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Circle of ceramics: former Pottery 101 employee now selling her own work in gallery

SALISBURY — Standing in the gallery of Pottery 101, Rachel Gunsch felt like a professional for the first time.

It was far from the first time Gunsch had been in the gallery at 101 S. Main St. that overlooks the square in downtown Salisbury. From the time she was a sophomore in high school to when she graduated, Gunsch spent her afternoons and weekends working in the store or in the studio below, helping customers and arranging the work crafted by potters from across the state.

As she stood in the shop four years later, the week before Christmas, Gunsch was looking at clay creations she’d crafted herself.  The mugs, bowls and plates were arranged on a white platform for customers to purchase, among the pottery Gunsch had helped arrange when she worked there.

“To me, that kind of felt like an official step — you’re a potter now because you’re in this gallery,” Gunsch said.

Gunsch first tried her hand at pottery when she was a freshman in high school and her mother suggested that they take a class at Waterworks Visual Arts Center. They enjoyed it so much that they enrolled in a longer course hosted in the basement studio at Pottery 101. It didn’t take long for Gunsch to realize she’d discovered a passion.

“I really fell in love with the wheel,” Gunsch said. “I loved making things, being really creative with it and not just focusing on cups and bowls.”

Cheryl Goins holds one of Rachel Gunsch’s hand-crafted mugs that Pottery 101 sells in its gallery. Ben Stansell/Salisbury Post

When she turned 16 and started hunting for a part-time job, Gunsch knew where she wanted to work.

“I knew how much fun I had at Pottery 101 working with clay and I thought it’d be amazing to be in the gallery and meet all the artists and so I went to Cheryl (Goins) and she said she wasn’t really hiring,” Gunsch said.

Goins, the owner of Pottery 101, had hired younger employees before, but it hadn’t panned out. Still, Gunsch was persistent.

“My grandmother convinced me to go back and ask because it never hurts to ask,” Gunsch said. “I did and for some reason she decided why not and I started working for her.”

The hire turned out to be a good one.

“I hired her and she turned out to be wonderful. She really was,” Goins said. “She was very involved in the gallery and even taught some classes for me.”

Goins said she remembers slow days in the shop when she and Gunsch would study together, Gunsch poring over her high school text books and Goins studying to earn an art history degree from Arizona State online.

Gunsch and Goins became fast friends and Gunsch quickly found her place as a customer favorite.

“If you shopped in the gallery, you knew Rachel,” Goins said.

Gunsch’s time working at Pottery 101 solidified her love of pottery, so it was only natural that she majored in ceramics when she went to Warren Wilson College outside of Asheville. Her love of pottery continued to grow under instructor Leah Leitson, so it was almost surprising that when she graduated last spring, she was poised to pursue a career as a museum registrar, not a potter.

The problem was, due to COVID-19, most museums were closed. And the few that did remain open weren’t hiring.

Once again, Gunsch’s mom suggested pottery.

“All the museums were kind of shut down and I wasn’t getting any feedback or answers about my applications,” Gunsch said. “My mom said, ‘Why don’t you try being a potter?’ That’s when we started discussing how to make that happen.”

Instead of looking for a studio somewhere, Gunsch and her family decided to make one in her parents’ backyard.

“We figured that if we just put a shed in the backyard, it was a way for me to be at home and keep working during the pandemic and give being a potter a shot,” Gunsch said.

That was in July. Over the course of three months, Gunsch, her parents and her boyfriend transformed an empty shed into a bona fide ceramics studio, complete with a wheel and a kiln. Her dad built furniture for the studio and they installed an old classroom table from Catawba College, where her mom works.

Rachel Gunsch’s shed-turned studio, where she crafts the pottery she sells online and in Pottery 101. Photo submitted.

With the studio complete, Gunsch started her pottery business, which is called SunRayPottery.

All the while, Goins had been following along with Gunsch’s career. Goins teared up when she saw a post on Facebook announcing Gunsch’s college graduation and she was quick to follow the Instagram page Gunsch set up to promote her work. Even though Goins wanted to carry Gunsch’s pottery in her shop, and Gunsch certainly wanted to sell it there, the two circled each other for a time.

“I was watching her, seeing her posts and following her on Instagram,” Goins said. “I thought, well, she hasn’t approached me so maybe she just wants to do her own thing for a while.”

Gunsch, who has a different perspective on the encounter, laughs about it now.

“We were both scared to ask each other,” Gunsch said. “I was waiting to build up my body of work and have an entire set and be ready to present it to her and go through the whole process that other artists apply through and I was waiting to build up to ask her.”

Finally, Goins broached the question, asking Gunsch if she’d like to sell her pottery in the shop where she used to work. Gunsch, of course, took her up on the offer. 

“It had been my dream to have my work in her gallery,” Gunsch said.

The week before Christmas, Gunsch brought some of her inventory to the store.

“We did the inventory process I was so familiar with other artists bringing their work to us and I knew what kind of information she needed,” Gunsch said. “(Goins) unpacked it and seeing her hold the pieces and put them out … it was unbelievable. I don’t know how to describe that feeling.”

Rachel Gunsch and Cheryl Goins have remained friends since Gunsch worked at Pottery 101 during high school. Ben Stansell/Salisbury Post

At just 23, Gunsch is younger than most of her counterparts, but that hasn’t stopped her from chasing her passion.

“I’m so appreciative of my family for giving me the opportunity to have a studio in the backyard and for Cheryl, who has been endlessly supportive of my creative endeavors,” Gunsch said.

Gunsch’s pottery can be found on Etsy at www.etsy.com/shop/SunRayPottery or in the gallery at Pottery 101.

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