Rachel Ballem carves out a living with her unique pottery
by Jeff Green
Rachel Ballem covers her face when she admits that her career runs her life. But it’s a good thing she pleads. The self-taught potter and sculptor says that she is so absorbed by her art that it’s not uncommon for her to fling out of bed in the middle of the night just to jot down a few ideas for her latest pieces. Ballem is so devoted to her work she’s turned her Miscouche home into a makeshift studio.
“It basically takes up my whole home. I throw pottery in the kitchen, I sculpt in my living room and my kiln is in the porch. It’s madness,” she says with smile. “It’s a house during the day and a studio at night.”
Add to the mix two young children, ages four and five, plus the fact that Ballem, 30, is her own “accountant and manufacturer,” producing hundreds of dollars worth of products each day for her business, The Castle’s Mantle, and you’ve got one busy life. “It’s hectic,” she says. “Right now I’m making inventory for next year’s tourism season.”
Ballem has carved out quite a niche for herself in the PEI arts scene, most notably as the architect of clay gargoyles, oddly shaped yet lovable creatures she conjures up from her own imagination. They come in all sorts of sizes—ranging from six to 12 inches in height—and are found in shops across Prince Edward Island. Her products also include clay pots, vases, mugs, bowls and Christmas ornaments, each usually adorned with mythical characters like her gargoyles, as well as dragons and griffins. They range in price from $6 to $350.
An avid “doodler” while growing up, Ballem was always drawn to medieval and gothic characters and ancient castles. She had an active imagination and still uses it to when she creates her artwork. “In particular with the dragons and the gargoyles,” she explains. “They all come from me. There is no blueprint.”
In 1997, she and fellow artist Candy Gallant launched their own business, Sweet and Sour Gargoyles. “We learnt a lot,” says Ballem, “but after a few years we just went our separate ways and I had kids. We’re still great friends and we feed off each other and exchange ideas.”
Ballem relaunched her career in 2003 by starting up The Castle’s Mantle. Since she was busy raising her kids, she devised a two-year “personal and professional” plan to make sure she could handle the perils of running a business while being a mom. Currently Ballem is two years ahead of her schedule. She produces $200-$600 worth of sculptures and pottery a day for her stock pile.
“Running your own business and being an artist is a lot of corny things,” she adds. “It’s perseverance, believing in yourself and not listening to the negatives and going with the positives. It’s all those things.”