Meet Renee Margocee: Our Interview on Living and Working as an Artist (Part 1)
Tamarack Foundation | May 19, 2017
To welcome our new Executive Director Renee Margocee, the foundation’s Program Director Emma Pepper sat down with her for an interview to discuss her history as an artist, thoughts on the creative economy in West Virginia, and the work she is most excited about at the foundation. This is part one of our interview, read part two here.
Emma Pepper: How did you get your start making pottery, and what attracts you to this as your primary creative practice? You’re a writer and have skills in weaving, spinning wool, and other areas, but it’s pottery that has the strongest place in your heart.
Renee Margocee: I had never touched a piece of clay in my life, but something attracted me to it when I was a freshman at Marshall University. I wasn’t a natural by any stretch of the imagination, it was really difficult for me to pick up the skill. Something about the process really engaged me, though. You have to learn to deal with your frustration and continue even with failures that may come one after another.
You cannot be in a rush when you are making pots. So, to think I’m just going to pop in here for 30 minutes and do this thing and move on to something else, is not a mindset that a potter can have. I like that ability to be totally in the moment.
I also like that once you begin the process, you must follow through. You can begin a painting, and you might set it aside for a year and then come back to it. But with clay, because it is losing its moisture, you have to manipulate it in that perfect sweet spot. It just, again, keeps the maker completely in the moment and works to be, of course, a grounding force.
EP: You bounced around a bit during and after college, spending time in Harlem, a summer in Helvetia, and also in Morgantown, where you were able to get further training in ceramics at WVU while your husband, Rory Perry, was attending law school. You landed in Elkins with Rory, though, and that was really where your creative career got its footing. How did that happen?
RM: My husband had a job in Elkins clerking for a federal judge, and a lucky thing happened while we were there. I was at a party where I met Missy Armentrout McCullum, the owner of the Old Brick Playhouse. She said to me, ‘My father has all of these lumber processing plants across America, and we need corporate gifts. We often give Frisbees and other sorts of gifts that are not very nice. Why don’t you move into the Old Brick Playhouse, and we’ll give you studio space, and you can be his corporate gift maker?’ I thought to myself, ‘Wow. Yes! Why not?’ That was a truly pivotal moment of magic. I was working as a waitress at the time. Often the story is: you’re not going to be able to make your living at this. If that moment had not happened, I don’t know where I might have ended up. Around the same time, I became one of the first makers for the Tamarack facility in Beckley, and I was selling my work through a local co-op called Artists at Work that is still in business today.
EP: You began to find your footing in making a living through your pottery studio, and I’ve heard you express an interest in making sure that artists have a strong foundation of business skills. What is something that has happened in your career that has caused you to see the value in pursuing learning these kinds of skills?
RM: Max Armentrout would often come and take me to lunch when I was at my studio in Elkins, just to check in with my progress. He’s an engaging kind of guy by nature. I remember very clearly this moment where he asked me what my profit margin was, and I sort of deflected that question. He said to me, ‘If you let me see your books, I can tell you,’ and I just laughed it off. I didn’t want to say, ‘My books? My books are receipts in a shoe box by the telephone.’ I had a moment of definite embarrassment. I knew that this was a skill set that I should have be pursuing, and that it’s important to be able to understand not only the making side, but the business side, and that I wasn’t there yet. That was a pivotal moment when I understood what an artist needs to succeed. That is when my interest in trying to figure out how to impart entrepreneurial skills to artists started.
EP: After living in Elkins, you and your husband made your way to Charleston. It was at that time that you founded the pottery studio in Taylor Books. How did that opportunity come about?
Again, this magical thing happened just before I left Elkins in the late 90’s. I was over in Canaan Valley. There was a little book store, and Anne Saville happened to be there. I told her that I was moving to Charleston, and she said, ‘Oh, I’m getting ready to open a bookshop, we should work together,’ and I said, ‘Okay, that sounds good to me.’ She’s a fabulous dreamer, and she can manifest her dreams, and she said, ‘Wouldn’t it be perfect if you had a studio in the basement?’ I said, ‘It would. It would be perfect.’ Then, she said, ‘We should have a gallery next door,’ and I said, ‘We should. We should have that gallery.’
That opportunity took me to the next level with a more structured business approach. At the time, I thought, ‘Now I’m going to engage with this woman, and we’re going to create this thing together.’ I’ve just been so lucky that all of these projects and businesses that I’ve been a part of, it’s all sustained. Not due to me, but due to the power of the arts, and the community coming around to support it. So, as I mentioned, that co-op in Elkins, Artists at Work. It’s still there. It has been there for 25 years. And, also, Taylor Books with the gallery and pottery studio are still in business.
EP: As an artist who has built a career working in this state, what does it mean to you to now be in a role where you’re helping other West Virginian artists do the same?
RM: I’m from a small town. I had no idea that any of this would be my path, I had a very narrow idea about what I could do to make money. Of course, when I was a kid you could be a school teacher or you could be a nurse, and that’s what you would do. That was my mindset. Through all of these unexpected supporters, I was able to shift into an area that was outside of my comfort zone. To have had so many wonderful experiences throughout the state, and to have engaged with so many people, and to feel fostered by those who have been in the craft world, in the art world, for all of these years has been very rewarding.
When I moved to Elkins, there were two full-time potters there, Kate Harward and Scottie Roberts Weist. They completely welcomed me with open arms. They shared their knowledge with me. They mentored and fostered me, encouraged me when I was losing my faith.
To keep that going and to now move into a role where I can be the mentor, and I can foster other people who are interested in pursuing this life, is an exciting prospect. Often, this path is still not encouraged by well-meaning parents or our society in general. To help people realize, ‘No, that passion is in me, and it means something, and I have something to express and say, and it’s just as valid as anybody else,’ is a very enriching experience.
That I can help with a little watering can, as it were, to keep that going in West Virginia is a true honor.
Interested in hearing Renee’s thoughts on the value of the arts in West Virginia? Read part two of this interview »