Nelson Studio for the Arts and Ug Chugs Pottery (Cullman)
The Maker: Chad Nelson
When Chad Nelson was in high school, his favorite class introduced him to working with ceramics.
His creativity led him to instinctively create what his teacher called “critters” with googly eyes and big teeth.
It was fun, but when it came time to attend Auburn University, Nelson initially chose the more practical career of architecture. But the clay kept calling.
“The main thing that really drew me to clay was the directness of the material,” he said. “You can add to it, you can take it away. It’s not a precise thing. That just captivated me from the very first.”
So, Nelson changed his major to fine arts and perfected his work at a potter’s wheel.
In 2008, Nelson opened Nelson Studio for the Arts in Cullman and began teaching classes and making pottery to sell.
While his techniques had improved, Nelson was still adding googly eyes and teeth to his creation and soon found that people responded to it.
“Face pottery has been a tradition in the South for a long, long time,” Nelson said. “I guess you could say it’s kind of like my twist on it.”
Facial expressions and nonverbal communication have always fascinated Nelson. He loves it when someone walks into his booth at a show and chuckles or outright guffaws.
“My whole goal from the beginning has been to cheer people up,” he said.
Ug Chugs have become a serious business. Nelson now does only about three shows per year. The rest of the time is spent producing inventory for the many retail outlets that sell his work.
“There is a plan now. Used to, there wasn’t a plan,” he said. “I would just sit down and start making faces.”
Between packing and shipping orders and sitting down at the potter’s wheel to produce more product, Nelson has a steady flow of work.
The focus of the business is Ug Chugs face mugs, but Nelson does produce items with the outline of Alabama or with elephants or tigers for fans of the state’s biggest college football programs.
Nelson does still find time to create something new.
“I try to make a new style every month and then whether or not we keep it we just decide as we go along if I like making it or if people like it and it’s well-received,” he said.
Nelson said although the wheel is where he works, he sees it as his favorite part of the workday.
“My favorite thing to do nowadays is it’s just relaxing to settle in at the potter wheel,” he said. “It’s so automatic now. It’s kind of like in-the-zone kind of thing. Second to that would be putting the faces on the cups.”
When he can, he slips outside that comfort zone.
“I like throwing big stuff, anything big, whether it’s like a big serving bowl or a big, tall vase,” Nelson said. “I don’t get to do it very often, but I really like doing that. I like challenging myself.”
The product: Ceramic mugs with funny faces known as Ug Chugs as well as other ceramic creations.
Take home: A seven-toothed Ug Chug mug ($25).