Celestial Surf Studio: Slinging ceramics that elevate our daily routines
The earth contains many inert wonders full of potential forms and energies. A hunk of clay only needs hands to pluck it out and transform it into something magnificently beautiful and functional, something that becomes a part of our daily rituals.
Ceramics have become so commonplace in our lives that we don’t stop to think often enough about how incredible they are. What once was mud is now a vital part of my morning coffee rite.
Stephanie Washburn was drawn to the magical power of clay, even as she was pursuing other paths. It kept pulling her back and eventually she succumbed and made it her main focus.
Now, with Celestial Surf Studio, she’s creating special objects—mugs, cups, plates, pipes—that elevate our daily practices, drawing inspiration from vast bodies of water and the skies above.
I talked to Stephanie about how she came to start her business, what she loves to listen to while working, and what advice she’d give to new business owners.
Sendle’s small biz quiz
Name, title, and location
Stephanie Washburn, Owner | Wilmington, North Carolina
How would you describe Celestial Surf Studio in a nutshell?
Celestial Surf Studio is small-batch ceramics made with the intention of enhancing everyday rituals, drawing inspiration from both the ocean and the cosmos.
And, what about in just three words?
Magic meeting mud.
The name—how'd you come up with it? Were there any other contenders?
When I started Celestial Surf Studio, I was at a place where I had taken a break from creating for almost a year out of college.
When I first graduated, I marketed my work under just my first and last name, and things really didn’t go anywhere with that.
When I got to a place where I was able to access a studio regularly and begin to hone in on my creative path, I knew I had to come up with a name that held a little more depth and allure.
My work has always been inspired by the ocean, its inhabitants, and the landscapes adjacent to it, and I can say the same about the moon and other celestial bodies and cycles.
I came up with the name one day while basking in the sun on a beach in the town I newly moved to, and it just felt right, all-encompassing, and left enough room for growth and transformation down the road.
It’s also a very small nod to both my mom and dad—representing celestial surf respectively.
You started Celestial Surf shortly after you graduated from college. Was starting a business always your goal? How did you get started?
Honestly, my only goal out of college was to “play in the dirt and make things I thought should exist in this world.”
I had a hard time sorting out my major in college.
I started out as an English education major my first semester and swiftly decided that was not the career path for me. I just enjoyed reading and writing and didn’t have very much exposure to career opportunities fresh out of high school.
Once I started my second semester, I switched into 2D Studio Art and changed my major to Art Education to be able to do something I felt passionate about, but still have a ‘reliable’ job as an educator.
I studied art education for about two and a half years, taking all kinds of studio classes, but one stuck out to me, and I couldn’t go a whole semester without having ceramics somewhere in my schedule.
I fell in love with it almost immediately.
After a while of battling with disagreeing with the structure of the modern-day curriculum, assessment, and the politics of budgets in the art departments of schools, I decided to forgo my degree in art education and focus solely on ceramics, and just chase what truly made me happy.
I had no idea what I would do with it as a career, much less what it would look like if I did at that time, I just knew I had to trust my gut, and thank goodness I did.
I ended up graduating with a BFA in ceramics, but it took a year and a few months after graduating until I found myself with my hands back in clay.
I found a super cute yoga and ceramics studio in downtown Wilmington shortly after moving here in 2016, and knew it would be a good place to “get back into it.” Within a few months, I started producing work to list on Etsy and was even offered a job as an instructor there.
I knew I had found where I was supposed to be, and everything kinda took off and started evolving from there.
Is Celestial Surf your side hustle?
For a very long time, it was, but now I am happy to call it my full-time career.
Do you enjoy teaching pottery?
Teaching pottery will always fill me with joy in a very different way than making work for myself or making sales ever will.
It’s something magical about seeing someone grasp new concepts and techniques to be able to create a functional piece of art.
There’s a very special sense of accomplishment that comes with understanding how to manipulate a spinning chunk of dirt into something that serves a purpose, and it’s even more magical to be able to translate that process to someone who has no remote idea of how to approach getting there.
