Julia Ballenger Won't Be Defined By Anyone But Her

Ceramicist, Julia Ballenger, smiling in her workshop.

ThirdLove is a #ByWomenForWomen company, and we make it a point to celebrate strong women who are doing amazing things. Our weekly blog series, #WomenMade, is a chance to get to know some of these standout females who are creating products, services, and tech we love.

Ceramicist, Julia Ballenger, painting one of her pieces in her studio.

Ceramicist Julia Ballenger grew up in a household where art was not just a creative outlet, but a way of life. Even in this setting, she never meant to become a full time ceramicist, or even a small business owner. She started out like most of us, in pursuit of a traditional job, with regular hours, and a standard routine. But with ceramics always being her passion, Julia watched as this hobby became her full time job, and soon her business. She believes in starting from scratch, progress not perfection, and women supporting women. Today, her pieces are not only functional decor, but celebrations of self-love and womanhood. Read on to find out more about how her favorite side project became her day to day.

When did you start your work?

I started my ceramic business a year after graduating college, but I have been doing ceramics since I was 15.

Why did you start this company?

I didn’t start my business intentionally. I always knew I belonged somewhere in the art world–and assumed I would work in a gallery or a museum, but I have had a lifelong obsession with making and building and creating. I always thought I’d do it on the side while pursuing “a real career” . I would work a full day and go into my studio at night, and slowly my work began gaining traction and my studio nights slowly became my full-time work, and I started to realize that there may be a career here for me.

Tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in Boise, Idaho and have since lived in San Francisco, London, and recently moved back home to the rocky mountains. My current studio is a converted warehouse in Garden City along the Boise river.

What was one challenge you overcame during the early days of your company/work?

The hardest part has been allowing myself and my vision of what it means “to be an artist” to change and be fluid. I had very strong convictions when I began: that I was a ‘fine artist’, that I would never do production work, and that I was NOT a designer (I laugh when I think about it now!) As my work and career have changed and developed, so have my preconceptions about what my job is. At this point, I feel very gratified with where I am, and I have accepted that in five, 10 or 20 years it will likely look very different. As soon as I accepted myself as not only an artist, but as a small business owner, I began to allow myself to think creatively in more ways than one.

Was there anyone who helped pave the way for your business or career?

My parents. A labor and delivery nurse and a creative writing professor, they always encouraged my sister and I to pursue our passions, and art was considered highly valuable in my family. Learning the power of art as a way of communicating has bled into every aspect of my life. I think really good art communicates with a viewer in a way that makes them feel like the art chose them. That is important in my work too, I want women to look at my work and not only see themselves, but feel like the work sees them.

What are some of the ways women today can help raise and inspire the next generation of ambitious females?

I think we all need to listen and look. It’s easy to get caught up in your own ideas and production, and not look out at the wonderful work and words coming from other voices. I think that we often operate in the mindset of scarcity, like there isn’t enough room at the table for other voices and ideas because it would somehow take away from our own. I think this often comes from a place of insecurity. There is always room at the table. Some of the ways we can support new voices is by supporting their work. Whether that be monetarily or by positive encouragement, it’s in those pivotal first few years where it is so easy to want to give up and throw in the towel (and when that negative, insecure self-talk can overpower your perspective). I personally would like to see more mentorship programs in the arts.

Julia Ballenger's ceramic piece called Flower Crown
Flower Crown by Julia Ballenger.

How would you describe yourself in three words?

Kind, resilient, human.

What’s something most people might not assume about you at first glance?

People often don’t assume that I deal with chronic pain and health problems. I look very healthy on the outside, but I have to work through quite severe endometriosis and migraines during many days of the month. I’ve had 10 surgeries in the last 10 years. This takes away from many studio days, so I have to work in short bursts to get all of my deadlines. This is another reason why I decided to pursue my own business, I was able to make my hours fit my life in this way. These experiences are a huge part of my story, but aren’t something that you could read on my face or in my appearance. It has given me a great deal of compassion and patience.

What quality do you love most about yourself?

My ability to find humor in even the darkest moments.

When and where are you happiest?

Art museums fill my soul. My favorite place is the national portrait gallery in London. I would go there and bring my sketchbook and spend the day in the quiet of the museum. It was magic.

If you could give your younger self advice, what would you tell her?

You are enough, just as you are.

What’s the top song on your playlist right now?

Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush

What are the advantages or benefits of being outside of the traditional workplace environment that many people may not realize or know about?

A huge positive is the obvious—making my own hours and being able to set the tone in the space I work in. I also get a great amount of gratification out of the work I do.

Why is it important to understand both the challenges and benefits of being outside the traditional workplace environment?

The positives also come with negatives. Nothing gets done unless I do it or arrange for it. I don’t have weekends unless I make them. I could work all of the time and still feel like I never have everything done. A big learning curve for me has been setting boundaries on myself with work, spending weekends and holidays out of the studio and keeping otherwise normal hours.

Do you think founders/disruptors/creators should take time to reflect on the pros, even if they’re constantly putting out fires?

I can only speak about artists, but I think it’s easy to feel the weight of running your own business and let yourself be crushed by them. The truth is that if you are unhappy doing what you do, it’s time to shake things up, hire someone, or go back to the drawing board. I am still working on this. Really checking in with myself to see if I need to make changes. There will always be negative parts to your job, but when the negatives outweigh the positives, it’s important to reflect on that and see if there is anything you can do about it. You aren’t making enough money as an artist to be miserable while you’re doing it!

What did success mean to you when you first started your company/work? How has your definition of success changed since then?

Success for me in the beginning was just selling ONE piece of ceramics. Gradually, I started setting my goals a little higher, then a little higher, then a little higher. As I started catching some speed, I started to dream about what all of this could mean. And out of that came my business, and with it, much different dreams and goals. Right now, success to me is being excited by the work I’m engaged in.

Looking back, what would you have done differently?

I wish I had taken less bullshit, and stood up for myself more. I think ‘yes!’ is a bit of a buzzword, and over idolized. I am constantly learning and getting to know the wonderful benefits of “no.”

Julia Ballenger's stoneware ring holder is of a woman wearing ThirdLove's 24/7 Classic T-shirt Bra.
Treasure Keeper from ThirdLove X Julia Ballenger collaboration.

What does your morning routine look like?

Wake up, feed and cuddle my tabby cat, Mordecai, and have coffee with my partner before we both start work. It’s nice to have that still time together before the day gets going.

What motivates you to keep going in the toughest of times?

Repeating this simple yet powerful mantra: (higher power) grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I repeat this mantra several times a day if I need to!

What are your favorite ways to practice self-care?

For me, there is no better self care than a hot bath, although my first question to myself when I’m feeling down is ‘Do I need food?’

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

In my early years, I wasn’t sure what my aesthetic or purpose with ceramics would be. I just went to the studio and made things without any clear plan and I often felt lost with where I was going. On a late night studio phone call to my dad (when I was feeling distressed about this) he told me that the best thing I can do is go to the studio and make. He is a writer, so he used the analogy of free writing. He said you can’t come up with a final draft without free writing and many, many revisions. Perfection at the first go is never the objective. The objective is to get words out onto the page. And in my case, clay. I take this to heart in the way I design my products.

What’s the most fulfilling part of your job?

Receiving photos and kind words from happy customers. I am always very touched to see my work being loved in other people’s homes. That’s what I do this for!

Need more Julia Ballenger in your life? We were lucky enough to partner with her on an exclusive piece for ThirdLove. Shop the Treasure Keeper for decor that gives you a daily dose of self-appreciation and a place for your most precious items.