If you've always wanted to try your hand at pottery, Fired Up Paint Your Own Pottery Studio in Peoria Heights may be the answer. Owners Michelle May, Michelle Merkley, Stephanie Qualls, and Karen Zussman made their business debut last year and already have a manager, Gail Healy-Raffel, and nine part-time employees.

The owners all have diverse backgrounds. "I have a degree in history and have been a stay-at-home mom for the last 10 years," said Merkley. "Actually, all four owners were stay-at-home mothers until Fired Up opened. "Michelle is an accountant, Stephanie has a background in fine arts and museums, and Karen taught special education for several years. And our manager brings a wealth of retail and event planning experience to our store."

Merkley came up with the idea to open Fired Up after visiting a contemporary ceramics studio in Florida. "My boys, ages 8 and 10, loved painting pottery, and I began mulling over the idea of opening a studio in Peoria. Michelle and Karen were close friends interested in opening a business, and we were joined by Stephanie. We found the perfect location in Peoria Heights and opened March 1. We felt the charm of the Heights complimented our studio well," she said.

Fired Up offers a variety of classes, Merkley said. "Classes for school-aged children are offered regularly by experienced teachers Jen Crider and Tanya LaSota. A pre-school story time is offered twice a month, where the children read a story and paint a piece of pottery. Adult classes are offered once a month also. This class offers the opportunity to learn specific painting techniques. We hold a specialty night on the last Thursday of the month. Past specialty nights have included a Mediterranean evening and a holiday gathering. On these evenings, we have special themed pieces available for painting and provide appetizers. We also offer birthday party packages and a party room great for large gatherings."

In addition to painting in the Fired Up studio, the company offers many other options for the artistically inclined. "If people want a quick pick-up present or treasure the idea of a hand-painted gift, we offer hand-painted pieces for sale," she said. "People can personalize these gifts with a Porcelain pen with which you can write on the pottery after it's fired. Many couples like the idea of a hand-painted wedding or anniversary platter their guests are able to sign. Instead of a guest book, they have a beautiful platter to display. If people are looking for a great birthday or other present, we have pottery-to-go gift baskets. Each basket includes bisque, paint, and brushes-everything needed to paint at home. Glazing and firing at the studio is included in the cost of the basket."

Fired Up is able to enjoy the success it has this year because the art form is becoming increasingly prevalent, Merkley said. "Contemporary ceramics has only become popular in the last 10 years. It offers the opportunity to create a functional, yet artistic piece of pottery. Upon entering our store, customers select a piece of bisque, and our staff instructs you on the painting process. The beauty of painting your own pottery is the ease of it. Idea books and samples provide a wealth of ideas. First-time painters are often surprised at how beautiful their pieces turn out. After painting, the piece of pottery is left at the store, where it's glazed and fired. Generally, it's available for pick up in seven days."

The staff's helpful guidance, coupled with the promise of artistic expression, draws many types of clients, Merkley said. "We don't have a typical customer. Parents and grandparents come in with their children for a fun family afternoon. Often, adults then return to paint on their own without the kids. Girlfriends bring drinks and snacks and enjoy a 'girls' night out' painting."
She said painters are always pleasantly surprised with their finished pieces. "While painting, the underglaze (paint) appears chalky and dull. The glazing and firing process produces vibrant, colorful pieces of pottery. People often can't believe the difference in before and after."

The cost to create a one-of-a-kind piece is within reach for most people-whether looking for an evening of entertainment or to complete a full complement of dinnerware. "We offer pieces that range from $5 for mugs and plates to $30 for large platters. In addition, there's an $8 studio fee for adults and $5 for children," Merkley said.

The best part of running the business, she said, is the personal satisfaction of starting a business and seeing it succeed. "Also, there's joy in watching families paint together. A recent platter that was painted at the studio had footprints and handprints and the names and ages of the children. They ranged from newborn to four years old, and it was a platter to be given to their great-grandmother. Nothing beats a handmade gift from a child or something painted by a friend. It may sound like a cliché, but it's really rewarding to see the hard work that so many people put into painting something for their loved ones."

She said the most challenging aspect has been meeting the demands of running a small business and juggling home life. "All of us keep our family as our first priority. All four owners and our manager have young children who keep us very busy."

As for the business' future plans, Merkley said Fired Up is going to continue helping people develop their painting technique by beginning to offer specialty paints and workshops. "Above all, we'll continue to offer a relaxing, inspiring place to gather and create personal, practical works of art. We pride ourselves on our repeat customers. We're building our business by word of mouth, so we truly want our customers to have a memorable and pleasant experience painting pottery in our studio." AA!