old building. Walking quickly behind Jan during a tour I catch the phrase, "…make it, dry it, bisque-it, glaze it, high-fire it, ship it.” Jan says her mind is always full and "You never stop running.”
Jan is a self-taught potter who started making pottery at 16 and who just "kept going with an idea”. She started small, selling at fairs, the Crystal Gardens and Empress Hotel in Victoria in the early 1980’s, the Filberg Festival in the Comox Valley, and she sold retail. Jan lived on a float house while developing her art and was also a single parent and didn’t do her pottery for a time. Fifteen years ago she married husband Mike, wanted to get back to her art and together they decided to "make a go of it.” Jan says, "It wouldn’t be the business it is if it wasn’t for Mike”, and his entrepreneur and business experience from commercial herring and cod fishing. She says, "You have to be a good business person” and their combined hard work has made the business flourish. Both have good business sense and lots of energy. Of Mike she says he has "built it, fixed it, saved money, solved problems and made adaptations,” a bit like a mad scientist! He developed a press system for some of the pottery, which is made from stoneware and porcelain clays, and created a glaze fountain that saves Jan’s arms from the heavy labour of pouring glazes. I sense the mad scientist gleam in Mike’s eye when he tells me about a new business idea up his mad sleeve!The couple uses local businesses for the labour and re-wiring, buys local scrap metal for recycling into parts for the press, and buys locally planed wood for the renovations.
Mike revealed some of the things that make for good business sense including "doing the math” when it comes to expectations of running your own business, (and literally doing the hard math in high school); being resourceful, eg; there are institutions other than banks with which to do business; and, of course, long hours and hard work (some people think of making your own hours, making big money and holidays anytime). I asked Jan the same. "Marry a good man!” she says, and added that’s not at all anti-feminist! The teamwork is unmistakable in these successful business and life partners.
Jan and Mike do their own marketing which helps control where the pottery ends up. With no two retail centers within thirty miles of each other, their products are more exclusive – quality control in its real sense! Some buyers have been with Mussels and More for ten years and there are what could be considered collectors of this versatile, functional pottery. Jan’s pottery ware is not trendy and for gift giving, are truly one-of-a kind creations.
Mussels and More runs like a family business. With six employees – who can be seen creating through the huge windows when driving south on the highway – they "celebrate all birthdays and can take time off for their kids when they need to.” Their son, Gibson, 21, and daughter, Erin, 16, both have interests in art and/or business and Erin says, "Working for your parents really beats working for another employer.” Jan says the kids learned very young about retail and would "get 10% of the sale” if they went out to greet the customers and make a sale! Jan does most of the glazing herself and she and Mike oversee all operations. The added-on details of starfish, shells, seaweed and barnacles are made of clay castings – which make for the perfectly shaped, detailed and textured trimmings to the bowls, platters, plates and mugs. This uniquely gorgeous pottery is now known throughout North America, mostly the southern States and East and West Coasts of Canada and the U.S. Mike and Jan attend huge trade shows for buyers –with floors of home furnishings and gifts – where there’s "nothing like what we have. We have a niche.”
Their shipping destinations include Alberta, Alabama and Arizona, California, Connecticut and Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts and Maryland; North Carolina, New Jersey and Nova Scotia; and almost all letters-of-the-alphabet-places in between. People even make the trip further up-island than their planned destinations to see Jan’s products. With this kind of popularity, Mussels and More is an asset to Campbell River and its essential move towards creative, constructive transformation.
This kind of change is in fact sought by Campbell River’s Executive Director of Chamber, Colleen Evans. In a letter to members she asks, "Is Campbell River adjusting to the changing economic and demographic shifts in our community?” This memo outlines the number of businesses and organizations in Campbell River, statistics on small business and small business growth, employment and employment growth, self- employed and high-technology sectors. The Executive Director encourages "open sharing of ideas and suggestions on how the Chamber can serve our members to position you and your business and organization for success.” With more businesses willing to take task, beautifying areas of the city and marketing to world destinations, Campbell River can be a glittering jewel on the ocean for all who live and visit here, and Jan and Mike Sell are adding their artful glitter.