From Studio to Startup

Published on November 17, 2023

Ashley Norman, ’11

By Marie Mitchell

Ashley Norman, ’11, half of the husband-and-wife team that created Dirty South Pottery in Winchester, Kentucky, didn’t choose pottery as her profession. It chose her. 

Originally, Ashley came to EKU with plans to pursue nursing. That’s in sharp contrast to today’s career calling, where she sits contentedly at her pottery wheel, elbows deep in wet clay, shaping mugs, bowls and plates before glazing and firing them in their three electric kilns. 

The studio is where the magic happens. “You start with a chunk of clay, and in two weeks you turn it into a mug that someone will love and cherish,” Ashley said.

Once Ashley realized nursing wasn’t the best fit for her, she switched her major to photography, which required taking a ceramics class. Molding the malleable clay with her hands in the introductory course with favorite professor Joe Molinaro was gratifying but centering the clay on the wheel in the advanced class seemed intimidating.

“If you don’t get it exactly right then everything goes wonky and wobbly and is likely to collapse,” Ashley said.

When Ashley took advanced ceramics to complete her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, she was surprised to find that she quickly got the hang of the wheel and enjoyed experimenting with different shapes. An added bonus: meeting her future husband Carvel, from Glasgow, who was taking pottery classes at EKU to beef up his own portfolio. 

After Ashley graduated, the couple married, moved to her hometown of Winchester, and pursued full-time jobs—Ashley in property management and Carvel in the bourbon industry. But she couldn’t shake the urge to make art.

So, the couple dabbled with pottery as a summer side hustle, creating pieces in their backyard shed and firing them in their “baby” kiln, which barely fit eight mugs at a time.

The Normans successfully showcased their pieces at festivals, selling under the name Dirty South Pottery, which reflects that their profession leaves them “completely covered in clay,” and that they were both raised in the South.

Again, fate stepped in when the “perfect studio space” in downtown Winchester was auctioned in 2014. The Normans won the bid, renovated the 3,000-square-foot building (which they’re already outgrowing) and opened for business in 2015. Carvel soon joined full time to help meet the increasing customer demand. A map in their showroom displays pins recording sales in every state but Connecticut.

“I might have to drive up there and leave a piece of our pottery someday to complete all 50 states,” Ashley jokes. 

Working side-by-side, the Normans complement each other’s strengths. Carvel is the extroverted people person, well suited for customer service, and the more introverted Ashley is happiest listening to music or paranormal podcasts on her headphones while working at the wheel. “There’s an ease and familiarity to taking 50 pounds of clay to make 30 mugs in an hour,” she said.

Being your own boss has its perks, like designing a unique Bigfoot mug, which has become a huge hit with customers who “share their stories of Bigfoot sightings.”

Professionally, the Normans have weathered unforeseen twists and turns without deviating from their goal of producing pottery that brings people together for communal meals. The community-minded couple also hosts an annual fundraiser to support local homeless and arts programs.

From her valuable hands-on training at EKU to her real-life entrepreneurial experience, Ashley has learned to be adaptive, creative and innovative with their business. What started in an EKU pottery studio molded into a successful and rewarding career that allowed the Normans to pursue their passion for building community one piece of pottery at a time.