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Throwing the Plates

LeAnne McQueen Fuses Creativity and Practicality

Story by Sherri Gardner Howell with photography by Tassi Williams

When you throw a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel, the possibilities are many. What comes off the wheel depends on the ability and vision of the artist. Leanne Moe McQueen, artist and owner of Studio 212 Arts and McQueen Pottery, knows that not much coming off that wheel will bring success without a blending of art and practicality.

Leanne is happy that her chosen medium thrives with that blend. “I have always loved the utilitarian aspect of clay,” she said. “All the way through the creative process, I am seeing the way the piece will grace the family table, how it can become a part of tradition. To me, there is an inherent sweetness in that.”

Her mother and grandmothers influenced her love of plateware and the traditions it brings. “My grandma and mother always had the china hutches full of cups, saucers, plates and serving pieces, and I loved to rifle through them and find my favorites. Grandmother Common had these china cups, and it was always a big thing for her to give me special sets of cups and saucers.”

Her grandmothers also showed the utilitarian world of pretty things to young Leanne. “We ate our big meal at noon. I loved how the table would be set, and everything stopped on the farm so everyone could come together to eat. Some of my fondest memories are with everyone gathered around the table for those noon dinners.”

Those memories are rooted far away from Blount County. Leanne grew up in North Dakota. She graduated from high school there and went to the University of North Dakota for a couple of years. She eventually came south where her parents, Dawn and Lyle Moe, had moved.

“My parents moved to Maryville for a change,” she said. “I stayed about another year up north, but those Southern winters started looking pretty good, so I transferred to UT.” She found downtown Maryville to be a great place to be an artist-entrepreneur and to grow a business.

“I can’t say that clay was my first choice as an artist because I thought I wanted to be a painter,” she explained. “But when I got to clay during college, I became fascinated not just with the formation process, but the transformation that can take place in the kiln. My mom is a chemist, and I inherited some of that. The process of seeing the changing structure of this material was very appealing and very interesting. It keeps you on your toes!”

After graduating from UT in 2009, Leanne began trying to make her way in the world doing what she loved. “I was in an old brownstone building that I bought in downtown Maryville that had apartments on the top two floors.” she said. “My husband, Mike, and I lived in one of the apartments and rented out the other one. The bottom space had been an old barbershop and it had five sinks – perfect for a potter.”

Three years later, Leanne found herself at a crossroads: “I had just made the decision to go back to graduate school when my neighbor told me that the print shop next door to our space was closing. They wanted to know if I wanted it.”

It took a leap of faith for the McQueen family, which includes daughter Ollie, who is now 15. “My small shop of 750 square feet became a studio of 3,750 square feet,” said Leanne. “We decided we would pour everything into it for five years and then re-evaluate. I opened up the teaching school of Studio 212 Arts in 2012 and founded McQueen Pottery in 2014. I never looked back.”

While Leanne says “time management” is her biggest challenge, she makes time to keep her team engaged in both the work and the friendships. “We have a great team in the studio and in the shop,” she said. “We have been together a long time, and we work hard to keep the lines of communication open as we put our blood, sweat and tears into what we do.”

Starting McQueen Pottery was a practical approach as well as a creative outlet. “When you are an artist, it is always important to have multiple streams of income. We had theclasses and shows where I sold my own work, but running my own line seemed a smart avenue. So I founded McQueen Pottery.” The watershed moment came when McQueen Pottery received a commission to design and provide dinnerware for iconic Blackberry Farm.

“I had known Joseph (Lenn, former chef at Blackberry) and Cassidee Dabney (executive chef at The Barn at Blackberry Farm) for a while. They were looking for a partner who would work with the culinary team to embrace the trend of handmade on the table,” said Leanne. “It fits perfectly with the Blackberry concept.”

Leanne sent over sample plates and also suggested putting some of the ash from the farm’s hearth into the glaze, incorporating a little of the farm in every piece. “I worked with them to do 12 plates and 12 v-shaped bowls,” she said. “It was a great experience and grew from there.”

McQueen Pottery is now a staple at Blackberry – on the table and in the shops. In 2017, Studio 212 Arts and McQueen Pottery moved again, to 934 E. Broadway. Although the McQueens still have their downtown building, the new location has room to grow. It has two buildings, one for the studio where classes are taught and one for McQueen Pottery. “We stayed in the downtown area, just past the overpass on East Broadway.”

Having space to grow is important as Leanne has kicked off a new focus: wedding registries. “The traditional way of picking out an ‘everyday’ and ‘fine china’ set of dishes has changed,” said Leanne. “We fit so well with this new concept because we offer unique, handmade dishes that can be dressed up or down, warm the table and showcase the food.”

The team works with brides all over the country through the website and social media. “Our sales reps liaison with the brides, and it’s a pretty easy process,” said Leanne. “It’s still a work in progress on the technical end as we keep refining it, but it’s working. Our goal in 2022 is to have 50 brides in 50 states.”

The symmetry of what she first loved about clay and dishes and this new venture is not lost on McQueen. “We are setting a tradition for the new family,” she said. “I want our pieces to become heirloom pieces. I would love it if down the road a McQueen platter graces someone’s table because it reminds them of the family table of their childhood.”

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