One of the things Martie Sullivan knew by the time she opened Sweet Basil in 1993 was that stocking her store with the quality merchandise she would be proud of would not be a slam dunk. While working at two kitchen stores and attending trade shows she learned that the housewares industry was like any other. She would have to constantly navigate a world of product lines, manufacturers, vendors and sales reps, avoiding the shoddy and pursuing the excellent. This is a story about one of the latter, a longtime favorite Sweet Basil vendor – and friend – Master Potter Lisa Howe.
As you enter Sweet Basil and approach the front desk you’ll see on your left a huge stoneware bowl full of small iridescent stoneware bowls. They represent Lisa Howe’s long journey from a Newport Harbor High School clay class to the cozy home and studio up against the McDowell Mountains she shares with Lola, her rescued Hungarian Vizsla.
“I loved everything about it,” Lisa said, remembering that high school pottery class. “I loved the clay and the sights and sounds and smells of the pottery studio.”
Since then Lisa has pursued a 20,000 year old craft with a sense of purpose supported by her skills at both mastering a demanding medium and combining her art with a love of business. “I come from a family of entrepreneurs,” she said. Her father, uncles and a grandfather owned their own businesses. Entrepreneurship was wired into her family’s DNA.
Lisa left California at a young age and set her sights on finding “the best town to live in.” She headed north and then east a bit and then south. The small Arizona high country town of Flagstaff looked promising but she was intrigued with a name she’d seen on a map of the area, “Oak Creek Canyon,” and decided to take a look. The familiar love-at-first-sight of Sedona’s red rocks landscape worked its magic. Lisa found a place to stay, worked two jobs to support herself and found her way to the Art Barn (now the Sedona Arts Center) and potter Karen Gabbart where she began an intense pottery apprenticeship and work in her mentor’s studio.
Two years later, after a cold call to the Executive Chef of the Phoenician “down the hill” in Phoenix, Lisa took a number of samples of her pottery and left that same day with a $45,000 order for 144 platters and assorted stoneware pieces for the resort’s dining rooms. She remembers taking a breather at a nearby park in Scottsdale and pondering the magnitude of what had just happened. “Move your feet,” she told herself and drove back up the hill to Sedona. Lisa gave up her two jobs and began assembling the potters and equipment needed to complete the contract. Which she did – on time.
The tough part of this success was knowing she’d have to leave Sedona to grow her business. At the time resorts were being built all over the Valley of the Sun and that’s where the business was. She opened Lisa Howe Stoneware in a studio and shop at Scottsdale Road and Mercer Lane. It wasn’t long before Lisa had 18 employees working two shifts, seven days a week. She soon had a long list of clients from resorts to gift shops and – oh yes! – a kitchen store across Scottsdale Road called Sweet Basil Gourmetware & Cooking School.
I asked Lisa why it was so hard for beginners to control clay on the spinning potter’s wheel. (I’d tried that in college.) “Clay is alive,” Lisa said. “It has a memory.” She explained how clay’s natural state is flat. It resists being forced to rise above the surface of the wheel and then stubbornly “diffuses out and down” despite the novice’s efforts to control and shape it.
Throwing clay (from “thrawan: – an Old English word for twisting or turning) is grueling work. You feel it in your legs, your back and your arms. Seven day work weeks leave little time for anything else. After years of this schedule and increasing amounts of Advil, Lisa reluctantly realized that a change was necessary. In 2006 she put a “Closed” sign on her studio and took some much needed time off.
Lisa Howe’s philosophy of life is all-encompassing and straightforward. This fits the artistic, free-spirited Bohemian lifestyle she has lived since she was sixteen. She believes passionately in the process of creative visualization. Defined as “a mental technique that uses our imagination to turn our dreams, aspirations and goals into reality,” Lisa often includes a question/answer element in her creative visualization sessions. She views the wisdom of an old African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet,” as a critical part of this process. (Modern day life coaches would call this an action item.) The golden rule completes Lisa Howe’s philosophy of life: “treat people as you would want to be treated.”
During Lisa’s hiatus she didn’t abandon clay. She sculpted and threw an occasional pot. After one session she looked at a pot when it came out of the kiln with a sense of foreboding. “This pot looks dead,” she said to her assistant. Time for a change. As always, she began the process with a creative visualization session. The question she posed was, “What’s next?” The answer was “Everybody uses a bowl every day. Big bowl – little bowls.” And then she told herself, “Move your feet.”
And that’s how the new incarnation of Lisa Howe Stoneware came to Sweet Basil. Martie Sullivan said she was so thrilled to see Lisa after almost a 3-year absence. Lisa described her new venture and Martie signed on, pleased to be able to once again offer Lisa’s stoneware to her customers.
When Lisa has a new client she’ll make a big bowl, and pay the piper with some Advil. But most of her time is spent making the small bowls that will reside in a big bowl – like the one at Sweet Basil – until they find their way to homes in the Valley of the Sun, across the country and around the world.
Lisa works six hours a day, five days a week – OK, sometimes more – in her home studio. She has an assistant to wrestle with the heavy bags of clay, make the “mud” and tend the kilns. Her windows look out on a beautiful desert landscape, a shimmering pool and neighbors coming and going. She still loves the sights, sounds and smells of her craft. The “Closed” sign she hung on her old studio is long gone. A SERENITY sign hangs above her potter’s wheel. And, one at a time, balls of clay begin their journey to becoming iridescent Little Bowls.
Some will fill the Big Bowl at Sweet Basil. You’ll agree that they are very much alive.