My favorite part is seeing a student’s growth in their mastery of forms, and their sense of pride grow along with their skill.
What sets your work apart from other ceramics companies?
Every single piece of work is hand-crafted from start to finish by me.
When I work on pieces, they start out as a piece of raw clay pulled from a fresh bag or recycled batch and hand formed on the wheel or at my wedging table.
Through the duration of the process, I think about what each piece’s intention is, the purpose I want it to serve, and the atmosphere I’d like for it to evoke once it is complete and in your home.
My intention with all my work is to elevate your experience with what would otherwise be mundane.
Having a curated living experience is something that is becoming more and more popular, and its my goal to help others curate bespoke pieces that fit their style and speak to them on a level that goes a little deeper than aesthetics.
The gemstones really stand out for me. They are so striking. How did you choose to integrate those elements into your work?
When I was in college studying ceramics, I kept coming back to the concept of clay returning to other natural elements that It may have been in contact with at some point in its geological journey.
I experimented briefly with quartz crystals on my forms, trying to combine and adhere them in the glazing process, but found that they went through a chemical transformation, changing them from alpha quartz to beta quartz in the firing process.
It left them very brittle and unapproachable on surfaces and decided to take a step away from that and focus more on sculptural details and glazes until I was able to find a way to combine them in a safer, more aesthetic process.
Later, about a year after I started celestial surf studio, I was able to reapproach the process of combining the crystals with my forms and decided to adhere them to the forms at the end of the process as opposed to trying to combine them.
I hand-select each type of crystal that I decide to work with and let the forms of each piece dictate which one gets to compliment it.
Once I’ve decided which crystal I’m pairing with the piece, I let the crystal help determine which glazes or sculptural details will be added to either compliment or contrast its color palate or structure.
I personally use crystals in my rituals and routines on a metaphysical and spiritual level, but always leave it up to my customers to decide for themselves how to interact with them in my work.
Some people are into their deeper meaning and healing qualities, and some people just enjoy sparkly things.
When creating new pieces, how do you know what types of products to prioritize? Are you mostly reacting to what sells best?
Honestly, I primarily make what I want to make first, and then prioritize what my audience asks for.
I don’t take custom orders, but I always welcome when my audience requests more of certain forms, color palates, or crystal types, and I try my best to please everyone while staying true to my creative interests.
I always try to keep a good variety of different forms and purposes with each batch of work, but will sometimes lean harder into what is doing well at the time.
What advice would you give someone just starting their small business? Anything you wish you would or would not have done along the way?
- Just start. Start somewhere where it’s easy and just go from there.
- You don’t have to have everything figured out in the first day, month, or year.
- Always research and push yourself to do more, learn more, and be open to change and criticism.
- Make sure you’re doing things by the book, and don’t be discouraged when you’re having a bad month, or you’re not growing at the rate you wish you would.
- Always prioritize your goals by which actionable steps are the most accessible to you in the moment, and don’t give up when things get hard or don’t go as planned.
- And never ever lose the authenticity of yourself or the reason why you do something along the way.
Would you like to keep growing your business or are you comfortable keeping it the same size?
A lot of the magic behind Celestial Surf Studio is the fact that everything is handmade with intention and that’s something that you can’t really get if it expands too much.
I think the saturation of the ‘magic’ would definitely get diluted if it weren’t an intimate process.
In the future, I do see myself hiring my sister to help with certain processes that will facilitate ease in production without taking away from the authenticity of the product or process.
You can most definitely count on it being a “small” business for a very long time.
What does sustainability mean to you? How does that play out in your business?
Sustainability is something I like to keep at the forefront of my routine, both in the business and my personal life.
In the studio, I’m frequently recycling clay—a reclaiming process that revives used clay scraps, mess-ups, and liquid excess from throwing.
