I had the opportunity to visit with Jill Fier of the SDSU Alumni Magazine for their section featuring "Everyday Jacks." Here is our conversation:
For South Dakota State University alum Grace Vanderbush ’16, the student became the teacher when she graduated from State with an art education degree.
But after a few years as a substitute teacher, the teacher has become the artist, who now spends her days creating and selling masterpieces through her company, Earth Clay.
Her work includes miniature clay sculptures inside brass jewelry pendants along with larger clayscapes on wood panels that she photographs and prints. All have a natural theme, and many are inspired by national parks throughout the United States.
Focusing on art
Vanderbush says it’s pretty common for aspiring artists to have multiple jobs when they are starting out.
She’s been painting, drawing and sculpting for as long as she can remember, and she started selling her artwork when she was 10 years old, so business is second nature to her. She credited her mom, who homeschooled her, for encouraging her to become an artist.
After graduating from SDSU, the Canby, Minnesota, native headed back to her hometown, where she worked as a substitute teacher and at a local boutique and sold her artwork part time.
She created custom pieces for customers at the beginning of her art career. “Anything you can imagine, I painted it, including road signs and family portraits. One time I even painted a rock to look like a cucumber for a customer,” Vanderbush said.
When she wasn’t doing custom work, she could focus on her clay artwork, which she created for the first time by accident. After a few years, she quit teaching to focus exclusively on her artwork. She started Earth Clay in 2018.
“Earth Clay is my true creative outlet where I get to be genuinely inspired and design artwork I feel excited about. The majority of my inspiration comes from the national parks. Using clay to create landscapes found in the parks is a very fulfilling process for me. Because it is so fun, I always thought it would be something I did on the side. Amazingly, Earth Clay exceeded all my expectations and became my full-time focus and job five years ago,” Vanderbush said.
She uses sculpture tools and her fingers to mix and sculpt the clay into pendants, and she bakes the designs, making them waterproof. She sculpts the clayscapes, much larger and on wood panels, in a similar fashion to how she makes the necklaces.
“I use my camera’s macro-lens to take up-close photography of the clayscapes, and then I print them on artboard. There’s something really unique about the texture and depth of clay that seems to absorb the viewer,” she said.
A family affair
“I have always prayed that I would be able to find a way to create art and support myself, and the first necklace I sculpted felt like a little nudge from God, like ’This is it!’ Since then, Earth Clay has grown and not only am I able to support myself, but my husband, Jordan, joined the team full time last fall. I feel like I’m living in my wildest dream every day,” Vanderbush said.
Jordan is a 2016 mechanical engineering grad from State and has played a major role in Earth Clay since its start. He designs and builds festival booth displays, handles shipping and fulfillment, product design and more.
The couple met during her last week of classes on campus before she moved home to student teach. They were married in September 2017, and last year they finished building their house on the same road where she grew up.
“We have very different skillsets, and we work together well. In my opinion, an artist and an engineer make an unexpected perfect team,” Vanderbush said.
Inspired by nature
The couple started visiting national parks as often as they could. Vanderbush uses her own photos of the parks as well as photos from the parks’ websites as references for her sculptures.
“The national parks are where I gain most of my inspiration, but I also love living in the Midwest and being inspired by the simplicity of the prairie where we live.”
In 2019, Vanderbush started selling her miniature sculpture jewelry to a few of the national park visitor centers, and she continues to expand into more parks today.
“I love creating specialty series for these places to represent the parks’ unique mountain ranges and land formations. Since the beginning of my business, to ensure the well-being of the national parks, 10% of all profits are donated to the National Park Foundation.
“I love visiting the national parks, and I love the fact that customers can wear their favorite places around their neck or hang it on their wall. My hope is that when people see or wear my artwork, they would remember the places they’ve been and be encouraged to visit new ones.”
Vanderbush says she continues to explore new mediums, and her focus on clay necklaces has evolved into watercolor paintings of the national parks, clayscapes (originals and prints), T-shirts, stickers, earrings and more.
In addition to select national park visitor centers, Vanderbush’s artwork can be found in a select few retailers throughout the country, on her website at www.earthclayco.com and at in-person art festivals.