The Family That Does Pottery Together…

He quit a banking career to take a chance on being a potter, and 30 years later Jeff Chang is one of Hawaii’s best

Steve Murray
Wednesday - September 05, 2007
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Jeff Chang and son Cory outside his downtown gallery during a First Friday Hawaii Gallery Walk
Jeff Chang and son Cory outside his downtown gallery during a First Friday Hawaii Gallery Walk

The career of most budding artists begins the same. A child shows an early interest by constantly doodling on scrap paper or applying chalk drawings to the driveway, then it’s on to art school and maybe an apprenticeship before striking out on their own. This is the standard process, except for one of Hawaii’s most admired and successful artists who was just looking to pump up his GPA during his senior year in college with a cruise art class. He got a C.

Though Jeff Chang’s career didn’t exactly start off with a bang, in the 34 years he’s been getting his hands dirty, he has carved out a successful business that includes five Oahu galleries and legions of admirers. But to hear him tell the story, he may have started out as the least talented potter in the business.

“The professor (at Pacific University in Oregon) had this thing called an ugliness clause. When it came time to load the kiln and the pot wasn’t up to par, she’d say, ‘Jeff, ugliness clause’ and she’d throw it against the stone building. It would break and fall into the 50-gallon drum. But back then my pots were so bad, so thick, that they wouldn’t break when they hit the stone wall. They’d bounce off.”

Evidently things didn’t get much better after graduation.

“To give you an idea how bad I was when we first started, Karen (his wife and partner) and I would go to the swap meet and we had to get there early so we could look and find plants to put in my pots because my pots were so bad. Karen would make these macrame hangers so that my pots would sell.”’

That’s not much of a problem anymore.

Jeff Chang shows off two pieces inlaid with horse hair
Jeff Chang shows off two pieces inlaid with horse hair

While Jeff gets top billing - his work is the galleries’ biggest draw - the operation is a complete family affair. Jeff is the right-brained pottery savant who needs lists from his wife to ensure he doesn’t spend 18 hours a day behind the wheel. Karen is the gallery designer, book keeper, critic and buyer for the stores that carry the work of some 300 artists from Hawaii and beyond. Son Cory is the heir apparent. “This is a family business and nobody has a title,” says his mother.

Truthfully, Cory is in the midst of a 10-year plan to take over the company. That is when, and if, his parents ever actually retire. In the meantime he continues to learn the business while showing off his ability to schmooze with customers - an art form in itself.

“It’s not easy to work with your family,” says Karen. “You really have to have your own areas of what you do and you help each other. We all overlap, but I think the reason we’ve been successful, all three of us, is because we’re not in each other’s stuff much. It’s easier to work together when you’re not competing with each other.”

“We’re all good at what we do and we value each other’s comments,” adds Jeff.

And that’s a good thing because since day one Karen has been his biggest supporter and critic - a duel job Jeff appreciates because of the valuable feed back.

“She doesn’t care how I feel. It’s the pot,” says Jeff. “A fellow artist might enjoy it for other reasons. Karen really hits the nail on the head. If it’s good, she’ll tell you it’s good, and if it’s not, she’ll tell you it’s bad. She doesn’t sugar coat it.”

That honesty and eye for detail played an important role some three decades ago when they decided that it was time for a career change. In fact, if it weren’t for his former college sweetheart, Jeff Chang would be just another name behind the counter.

“I got hired by Bank of Hawaii (after graduation and a stint in the Navy) and worked at the bank for four years, and did my pottery as a hobby, when Karen said, ‘You’re not happy at the bank’and I said no,” recalls Jeff during the time when everything changed. “She said ‘Let’s play this game. If you had all the money in the world, what would you do?’ I answered fast. I said I would be a professional potter, and she said why don’t you do it? She said try it for five years, you don’t have to make any money at it, and the worst thing that can happen is when you’re 65 you can say you tried but you weren’t good enough.”

Selling her husband on the idea of leaving his steady paycheck while possibly abandoning, at least for a time, his goal of a home, a family and some dogs, for the uncertain world of art was hard enough. It was nothing compared to telling the Chang family matriarch.

The master shapes a pot
The master shapes a pot

“I said you don’t understand Chinese mothers,” says Jeff. “They would like their sons to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a business person. Pottery isn’t in the top 5,000 things.”

But Karen wasn’t going to be swayed.

“I think I was just in protection mode,” said the woman who knew she had to be the one to take a stand. “I knew I wanted a happy husband and I knew that my life would be significantly impacted by how happy or unhappy he was. His parents were very upset, and I just stood between them and said ‘stop it and leave us be.”

“When we would go to family gatherings, (his mother would say) ‘if anybody asks what you’re doing tell them you’re on vacation’ ” says Jeff. “I said, but I’m working harder now than I ever did. ‘Do it for you mother, you’re on vacation.’”

But once an influential kamaaina business got involved, opinions changed.

“It was very funny. Liberty House picked us up and then all of a sudden you would have thought it (an art career) was their idea,” laughs Karen.

And though the store was

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