Entrepreneurs Who Give a Damn
East Fork puts people first
Words by Michael Woods
In a small town outside of Boston, Alex Matisse grew up with artistic parents and was enveloped by art. The family lived in a converted church, with the studios on the ground floor, the sanctuary refashioned into a gallery, a big playroom with a tall swing for the kids, and a performance space that the local music school used for concerts.
In seventh grade, Alex brushed off playing sports and signed up for an afternoon art class instead. There, his teacher taught him a technique for making clay masks, which he continued to create through high school. After moving to Greensboro, North Carolina for college, he dropped out halfway through his sophomore year to become an apprentice to a potter named Matt Jones outside of Asheville. “The workshop was heated by a woodstove and always smelled like smoke,” Alex remembers. “It had a dirt floor that was kept damp to keep the pots from drying too fast, and out back was an enormous pile of clay that he had dug from a tobacco field a few miles away.” After six months, he knew what he wanted to do.
“That was the moment I really got bit.”
After finishing out his last apprenticeships in the Piedmont, including under famed potter Mark Hewitt, Alex moved to western North Carolina officially, using a little money his grandfather hid away for the grandkids to buy a farm. He renovated a small shed on the property for a workshop, built a wood kiln and hired a friend to build a shed, timber-framed, to cover it. The whole process took about a year, and he began making pots. He used his contacts from his apprenticeships, in which he got to meet customers and collectors to make a few gallery connections. “North Carolina is very unique in that there is a real scene around pottery making,” he says, “so it was relatively easy to plug into that.”
During all this, he met Connie, his future wife, who originally worked on a dairy farm near the Tennessee border before transitioning full-time into the company, now called East Fork. From 2009, for six years, East Fork was Alex, Connie, John Vigeland, their current business partner and CFO, and a group of apprentices and team members, selling their work at local craft shows and kiln sales. It kept growing and growing, and today East Fork employs 53 people on the production floor. They sell cups, mugs, plates, and bowls, rolling them out in seasonal colors and themes.
“It was an accident that I moved to the South,” says Alex. “But I stayed, among other things, for the clay.”
The vast majority of materials East Fork uses comes from the Southeast. This is important to Alex, primarily because it keeps the carbon footprint of the supply chain as small as possible. The whole enterprise is actually Climate Neutral Certified, “the standard earned by companies that offset and reduce all of their greenhouse gas emissions.” East Fork’s B Corp Certification is “a designation that a business is meeting high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency.” This took the operation 18 months to complete and requires several goals: to demonstrate high social and environmental performance, to make a legal commitment to changing their structure in order to be accountable to all stakeholders and shareholders, and to exhibit transparency in practices.
East Fork wants to lengthen its environmental strides. Davia Young, East Fork’s new Community Impact Manager, is spearheading how the potters, workers, and the company are actively benefiting and serving their city and its people. Davia transitioned into her role from CoThinkk, a giving circle grounded in trust-based philanthropy focused on systems change and wealth redistribution. "The center of my work at East Fork,” she says, “has been an understanding that access to financial resources is an essential component to reimagine inequitable practices and create long-term economic change.” This includes raising money via many methods such as raffles, donations, and odds and ends.. For example: since not every pot comes out as expected, the imperfect products are sold at a discount to make them more cost-accessible, but with a requirement that customers donate to initiatives of the company’s choosing.
As far as the raffling goes, since April 2020, East Fork has raised $315,355 for local groups, not including direct donations. The funds are shared with their many community partners, such as PODER Emma, a grassroots organization that creates and sustains networks of cooperative ownership and action in Emma, a working class neighborhood; YMI Cultural Center, a Black cultural center that offers educational, civic, and social activities via its economic development programs; Delores Pottery, a potter in Durham who wants to open a local studio and learning center for people of color; and Free99Fridge, an Atlanta based organization committed to fighting food insecurity and waste. In the current quarter, they’re working with Beloved Community, a nonprofit that advocates for equitable systems in food security, education, economics, criminal justice, housing, and healthcare, which will be building a microvillage, a community of sustainably-built, equity-bearing homes for people with low income. In addition to fundraising, Alex and Davia and the rest of the operation are volunteering for build days. “Our longer term vision is for our company and our customers to learn the ways in which white supremacy and capitalism show up within us all,” Davia says, “to find it in ourselves to believe and support the liberation of everyone, and engage for the sake of mutual transformation, rather than transaction.”
This extends to their own employees, who are paid $22 an hour at the bare minimum, meeting their goal of matching the county’s entry-level living wage for a family household. They’ve invested $1 million more into their workforce this year than last and will continue to do so in the years to come. “Business owners do have the power to address wage disparity under their own roofs,” Davia continues. “There are few things more enraging than the fact that millions of people in this country can’t meet their basic needs—while billionaires continue to accumulate and hoard wealth. Until that whole circus comes down, do what you can, take care of each other, and raise hell where you need to.”
The folks at East Fork have committed to making durable pottery with regional materials and integrity, lead-free, and they have also devoted their time and efforts to creating a better world around them, both for those in the company and those in need in their community. To lend your support, visit www.eastfork.com.