Connie Matisse Talks Wine, Natural Resources and Working w/ Her Husband

Interview by Jefferson Ellison, done in partnership w/ AVLtoday.

Connie and Alex Matisse of East Fork are really annoying. They're attractive, successful, loving, happy, their kids are cute, they're politically engaged, they're perfect. I hate them. Actually, I love them. Like a lot. Alex and I share a birthday week, Connie and I share too many glasses of wine.

I can honestly tell you that every fantasy you have about how lovely they are, is true. When preparing for this interview, I found the process somewhat daunting. How can we have a conversation with a woman who has been profiled in Vogue, leads a team of 80 people, and has amassed a personal following the size of a small cult? What can we say that hasn't been said, who will care? And then it hit me... to just be myself and ask Connie to do the same. This was an opportunity to fill in the gaps in my knowledge around my friend and to, perhaps, share a more personal side of Connie with our audience and theirs. And that’s exactly what happened. The answers are as frank and as long-winded as she can be and equally as amazing.

What Alex, Connie and their partner John Vigeland managed to create a business world that feels as warm and welcoming as it does elegant and elevated. Much like their products, Connie is honest, charming and intentional. Possibly the clearest thing to take away from the conversation is that Connie Matisse is a woman of influence and taste, knowing that words matter and refusing to be misquoted. I respect that. A woman who owns her voice and uses it intentionally is a woman I would follow to the end of the world… and I just might.

Everyone knows about East Fork. But for that one person who doesn’t… What's your elevator pitch?

East Fork is a vertically-integrated, mission and values-driven ceramics manufacturing company based in Asheville, North Carolina. We make contemporary dinnerware from regional clay, informed by the vernacular, wood-fired Southeastern pottery tradition from which we were trained. From our factory in Biltmore Village, we design, make, fire, sell, and ship directly to our customers. Central to our reason for being is challenging ourselves to building an equitable workplace with a real, positive economic and social impact on our Asheville community.

Your founding story mentions a lot of wine. Do you have a favorite one?

Wow, Jefferson, call me out. It’s true, though—I like wine. I think Champagne is the perfect all-seasons, goes with everything beverage. Krug Grande Cuvee or Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose are undeniably delicious. I love aromatic, flowery, funky white wines and briney, mineral-forward wines from grapes like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Blanc (try this or this or this all available at Crocodile wine). And I love full-bodied, opulent, wines that take up your whole mouth. Chenin Blanc.

Is your pottery functional or for more formal occasions?

Our pots are made with the intention of using them all day every day, alone on the couch with days old takeout, or dressed up with cloth napkins and candles for a dinner party.

What were you doing before diving into the world of pottery?

Alex worked on a trail crew in New Hampshire and at a VW garage in Greensboro, but has mostly been all-pottery all the time since he was about 19. I was kind of all over the place. I worked as a line cook, bartender, server; I worked at a law firm; I worked on a goat farm in Madison County and a sheep farm in France; I helped start a farmer’s market in the Morrisania neighborhood in the Bronx; taught environmental studies in K-12 classrooms across the city through the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment; taught trauma-informed yoga in prisons before falling off the yoga bandwagon pretty hard; worked as a research assistant and copywriter and editor for memoirists and cookbook writers; and got halfway through a Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling before dropping out and joining the family pot business full time.

Your team appears to be as diverse as it is creative. What are the important qualities you look for in someone when bringing them on to the East Fork Family?

Trying to think of how to answer this in less than 15 pages! While the need for specific skills and past professional experiences, of course, differ from job to job, every candidate at East Fork is screened based on the core competencies necessary for the role being applied for, and for alignment with East Fork values. When considering if someone is values-aligned, here’s where our heads are at:

  • Accountability: can the candidate recall a time when they made a mistake and held themselves accountable for their actions? What does reconciliation mean for the candidate? Is the candidate able to give feedback to co-workers in a way that is compassionate, with the goal of growth and reconciliation, rather than retribution?

  • Sincerity: Does that candidate seem to say what they mean/mean what they say?

  • Equity: Is the candidate aware and aligned with our commitment to anti-racism? Does the candidate have experience working collaboratively alongside people with different lived experiences? Can the candidate contribute to co-creating a workplace where all team members feel safe, respected, and cared for?

  • Compassion: Does the candidate demonstrate kindness toward themselves and those around them?

  • Adaptive Tenacity: East Fork is a swiftly growing start-up doing business in one of the most wildly unpredictable moments in human history; how much stasis does the candidate require to be comfortable? Does the candidate seem willing and excited to lend a helping hand to other team members, even if that means stepping outside the framework of their job description? Does the candidate seem open and eager to learn new things? Does the candidate have experience in trying something, failing, re-strategizing, and then trying again?

How has owning a business during a global pandemic affected and challenged you?

