Ceramicist Travis McFlynn Makes Entrepreneurial Success Look Easy

The next time you butter your bread or pinch some salt or add crème fraîche to your coffee while dining at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, the world-renowned eatery known for using local, organic foods and credited as the inspiration for the style of cooking known as California cuisine, you'll likely be holding a piece of art made by CCA ceramicist Travis McFlynn (Sculpture 2013).

Alice Waters, on whom in 2010 CCA conferred an honorary doctorate, cofounded Chez Panisse in 1971 and has since been hailed as a genius restaurateur, and even criticized as a fierce ideologue and “food Calvinist” for her unbending commitment to using only local, organic ingredients.

Chez Panisse and Alice Waters are inextricably connected; say one, you think the other.

The Chez Panisse Connection

How does one land Chez Panisse as a client? It was, in fact, through Matthew Harvey (BFA Glass 2007), a friend and mentor. Harvey's financée, Carry Lewis, who at the time worked as a sous chef at Chez Panisse (she was recently promoted to head pastry chef), got McFlynn in the door.

(Ironically, he had been hesitant to return to work in the restaurant industry, having already acquired years of experience, but the opportunity to work at Chez Panisse tasted too good to let slip by.)

Once at Chez Panisse, McFlynn noticed the servers seemed always to be hunting down the creamers. (Turns out the pastry department had taken a liking to them.) As a gift to the servers, McFlynn created a batch of ceramic creamers. The gesture did not go unnoticed.

Waters, whose pristine aesthetics are legendary, appreciated McFlynn's work, and eventually she commissioned him to create salt bowls and butter cellars, the latter of which required McFlynn to break with his tradition of only making unique designs, as Waters specifically requested he remake the French design she had been using for 40 years (the company was no longer in operation). Concessions such as this are an important part of an artist's decision-making process.

Fast forward several years, McFlynn can be found in his studio (he shares it with Ceramics chair Nathan Lynch) filling orders for one of the most famous restaurants in California!

Serving Dinner at the Refract House

Two years into his studies at CCA, McFlynn reached out to alumnus Harvey to ask him to design the tumblers that eventually accompanied his dinner set (called Green Ware) that was featured in the award-winning solar-powered Refract House at the 2009 Solar Decathlon in Washington DC.

Learn more about the 2009 Solar Decathlon »

McFlynn applied to his design similar principles reflected in the Refract House, namely the reliance upon local and recycled materials. The clay (a blend of local California clay called "Happy Clay" mined near Sacramento) and the glaze (made from 70 percent recycled green-tinted cava bottles from Chez Panisse) were developed by McFlynn's long-time mentor and former CCA Ceramics faculty member John Toki (owner of Leslie Ceramic Supply.

"We were interested in efficiency and material usage, too," McFlynn recalls. "I wanted to reflect the ideas that the Refract House represented."

Watch an interview with John Toki »

New Projects, New Clients, Old Friends

McFlynn has joined fellow Chez Panisse foodies Stacy Pierce, current pastry chef; Jérôme Waag, restaurant chef; and maître d' Sam White in OPENrestaurant, a food/art collective of restaurant professionals who are using a large, industrial warehouse space approximately 5,000-7,000 square feet located in the Mission district of San Francisco.

According to the OPENrestaurant blog, this "displacement turns the restaurant, its codes and architecture, into a medium for artistic expression which is made available to cooks, farmers, artists, educators, and activists as a way to explore issues around food and society."

Watch the following videos for specific examples of past OPENrestaurant events:

Berkeley Art Museum
St. Geroge Spirits Here

Among McFlynn's latest clients, all located on Valencia Street in the Mission, include Bar Tartine, Mau restaurant, and Delfina. Pizzaiolo, located on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, was founded by Charlie Hallowell, who -- you guessed it -- used to work at Chez Panisse.

Most recently, McFlynn began receiving orders from Oakland Dry Goods, which sells artisan, local, and organic pantry foods as well as handmade kitchen linens and accessories. It is part of Oakland's hip and vibrant Temescal Alley, where seemingly everyone is doing stuff.

Needless to say, most of McFlynn's clients have emerged through word-of-mouth recommendations and networking.

Alumni & Facultyi Influences

In addition to Matthew Harvey, McFlynn also worked with local acclaimed sculptor and alumnus Peter Voulkos (MFA 1952) from 1997 to 1998. He also credits alumnus Noah Greer (MArch 2010) as someone who really helped shaped his direction.

Read related feature »

In terms of faculty influences: "Oh, man, who's not a great influence here? Really, there's no space on these two campuses where something mind-blowing isn't going on." He does, however, credit Binta Ayofemi and Linda Fleming (Sculpture): "Binta saw my need to dig deeper into my passion of geophysics, and as a Stanford Alumna she would take me to lectures in the Earth Sciences Department there. Linda because she sees through to my core and pushes that which is unique to me."

Diversity Studies faculty members Sean Nash and Ignacio Valero were among his greatest influences for inspiring critical discourse. "At first I thought it was all about getting into the studio classes," McFlynn admits. "But now I recognize it's the academic classes, too, that provide access to critical minds like Ignacio [Valero] and Sean Nash."

Critical Studies faculty member Michael Schneider also inspired McFlynn to recognize the fundamental relationship between mathematical properties and art. He referenced Schneider's A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science as having significantly changed the way he views his art.

"I use geometry and golden ratios in ceramics to measure the foot-to-bowl proportion. The smaller circle is based on the hexagram. Math shaped my ability to make ceramics. I'd ask myself, 'Why do somethings work really well, while others don't?' The mind and the body wants to gravitate toward things that have proportion. . . . Everything in the world is based on math."

He added, "I never had much of a GPA in high school. What I do with my hands got me the scholarships [to attend CCA] and I now have a 3.5 GPA. . . . Something I never thought I'd achieve, I achieved here at CCA. People at CCA take me seriously."

Scholarship Benefits

McFlynn was awarded the Leonard and Bella Feldman endowed scholarship (for Sculpture), the Leo and Florence Helzel scholarshop, and two additional scholarships for a total of four scholarship awards while at CCA. He was also a participant in the First Year Honors Program, which provided additional and rigorous critique, as well as an introduction to available resources at the college and throughout the Bay Area.

"CCA will take you where you thought you wanted to go, but also deliver you to places you didn't even imagine you wanted to go."

Learn more about CCA scholarships »

CCA Is a Hub

His advice to prospective students: "One of the best parts about the Ceramics and Sculpture Programs is the proximity each offers to everything else at this school. There are only a few schools that situate you in and among the intellectual, aesthetic groundbreaking things taking place in the world."

McFlynn quickly adds, "And the proximity to the botanical garden setting, Oakland's Art Murmur, all the farmer's markets, the wine country, and the ocean. If anyone thinks they can find another place like this on earth, well, I'll bet them they can't."

We bet they can't either!


View more images of Travis McFlynn on Flickr »