Jessica Egan's story is built on stubbornness. The good kind of stubbornness, the stuff some might call perseverance. The 26-year-old first laid eyes on a potter's wheel back in high school. At the time, no one in the school's art department knew how to use the wheels, let alone teach students how to operate them. But Egan was certain she wanted to learn how to throw on a potter's wheel.
“Being a teenager, I was thinking, 'Well, I wanna do this thing.' Of course I wanted to learn the one thing no one was teaching,” Egan said. “Of course. So I found this really great ceramics studio very close to where I lived, and I went there for a class and I just loved it. I fell in love with it right away.”
Before she went, she called ahead and asked if the studio owner might need an intern or an extra hand. She was met with a resounding no. But after that first class at Bryan Becker Clay Werks in Hartland, Wis., the owner changed his mind: “You know? We could actually use some help.” Egan practiced and worked in the studio throughout high school and even returned during college breaks when she was attending Columbia College Chicago, where she was working toward a bachelor's degree in fine arts with a minor in environmental studies. As fate would have it, art school was another one of those things people tried to steer her away from.
“I was warned before I went to art school not to go to art school if you're doing ceramics. But I'm really happy I did,” she explained. “I didn’t go and get a degree in ceramics, which certainly leaves some things out of what I’ve learned. I’ve definitely had to catch up in some ways. But I feel like I can look at ceramics from a lot of different ways, from the fine art perspective, from an outsider perspective of someone who didn’t spend their undergrad in the ceramics studio.”
Her fine arts degree didn't leave much room for the kind of ceramics Egan had fallen in love with (think bowls, plates, mugs). Rather, the program pushed her to create sculptural ceramics, the kind of pieces that are displayed, not used.
“There are certainly people who didn't consider ceramics—especially functional ceramics—a fine art. It's a craft or a hobby,” Egan said. “That was a big part of what fueled me. … Being constantly told by people, 'That's not art.' Well, I’ll show you that it's art.”
During and after college, Egan aligned herself with a handful of mentors who started telling her “do more” instead of “don't do that.” She took ceramics classes at Lillstreet Art Center in Ravenswood and traveled for a summer work-study program at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tenn., a traditional craft school where she worked alongside woodworkers, jewelers, painters and printmakers. Egan honed her craft and returned to Chicago ready to commit to a career in functional ceramics. Though she works full time at Sprout Home in West Town as an interior plant specialist, Egan spends just about every other waking moment in her ceramics studio in Logan Square.
“When I realized that it was something I wanted to spend all my free time on, I think that was the greatest sign,” she said. “If I was planning my day, I always wanted to be going to the studio. If I had a day off or a week off, that's where I wanted to be. It felt really obvious that that's what I needed to do.”
So began the evolution of Little Fire Ceramics, the name Egan gave her brand almost two years ago. It's a nod to her last name, which means “Little Fire” in Gaelic and serendipitously references both the petite nature of her pieces and the firing process that happens within the kiln. At first, her pieces were intricate and involved a laborious inlay process. “It's so vastly different from where I’m at now,” Egan said. Then one day she decided to forgo the details and leave her work clean.
“I stripped away all that excess and saw the piece as a form rather than something to be highly decorated on the surface,” she explained. “It was beautiful in itself, and it didn't need to have all this extra information. That was an aha moment for me.”
Today, Little Fire Ceramics pieces are marked by restraint and natural beauty: soft globe-like bud vases, perfectly white planters and glaze-dipped mugs with just a hint of color. Ultimately, Egan said each piece is designed to be reimagined by its future owner and what it holds next, whether that's coffee or an air plant or ice cream.
“We all have a lot of things going on in our lives, and I love things that are almost a breath of fresh air—things that are very light and clean,” Egan said. “My pieces are very minimal, they're very simple. It leaves a lot to focus on things being as well-designed, in terms of aesthetic and function.”
That's precisely what drew Anna and David Posey—the husband-and-wife team behind Elske, a Nordic-influenced restaurant that opened in the West Loop last month—to Egan's work. David Posey found Little Fire Ceramics the way most people find things they want: Instagram.
“It was late at night and I was in the Explore section of Instagram,” said David Posey. “I follow a lot of ceramicists. And one of her plates popped up, and I showed it to Anna and she thought it was beautiful. We were having a hard time finding [ceramicists] in Chicago, and I happened to look her up and see that she was in Chicago.”
Earlier this year, the couple commissioned Egan to make plates, bowls and an assortment of bud vases for the restaurant. The round plates boast a gorgeous cobalt blue ombre wash that's slightly different on each piece, and the bowls were created especially for Anna's area of expertise, dessert. They're pale pink on the outside and white on the inside—vice versa on some. The Poseys worked with Egan and Christie Goodfellow, a Cincinnati-area-based potter, to craft all of the tableware at Elske.
“There is a definite focus on food here,” David Posey said. “We are keeping everything simple. Having unique plateware that's all different, visually it’s very important to us.”
“It really brings the food to life,” Anna Posey added.
Elske isn't Egan's only foray in the Chicago restaurant scene. She’s also worked with chef Justin Behlke of Thurk, an underground veggie-focused pop-up hosted in Elizabeth Restaurant. She crafted a unique set of earthy bowls and plates for Behlke’s dinners, and she said she’s already working on a second order for him.
That's the other thing about Egan: Beyond being wildly persistent, she's always on the go. “I'm never walking, I'm always running,” Egan laughed. But when she sits down at the wheel, everything melts away and she's able to harness her seemingly endless energy into her work.
“When I'm really in the midst of making a piece, I actually feel very calm. I have to focus my thoughts and attention on something because you can't make anything with 10,000 thoughts going on in your head at one moment,” Egan said. “It feels like you can actually let breath out. Whenever I'm making pieces, I like to think about them almost holding a breath.”
Though Egan's passion has morphed into a full-blown career that comes with countless business responsibilities, sitting down at the wheel to throw pottery never ceases to inspire and calm her. There's nowhere else she'd rather be.
“People ask me, 'Since you do this all the time now, do you not like it? Does it feel like work?' And for me, it doesn't,” Egan said. “Yeah, I have to make a bunch of spreadsheets sometimes, but if I weren't making ceramics, I'd still be in the studio all the time. None of the things I'm doing feel like a burden. I'm so excited for each part of it.”
FIND HER WORK
These Chicago shops carry Little Fire Ceramics.
- One Strange Bird: 2124 W. Division St. 773-276-4420
- Sprout Home: 745 N. Damen Ave. 312-226-5950
- Gather Home & Lifestyle: 2321 W. North Ave. 312-810-3183
- Verdant Matter: 1152 W. 18th St.
- Study Hall: 2016 W. Chicago Ave.