One year when Dawn Soltysiak was a child, she received a dollhouse to build for Christmas, and her father got a gun. They sat in their family room together while he carved the stock of his gun and she glued together her little dollhouse.
Her father, a short-distance truck driver for UPS, was creative in ways she didn’t understand then. He fished and hunted, taught his children to skin deer and grind meat, and was always busy making something if he wasn’t at work.
But he told his daughter, “You can’t do art for a living. You do art because you want to do it.”
Soltysiak, who is 47, tells this story clutching a mug of hot coffee, one of the thou-sands of mugs she now makes for a living in her Fennville pottery studio and art gallery, Khnemu Studio on Fernwood Farm.
Ignoring the advice of almost everyone in her life, Soltysiak left a successful real estate career in Grand Rapids 16 years ago to open Khnemu on a farm she and her husband bought. Named after the Egyptian god often depicted as a ram-headed figure at a potter’s wheel, Khnemu sells locally made, handcrafted artisan wares, including Soltysiak’s own work, and offers classes, workshops and special events. The studio and gallery run on solar power, and a plethora of farm animals, from horses and llamas to peacocks and free-range chickens, wander the farm’s fields.
Like the crops and animals the farm nurtures, Khnemu has grown enough that two years ago Soltysiak launched a satellite studio and gallery called Fernwood 1891, located in downtown Fennville.
But she wasn’t finished. Last May, next to Fernwood 1891, Soltysiak opened Root Coffee House, Café & Bakery, where she sells small-batch roasted coffee in mugs she handcrafted and rustic food she grows or gets from other local farms.
“Michigan really is ahead of the curve when it comes to the farm-to-table movement,” she says. “It’s because we have such a diverse farm industry, with everything from soybeans to corn to vineyards to fruits to vegetables to dairy.”
Soltysiak grew up in Rockford, north of Grand Rapids. Her grandparents had a vegetable farm where she and her three siblings worked in the summer months. The family grew 50 acres by hand and sold their vegetables at a farmer’s market three times a week.
Soltysiak’s mother was a ceramics hobby artist who worked out of the family’s garage, teaching classes five days a week. That’s where Soltysiak began working with slip-cast ceramics, pouring liquid clay into molds, when she was 2.
Fast-forward several decades to 2000, when Soltysiak’s husband, Rob, a physician, took a new job near Fennville. The couple looked at the 1890s Fernwood Farm estate as a possible home, but Soltysiak, who had been doing ceramics as a hobby for five years, didn’t see the property as a viable option given her real estate career in Grand Rapids.
“Why buy your dream house if it’s just going to sit in front of you, and you can’t make the dream a reality?” she says. “I told my husband, ‘I don’t want to live here if I can’t do what I want to do with it.’”
He responded, “Well, you smile more when you play with your clay. It might be time for you to walk away.”
And while plenty of other people thought she was crazy, she did walk away, making the leap from selling real estate to working as an artist and entrepreneur.
She runs all four of her businesses — Khnemu, Fernwood 1891, Root Coffee House and the farm — in what she calls “a quasi co-op” format, giving employees access to the pottery studio and discounts on consignment commissions. There’s a small pottery studio in the front corner of Fernwood 1891, so employees can work during a slow shift.
“People want to see artists working,” Soltysiak says. “They’re totally happy with someone sitting there working on things as they shop.”
Nearly 70 “makers,” as Soltysiak calls them, many of whom she has known most of her life, sell their work at Khnemu and Fernwood 1891. One can find every decorative and functional piece of ceramic art imaginable at the galleries, from mugs with chickens on them to sculptures, ornaments and striking wall hangings with owl faces. Soaps, paintings, mixed-media work, furniture, jewelry, notecards and books are among the other products sold at the galleries. Also available are artisan foods like salsa and dried pasta. Fernwood 1891 even carries bread from Salt of the Earth, the popular Fennville restaurant two doors down.
Nature is a common theme in much of the art, as it is in Soltysiak’s life. The mugs for Root are imprinted with an image of a tree and the café’s slogan, “Feel Grounded.” Earth tones mix seamlessly with elegant, rustic touches inside the coffee house. An antique upright piano holds the cream and sugar, while menu boards are fashioned from screen doors.
Still, the life of an artist and entrepreneur is not the misty-eyed dream some people might think. “People say to me, ‘You have such a romantic life,’” Soltysiak says. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘If you had any idea … .’”
Khnemu’s website says Soltysiak “enjoys a live/work lifestyle.” When asked what this means, she says, “My life is work!” She laughs, but she’s half-serious.
“A lot of people would sit on my porch and all they would see is a bunch of unfinished projects, or a bunch of work,” she says. “I find flaws in everything that I do, and I can choose to let them stop me or move me forward. You know, the journey is the heart of things. The goal is …” She stops talking and flicks her hand, then says, “If I reached my goal, I’d be bored.”