It might seem unusual for an artisan, but Renfrew potter Marie Josée Lévesque believes the future of her business involves more automation.
While pottery allows her to wear a creative hat, Lévesque says she remains a businessperson at heart. Currently, she’s working on scaling up production at Bumpy Roads Studio Inc. and introducing a product she believes the Canadian market lacks.
“I need to transition away from everything made by hand by me to having some mechanical assistance,” she says. “I’m going the route of introducing machine-assisted production processes to start producing dinnerware. I think there is room in this market for Canadian-made dinnerware of high quality, high durability and primarily sourced from Canadian raw materials,” explains Lévesque.
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She says her goal is to shorten the supply chain because she believes that people have grown to value products made closer to home.
“That was one of the behaviours we saw change during COVID. People became more aware of the importance of the local economy and supporting producers and manufacturers with shorter supply chains,” says Lévesque.
Today, Lévesque runs a full-production pottery studio specializing in creating “contemporary-looking functional pottery with a definite whimsical side to it.” Bumpy Roads also offers a gift shop, studio space for rent, and pottery classes.
A self-proclaimed lifelong learner, Lévesque wanted to understand every aspect of her business, so she enrolled in glaze chemistry courses in 2020 to learn how to formulate her own glazes. Currently working with white and black porcelain that she purchases, her ambition, she says, is to formulate her own clay body as well.
The recycling of clay and water is an important aspect of the business, not only for cost savings, but from an environmental perspective as well. As Lévesque points out, pottery is not a particularly environmentally friendly pursuit. While pots are made from natural materials, those materials are generally mined and that means someone’s landscape is being destroyed to harvest those materials, she says.
“My way of handling this is to ensure there’s as little waste as possible, so we at least respect the resource,” says Lévesque.
Lévesque moved to Renfrew with her husband and two daughters in 2015. In 2020, she opened Bumpy Roads — “That was my pandemic shift,” she says.
It was a natural progression that built on a lifelong relationship with clay.
“I never really got the opportunity to use the wheel as a child, but I have been doing pottery for as long as I can remember,” says Lévesque.
Originally from the Gaspé, Lévesque and her husband were living in Toronto when their first daughter was born.
“We went from being this young, hip, outgoing couple to being cooped up at home with this infant that wouldn’t sleep. The first child is just a shock,” recalls Lévesque.
The couple realized they needed to find an outlet that would get them out of the house. They discovered a pottery studio in downtown Toronto and took turns attending classes.
“My husband would go on a Tuesday evening and I would go on a Thursday evening and so we could manage solo parenting for one evening a week,” she says.
The experience was exactly what Lévesque needed and it was there that she learned to throw pots on a wheel.
“I fell in love with learning the wheel. I happened to pick up the skill pretty quickly and it became a creative outlet. When I entered the studio, I just left work and family behind and I was just here and now and that’s what I offer here (at Bumpy Roads), a place where people can come and leave their troubles at the door and play with clay for a couple of hours,” says Lévesque.
Earlier this year, Lévesque was named the first francophone entrepreneur of the year for Renfrew County. The honour took her by complete surprise.
Lévesque, now a mother of two girls, says she had no idea she’d even been nominated. She knew there was going to be an event because she was the keynote speaker and she knew there’d be an award because she had been contracted to make it.
“Her reaction was priceless, I wish I could have taken a photo,” says Heather Inwood-Montrose, small business advisor with Enterprise Renfrew. “Warden Peter Emon introduced the winner and before her name was called out, one eyebrow rose as she realized it was her … and the look on her face could best be described as astounded.”
“Yes, that was the plot twist!” laughs Lévesque. “It was so unexpected. It’s the first time this award has been given and I didn’t even know I was nominated.”
The award was determined based on how entrepreneurs contribute to their community, customer reviews and website information.
Lévesque’s community involvement includes volunteering with the Ottawa Valley Tourism Association. With an executive MBA from the Telfer School of Management, Lévesque has worked as a business consultant in the community, specializing in business modelling and leadership. Once she opened her studio, she was quick to showcase works by other artisans while renting out studio space and sharing her skills with students.
“So the plaque will be back where it was born, in the studio, and I have a story to tell all of my students who saw me fuss over this thing for weeks,” says Lévesque.