I’ve been grappling a lot with how to balance my responsibilities to my employees, my community, and our customers with my responsibilities to myself, my children, and my husband. Speaking really vulnerably here, J, I’m really failing at the balancing thing. While I can intellectualize all day long about my need to establish and communicate boundaries, I’ve struggled my whole life with wanting to be all things to all people. Yes, let’s call it out, that is deeply wrapped up in some a) white savior complex shit and b) some serious patriarchal shit that expects women to serve as the world’s emotional garbage bin. What point am I even trying to make here? I guess, really, that I’m tired and aware that if I keep going at this pace I run the risk of crashing and burning and leaving a trail of harm in my wake. People see East Fork getting national recognition and assume that public visibility and growth means profitability or financial stability. We, like most manufacturers, are experiencing serious loss of revenue and production capacity due to COVID-19, and, to be blunt, me and my teams are seriously understaffed and wearing a lot of hats, while trying to do our best to do right by our community and maybe save some time for ourselves and families. As a publicly visible, outspoken leader in Asheville’s business community, I understand that I am choosing to be more heavily scrutinized, and I’m here for it, but I’m also really needing to figure out how to recharge my batteries so I can show up for these conversations more fully. And so my self-work right now is learning how to distinguish between people calling me and my company out and in from a place of wanting to hold me to my word, and people (mostly white people) who are being lead by their own pain, anger, frustration, hopelessness, and anxiety, and directing it at me because I’m admittedly an easy target. Did I answer the question?

What are some of the harder things you deal with while working with a natural resource?

Pretty much every single day we ask ourselves what the hell we were thinking scaling a business dependent on such a variable material. Everything about it is hard, Jefferson! One tiny little element changes—there’s a little more iron in the clay than usual, or the clay particle size is a micron bigger, or our clay suppliers can’t keep up with our material needs, etc, etc—and a chain reaction sets off that sometimes takes up weeks of troubleshooting to solve for. Truly, what were we thinking?

What inspires your product line?

Our forms are first and foremost born from traditional, vernacular pottery of the American Southeast. Alex and John both learned the craft through years-long apprenticeship with potters Matt Jones, Mark Hewitt, and Daniel Johnston. Mark Hewitt, who taught both Daniel and Matt, makes work informed by his teachers in what is sometimes referred to as the Hamada-Leach-Cardew lineage, which essentially bridges Japanese Mingei style making with British Studio Pottery and pottery traditions in West Africa, where Mark’s teacher, Michael Cardew, worked for 20 years. Add to that the aesthetic influence of enslaved Africans making functional pots while shackled and you get something of a picture of the pots that we made and knew and used and loved at the start that informed the East Fork line. We took those forms and pared them down to their most essential parts, and then put them through the “Could this function in a restaurant?” test, and there you have it.

You recently expanded to Atlanta. Why there?

Cuz we love it! We actually were pretty bad business owners and did not do due diligence to decide if Atlanta really made sense for us. We knew we wanted to try our hand at retail in a bigger city, we knew we wanted to be able to drive to the shop and back in a day if we needed to, and we liked the restaurant scene in Atlanta more than the one in Charlotte. The first time Alex and I visited Atlanta we went to a nice restaurant and for the first time in our lives we looked around and saw just as many affluent Black diners as we did white. We were energized at the thought of a city where Black people had wealth and power, and wanted to learn more.

What difference have you noticed between Asheville and Atlanta?

So many fewer Keens in public in Atlanta, which I love to see. Really, though, the overwhelming difference I experience between Atlanta and Asheville is the visible power and influence of Black Atlanta across the whole city. Of course racism is still baked into the institutions there, as it is everywhere, but here in Asheville, the self-congratulatory progressivism of white gentrifiers in the face of the economic and social inequities—a by-product of decades of systemic oppression of Black Asheville—is pretty hard to miss.

You are from LA. What was it like moving not just East Coast but down South?

When I moved from Los Angeles to New York, every East Coaster I met felt like it was their business to tell me how much they hated Los Angeles. Someone I’d been friends with for 5 years, one night over too much Chinon, said, “I’m just now realizing that you’re really fucking smart, Connie. I never realized it because you talk like a Valley Girl.” Excuse me, what!? I’ve been in the South for 11 years now. My kids were born in the South. It took me at least 8 to work through my own prejudices about the South and Southern people, but now that I have, I’m proud to call this place home and excited by the work to make it better. While we’re here, a thread to consider.

What’s in East Fork’s future? Another store location?

Keeping cards close to the heart right now, but we’re doing some big picture thinking around where we want to be in 5, 10, and 30 years and starting to plant the seeds to get there.

East Fork’s Instagram is very community-focused. You have promoted many nonprofits and other businesses you believe in (mine included). Has that always been a part of your business model, or is it just something that feels natural in today’s political climate?

Our Instagram feed has never been just about selling pottery. We started that thing back when you still had to post straight to the app from your iPhone 4, with no thought to “brand strategy” and with no intention of selling products or building a consumer audience. And so we always just said what we wanted, shared goings-on of our friends and community, and weird videos of us making dirty jokes in the workshop. It’s never been just about selling pots.

What’s it like working with your husband?

Ok I really let loose on this question and it was getting SO long and intense, I decided to spare you all and hit delete. It’s a mixed bag, for sure. Sometimes it’s awful. But for what it’s worth, since shit hit the fan in March, Alex and I have somehow put all our weird power struggles aside and never before have we ever felt so aligned, in sync, and in love. Go team.

Do you think your kids will grow up to be a part of the family business? Is that your hope?

Only the trees know. Right now we’re just trying to provide as a clear and honest a picture of the world as possible while showering them with unconditional love. They both have to hear us talk about work around the clock—but they’ve gotten really good at letting us know when they’ve really had enough, and we try to listen to them. Vita lays it out pretty clearly that she’s going to be a gymnast for a little while (obsessed with Dominique Dawes) before moving on to designing gymnastics apparel before moving on to owning a restaurant called “Vita’s” where, she says, Alex and I “will always have a job, if we need one.”