Don Seymour: A Life Landscape

Don Seymour: A Life Landscape


It is the rare person who has a clear vision in youth who can look back in age and see its fruition.  Don Seymour, owner of Clayscapes Pottery, Inc. in Syracuse, New York is one such person.  Through years of making pottery in a home basement studio, selling at festivals, developing wholesale markets, working full time, and raising a family, Seymour held tight to his dream of owning his own pottery business.  In October of 2003, he put the name Clayscapes on his clay distributorship and with his wife Kim began to develop the business into the studio, store, and gallery that he envisioned.  Today, in the superlative fulfillment of a life’s work, he is taking a step backwards to transition control of his business to his enthusiastic three adult children.


As an art student at the State University of New York at Fredonia, Seymour was urged to submit his work for a juried show.  “At the time, I had been making landscapes out of clay,” he recalls. “When my work was accepted, I thought Clayscapes would be a good name for the show.”  Confident, that his life would be one in the arts, he graduated in 1983 with a firm goal of opening his own business one day.  He found employment with an architectural restoration company doing research and development on clay bodies and glazes.  At home, he continued to develop his own body of work.  With his marriage to Kim and the subsequent birth of his three children, Seymour looked elsewhere to find a more lucrative way to support his family.  For ten years, he worked in retail sales, still developing his work.  “I was working an incredibly huge number of hours,” he says, “producing enough to supply twenty or so festivals each year and twelve wholesale accounts.”


When manufacturer Laguna Clay Company purchased the local area’s ceramic supply business, Seymour went to work for them for two years.  He worked hard to increase the business’ sales and started to see the possibility of his dream materialize.  “I approached Laguna about buying the business,” he explains, “and they suggested I buy the Syracuse distributorship instead.”  With his family’s blessing, Seymour moved forward to secure funding.  He put together three different business plans and approached ten banks but was turned away because the lenders had a policy of not extending loans to new businesses.  Seymour exclaims, “The business had been there for 40 years!”  Finally, he accepted a short-term loan at a higher interest from an independent party, which he was later able to satisfy with a bank loan once the business was established under his leadership.


By March of 2004, Seymour launched the pottery studio.  “We had the store and the warehouse, but I wanted to have people there,” he recalls.  “We started with four students.”  The business grew and expanded.  A full schedule of classes brought new people to the studio.  When the adjoining space in the building became available, Seymour was able to realize the third piece of his puzzle – a gallery – enabling Clayscapes to have openings, shows, and workshops.


Like so many businesses, Clayscapes was devastated by the COVID pandemic in 2020.  Seymour says that it killed 60% of his business overnight.  “We had to adapt on a daily basis,” he says.  While the gallery had to close, Seymour double-downed on the Web store.  He recalls, “Our web business had not been very active.  We dealt with our customers in person.  But with COVID, we had to adapt.  Our small package shipping went through the roof.”  In response, Seymour converted the gallery space into the retail store, with adequate space for the shipping operations.  The old store became office space to accommodate more employees.  Today, Seymour says that the business has changed: “The way we do business today has changed 180 degrees from twenty years ago.  Being able to adapt accounts for our success.”


Today, Clayscapes offers courses to 120 students in ten-week sessions throughout the year.  The studio is equipped with twenty wheels, hand building tables, and a range of equipment.  Four kilns are always filled with student work and two more are used for testing.  Many years ago, Seymour developed his own line of glazes, which he still sells in the store.  He added Standard Clay products and carries offerings from numerous manufacturers.  He says, “I’m an independent business and I can’t sell just one product.”  He keeps his income streams varied, with clay and supply sales. Home goods retailer MacKenzie-Childs is a major buyer of clay and slip.  Studio and class tuition, along his own production work, round out the picture.


Seymour says, “As an artist, my focus is on craft.  I am a very good functional potter.  I have a high standard for the quality of my work, which is for daily use.”  His pieces are of stoneware, fired at cone 6, with earthy colored glazes.  He is interested in the chemistry of the process.  He recalls, “When I was in college, there was an energy crisis.  We had been firing at cone 10 but were mandated to reduce our energy use.  So, we switched to cone 6.  We had to adapt.  That is when I got interested in the chemistry aspect and started to make my own glazes.”

A fourth aspect of Seymour’s dream grew over many years – his family.  For 15 years, his wife Kim managed the business side of Clayscapes before she retired four years ago.  Their daughter, Emily stepped in to take over for her mother after a 10-year career in investment banking.  The eldest son Andrew came back to the business after working in various fields.  He oversees sales and technical support operations.  Finally, Meghan, the youngest joined the family business, offering her expertise in the web sales that have grown so much since the pandemic.  Seymour says, “I want to emphasize that we are a family business.  And that includes our employees.  During the pandemic, I made sure they were paid first, even though there was no work.”  The Clayscapes family also extends to the larger community.  Seymour says, “We support many events throughout the New York state to assist in bringing food to the less fortunate, especially with the Empty Bowls project.”  The Clayscapes staff is active in assisting local high schools’ Feats of Clay Olympics, the local potters’ association’s annual Cups for a Cause, and the annual pottery market and raku firing.


A supply business, a studio, a gallery, a family, a community.  Don Seymour looks back on the last forty years and can say, “I accomplished what I set out to do.”  After a recent health set-back, he finds himself thinking about the future.  “I’d like to make it a second-generation business,” he muses.  “Kim and I are taking a back seat, acting as advisors, but I’m not ready to be done.”  He is not passing on merely a business to his three children, but an ethos as well.  He says, “I wanted to take control of my own destiny.  I don’t want today’s corporate culture for my kids.”  His children walk beside him in his dream and seem primed to carry on, always adapting and following new dreams. 


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