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Spring Maker Series: Black Oak Art

by Magnolia
Published on February 1, 2022

We've been taking a look at a few of our vendors who have nurtured their products and their craft, all while holding firm to the values they've had from day one. Next up in the series: Black Oak Art.

Black Oak Art is a group of artists that creates handmade, custom and functional pieces for businesses and homes out of their ceramic studio here in Waco. Joanna first requested custom mugs from Black Oak over a decade ago, and they’ve been creating beautiful pieces for us ever since—including our mug and heart dish for this season’s Valentine’s Shop!

We sat down with founders and husband-and-wife duo, Jonathan and Sara Martin, to hear how their business got started and how they nurture the process that makes each piece they make one of a kind.

Magnolia: To kick things off, can you talk about how Black Oak Art started?

Jonathan Martin: Black Oak started in 2008. Sara and I had just moved back to Waco from California. I was already familiar with the city because I had graduated from Baylor with an art degree in 2000. In the years between, I was a high school art teacher, but now I had finally set up a studio of my own in our garage.

Eventually Sara told me that I had to stop bringing things into the house—mainly because our cabinets were filling up with mugs. I think at that point it clicked for me.

When did you decide to turn it into a business?

JM: I built up a stock and we ended up doing a Christmas sale at our house.. One of our friends, who was the founder of a local coffee shop, approached me and asked if I could make them for the shop.

I had been playing around with some logos and hand-carved stamps, so I spent a month developing something for the coffee shop. Over time, I made 20 here, 20 there. And as they sold out I would make more. Then, other local shops and companies approached me to create custom mugs for their businesses too. It kind of became this fun, word-of-mouth thing.

_Pictured is Jonathan creating a signature Black Oak mug, photo credit—Black Oak Art_

When did you start creating custom mugs for Magnolia?

JM: We had known Chip and Jo since college, and our kids were actually in preschool together. Jo had approached me back when the original Magnolia (now Little Shop on Bosque) was open in 2010 and asked if we could do some mugs with the Magnolia logo on it. I probably did around 20 mugs to start, and then over time, the order numbers kept growing. As Magnolia grew it really pushed us to strategize how to also grow our business, not only to keep up with the orders, but to diversify our products beyond our classic mugs.

Your process is such a unique part of your work—why choose a method that takes more time?

JM: When I started making mugs, I made them in all shapes and sizes—and that’s what my clients loved about them. They were all one of a kind. There's a special feeling to that—using something that you know wasn't produced by a machine, but was actually made by someone's hands. It’s definitely tempting to alter production to make it faster. But the moment we transition into a factory where we’re just pumping things out—that’s when I feel like the personality is gone.

How does Black Oak currently operate on a day-to-day basis?

JM: We recently moved into a new space close to downtown Waco. It houses all of our production, office, and storefront. This building used to be a dry cleaners in the mid-1900s, so it has a lot of history that’s been fun to learn about as we renovated the space.

One unique part of our workflow is that we have a program with our employees and local potters called the Artist Guild. This started back in 2019 when I realized that our day-to-day process kind of felt like a factory—we were just churning out pieces for product orders. So, this opportunity empowers them to be creative and own projects outside of what they work on for our bigger clients. There’s 5-6 artists in the guild per season, and their pieces will be sold in the storefront with little bios and cards of who they are.

_Pictured is the exterior and interior of the Black Oak Art storefront, photo credit—Black Oak Art_

Walk us through the process of creating one of your iconic pieces: the Black Oak mug!

JM: Before getting into the actual steps of creating a mug, it’s important to note that creating a piece of pottery takes time. It’s definitely a process that has been refined through time, trial and error. There’s a slowness to the process that helps us to pay attention to each detail that makes the mug so special.

Every Black Oak mug is hand thrown on the wheel. Wheel throwing is a universal pottery technique of shaping round ceramics using a potter's wheel. The “throwing” is the actual shaping part. The wheels are triggered by a foot or motor, and turn constantly. The clay and pot rotates so you can mold it into the desired shape with your own hands.

One thing you'll notice on our mugs are the ridges that run up the body of each one. These are throw marks—which emulate fingers running up the mug in the molding process on the wheel. While this piece of the mug is drying, elements like the handle and stamp with the logo are created. Then we piece it all together. The mug has to fully dry before entering the kiln, where it hardens. Then the mug is glazed and goes through another firing in the kiln to allow the glaze to settle and make the piece food safe.

What’s your favorite drink to put in a Black Oak Art mug?

JM: Definitely coffee. There’s something about waking up in the morning, grabbing my favorite mug out of the cabinet and knowing that I made it here in the studio. Knowing that this ritual is also the start to someone else's day too—it’s an honor to be a part of that.

Jonathan and Sara—what’s on the horizon for Black Oak and what are you each personally excited about?

JM: For me, it’s the Artist Guild. I want to continue growing it and really empowering the artists who are a part of it—where they can find what they’re good at and really lean into that skill.

Sara Martin: Over the past few years I’ve seen the pottery world grow and become more prominent in today’s society—people are valuing it in a new way. It’s also really interesting to me to see what other potters are doing all over the world. So I'm gathering inspiration and seeking out newness in the retail world as well as other cultures, and focusing on how those new shapes and colors could inform our core collections at Black Oak.

Below are two pieces created by Black Oak exclusively for Magnolia for our Valentine’s Shop. Check out these and the rest of the collection— featuring loungewear, jewelry and bath and body at the link below.

Shop Black Oak Pieces at Magnolia