Artist Jeff Blandford has always had a creative impulse. He also has a head for business. As a fourth-grader in Holland, he sold enough Creepy Crawlers— those rubbery bugs made with goop and a mini-oven—on the playground to finance his candy habit. In middle school, he set up shop in his locker, selling hemp necklaces strung with clay beads he baked at home.
Now, as the owner of Jeff Blandford Gallery in downtown Saugatuck—known for its bounty of galleries and tourists—he said he likes to serve as proof: You can make a living as an artist. You can even use your earnings to buy your first house—situated on five acres of farmland replete with barns-turned-studios and fruit trees—at age 22, before graduating from college.
His sleek new 800-squarefoot gallery is his fourth. He opened his first the summer after high school graduation, paying $250 a month for a tiny spot on the highway where he could make and sell his pottery.
“A hole in the wall is an understatement,” Blandford said. “But it was just what I needed.” The next fall, he started classes at MSU, where he would graduate in 2007 with a studio art degree. But every summer, Blandford reopened his hole in the wall in Saugatuck. As graduation neared, he’d saved enough money to buy his farm in nearby Fennville.
Each gallery has been bigger and better positioned for foot traffic than the last. His new one—on Saugatuck’s main drag—opened in April. Sales have taken off .
The gallery’s success may be partly a result of location. But, also, Blandford makes a variety of pieces to appeal to a variety of buyers: a small, traditional vessel for $20, a large design-oriented piece for $800.
His aesthetic is midcentury modern: streamlined, even machined looking, although every piece is handmade. His artistic influences work in architecture, interior design and furniture—especially modern design legends such as Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson, who did work for Holland-based Herman Miller.
But he also finds inspiration in nature, where he finds some of his materials. Digging in his garden in 2012, Blandford discovered clay. Loaded with iron, it fired to a rich rust color.
He could work with it and sell the results, which would allow him to keep working. “I’m paying my mortgage with my mud,” he said with a laugh.
Even as an entrepreneurial child, Blandford said, “it was never about making a ton of money. I just wanted to keep doing what I was doing.”