Rachel and Seth Alwin finally found their calling – creating together – after getting married last year. Rachel is a small batch ceramicist who specializes in creating organic clay shapes with functional, modern design. Seth uses photography as a vehicle for storytelling. Their crafts merge through photography; together, Rachel and Seth shoot weddings and portraits of Rachel’s work.
More on their shared story in this exclusive Modern Midwest Q&A.
Modern Midwest: Tell us a little about yourself. What’s your background?
Rachel Alwin: I’m the daughter of an artist mother and a hard working father and that’s shaped me into who I am. I’m a college-educated person with hopes and dreams for the future, but if I’m blunt, none include a shining career or a corporate ladder. Instead they include my husband, our art, little ones, and making a difference in people’s lives in whatever way we can.
Seth Alwin: I’m the product [of] two social workers, raised on a farm with my three older brothers just north of Wausau, WI. From little on, I always seemed to have my own way of doing things. Our family had horses, I rode my bike. My brothers went hunting, I never loaded my gun and only went along for my grandma’s pancakes. I’ve also always been interested in trying new things. One week it was Nintendo, the next week it was racing bikes. I changed my college major four times and it took me over six years to get my bachelor’s degree. At 35, I’ve worked too many jobs to count and I still have a long list of things I’d love to try. Some things though, like making pictures, traveling, and helping others, seem to keep my attention more than others.
MM: We’ve noticed that you’re based out of Wisconsin and have a lot of love for the Midwest. For you, what makes the Midwest, specifically Wausau, great?
RA: I love the pace of life of the Midwest, the changing seasons, and the genuine people. Wausau is full of so many kind, friendly, likable families and couples, many of whom we’ve had the pleasure of photographing.
SA: Having seen a fair amount of our world, I can truly say the Midwest, and specifically Wausau, is one of the only places I’d really feel comfortable calling home. The people are genuine, the changing seasons are a nice change, and the pace of life is just right. I tend to favor small towns with their everyone knows everyone style, and Wausau offers that without having to give up some big city creature comforts I can’t live without. Don’t get me wrong – the craziness of Hanoi is amazing, as is the laziness of the Croatian coast – but only for short periods of time.
MM: What’s one thing someone who isn’t familiar with Wausau should know about the city?
RA: For our “small town,” we have a lot to offer. Lots of fun, locally owned coffee houses, a quaint downtown with mom-and-pop shops, some great spots for hiking, and an art-minded downtown that every September, transforms into blocks and blocks of tents and artisans selling their work. Wausau has a few big-city features with a safe, calm, home-town feel, and it’s perfect for us. It’s a great place to be.
SA: That it really has something for everyone. From locally owned brewpubs and coffee shops to art museums and festivals to never ending waterways and forests, it’s hard to find yourself bored with nothing to do.
MM: Rachel, why ceramics? How did you find yourself to be where you are now?
RA: After years of dabbling in any (& every) craft, I landed here with true passion. I love it. My mom is a potter and I didn’t take a strong interest in learning her skill until college, when it hit me hard. I wanted to learn. Growing up, it was too close. It was my “normal” and therefore didn’t capture my attention. All those years I wrote off my mom’s talent, all those nights of hearing her wheel humming in the basement, or seeing her teach another pottery class, they all flooded back to me and I wanted to relive them. She taught me everything I know and really set me up for success. Sometimes I look around and wonder how I got where I am. It is kind of a blur, but diving in headfirst may have been too “risky” if I had time to really think about what I was doing. I had tossed around the idea of taking clay more seriously for years, but never took the leap. The way my husband and I encourage each other to pursue the things we love is really incredible, and his nudge and support has made it possible. We work together in this great team, which has made this process not only more possible, but more joy-filled.
MM: Seth, why photography?
SA: I bought my first camera about ten years ago and shortly after began traveling outside the States. From Vietnam to Japan to Nepal, I always had my camera along and found that despite all the beautiful scenery I was seeing, it was the people who intrigued me the most. I found my love of portraiture on those trips, and continue that passion today documenting weddings.
MM: Rachel, what’s unique about your craft?
RA: On a simple level, it isn’t always easy to come by the equipment & materials you need to learn and practice ceramics. But more than that, ceramics is unique because of the process. Each individual part is unattractive; the clay is brown and dirty, the glazes are made from mismatched powdered chemicals, and studios are usually messy and dusty. Nothing is glamorous, but that makes the finished products all the more enjoyable. Sometimes I envy those who sew, knit, or paint, because even their materials are pretty! It’s easy to imagine gorgeous textiles or smooth colors being made into something beautiful, but clay takes time and vision. It’s the very thing that makes the opening of the kiln so exciting, or seeing an idea come to completion so satisfying.
