Convivial Production, a ceramics studio in the West Bottoms, has built its success on clean, minimalist designs. The fast-growing, woman-owned company employs mostly women workers, including Jennie Vu (foreground), one of 25 employees. (photo by Jim Barcus)
Started in a Garage, the Woman-Owned and Operated Convival Production has Achieved a National Reach
A little stubbornness has served Chentell Shannon well.
As a student at Wheaton College west of Chicago, she often heard how few jobs there were in the arts. “I guess Convivial has been my response to that,” Shannon says with a laugh.
In 2013, with a degree in Community Art and Urban Studies in hand, the Hawaii native headed for Kansas City — her husband Stephen’s hometown.
She soon installed a small ceramics studio in their garage, where, working alone, she cranked out what became Convivial Production’s first pieces. Those plates, cups and bowls — all white — bore simple, clean lines inspired by “architectural elements” she’d noticed on walks around the Windy City.
Her goal was both simple and challenging: to create a collection of functional, attractive handmade pottery that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. One designed to enhance “conviviality”—defined as “the quality of being friendly and lively.”
“I always knew I wanted to run my own company, and I didn’t want to make everything myself,” she explains. “The plan was very clear to me.”
Within three years, her homegrown operation was making and selling enough ceramic wares to move to a much larger warehouse space in the West Bottoms. Today, Convivial occupies an entire floor of that same building — 8,000 square feet.
And on a sunny spring morning, nearly every inch of it is filled with activity — a dozen workers at various stations mixing, molding, firing, glazing and detailing clay. Nearby, two more employees inspect and fulfill orders queued up on a row of clipboards — some destined for large wholesale customers like West Elm; others for nearby businesses, such as mugs for Ibis Bakery featuring its ibis logo, and dishes for local restaurants including The Campground, Fox & Pearl and The Antler Room.
It’s quickly apparent that the workforce here is all female — with one exception. At a table in the corner, mixing lead Tanner Martine loads the slip-mixer, the first stage of turning powder into products.
“We didn’t set out to hire only women, but that’s what the vast majority of our applicants have been,” Shannon says.
Some arrive with ceramics on their resume. Casting Lead Molly Lenhausen recently graduated from Kansas State University. She says she was “thrilled” to find a place where her technical training and ceramics skills could generate a regular paycheck.
Others are novices, drawn to Convivial’s mission in different ways.
Jailyn Harrison admits that three years ago she knew more about coffee than clay. She met Shannon rock-climbing, applied at Convivial and was hired for the production team. She’s now a casting lead too.
“Chentell’s a great teacher,” Harrison offers. “She lays out the background we need and gives us context for what we’re doing.”
As for Harrison’s favorite part of the job? “I love the physicality,” she says. “It’s a lot like rock climbing.”
Around the room, bits of banter occasionally float above the industrial racket. But equal amounts of concentration and intensity are present as well.
“Every move you’re making has to be intentional,” Madison Jones explains as she and other production assistants subtly shape the rim of a salad plate with sponges. “You need to really stay focused. It’s almost meditative.”
The opportunity to work for a woman-owned company appeals to many of the applicants. So does the pride in helping handcraft beautiful items destined to grace tables, countertops and gardens across the country.
But as Shannon points out, the bottom line is that it’s still manufacturing work. “You definitely have to be resilient to do this,” she says. “The work culture we’re trying to build here is one of resilience . . . strength of mind and body.”
That resilience has been tested by the speed of the company’s growth. As sales continued to rise throughout the pandemic, Convivial found itself adding personnel to meet the demand.
As a result, Studio Manager Briana Taylor has overseen a series of changes to the production line — moves designed to streamline the process and reduce turnaround times. “This is a huge studio space,” she explains, “but as a growing company we have to work really hard to be strategic and organized at all times to maximize our production, quality and efficiency.
Which brings us to another chapter in the Convivial story, one that Shannon’s plan did not foresee.
Pairing Plants and Ceramics
“The flower business wasn’t what I was thinking of originally,” she says of Verdant, the botanical shop which opened in the Crossroads late last summer. “I was thinking of retail space for Convivial.”
But Verdant quickly proved that plants and ceramics are natural partners in hospitality.
The cozy 18th Street storefront (previously home to YJ’s Coffeehouse) is stocked with an array of houseplants and flowering things. Greenery that patrons can pair with vases and planters fresh from the kilns at Convivial.
“People are spending so much time at home these days. What better way to brighten things up than with flowers?” asks Verdant Manager Jackie Bartholme.
The store’s inventory also includes candles, cards, botanical books and a festive mix of handmade items perfect for gift-giving. Conviviality strikes again!
“We’re seeing a lot of repeat customers,” Bartholme reports. “It’s really been fun getting to know them.”
The company’s foray into flowers may prove valuable in yet another important way.
“I kept hearing from Convivial customers who wanted something new or something more,” Shannon explains, adding that she can’t roll out new products seasonally or every few months.
“That’s not sustainable for the way Convivial works,” she says. “We add a few things here and there. But now with Verdant, and the kind of perishable items it offers, we have a way to keep people coming back. We’re developing a routine that’s good for both sides.”
Customers can also shop at Convivial Production’s studio, 1026 Hickory St., which is welcoming limited numbers of visitors and hopes to resume large studio tours when the pandemic subsides. All items are also available through the studio’s robust website, www.convivialproduction.com.