By Keysha Drexel
Tena Payne, the artist behind Earthborn Studios, often wonders what her life would have been like if she had skipped class at Homewood High School on one particular day in the 1970s.
Tena, an accomplished potter who has her work serving up some of the best food in the world, shudders to think what would have happen if she had never been turned on to the power of clay.
“Lowell Vann was an art teacher over at Samford (University), and he came over to the high school to give a demonstration on the potter’s wheel,” Tena said. “One look at the clay moving in his hands, of seeing it come alive in his hands, and I was hooked. I hate to think what might have been if I had skipped school that day.”
Skipping school when she was a teenager would not have been an odd occurrence, Tena said.
“I struggled as a teen. I had all this energy, all these ideas and nowhere to channel it,” she said. “That’s when I got in trouble.”
Tena said it was her natural curiosity that landed her in hot water the most.
“I was always into something, whether I should have been or not, “ she said. “That curiosity about the world, oh, man, it got me in trouble.”
Tena said her parents were patient with her. She remembers her father, a Greek immigrant, always encouraging her to work hard and do her best.
“My father always told me I could do anything I set my mind to do, and I know that before I got hooked on pottery, I would frustrate him a lot, but I never felt like he didn’t believe in me,” she said.
In today’s environment, Tena said, she would probably be a child who had to be on medication. But back in the 1970s on that fateful day Vann walked into her classroom, Tena found the only balm she would ever need.
“Pottery gave me something to focus on, to really put all of my energy and heart into, and that’s the way I’ve approached it since the very beginning,” she said.
Tena said once working with clay got in her blood, there was no turning back.
“I can’t imagine not doing it, I just can’t, she said.
Creating her pottery, which combines functionality with decoration, is a labor of love, Tena said.
“You put all of your emotions into each piece and try to really connect with what you’re doing,” she said.
Sometimes that connection can seem to transcend space and time, Tena said. She said when she creates her pieces and looks at the pottery of other artists, she always marvels that somewhere on that piece of work is the artist’s unique fingerprint. That fingerprint, Tena said, connects potters across time.
“Man was been working with clay since the beginning of time, and it’s a relationship, a back and forth,” she said. “The clay can absorb whatever you put out there and it can give you back whatever you need.”
Pottery gave her the creative outlet she needed as a teenager. Over the years, as she married, raised a family and established a career, it was something she always came back to, Tena said.
Tena and her husband met when they were in high school, both working at Food Town.
“We never dated when we worked together, but we ended up getting married when were 19 and we’re still married,” she said.
The couple had two children, Nathan and Rebecca, and soon Tena’s life centered around being a wife and working mother.
“The whole time I was raising my family, I was doing the pottery in the background,” Tena said. “I never gave it up.”
Tena worked as a job recruiter at one point, a position that taught her some important skills she would use later when she launched her own business.
“It helped me learn how to talk to people and to talk to people from all walks of life,” she said.. “I learned things like the secretaries are often the most knowledgeable people you’ll meet.”
After the job in recruiting, Tena went to work at Southern Living in a temporary position.
“I didn’t have a college degree, but I had been working there for two weeks and taught myself their entire computer system. I tried to learn everything I could,” she said.
That desire to succeed is something Tena said she got from her father.
“He didn’t have a college degree, but he had a good life and that’s what he taught me. He taught me to work hard and never give up,” she said.
During her eight years at Southern Living, Tena said, she took advantage of the company’s tuition reimbursement program to earn a bachelor’s degree at Samford University.
“I graduated with a 3.9 grade point average and it gave me confidence,” she said.
After that, Tena started working at a radio station, writing advertising copy. But she still yearned to find a way to make a living out of her first love—pottery.
She traveled to art shows and art fairs in between working and caring for her family, but she knew that someday she wanted to trade in her office chair for a full-time seat at the potter’s wheel.
“I knew it was something I wanted to do, but I couldn’t imagine making a living doing it full time,” she said.
That’s when she had a fateful exchange with Chef Chris Hastings.
Tena and her family had a bumper crop of shiitake mushrooms one year, and Tena decided to sell some of them to the well-known James Beard Award-winning owner of Hot and Hot Club in Birmingham.
