When Kim Ruby moved to Mankato from the sunny west coast in 2006, one of her first thoughts was, Where were all the ceramic studios?

“In California we had a ton of these places and I would bring my kids,” Ruby recalled. Besides being artistic outlets, shops that sold ceramic dishware and figurines were popular choices for anything from girls’ night out venues to making the perfect gift for Grandma and Grandpa. Minnesota, however, has only a few such studios mostly clustered near the Twin Cities. Ruby wondered if Mankato would welcome such a business. The former stay-at-home mother began making inquiries.

Photo by Katie Roiger - Kim Ruby at ARTifact in Mankato, MN
Submitted Photo – Kim Ruby at ARTifact in Mankato, MN

An Idea is Born

“The idea was to provide something that was not here,” Ruby explained. “It seemed like the kind of thing that would be more likely in a place like Minnesota where it gets cold, where you need indoor things to do.”

Ruby took her questions to Mankato’s Small Business Development Center, who helped her solve logistical needs and referred her to local financial resources. The hardest part was finding a location, but a friend’s husband had a storefront to rent and soon Mankato welcomed its first paint-your-own ceramics art shop.

With over 200 kinds of ceramic pieces to choose from and myriads of glaze combinations, Ruby’s ARTifact studio resembles Santa’s workshop. Workers keep finished examples of different items on display and are more than happy to give tips or help a customer pick between different colors.

It’s super relaxing. It can be meditative if you’re by yourself and sit and focus on the moment.

“It’s creative, it’s easy,” said Ruby. “Not only is it kid-friendly but it’s fun for adults.” The experience is unique every time depending on the participating company or the visitor’s purpose. A girls’ night out or bachelorette party is very different from a quiet hour of solitary art.

“It’s super relaxing,” Ruby said. “It can be meditative if you’re by yourself and sit and focus on the moment.”

An Assortment of Customers

Ruby has several customers who drop in every so often to work on the same piece. She always keeps unfinished projects in a safe location for as long as the visitor needs to complete it. One of her favorite parts of her job is seeing each finished piece.

“I really like opening the kiln and seeing how everybody’s pieces turned out,” Ruby said. “A gal just finished a fairy-house box but she put so much detail into it. On the inside of the box she painted a bookcase and a cat, and a miniature Van Gogh Starry Night!”

Walk-ins are a big part of Ruby’s business along with hosting birthday parties and other events. She loves watching children painstakingly decorate a mug or figurine to keep on their dresser or give as a gift.

Submitted photo - A sampling of finished ceramics from ARTifact
Submitted photo – A sampling of finished ceramics from ARTifact

“How thrilled is Grandma going to be?” Ruby said.

Ruby also hosts a standing Date Night on the third Friday of each month. On that day, the studio is open extended hours and all ceramic items are buy one, get one half off. The event is a favorite among friends looking for a fun evening activity but it’s definitely popular as a romantic evening out.

“I find that men are particularly funny because they seem to not want to come in some of the times,” Ruby laughed. “But then they do it and go ‘That was actually really fun!’ The way they say it is like, that’s not what they were expecting.”

Ruby likes to see couples each pick a piece and a color scheme that they most want, then give it to their partner to create for them. The result is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that suits an individual’s preferences but still manages to be a unique gift.

“You get the thing you want in the colors that you enjoy, but it’s this thing that’s created for you,” said Ruby.

Other events range from seasonal activities like Paint Your Own Ugly Sweater Mug Night, to standing promotions like 15%-off Senior Days. ARTifact also partners with organizations like the North Mankato Taylor Library to aid community events. Two very popular events that Ruby hosts are company parties and team building activities.

I like being here and having this available. There’s so much talent! It’s fun to see what people create.

“It’s fun to see what they find out about their coworkers,” said Ruby, who has seen people who work together every day discover that their office mate has an unexpected flair for design. “It really does give you insight into the people you work with.” She also enjoys watching college students bring their visiting parents in for a few hours of relaxed creativity and catching up.

Future Plans

Looking forward, Ruby hopes that ARTifact will continue to draw both aspiring artists and fun-seekers, but thinks that the business may someday have to move. Right now, the studio sometimes runs out of space.

Photo by Katie Roiger - Kim Ruby assisting budding ceramic artists at ARTifact in Mankato, MN
Submitted Photo – Kim Ruby assisting budding ceramic artists at ARTifact in Mankato, MN

“It puts us in a bind when we’re really busy,” said Ruby. Before each piece is fired in the in-house kiln, it must be covered with a clear coating to seal it. At the moment, the coating room doubles as the birthday party space which can put the shop behind schedule for firing ceramics. Ruby is dedicated to keeping each piece safe and beautiful, so she and her employees are very careful when they coat an object to prevent any environmental dust from settling on it and spoiling the finish.

Ruby thinks that one of the great privileges of her job is being able to meet community members and provide them with access to an activity she loves. Her shop is open to all kinds of parties and gatherings, and she never prevents people from bringing their own food and refreshments provided they are respectful of other peoples’ projects. Her goal is to make a welcoming environment for people to try something they might not have otherwise attempted.

“I like being here and having this available,” Ruby said. “There’s so much talent! It’s fun to see what people create.”

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Katie Roiger
is a freelance writer who works out of the Greater Mankato Area. She enjoys exploring every town she visits and knowing where to find the best Mexican restaurant in any 40-mile radius.