Western Student Builds Ceramic Career at Local Businesses

Gabe Virgen sits in the studio and inspects mugs that didn’t make the final cut in a recent batch on Sept. 8. // Photo by MacKenzie Dexter

By MacKenzie Dexter

The ceramics studio in Western’s Art Annex is home to scattered pottery wheels, tools, dust and Gabe Virgen, a fourth-year Western student and artist. Virgen sits on a clay covered stool next to an assortment of handmade mugs to discuss his work and small business that spread into the Bellingham community.  

Virgen, who studies studio art with a concentration in ceramics, is entering his last quarter at Western. 

“It’s more than just a craft or a hobby,” Virgen said. “Ceramics is a fine art, and I want my work to introduce people to the possibilities of this medium.”

After six years of creating pottery, he decided last May to create his own business. Virgen made an online shop for Rain Ceramics followed by an Instagram account. He decided on the name Rain Ceramics because he wanted to mirror the simplicity of his work and reflect the Washington environment. 

Virgen applied his love for clay to create Rain Ceramics. He runs business online and at a few Bellingham shops.

Local businesses like jewelry shop All Peoples Shackles Exchanged (APSE) sought out Virgen’s work after seeing his online shop and social media accounts. 

“Intention is one of the first things we look for,” Hayley Boyd, co-owner of APSE, said. “Handmade goods can tell a story and Rain’s stuff is very intentional and really well-made. Those two things are going to inherently add to somebody’s home or lifestyle.”

From there, Virgen reached out to another local boutique, Brazen, and they decided to carry his work.

“As artists that have sold in small businesses around town, we know how important it is to have a space where your handmade goods are thoughtfully represented,” Allison Potts, co-owner of Brazen said. “Especially for many [Western] students who are just starting their small businesses, and we are excited to give them that opportunity.”

Virgen said he makes everything in Western’s ceramics studio with the clay he buys from a Seattle shop, and he makes the glazes from scratch. While he describes his work as uniform, he uses glaze to give them a handmade touch so they do not look manufactured. 

“I create a single batch of white, and from that white I add base glaze [in] very precise measurements,” Virgen said. “I never measure the amount of colorants I add so that each batch of wares is unique and shows the touch of the hand.” 

Outside of school and ceramics, he also works at a restaurant, Virgen said.

“My weeks can get very busy and my planner can be packed with things that have to get done,” Virgen said. “I just try to remind myself to take things one task at a time, and if I ever find myself with not enough time, I’ve learned to accept that I’m not perfect. I’m still young, and I’ll do better next time.”

According to Virgen, ceramics is a lot of trial and error. Making a small batch can take up to a week to complete, and even after the process of throwing, firing and glazing, he may reject pieces. 

“You have to be okay with tossing things. You can’t keep everything,” Virgen said. 

As he becomes more particular about his pieces, Virgen said his own biggest critic is himself. It is important to make sure that the pieces are sanded properly, have minimal bubbles in the glaze and the piece is functional. It is easy for artists to get attached to their work, especially when the work is personal.

“I am creating based on my own inspirations and attractions,” Virgen said. “I know I’ve nailed a design when I can set it in any environment and it still shows a subtle appreciation of the space.”

Virgen describes his work as functional. He only uses glaze on parts of his pieces where it is necessary, such as a handle or inside of a bowl. The pieces also have minimal color and each new glaze is mixed with random measurements of color to get a unique batch.

“Right now, functional means anything that serves its purpose while not distracting,” Virgen said. “I want my work to create a lucid appreciation of the space they take up within a home.” 

After graduation, he plans to move back to Olympia and continue his work where he has studio space.

“I don’t want to expand my workforce beyond myself, meaning no matter the demand I will always be the only potter who makes my designs,” Virgen said. 

While it may be unrealistic to make a comfortable living selling his work, Virgen continues to do this work out of enjoyment and passion. Virgen said that it can be easy for artists to get caught up with the money aspect of art, but he puts most of his funds right back into his business.

“I never intended to get rich or even have extra money coming in from my ceramics,” Virgen said. “I just wanted to get my passion out there, in the hands of people, and that continues to drive me.”

Virgen hopes to one day open a cafe where he can display his art. 

“A creative space where I can integrate my functional ware and where they’re used,” Virgen said. “After all, Rain is a functional ceramics studio.”

After that, he plans to apply for graduate school outside of Washington to get his master of fine arts in ceramics. 

“My work is a departure of what people think of when they imagine ceramic wares,” Virgen said. “I want people to reimagine what ceramics is.”

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