I first met Danielle McDaniel, known nationally as the “Clay Lady,” through a dear friend Rebecca who had known her for years. “You have got to see her campus!” Rebecca said to me one day, which of course piqued my interest, as I had not heard of the place in my 7-years in Nashville. How I do not know but I didn’t care once I stepped through the doors of the first building as I could tell that something special was happening all around me. Not only did everyone from the receptionist to the makers look extremely happy to be there but more importantly, they were producing art and making money selling it. Danielle had taught her artists how to not only be great at their craft, and embrace the mistakes that come along with it, but also how to sustain themselves financially. I was honored when she asked me to write her bio and am proud to have spent time with this wonderful woman who is doing so much good for Nashville’s creative community.
One day, Danielle McDaniel was walking down the hallway of Granbury Elementary School when the students started chanting, ‘It’s the Clay Lady!’ The nickname stuck, and Danielle stayed true to her new identity from there. Being the Clay Lady has given the educator, artist, author, and entrepreneur a purpose and source of pride. She credits her success to saying “yes,” keeping the faith, and giving her Clay Cadets, what she affectionately calls her students, what they ask for. Danielle’s motto “Take what you think, take what you feel, mix it all up, and make something real” stems from her belief that everyone receives an “A” for showing up. She encourages her artists to bring their best and do better every time.
After moving constantly as a child, Danielle says that winding up in Nashville couldn’t have been more fortuitous. The largest clay pit in the US is on the Kentucky/Tennessee border and the city is both centrally located and a creative hub. After spending her life looking for roots, Danielle, who loves the hybrid rural-urban landscape of Nashville, finds it reassuring to know that she will stay there forever.
Danielle’s love for clay became clear when she won first place in an arts and crafts contest in 9th grade for a clay baby shoe that she had made. After working briefly in the music industry with her father, a career that just simply didn’t jive, she decided to pursue clay once again by taking a pottery class hosted by Nashville Parks and Recreation. Soon after, Danielle began assisting her instructor and teaching her own classes. Her enthusiasm eventually earned her a full-time teaching position at the Bellevue Community Center where she would stay for 15 years. During this time, Danielle developed a great appreciation for the grounding nature of clay and process of working with it in which there is no barrier between artist and medium.
Danielle credits her success to resilience, which came in the form of picking up her piles of “dead pots” and reworking them on the wedging table into new creations. While everyone wants his or her inner artist to arise Danielle knows that one must continuously be open to meeting him or her. It is not how long you’ve thrown pots but rather how many you have thrown. The messy process of clay making taught Danielle self-forgiveness and to embrace the flaws. Similarly, she urges her students to focus on the flow of the creative process rather than the result.
“I’ve always struggled with being a perfectionist and never felt safe to make a mistake as a kid because, moving so much, I always felt like I had to make a great first impression,” she explains. After a childhood of avoiding activities unless she could do them well, Danielle strongly encourages others to simply do their best.
In 1982, Danielle taught a clay plate project at a birthday party during which her single-firing method first became public. Her now famous Clay Lady method gives students a cost-effective and substantial project in a short amount of time. From there, two teachers who happened to be at the party asked Danielle to host workshops at their respective schools. Serendipity would lead to a 37-year career over the course of which Danielle has taught hundreds of thousands of students. Children, in particular, who Danielle admires for their purity, taught her to take the mask off. Danielle prides herself on being an advocate for the child and honoring their creative vision. She taught her cadets how to work with clay however, they taught her the Clay Lady way.
In 2010, Danielle and her business partner Tami Archer purchased Mid-South Ceramic Supply where she had previously worked in her early years as a teacher. This move allowed Danielle to market her methods on a larger scale, develop an educational program, including bringing her famed field trips in-house, and begin a full-fledged community that now includes 65 artists on premise in private studios, pottery, sculpture, and glass classes, and community events. While Danielle jokes that the campus was built upon a nickel, dime, and piece of duck tape, she is now asked to speak across the country at conferences about its successful business model. However, what is most powerful in Danielle’s mind is that she was able to achieve her childhood dream of having her own artistic community through which an altruistic thread runs. There was a divine touch at work to bring it all together. In return, she tries to give back to her beloved city of Nashville as often as possible.
At the Clay Lady Campus, Danielle provides others with a soft place to land. Facilitating an environment where people feel safe to create and connect is why her students shine. More times than she can count, Danielle has heard that students feel like they can let go and discover new facets of their imagination at the campus.
In turn, Danielle, whose enthusiasm could power the sun, is at bliss when the campus is buzzing. The doer, who is always putting her next plan into action, wants the campus to be a place where artists of any skill level can connect. She hopes to create a nationally recognized space for fellowship, freedom of spirit, and where people of all ages can play. In the era of technology, this is what the world craves. As someone who still rebels against her inner perfectionist, Danielle loves placing emphasis on her students’ individuality rather than how well they follow the rules. Her values may be strong yet everyone at the campus feels empowered to voice their opinions. “My students helped me find my own way and I want to repay that gift by helping them create successful businesses and owning their style,” she says.