With the recent opening of her new San Antonio ceramics studio, Sarah Sauer is taking the next step in a career path she started forging while still in high school.
Sauer, owner and creative director at Guten Co., is an artist, an admirable endeavor that nonetheless draws skepticism — especially from concerned parents — as a viable way to support yourself. It’s a risky endeavor, to be sure: You’re relying on your own creativity and hustle to make it happen, and the world is full of talented artists who for one reason or another gave up on their dreams and now work “regular” 9-to-5 jobs.
Growing up in Fredericksburg, the 31-year-old Sauer said she never had a backup plan. “I wasn’t raised in an artistic family, but as early as I can remember, I had a natural interest in art — I just felt connected to it. There was something about the independence and freedom of it,” Sauer said.
She took drawing and painting classes during high school, but really hit her creative stride when she started doing ceramics and working with letterpress printing, a process that uses a printing press to make ink etchings and engravings.
“The clay and the machinery almost inform the final product, as opposed to sitting down and just creating something from nothing,” she said. “I always struggled a bit with that and have the utmost respect for people who can do it.”
A self-described “overachiever,” Sauer said she connected with a few college art professors while she was still in high school and this opened up doors for her blossoming career. She first studied photography and imaging at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. She then transferred to Drexel University in Philadelphia and got into printmaking. She finished up at Trinity University, where she graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in fine and studio arts.
“I liked training in different types of art,” Sauer said. “It gave me multiple tools in my tool belt.”
The year after she graduated from Trinity, Sauer founded Guten Co., which is German for “good,” a nod to her German lineage. During these early, lean years, she worked multiple side hustles to make ends meet, including as a nanny, waitress and an adjunct instructor at Southwest School of Art.
All the while, she was fine-tuning her craft and selling her ceramics online as well as at farmers markets and trade shows in Austin, Dallas and elsewhere.
“I hit the pavement,” Sauer said, adding that on the road, she connected with both consumers and store owners who used the trade shows and markets to scout for new artists.
“That’s when I really started gaining some traction and getting my products into stores, which is a big part of my business,” she said. “I just focus on the efficiency of production and shipping it out to them, and they do the hard work of selling and getting it into people’s hands.”
By 2017, Sauer had grown Guten to the point where she was focusing on it full time, working out of a co-working space. Business slowed a little during the COVID-19 pandemic — she had to lay off a few assistants — but Sauer said it quickly rebounded. Guten items are now in over 200 retail stores, as well as the gift shops at Hotel Emma and Hotel Havana in San Antonio.
“San Antonio doesn’t have much of a luxury market, but it’s interesting to catch travelers that are coming through our nice hotels. They want something special to bring home that was made here,” she said. “So that’s been a great local partnership.”
Another partnership that paid off for Sauer was with West Elm. Last March, the international furniture, bedding and accessory retailer started a program called West Elm Local, providing an online platform for select independent artists and designers to sell their products and grow their businesses.
“That was a huge game-changer,” Sauer said. “Millions of people visit westelm.com on a regular basis. A lot of their smaller home goods are mass produced, and they saw an opportunity to augment their brand by offering higher-design, higher-quality products.”
Sauer said her collaboration with West Elm lasted for a year, and it forced her to audit her operations and streamline her production practices. It also helped propel her business forward to the point where she was able to buy some land and build from the ground up her new custom-designed, 1,000-square-foot studio just outside downtown.
“Honestly, this past year has been the most challenging of my life, as I’ve had to juggle my business with getting the studio built,” Sauer said. “But once I’m settled, I think I’ll really be off to the races, because I have this great new space that I can count on. It will give me a firm standing to bring on assistants again and really scale up.”
As a sole proprietor, Sauer said she wakes up early and typically knocks out some administrative duties first thing in the morning, then spends the next eight or nine hours producing ceramics — everything from planters, coffee mugs and tumblers to pitchers and plates. Prices range from $28 for a beaker to $258 for a vase. Her evenings are often spent wrapping up other administrative items, although Sauer said she’s hired a few outside experts, including a CPA, to help oversee the financial side of the business.
“I’m very hands-on, but I really don’t have an appetite for ever being just the manager of this business,” she said. “I love the craft of it. I love being involved in the production. That’s why I do it. I still feel like I’m an artist and I’m so delighted that people want my work.”
Sauer said in a typical week she can produce 300 to 350 ceramics pieces. But she’s recently started focusing more on making a handful of larger signature pieces each day, like planters and vases, which she said helps keep things interesting and allows her to stretch creatively.
After nearly a decade of running her own business, Sauer said she wants to inspire and teach others how to do it.
“It’s sad to me that it’s not a common belief that people can make it by working in the arts. If you’re consistent, self-disciplined and hard-working, you can make a good living doing it.
“But I do feel privileged to be in the position that I’m in,” she said. “People want beauty in their homes and in their lives, and to be able to create that for them is pretty special.”