By Jan Mercker

The past eight months have meant plenty of thinking outside the box for Loudoun’s small businesses. And no one has mastered the pandemic pivot better than working artists. Many local creatives are coming into the holiday season with a sense of optimism, bolstered by community support.

“Who’s better suited to get creative?” said Amy Manson, owner of The Clay and Metal Loft near downtown Leesburg. “It’s just doing things differently and being adaptable. … All the local businesses have had to figure out how to do this—but do it differently.”

With strong community and public sector support, Manson’s studio is growing and thriving despite of COVID-related challenges. The Clay and Metal loft will celebrate its third anniversary January, on the heels of a year like no other. For Manson, it’s meant learning to shift gears and changing her business model to go way beyond survival mode.

Manson, a longtime ceramicist, opened the studio in early 2018 with her business partner, metalsmith Ann Andre. At the beginning of this year, the studio was flourishing. Andre announced plans to retire, and Manson took over sole ownership of the studio.

Manson had five clay session classes going on at any given time and one-time workshops routinely sold out. Manson had brought on several new teachers to meet demand.

“We didn’t have enough days in the week. … We were rocking and rolling,” Manson said. “I was ready to expand.”

Then COVID hit. But after a few moments of panic, Manson moved into creative mode. Within a few days, she had shifted in-person classes online through a private Facebook group. Manson had students pick up their current projects and extra clay on a Saturday in March and had online classes up and running within 48 hours.

“We were online at 10 o’clock on Monday,” Manson said

The Clay and Metal Loft Owner Amy Manson talks with a student about her work during a Thursday-morning in-person class at the Leesburg studio.

With Andre’s retirement, Manson brought on Loudoun-based jewelry artist Teresa Jardines of Zia Design as the studio’s long-term artist in residence and metalwork/ jewelry design instructor. Jardines initially was surprised to see the outpouring of creativity and dedication from online students, many of whom were looking for an outlet during a challenging time. 

“Everyone was engaged and doing all this creative stuff. They were loving it—it was amazing,” Jardines said. “People were becoming so creative and so independently creative—stretching out their creativity instead of just in the class.”

In addition to regular session classes, Manson and Jardines also took popular children’s summer camps and adult workshops online. Manson found that the increased flexibility of online classes brought in new students who might not have made it to in-person classes. 

“Multiple people have said that it saved them [during quarantine]. It’s keeping busy, it’s creative.” Manson added. “The learning curve accelerated.”

Both Manson and Jardines are teachers but also working artists with thriving local and national markets for their work. Both have seen a bump in online sales throughout the pandemic. Manson said both local retail and her ETSY shop are going strong as art lovers around the country look to support local artists.

The Clay and Metal Loft Owner Amy Manson talks about the setup she uses to host virtual classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jardines created a simple and elegant metal “Together Apart” bracelet this spring and saw clients snapping them up for mothers, sisters and friends during the spring shutdown.

“I never imagined that it would take off,” Jardines said. “Because of the way I named it, everyone wanted this bracelet. … People are dealing with all this stress, and they find comfort in art.”

As state guidelines allowed for a return to scaled back in-person classes over the summer, Manson gradually reopened the studio with social distancing and masks required. She offered more frequent workshops with smaller numbers of students and focused heavily on cleaning and hygiene. 

“We’re so vigilant,” Manson said. “People would come and they felt comfortable.” 

As Manson and Jardines head into the holiday season, they’re seeing lots of early shoppers as Loudouners look to support local businesses and make purchases early in case of future shutdowns. The studio’s holiday-themed in-person clay and metal workshops are selling out. 

But Manson also said that with COVID cases on the rise, she’s being cautious in planning for early 2021, avoiding scheduling in-person classes too far in advance and making plans for a return to online instruction if needed. Manson has invested in new audio-visual equipment and launched a YouTube channel for instruction. She has a third kiln for the studio to allow them to fire more student work, and she’s ordering extra clay to have it on site in case of supply chain issues this winter. 

Manson and Jardines are planning a socially distanced brick and mortar holiday sale at the studio Dec. 4 and 5, featuring their work along with a select group of fellow artists from the Catoctin Holiday Art Tour which is canceled this year. Instead, CHAT’s website remains a clearinghouse for smaller individual sales and online retail sites for local artists. 

Jardines said that with community support, Loudoun’s artists are making a go of things during this most unusual of years—and now is a perfect time for the community to embrace local artists and artisans. 

“People have found very creative ways to make it work. People are spending money on art now,” she said. “Artists themselves have had to think outside the box. … From local artists that I follow, I feel like people have become very productive artistically but also very much promoting themselves, and they’re doing OK.”

For details on classes, workshops and take-home kits from The Clay and Metal Loft and to shop Amy Manson’s pottery gallery, go to theclayandmetalloft.com. To check out Teresa Jardines’ work and online gallery, go to ziadesignonline.com. The Clay and Metal Loft holiday sale is Friday, Dec. 4 and Saturday, Dec. 5 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 27 Fairfax St. in Leesburg.