During her visit with Chris, he and Tena discussed her pottery, and he commissioned her to make some unique serving pieces and dinnerware for his restaurant.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Tena said. “I was so humbled and so excited and never thought it would turn into me having my own studio.”
While she worked to create the serving pieces and dinnerware for Chris, Tena continued in her job at the radio station but constantly felt the tug of wanting to get back to the potter’s wheel.
“This whole time I was thinking that I had a product and a market and that I just had to find a way to make it work,” she said.
So one day while she was at work at the radio station, Tena looked up pottery trade shows on the Internet.
“I saw there was a trade show in Washington, D.C., coming up and thought it would be cool if I could go, but at that point, it seemed completely impossible,” she said.
While she was working at the radio station, Tena was also looking for freelance writing work. But then her bosses at the radio station found out she’d been looking for freelance work and fired her on the spot.
“It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” she said, “I needed to focus 100 percent on my product, and I couldn’t do that while I was working that job.”
Tena picked herself up, brushed herself off and set about getting herself and her pottery to that trade show in D.C.
Tena had a friend accompany her on the trip and hand out her dinnerware and serving pieces for chefs at the show to use in their demonstrations.
“I started out with $3,000,” she said, “Here I am in this little 10-by-10 booth hoping we can make enough money to pay to go to the next trade show.”
But the trip to the nation’s capital turned out to be a most fortunate event, Tena said.
“Because all the chefs are using my pottery in their demonstrations, it’s showing up all over the convention, and so then a rep comes up to me and tells me my pieces are wonderful and then asked me how soon I can make 1,000 of them,” she said. “It was exhilarating and really, really scary at the same time.”
Tena returned home from the trade show with 1,000 orders to make for her new customer—the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The Bellagio uses Tena’s banquet items.
From there, Tena set about growing her business and doing what she had always wanted to do—be a full-time potter.
“It’s been 12 years now and not a day goes by that I am not thankful, that I don’t marvel that I get to do this,” she said. “I feel so blessed to do what I love and to have people love what I do.”
One of her earliest retailers was the Cook Store in Mountain Brook, Tena said. Her pottery is now featured at restaurants and retailers across the world.
Locally, you can find Tena’s work at the Cook Store, in service at the Ross Bridge Resort’s Brock’s Restaurant in Hoover, at Hot and Hot Fish Club and at the Spring House Restaurant on Lake Martin. Her pieces can also be found in the Ross Bridge Resort gift shop and at Artists Incorporated in Vestavia Hills.
Tena is a charter member of Artists Incorporated, something she says makes her feel she’s truly come full circle in her career as a potter. Artists Incorporated is a co-operative fine art gallery.
“Lowell Vann founded Artists Incorporated, and then he asked me to come on as a charter member, and that really made me feel like I had come full circle,” she said. “He’s had a tremendous influence on my whole life.”
Tena said she does what she can to promote her craft and the artists practicing it. She serves as the alternate Alabama representative to the American Craft Council. In 2009, Tena was a winner in the “Make Mine a Million” contest, a year-long business growth competition for women entrepreneurs.
Her small pottery business has grown and evolved over the years in ways Tena said she never could have imagined.
“I was in my basement when I got the order from the Bellagio,” she said.
What she started by herself has become a creative company that employs eight people, Tena said.
“God opened a door for me, and I had to go through it,” she said.
Tena said she is proud to be able to give artists jobs through Earthborn Studios.
“We’re paying our bills and have eight employees, so that represents eight American jobs,” she said.
At Earthborn Studios in Leeds, Tena works alongside her husband and her two adult children.
“Our son’s working with us and our daughter’s working with us, and in 10 or so years, we’re counting on that business to provide for them over time. We plan to hand the business down to our children and the grandkids,” she said.
Tena said she’s still humbled by being able to come into her own studio, turn on some of her favorite tunes and, with her husband and children working beside her and her grandkids running around playing, sit down at the potter’s wheel.
“There’s so much coming in our lives that we want to force, but sometimes you have to sit back and breathe and go with the flow,” Tena said. “My mantra is ‘I can. I will. I do. I am.’ That’s my motivation.”