Daily photo by John Godbey|
Calvin Spurlin with a Romanian soup tureen. He runs his business Romamerica, a manufacturer and distributor of fine porcelain products from Romania, out of his Somerville barn.
Passionate about porcelain
Somerville man, inspired by a mission trip, sells hand-crafted Romanian wares out of his barn
By Danielle Komis
firstname.lastname@example.org · 340-2447
They come from as nearby as Athens and as far away as Brazil to this old hay barn in the country.
It's nothing fancy — painted concrete floors, a few tables, piles of cardboard boxes.
Few driving on the lonely country road would guess the wares existed inside. But what this old barn holds is a pirate's buried treasure to porcelain artists from around the world.
Calvin Spurlin launched Romamerica, a manufacturer and distributor of fine porcelain products from Romania, out of his Somerville home nearly 10 years ago.
His small barn, converted into a warehouse/rough show room, holds beautiful hand-crafted bowls, that he describes to people as "lace tablecloths in porcelain in a bowl shape."
Some of the porcelain items are display items painted by well-known porcelain artists, and other pieces are plain white, ready to be painted or left alone in their simplicity.
Sometimes members from regional china painting guilds show up here in carloads, trying to edge each other out for some good deals on fine porcelain that would be challenging to find anywhere else in the country.
"I've had friends say how impressed they were," said Lydia Smith, a Florette porcelain artist and longtime friend of Spurlin's.
"It's a true market for people to have a fine piece of imported work. And also a good opportunity to buy presents."
However, Spurlin rarely sells his products, crafted in a factory he built in Romania, directly from his barn. Instead, he mainly sells his products online or by phone around the world. In fact, his products seem to sell the best to Australia and Brazil.
Spurlin also shows his products at art shows worldwide, which, if he's lucky, can be quite lucrative.
On a recent trip to Lisbon, Portugal, he sold $14,000 worth of porcelain in two days.
Soon, he will head to a show in Switzerland. Europe tends to be a better market for porcelain than America, because Americans often prefer cheaper porcelain from China, he said.
Spurlin's passion for porcelain began when he traveled to Romania on a mission trip in 1995. When he saw the unique porcelain the Romanian people crafted, he was immediately impressed. The bowls crafted there are painstakingly made by laying strips of porcelain on top of one another — a technique few people can do.
But when he tried to purchase the items, it quickly became clear that the Romanian people did not understand how to function in a capitalist society after years of communist rule, he said. Most of the porcelain factories had gone belly-up.
"They didn't know about pricing and this type of thing," he said. "If they had known how to market and adopt to the needs of people, Romania could've done so great."
After making some connections in Romania, he pulled together a staff of 10 workers from a porcelain factory that had recently shut down, and built his own factory in Cluj, Romania, and placed a Romanian friend's son in charge. He and a secretary run the operation in Somerville, though he hopes one day he'll need a bigger staff.
He typically travels to Romania only twice a year to oversee the work being done.
The former tax administrator laughs when he thinks of how this business venture has taken him around the world.
"I'm just an old country boy," he said, glancing around his barn at the land he grew up on. "I like cows and all this."
Lack of showmanship?
And when he travels to art shows, he is used to being laughed at for his lack of showmanship.
"When I go to a show I just dump it on a table," he said, laughing.
Yet his table often is empty by the end of the day.
"I sell my stuff because I have a passion for it," he said.
Those who know him say that enthusiasm is obvious.
"He bubbles over it," said Jane Hudson, an Athens porcelain artist "He gets real excited."
And Spurlin's passion for his items continues to evolve, as he has slowly begun concentrating more on specialty ornaments.
"You sort of hunt and peck around and see what are people's needs," he said.
He recently made an ornament with the old F.E. Burleson School in Hartselle on it for the school's fundraiser. He also sells a lot of porcelain specialty wedding bells and wedding favors.
"You're not looking for the masses," he said. "I'm never going to sell to a big department store."
Spurlin's unpainted bowls sell for around $25 to $35, while smaller items like bells sell for $15 to $25. But the few people who come out to see the items in person are always looking for a deal and they often get it, he said.
Porcelain painters and everyday people can both appreciate his items, and the skill his Romanian team brings all the way to the North Alabama barn.
"When people come here, a lot of them are fascinated," he said. "They mistake a lot of the work for cut-out work, but it's not. It's all hand-woven."
"I had said all along that I wouldn't have a storefront, but people like" to see the merchandise in person rather than look at it online.
His porcelain will be on display at the Bridal Fair Extravaganza from 2 to 4 p.m. June 10 at Burningtree Country Club in Decatur.
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