MM: Seth, you’ve said that you love stories. How do you use photography as a vehicle for storytelling?
SA: Some people get lost in a good book. Others, a movie. For me, nothing beats a good story. My grandpa was a trucker and a fisherman who, as you can imagine, had the best stories. My other grandpa raised 16 kids and flew planes in WWII, so his weren’t too shabby either. In recent years, I’ve been hooked on podcasts like The Story and The Moth, so I guess it’s my pure passion for hearing a great story that drives me to tell great ones too. I simply choose to tell them through my pictures.
MM: Rachel, we love that you share your work with a variety of audiences through teaching – that in and of itself is an art. When and why did you decide to offer lessons?
RA: Offering lessons was a no-brainer, because interacting with people, and especially kids, is something that is so natural and enjoyable for me. I also knew I wanted to do it because of the struggle above. I knew how excited I was to learn and practice pottery, and how disappointing it was when I couldn’t find any local avenues to do so. I don’t want people to have to wait or find themselves at dead ends if they’re interested in the art; I want to be accessible to them, give them the best possible experience with clay, in hopes of inspiring others to pursue creativity, whether they decide ceramics is their medium or not.
MM: Seth, what’s your favorite subject matter to shoot?
SA: Weddings. They are every little girl’s dream, and if they’re honest, most boys too. There’s so much that happens on a wedding day; so many emotions. No two are ever the same, and I feel I’m changed for the better after each one. Weddings are a powerful thing and make for wonderful stories to be shared.
MM: Rachel, you seem to have a passion for organic shapes with a functional, modern design. How is this integrated into your work?
RA: I create things that I personally love, because that fuels me to maintain high quality work. I wouldn’t want something in my house that is unfinished or B-grade, so I don’t want to create that for others either. I love organic, simple, minimal work and love offering ceramics that add handmade beauty to current, modern homes.
MM: Seth, what’s your creative process like?
SA: It’s always changing. I see every new shoot differently, and try to let my subject guide my pictures. An outgoing, energetic person will usually lead to some very strong images whereas a timid, reserved person usually results in pictures with more intimate feel. The location also plays a large role in my images. I try to create pictures that would be strong without the subject in them, and made better when people are added into the mix.
MM: Rachel, what’s something new – or challenging – that you’re working on?
RA: I’m always challenging myself with new pieces to push my mind and my hands to learn and do more. I’m currently in love with my wall hangings, which are a new addition to my collection (making their way to Etsy soon), and have revisited old shapes that are now perfected by my current skill level.
MM: Where do you get your inspiration?
RA: My inspiration comes from my mom, who has grown as a potter for the last 30 years and continues to experiment and challenge herself, by nature which was created so intentionally to be changing, growing, and beautiful, and by people’s gorgeous homes, grand or humble, that are made more unique by handmade work.
SA: It’s hard for me to make a great photograph without knowing anything about people I’m shooting. It’s only after I get to know them better that I feel my best work can be captured. When I can tell their story in a single photo, I know I’ve done my job well.
MM: We love that you and Rachel work together to create beautiful things. Tell us a little bit more about collaborating as husband and wife.
RA: I often sit back with a slight smile and sigh of joy after working with Seth on a project. We absolutely LOVE working together and feel thankful every single day that we have each other to push, support, encourage, and share our ventures with. We decided that when we got married that things became “us” and “we” instead of “you” and “I.” Ceramics and photography are just two of the ways that is working out perfectly. Because we’re both creative people, our minds work in similar ways. We understand each other, the highs, the lows, the passion for our art, and the vulnerability of putting yourself out there for criticism and critique. Because creative businesses are so time consuming, we feel glad to share them together – we’re together when we’re shooting a wedding from sun up to sun down, and together loading and unloading the kiln in the basement. Our journeys wouldn’t be half as rich as they are if we weren’t in this together.
SA: I never get tired of watching Rachel throw new work, and seeing all the hard work that goes into creating a mug or a bowl makes each piece even more beautiful for me. I love my role of capturing that beauty with my pictures which allows her to share her work with the world. I still think her work outshines my pictures, but I’m trying.
MM: How has working together with Rachel affected your individual work?
SA: Basically, we push ourselves to never stop creating. Seeing her work evolve makes me want to try new things with my pictures, and that’s always a good thing. I think without a strong creative influence in our lives, things can get stale fairly quickly. She also understands the often long hours that go into the creative process, so it’s nice not to feel pulled from my camera or computer when I’m feeling creative.
Rachel and Seth’s story continues on the Modern Midwest’s Instagram.