Janna Barker is a ceramic artist and owner of Isiko - an intentionally curated shop carrying handmade products that impact the greater good. Polished Prints Owner, Leah Longueville, sat down with Janna to chat more about her background, her work and the journey that led her to where she is today.
PP: Tell us a little bit about yourself - we would love to hear about who you are and what you do.
JB: I live in sunny San Diego, CA in an adorable granny flat studio in the backyard of a property where my friends live. I call it the commune as we all work, play and live together. I have lived in San Diego for about 17 years now and continue to feel so lucky to live in such a beautiful place.
PP: Tell us a little bit about your story. How did it lead to to what you're doing today?
JB: My mother is Filipina and so I had the wonderful opportunity to live half of my childhood in the Philippines. It is there that I learned I have a love of learning about cultures and traveling. Eventually this led to me joining the Peace Corps after graduating from college. My time in the Peace Corps was served in Eswatini, Africa where I worked in Youth and Community Development. I created programs and workshops for the village where I lived as well as worked on National level projects including implementing 30 libraries for 30 schools around the country. I love my time there and it was such an honor to be a part of the lives of those I lived, worked and met with.
PP: How did you get started in ceramics and what attracted you to that medium? What do you love most about the practice?
JB: My first memorable experience with ceramics was that my aunt and uncle have a pottery studio in their home in Connecticut. As a kid, when visiting, I would play around in the studio. Then in my senior year of highschool I took a pottery class. However, it wasn't until about 5 years ago when I realized I was not doing anything creative anymore and really wanted to get back into some sort of art. I decided to try out a local pottery class and that is when it just hit for me! What I love about ceramics is that it comes with so much history and it is something that every culture has developed a style of their own over time. My anthropology degree plays a big role in my love for this! Working with my hands, getting dirty, working with earth elements is so fun for me. I love that the possibilities that you can do with ceramics are limitless!
PP: Isiko is impact driven, donating a percentage of all sales to organizations that bring more good into the world. What inspired you to start an impact-driven business? How do you find / choose the organizations you support?
JB: When I was 8 years old visiting the Philippines I remember this mother holding her baby in her arms coming up to my mother and asking for some food. My mother gave her a guava and then suddenly there were several more children coming up asking for food. The sight of all these people who were so hungry really saddened my heart. I saw the realities of a harsh world at a young age and it was in that moment that I decided whatever I did in my life I would make sure to give back to those who are less fortunate.
The organizations I choose to work with are ones I have been involved with personally or really just speak to me as far as their mission to how they are helping others.
PP: Ceramics is such a beautiful art form, as every piece is unique. I don’t think a lot of people understand the TLC that goes in to it. Can you share a little bit about the process, the space you create in and the amount of time that goes into each piece?
JB: Absolutely, so much time goes into making ceramics. You may think of it as just clay and mud but tiny factors such as an air bubble in the clay can destroy a piece during a firing. Basically, from start to finish, creating a piece goes like this; make a ball of clay that you will throw on the wheel, let it dry to leather hard (too wet or too dry can make this step much more difficult and could easily destroy a piece), trim and then let dry. Once bone dry it is bisque fired. Then you can glaze the piece and again fire to have your final piece.
PP: Who is one person in your life who has inspired you?
JB: I’m truly inspired by the strong community of artists and entrepreneurs I have developed relationships with here in San Diego. I would say the art scene is small here but I think that also helps to create a tight knit community. Everyone is so encouraging and supportive. To have a community like that is very inspiring.
PP: Tell us a little bit about your day – what is your routine / share a couple rituals that help you stay grounded?
JB: I’m not the best at routines but I do try to keep a loose one otherwise I will get behind on my work. I also work part time at another studio as a Glaze Tech. I usually try to start my week off with getting logistical work done such as shipping, website and marketing aspects of my business. I work out of shared studio space so I have to adjust my time to work around classes. Usually I like to be able to throw a bunch of pieces one day and then a few days later trim, working my way down the list of orders!
What keeps me grounded is being able to spend time outside being in nature and connecting with my friends. Being an extrovert I need social time to fill my energy tank, especially since most of the time I’m working in the studio I am by myself.
PP: Do you listen to any music or books while you create or are do you tend to thrive more working in silence? If you are listening to anything, share a little more about what music, books and/or podcasts you’ve been into lately and why they resonated with you.
JB: I definitely need to have some other stimulus going on while I work. I generally cycle through music, podcasts and even tv shows. Currently some podcasts I am into are Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard, Dissect and My Favorite Murderer, which I do not listen to if it's later in the evening and I'm all alone in the studio! I recently learned about Jamie XX and Ben Bohmer and have been listening to their radio stations on Shopify quite frequently. Both of their music helps me just vibe out and get into a flow while working.
PP: What are your professional and life plans for the next year? Any words of wisdom for those of us who are also small business owners, striving to lead more intentional lives and build something beautiful?
JB: I have been searching brick and mortar locations hoping to open up a store front and private studio. The idea of having a location to share mine and others' art brings me so much joy. I would also like it to be a place where other ceramic artists can come and work in the studio. I think community is so important in building more meaningful work. As a small business owner I think finding people who inspire you, encourage you, and support you is how you can have a more intentional life. When you are authentic to your calling and yourself only good things can come. I’m not saying it will be easy but it will be rewarding. I definitely have had my ups and downs as a small business owner. There is so much questioning and doubt that comes with it but if it's truly what you are passionate about and you believe in it it is 100% worth it.
PP: What messages / feelings do you hope to pass along to those who receive your work (either by purchasing or as a gift)?
JB: I hope that when people possess my work they know that good has been done in the world. That the piece is made not just a practical mug or beautiful vase but with an intention and desire to do good in the world. When it comes to the other sourced items in my shop I hope they are able to learn and appreciate other culture’s art and history that has gone into that piece.
PP: I loved learning that your degree was in anthropology and not in fine arts. I think so often a lot of creators fear moving forward with their art because they don’t have the specialized degree in the field. If you could give advice to someone else hoping to jump into a new business / craft that they may not have the “technical” education in, what would it be?
JB: One of my mottos in life is, “If they can do it why can't I?” I’ve always been a go-getter type. If I want something I will figure out a way to make it happen. We live in a world where there are so many resources at our fingertips and so many opportunities to learn new things without having to go down the formal training process. I also believe that if you have a passion for something then you should go for it. People will see your passion come through your work and I think people connect on that level rather than a surface level item. My advice for someone who is hoping to jump into a new business or craft is to find other people who inspire you and learn their process, get to know them if you can, and develop a real connection with them. Like I said before, community is key to building more meaningful work.
PP: Where can we learn more about you and your work? (website, social, etc.)
JB: You can find more of my work on my website shopisiko.com or on my instagram @shop.isiko. I’m working on getting my TikTok game up to par but I’m a millennial so it's been very confusing for me! :)