ORIGINS - Our Journey Together
In the Oxford Dictionary the noun journey is defined as: an act of travelling from one place to another. Associated with this idea of travel, the dictionary gives a derivative meaning: a long and often difficult process of personal change and development. Thus, the origins of this journey I now write about began when the doctors informed Mike and Helen that their sixth child had been diagnosed with Down syndrome. It took several months to adjust to that incongruous reality, that poignant difference between what is expected and what actually is. But, like all babies, Christian was adorable and endearing in his own ‘Downsey’ specialness.
In elementary school Christian had a very good teacher who made valiant efforts to help him learn reading, writing, and simple math. However, at the end of elementary school, this excellent teacher told us that Christian had to be moved from a teachable class to a trainable class. Trainable classes in our particular middle school amounted to little more than group babysitting. At the end of middle school, we took him out of the system.
In the fall of 2007 we began homeschooling and named Christian’s homeschool: Gift Academy (a fortuitous name, given what was to come). There were many school hours that needed to be filled to meet the state’s educational requirements. We made a list of many activities that would be beneficial as special needs learning. One friend suggested that we consider pottery because of the enjoyment her son had derived from it. So we followed up on this suggestion to help fill up Christian’s homeschooling hours when he could not “do” school as other students did.
Down the street, two miles away, lived a potter. He agreed to give Christian private lessons two hours a week and these lessons continued for the school year. From day one, Christian was enthralled with this hands-on activity, which could transform a lump of clay into a beautifully colored mug. Over those nine months, what we did not see, what completely blindsided us was that we ourselves would fall in love with making pottery with our son in our home.
Thus began a journey of breathtaking, providential surprises that became Christian Royal Pottery. It started by parents who were trying to do better by their son and along the way many kind-hearted, kindred spirits came along side offering help and opportunity at just the right time in order for it to come into being.
In the summer of 2008, we bought a hundred pounds of clay, some glazes, a few tools, and a used kiln. We started slamming (pugging) clay on the kitchen table and rolling it out with a dough pin. Then we would wrap it around a wine bottle to make a mug or tumbler. We began to fill up days, hour-by-hour making piece after piece, slowly learning from our mistakes. In time, the lower level of our tri-level house became Christian’s pottery studio. Fortunately, we had enough relatives and friends and we were able to sell most of it and give away the rest. We were neither potters nor artisans. We had no prior skills or training. We called ourselves “the three blind mice” and came up with the studio motto: Stoneware With The Charm Of Things Imperfect and Simple. We kept reading, experimenting, and making whatever we could. It was delightful fun for the three of us.
After a year, a stream of events began to unfold – things we could not have imagined much less have planned. In the spring of 2009, Helen met John and Jan Myers of Myersart, who were professional potters. She was driving home from Charlotte, North Carolina and stopped at the South Carolina Welcome Station. One brochure from among hundreds caught her attention – a pottery brochure that featured Myersart. She was captivated and called to see if she could drop in. She spent two hours with John and Jan in their home and studio asking a million questions about their beautiful pottery and telling them how we were trying to make pottery a vocation for our son. Those two hours would forever change Christian and us and seal his vocation as a potter.
Inexplicably, this couple to whom we were complete strangers, invited Helen to bring Christian to their studio the following week and they would begin to teach him and us “the techniques and methods they had learned over thirty years of making pottery.”
John began to teach Christian his way of making slab pottery. It was a method that had endless possibilities and it was a method that was much more suited to Christian’s abilities. They took us under “wing” and began to teach us all the things that make up a production studio. Hours turned into days. And days turned into visits back and forth between us. For years now, John and Jan have been there for Christian and for us, teaching us about firings, glazes, and production efficiency. They lavished on us their knowledge, their expertise, and their kindnesses.
We purchased some new equipment for the studio and ordered chemicals to begin batching glazes based on recipes that John and Jan shared with us. Christian loved the new method of making pottery especially when it involved using the wheel. And after about six months of making pottery using John’s method, we received a phone call from the Down Syndrome Association of the Lowcountry (DSAL) inviting Christian to sell his pottery at the Buddy Walk, a large community event, which typically does not have vendors.
