Not only does Throwing Mud Gallery have a cool name, it’s located right in the center of the Old Town Tacoma business district, at 2212 30th St. Offering pottery classes, paint your own pottery and fine handcrafted art pieces for sale, Throwing Mud Gallery is unique in that it provides to the public an avenue for artistic expression found nowhere else in Tacoma.
Owners, and husband and wife team, Mark and Eileen Hudak opened Throwing Mud Gallery in January 2011. The idea to open a gallery first sparked two years earlier when Eileen, a Tacoma native, worked in the corporate world in Information Technology and was outsourced. She left the company in 2009, which presented the opportunity to venture into new territory. She and Mark started talking about opening an art gallery, which came to be Throwing Mud Gallery where Mark now has his studio and also shares his passion for ceramic arts with others through pottery classes. His work is available at Throwing Mud Gallery, as well as other fine galleries in the Northwest. He also sells his pottery online at Etsy.com.
The couple put a lot of thought into going into business for themselves. “We talked about it and talked about it and then it got to be about a year after I’d left,” Eileen said. “We said, ‘we gotta do it now, otherwise I’m going to end up in another job.’”
Mark was ready, as well. After college, he took a job teaching at a small parochial school but all the while he made pottery as a side business.
“About eight years later things changed and I made the jump to being a fulltime potter and making my living that way,” he said. For the past 31 years he has been making his living as a potter and the last five years has been with Throwing Mud Gallery. Mark also teaches pottery classes through Metro Parks.
The combination of Mark’s artistic talents and Eileen’s business experience proved to be a perfect match. “When we were assessing what we were going to do here, I had certain skills in pottery and she had all kinds of skills I didn’t have, like computer stuff and bookkeeping,” Mark said. Thus, Mark’s “domain” became the pottery side of the business and Eileen’s is the business side. This doesn’t mean the two don’t confer with each other, however, as they have a meeting of the minds anytime there are business decisions to make. And best of all, working together every day has had no ill effects on their relationship. “People always ask us that question. We work really well together. We still love each other after five years in business,” Mark laughed.
To get their business plan into action, the first task was to find just the right place for the gallery’s location. “This space had been empty a long time,” Eileen said. “I drove by it when I went to work everyday.” When they first moved in, there were some empty storefronts around the gallery, but over the years Throwing Mud Gallery has attracted other businesses to move in.
In designing the layout of Throwing Mud Gallery, Mark and Eileen established the retail gallery up front. They started out with mostly Mark’s pottery and are now up to more than 100 different artists selling their works. Most are potters in the Pacific Northwest, mainly in Washington and Oregon. The gallery sells original art pieces – high quality pottery, jewelry, wood, glass, metal and two-dimensional art – all handmade by the artists.
Behind the gallery is where making pottery takes place either by hand sculpting or by using a pottery wheel. “We teach people how to make pottery from the forming stage all the way to the glazing and firing. We take them through all the steps of making it yourself,” Mark said. The pottery classes at Throwing Mud Gallery are a mix of beginners to more experienced adult students, which encourages a cooperative learning environment.
It wasn’t long before opportunities to expand the business came about. Once the business opened, customers came in wanting to paint their own pottery, which Throwing Mud Gallery didn’t offer at the time.
“I was getting phone calls pretty much every day so I looked up where I could refer people,” Eileen said. She found places in Gig Harbor, Auburn and Lakewood but nothing in Tacoma. “Then the chance came for us to expand our space. We said let’s just try a small one – we only seat 16 people in here – and it’s just taken off. It’s been great.” After just two years, she said the paint your own pottery addition now comprises 25-30 percent of the business, with the pottery studio making up almost half of the business. Incorporating the paint your own pottery venture also allowed the gallery to offer something for children and families to do together, thus expanding the gallery’s customer base.
"We aren't competing with online stores; we are selling an experience," Mark said.
Looking ahead to the next five years, Mark and Eileen have ideas of how they’d like to grow their business, such as hiring employees to expand the gallery’s business hours. “We’d like to have a bigger space, a bigger paint your own pottery studio with a separate room for special events,” Eileen said. “We’ve talked about adding other things besides clay, like fused glass that would fit in nicely as a craft with pottery but not necessarily a clay.”
Mark said he’d like to incorporate workshops into the teaching side of the business, as the pottery classes currently offered last for six weeks. His ideas include bringing in well-known local potters to do presentations and also to offer customers a pottery making experience like those offered at glass blowing studios where customers come in, make one specific piece and take it home or pick it up later after it’s fired.
Does the couple have any advice for beginning entrepreneurs thinking of opening their own business? “Make sure you have enough money to support yourself when you first start your business because if you don’t, you’re going to go bankrupt very quickly,” Mark said. “Most people overspend themselves and think they’re going to make money right away and usually you’re not going to make enough money to pay your bills for the first one or two years,”
“And be prepared to work really, really hard,” Eileen advised.
To learn more about Throwing Mud Gallery, visit www.ThrowingMudGallery.com.
Hear an expanded interview with Mark and Eileen Hudak on “It’s Just Business” hosted by William Manzanares and Michael Harris, Thursday, Dec. 10, 3 p.m. on KLAY 1180 AM radio.