By JAMES E. CASTO ∙ For The State Journal
HUNTINGTON — A few years ago, Laya Hutchinson, her husband, Scott, and their four children traveled to Florida. The trip was planned so the two boys could attend a weeklong basketball camp.
"In picking things for my girls to do, I found a paint-your-own pottery studio for them," Hutchinson recalls. "They had a great time and told me ‘Hey, Mom, we really need one of these in Huntington.' I agreed. I thought such a business would do well here. I didn't have time then, but the idea remained in the back of my mind. Finally, when I found some time, I decided to research the business and open a studio."
Hutchinson, who earned a business/accounting degree from Marshall University, describes herself as "a numbers person," not an artist. She and her husband have an entrepreneurial streak and have been involved in a number of business ventures. But until she opened the Pottery Place, her role had always been behind the scenes.
"Most people who chose this line of business are probably the exact opposite of me," she said. "Until I decided to open this studio, I had never heard of a kiln. I didn't know what viscosity was. I had never dipped a piece of pottery and didn't know the difference between glazed and under-glazed. But I was eager to learn. And so I decided to take a leap, telling my husband this was the first business I was going to do by myself.
"We first opened on West Eighth Avenue in a building we own. I wanted to start out small because I didn't know how well the concept was going to be received."
Here's how the Pottery Place works: The studio sells a variety of ceramic items to paint — ranging from mugs and bowls to platters and piggy banks. Customers come in, select an item, pick the colors and the design they want to use or they can do their own design. When they finish painting their object, the studio takes care of firing it in the kiln. It's ready for the customer to pick up in five to seven days.
"We opened our first studio in September 2009, and by that December it was very obvious we had outgrown that space," Hutchinson said. "We began looking for somewhere to move. We looked at Pullman Square and a vacant space on the lower level of the complex seemed ideal. The space had never been occupied and was just a shell with a dirt floor. So we took a leap of faith, built out the space and moved in. That was in June of 2010. We've been growing ever since."
The Huntington studio was so well-received that Hutchinson opened two additional locations — at 104 Galleria Plaza in Beckley and at 394 Diederich Blvd. in Ashland, Ky.
"I've really been blessed with fabulous people to work with," Hutchinson said. "The manager of our Beckley location, George Lanham, is a Marshall grad with a ceramics degree. He's been with me since 2009. He started in the kiln room as a Marshall student. Our Ashland manager is Sarina LoPresti, and our acting manager here in Huntington is Emily Setser."
Hutchinson said she is "actively seeking a location in Charleston."
The studio attracts customers of all ages. Some people want to paint an item to give as a gift. Others want to unleash their creativity and do a handmade object they can take home and treasure.
"We offer birthday parties, host church groups and do mobile events where we send someone from the studio to a school," Hutchinson said.
"In this day and age, I think everyone enjoys receiving a handmade personalized gift. But it can be difficult and expensive to go out and purchase all the supplies it would take to make such a gift. The great thing we offer is a hands-on experience. You do it all while letting your imagination run free. We supply what you need and then clean up when you walk out the door."
The studio offers more than 300 ceramic items to choose from.
"I consider what we do entertainment. I don't consider it retail," Hutchinson said. "In a retail environment, you come in, choose what you want, purchase it and walk out the door. That's not what happens here. This is a space to come and create. Whether a 5-year-old comes in to pick up a piece that they've made or a 50-year-old comes in, their reaction is the same — ‘Wow, I made this.' Let me tell you, that's so rewarding."
The Pottery Place is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and from 1 to 7 p.m. on Sunday.