The clay homogenizes in a five-gallon bucket with water, and once it’s all mushy and the same consistency, it’s spread onto plaster slabs to firm up for a few days. Once it has lost some moisture and is closer to its working consistency, I wedge it up and store it in recycled clay bags from former purchases.
Most of my reclaimed clay ends up being worked into planters that I make for a local plant shop, but sometimes it sneaks its way back into my regular work and ends up as plates or bowls.
I work very diligently to keep my shipping process as sustainable as possible as well. I only use compostable materials, even down to my packing tape and shipping labels.
My shredded paper fill is recycled material that I receive from a local plant company called The Coastal Succulent. The boys save all the packing paper their plants are shipped with for me and I pick up their “waste” to recycle once they’ve accumulated a whole bag’s worth.
It’s an amazing symbiotic relationship that saves me money and the earth at the same time.
Most all of my large glaze buckets that are shipped with dry mix glaze are recycled as well—turning into new glaze buckets for glazes that are shipped in bags, or used as mop buckets for the studio, or come home with me to hold my potting soil or compost overflow.
This year, it is my goal to be more diligent with recycling my soft plastic excess from clay bag shipments, and smaller plastic containers that hold pint-sized amounts of glaze.
I plan on expanding into a larger studio this year, and an in-house recycling bin is something I’ve got at the top of my list for when that time comes.
What are your favorite small businesses out there?
The beautiful thing about Wilmington is there are frankly too many for me to list here.
A few of my absolute favorites are some that I have worked with:
Annex Surf Supply was the first spot in town to collaborate with me, and for that, they will always have a special place in my heart.
They provide boutique surf apparel, sun and surf goods, and even have a surf club where you can rent a board out from their quiver.
They used to have a cute little location that housed a coffee bar when we first started working together, but have downsized into a neighboring unit to their sister store. While they no longer serve coffee, you can still find my mugs hanging out on their shelves.
Adapt Kitchen & Juice Bar is my go-to as far as food goes on the small business favorites list. They’re a seaside business run by some of the most wholesome and kind-hearted people with health and sustainability at the forefront of their brand.
I worked with Chris and Ellie to provide a bespoke line of in house ceramics for them to serve their wholistic lattes, poke bowls, and avocado toast in, and I always feel so proud when I swing by and see their beautiful meals prepped on my creations.
They recently were acknowledged and awarded for being an ocean-friendly establishment by the UNCW Plastic Ocean Project chapter and have plans to help facilitate residential composting in our community.
The Plant Outpost is the cutest plant store located in a shipping container in Wilmington’s up and coming cargo district.
Sarah curates a lush and wide variety of common and exotic house plants, plant-themed accessories, and a mix of planters from all kinds of artists working in ceramic, stained glass, and concrete.
I create small batches of planters for Sarah and she always trusts me with the design side and is very flexible with my production time. It’s an amazingly comfortable consignment relationship, and I’m honored to create homes for the plant babies she offers.
And a few notable mentions of my favorite fellow girl-boss entrepreneurs in town that always have my back: The Misplaced Cactus (macrame and beadwork), Desert Rose (boutique), The Rooted One (paintings, plants, and ceramics).
What is your favorite thing to listen to while working? Podcasts, playlists, albums, total silence?
Most of my work is made to some shamelessly sensual R&B.
Every now and then, some grunge surf rock and indie make their way into the mix, but it’s usually something soulful and just a little scandalous.
So many of my followers have complimented my taste in music over the past year and ask for my playlists, that I decided to start a weekly tradition of releasing an 8-track playlist of songs I’m currently into at the moment.
How did you find Sendle? How is it working out for you?
Recently, when I decided to focus on making my shipping process more sustainable, I stumbled across a targeted ad on Instagram advertising Sendle as a carbon neutral shipping service.
I was so excited and HAD to check it out and see if I could work with this service.
Thankfully, I’m able to send more than half my products out in a way that leaves the earth a better place since finding you guys!
I only wish the services would be extended to some larger package dimensions for larger bundle orders that come through!