Amy Burk: Lancaster Arts Engineer
An hour west of Philadelphia, the small city of Lancaster is a hub of creative energy stoked by a multitude of arts organizations. Potter Amy Burk is a longtime Lancaster native who keeps many engines running with her involvement in the area arts scene. Her Amy Burk Pottery has been a local fixture since her circuitous route back to her hometown in 2002. Today, Burk integrates her creative vision and keen business sense in a successful functional pottery production trade.
Calling on her ancestral German roots, Burk says that she comes from a line of makers. One of her ancestors was the first watchmaker in Pennsylvania and made the Lancaster Courthouse clock. Her mother was a basket maker who carted her daughter along to craft shows. Making and selling are intrinsic parts of her nature. She says, “When I was in fourth grade, I made doll house furniture and miniature food, and sold them at school.” She is part of a tradition begun by the large influx German immigrants to Pennsylvania that brought crafts to the area, specifically woodworking and pottery.
Burk earned her Bachelor of Arts degree at the Pennsylvania State University. Her first job was with a Japanese printing company, designing woodgrain paper for furniture veneers. She says, “Back then, thirty years ago, a B.A. led only to graduate school. There were not all the opportunities at studios that there are today. I did not get back to clay until my young family moved to Annapolis, Maryland for my husband’s medical training.” She took community classes at Saint John’s College one night a week, as a break from mothering her small children.
When the family moved back to Lancaster, Burk found a home at the Lancaster Creative Factory, working under founder Kevin Lehman. She sold her functional pieces in the craftwork circuit and at area shows for about a decade. During this time, she became very involved with the Lancaster chapter of the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen, where she served in multiple capacities, including Education Department Chair, Vice President, and President. The Guild, which was founded in the 1940s, supports artists through exhibits, workshops, and a retail store. Burk taught and developed many successful programs, including Make and Take workshops, Try it Out Nights, and Craft on Tap.
In 2019, just before the pandemic radically changed life, Burk decided to refocus her energies on Amy Burk Pottery. “Through my work with the Guild,” she explains, “I knew all the directors of the local non-profits. I knew they all needed items for fundraisers.” The idea of “Donate/Get-a-Mug” became her model. She meets with the clients to get a feel for the organization and brings them three prototypes. “I get excited with every new order,” she says. “My designs incorporate things that are special to them. I always have a particular one that I think they will choose, and they usually do.” The concept worked, and with word-of-mouth and social media, Burk saw orders flowing in and filling her pandemic days with work in her home studio. As word spread, Burk found a resource for customers in the vibrant local food scene and added local business to her client list. In just a few years, Burk has over 80 cyclic, repeating customers. “I have only lost five customers,” she boasts.
Burk says that the repetitive nature of production work never feels tedious to her. She describes holding a ball of clay and discovering something new each time – a new shape, a new form. “I may make 100 mugs for an order this week, but next week I might do 4 small orders of 25,” she says. It’s always something new.” Burk throws each piece and relies on part-time helpers to do finishing work like handles and logos. She briefly tested hiring staff with benefits, but the business could not support the cost. Now, she hires helpers on an hourly basis, as contract workers. Nearby Millersville University’s pottery program has been a good source for capable help.
Despite the daily demands of Amy Burk Pottery, Burk still finds time to keep the Lancaster creative motor running. She is the Co-Director of the Annual Strictly Functional Pottery National with Kevin Lehman, which has returned to the Lancaster Museum of Art. This national juried competition presents the best of current ceramics. Each year a Juror is selected to choose 75 to 100 pieces from the over 700 entries of 300 national and international applicants for the September show.
Burk continues to mull over new ways to keep the art fires burning in Lancaster. “I have been thinking about setting up some sort of cooperative with other potters,” she says. Her current set-up in the basement of her home is efficient but crowded. “I just want to get above ground level!” she quips. “I think a lot of potters do, too. We have to get out of our solitary holes.” Burk envisions a large space – above ground – in which resources and ideas could be shared. Through her work with the Guild, Burk has already brought artists together, with Potters Potluck events. One is upcoming this March, to support the Lancaster Clay Studio. Burk points out that a face-to-face meal in community creates community. It’s a good bet that Lancaster will see a new cooperative for artists and more innovative ideas from its native daughter.
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On Instagram @amyburkpottery