Maker, teacher, nonprofit leader, arts entrepreneur; those are just a few of the titles that Sarah Steinenger (MFA ’11) has held over the course of her inventive career and it all started with one great teacher. When Sarah was a teenager in the idyllic mountain town of Palmer Lake, Colorado, Richard Pankratz, a friend of her parents, offered her a job in his production pottery studio. “While I never actually made pottery for him, I learned all of the other aspects of studio life and how to keep things running.” She reveled in every aspect of the process: glazing, loading the kiln, mixing clay – even cleaning.
Upon arriving at Goshen College in Indiana, Sarah quickly graduated from the basics, majoring in art and “learning about atmospheric firings like wood and soda.” After earning her degree, she followed her love for the mountains and the West Coast to Seattle. “It was my first time in a big city and I took the first job I could get which turned out to be teaching preschool at a nonprofit.” Eight years and many promotions later, she was a community programs director at LifeWire, a nonprofit in Bellevue serving victims of domestic violence. Despite this success, Sarah says, “I felt like I had somehow let myself down by not pursuing a job in the arts.” Sarah applied to the MFA in Arts Leadership program at SeattleU to hone her leadership skills, with the intention of applying them in new, arts-specific contexts. She was able to put her learning into practice immediately as she took on more responsibilities at LifeWire, eventually becoming the Deputy Director. But something was missing. “Those jobs were fantastic and exhausting and still not in the arts; and the more I thought about it, I really just wanted to make art, not help other people make art.”
Sarah has fond memories of her first venture into entrepreneurship, an innovative practicum devised with her classmate Kristen Hoskins. Together they founded Sprout, a series of crowdsourcing dinners wherein diners (and donors) heard presentations from individual artists seeking funding, then voted on who would receive the night’s pot of money. After working for organizations her entire professional life, Sarah says, “I loved the independence and creativity of doing our own thing.” This experience, along with her Arts Entrepreneurship elective class, came in handy when she left LifeWire to start her own business in 2015.
Saltstone Ceramics lives in a converted garage attached to Sarah’s house, fully equipped with wheels, kilns, clay, glaze, and all of the other professional-grade equipment she needs to make production pottery for wholesale and retail. Though running a start-up is stressful, she draws daily on her first exposure to the business of art. “I cannot imagine trying to run a pottery studio without the invaluable experience [Richard provided me].” The studio also offers a range of classes for adults and children and it’s easy to imagine Sarah’s students saying the same about her one day. “I love helping my students find a gratifying creative practice and an artistic voice. I love watching the moment a difficult skill clicks with a student and they surprise themselves with what they can do.” Sarah credits the MFA program for preparing her to open, lead and market her own business, but nothing could have prepared her for Saltstone’s rapid success. “I had a business plan with projections and goals that I quickly outstripped and found myself needing to make bigger. The successes of full classes, retail shows and wholesale relationships have been surprising and overwhelming. I have never loved a job so much.”
While Sarah’s story is unique, many of our MFA students arrive to the program with a rich diversity of skills and experience. Sarah is proof that the path to career fulfillment is sometimes long and winding, but never dull, and we aim to equip our students for every part of that journey. We asked what wisdom she would pass on to those hoping to replicate her success. “There are moments when it is the most stressful endeavor I have ever attempted. Sometimes work is work. Other times, work is joy – it’s invigorating, empowering, and inspiring. That has been true no matter what I was doing to make money. I feel privileged and grateful that I get to make and teach art to make money, and getting here has been a really long process. I wouldn’t give up any of that journey.”