The Buddy Walk was established by the National Down Syndrome Society to promote and celebrate acceptance and inclusion of people with Down syndrome. Trista, a Down’s friend of Christian, was serving on the DSAL Board. She told the Board that she had one of Christian’s mugs and that she thought Christian should sell his pottery at the Buddy Walk. How lovely. How fortuitous. Over a thousand people viewed Christian’s pottery display and he sold more than five hundred dollars of his wares to people who were not his relatives, to folks who had never met him before.
As a result of this exposure, Christine Osborne, the owner of one of Charleston’s most acclaimed retail stores, Wonder Works, invited Christian to sell his pottery at her multiple retail locations. Wonder Works’ slogan is: “Magic Happens Here” and so it did, and so it has year after year. Well over fifty percent of all sales have been through Wonder Works.
Through Wonder Works, another storeowner learned of Christian. Jeannette Nicholson invited Christian to sell his pottery in Ellis-Nicholson Art Gallery located in the French Quarter of historic downtown Charleston. Christian’s pottery was being sold among paintings, and sculptures worth thousands of dollars. It was like a Once Upon A Time fairytaleand we were bursting with awe and excitement.
The hope for Christian to have a skill and vocation that would animate his life with purpose, camaraderie, and identity was becoming a reality. Here was a special needs young man who could neither read nor write, chronologically a teenager but childlike in disposition, who had been given a chance for life with dignity and self-esteem. Wonder of wonders, Christian was becoming a professional potter.
In April of 2012, yet another remarkable event occurred. Kind friends from Atlanta, Woody and Ginny White, took some of Christian’s pottery to give to Joni Eareckson Tada at the National Day of Prayer in Washington, DC. Joni is the founder of Joni And Friends Ministry and Joni And Friends International Disability Center in California.
A month later we received a phone call from Joni telling us that she loved Christian’s pottery that she also liked his slogan very much: Stoneware With The Charm of Things Imperfect and Simple. She told us that Joni And Friends made documentaries for their television ministry and that she wanted to capture Christian’s story.
Two months later Duane Barnhart and Tim Rygh of Pyro Pictures spent five days with us filming the story of the journey. That fall we received a call from Doug Mazza, CEO of Joni And Friends, informing us that the video: Christian Royal – In The Potter’s Hands had won a 2012 Silver Telly Award for excellence in broadcast and web media. Once again we were amazed.
In 2013 we continued to move forward in incremental steps. We hired a studio manager. Laura has a degree in ceramics and brings wonderful skills to the studio. And with each kiln load Christian’s design and decorative skills continue to be developed, while maintaining the intent of simple, yet desirable pieces.
Christian Royal Pottery is all handcrafted merchandise produced by Christian, his parents and Laura working together to create elegant, high-fired stoneware impressed with lace and leaves. With his unique set of abilities and attention span, Christian generally works twenty to thirty hours each week. Christian’s studio, while small, is state-of-the-art and is in production forty hours a week, with kiln firings at night and on the weekends.
Christian’s handcrafting skills and his studio have equipped him with a vocation, which have been designed to animate his life with purpose, camaraderie, and identity in society. Each piece of pottery is handcrafted. Those pieces that are underglazed are each done by hand. As a result, each piece has natural variations in size, shape and intensity of color. It is this that makes each piece unique and these variations are not considered defects.
Since the Buddy Walk, the public has enthusiastically purchased several thousand pieces of Christian Royal Pottery through our local retail outlets. Our journey continues in 2014 with the launch of the Christian Royal Pottery e-commerce store.
With the launch, we are setting a goal of selling one or more pieces of pottery in all fifty states this year. When we achieve this, we may set a Guinness World Record: a Down syndrome potter selling his wares from sea to shining sea. Wahooo!!!
Thank you for visiting our store and for any purchases you may have made. If you have any questions or need more information, please contact us. Also, sign up for our emails and continue the journey with us. We are only just beginning. We will have a map of the U.S. and will shade in each state as sales occur. We will send out an email each time we have shaded in five states. It will be exciting to follow the progress. And, we would love it, if you would consider helping us reach our goal by emailing our store link to your friends in different states. Thanks, Mike, Helen, and Christian