Questions & Answers with community faces
Stacey Szerlong-Bechler (45) was born and raised in Frankfort; she grew up in a home on Crystal Lake with her parents and siblings. She took every art class that was available at Frankfort High School, then she attended the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District’s Career Tech Center in Traverse City for commercial art and graphics during her junior and senior years. After graduating from Frankfort in 1994, Stacey continued taking art classes, though she had traveled out of Michigan to live in many states while working in the banking field. Eventually, however, Northern Michigan called her back home; she worked at a local bank while continuing to paint and draw in her free time, in hopes of one day making art her career.
Meanwhile, Corey Bechler (44) grew up downstate in Moscow and graduated from Jonesville High School in 1995. He then attended Hillsdale College, where he graduated in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science degree with a triple major in science, history, and art. At this point, he taught part time for a year downstate, before landing his dream job of teaching art at Benzie County Central Schools in 2000; Corey had vacationed up here for much of his youth, and he was excited to begin creating a year-round life in Northern Michigan.
Shortly after that big move, Corey and Stacey met in 2001; they married in 2003. Stacey had a son, Devin (21), when the couple met and after marrying, they had two more children, daughters Versailles (16) and Ava (14).
Since 2007, the couple has been making art together.
In 2003, Corey had started doing art fairs, where he would sell little wooden cars and trucks. It made sense as an extra income stream during the summers, when he was not teaching, and it was fun, but at the end of the day, it was also a lot of work for not a lot of return. After a couple of years, he transitioned to doing high-end pointillism paintings of beach scenes; but again, at the end of the day, it was a lot of work for not a lot of return. In 2007, the couple stumbled onto clay—Corey instantly fell in love with the clay part of the operations, and Stacey fell in love with the painting part.
As the years have gone by, the couple’s clay work has transitioned from a part-time hobby for each of them to a full-time job for each of them. Stacey left her banking career in 2014 to work full time at glazing their clay creations, drawing and painting their tiles, running their online website and Etsy store, taking care of gallery and wholesale orders, boxing, shipping, and bookkeeping. Meanwhile, Corey does what he can when he gets home from teaching during the school year, but come summertime, he works full time at making pottery.
Notably, Corey’s grandparents used to own one of the three canoe liveries on the Platte River; when his grandparents sold the business to the National Park Service in the early 1980s, they moved the log cabin to its current location, where Corey and Stacey live now, on the Platte River.
Continuing with our interview series on impactful Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with Bechlers between special orders and getting ready for one of the many upcoming art fairs that they have scheduled for this summer.
The Betsie Current: When did you first get interested in art? What mediums have you worked with in the past, and how did you end up focusing on ceramics and doing what you do now?
Stacey Szerlong-Bechler: Creating art has always come naturally for me. I love to paint and draw. My first memory of an art piece that I was proud of was a self portrait crayon drawing that I made in Mrs. Kittleson’s kindergarten class at Frankfort Elementary. From there, I developed a passion for drawing people, animals, and nature scenes. In school, I looked forward to art class at Frankfort, but most of all, I enjoyed the commercial art and graphics program at the Career Tech Center in Traverse City. I continued with painting and drawing classes taught by various college professors and professional artists. I also continued with classes at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) in Traverse City. It took Corey and I a few years to figure out a medium to make together that we both loved and could make a business out of. Corey is very talented with creating from clay, I naturally love to paint, so it was a great collaboration. I love to draw and paint our one-of-a-kind tiles and bring life to Corey’s clay creations with color.
Corey Bechler: I never took an art class in high school. It wasn’t actually until my “first” senior year of college that I was drawn to an art class. I took a black-and-white photography class and was hooked. I took more classes the following semester; I took more classes during the summer. I passed the subject exam for the State of Michigan and became certified to teach art. Then I got the call from a neighboring downstate school: “Can you come and teach art at our school?” I jumped at the chance to be a long-term sub for a lady on maternity leave. It was a fantastic opportunity. She came back at the end of the school year, but I was hooked. I love teaching art. I love molding and helping the next generation to admire and love the arts as much as I do. I applied at Benzie that following summer, got hired, and the rest is history! At Benzie, our students have won awards, our students have gone on to become professional artists, our students have developed a deeper understanding and love for the arts. As for Stacey and I, neither of us have ever taken a clay class—we are both self-taught. Thank goodness for the Darcy Library and YouTube!
Current: Corey, what first interested you about teaching? What do you enjoy about this line of work?
Corey: I’ve always loved working with my hands and building stuff. Thanks to an amazing professor that I had in college, he pushed me into this art thing, and—coming from a long line of educators in my family—teaching has always been a passion. To show someone how to make something out of nothing, how to work with new tools, how to work with new materials, and then ultimately they have that “aha” moment and can create pieces on their own. It’s fantastic.
Current: What does a typical summer day of work look like for you?
Stacey: The summer months for our business are the busiest months for us. We are making product, managing our website, traveling to shows to sell our creations, fulfilling our online, wholesale, and gallery orders. My main job is the painter of our pottery—my number one daily focus is painting our inventory. I draw and paint our tiles and all of our clay creations. I manage our website and Etsy shop and package and ship our orders out. I also do all of our business bookkeeping, spreadsheets, bill-paying, taxes: you name it, I do it. Our studio is at our home, so we tend to work very late hours on a daily basis. Oh yes, and also fit in family time in between.
Corey: We have been blessed with a lot of loyal customers. Many of the pieces that we make will find their new “forever home” almost as soon as we unload it out of the kiln. Because of this, my summers are very crazy: I’m usually up by 6 a.m. to check on the pieces that I made the night before, to make sure they are drying OK in the studio without any cracks forming, then maybe I’ll take the dog for a quick walk or go watch the sunrise on the beach, then come back and work in the clay studio—making, forming, glazing, throwing on the wheel, assembling, answering emails—until the late hours of the evening. Repeat each weekday. The weekends are a little different. I will get up early on a Saturday morning, drive to our show, trying to arrive there by 5 a.m. Set up our tent, then start putting our artwork on display. Talk to customers all day, pack up for the evening, then repeat the next morning, if it’s a multi-day show. Then pack up and drive home, unload anything that is leftover; start the week again.
Current: How has that changed since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Northern Michigan last March?
Stacey: We transitioned a lot last year with the cancellation of many of our art shows due to COVID. We went from making larger pieces to making smaller pieces for different shops and galleries. We still seem to work just as hard each day, but it seems like we are producing a larger quantity of smaller pieces than larger/more time-consuming pieces. I will say it was nice to have a lot more family time with our kids this past year, as time can get away from us when we are busy working.
Corey: We live in a beautiful place that I often joke is a tourism Mecca. So our transition over the past year has included transforming our studio into more of a retail space and putting out signage on the weekends when we would be home, and we had people stop over to check out our gallery. It was fun to meet new people, see all of the different license plates that would pull into the driveway, and hear all of the wonderful stories that people had.
Current: How have you seen your work grow and change? How do you hope that it will continue to grow? What is next? Have you had any collaborations?
Stacey: When we first started off with our clay creations, we were basically teaching ourselves what works and what doesn’t. We had a lot of practice pieces and kiln mishaps along the way. With neither of us ever having taken a clay class, having a lot of practice and patience with clay—and with each other—we have both gotten better. We have been working on collaboration ideas since day one; each one seems to be more exciting than the last. We have a long-standing list of collaborative ideas that we will continue to work on.
Corey: Like most clay people, we started off making bowls and plates but have transitioned over the years to making more art pieces—clay robots, whimsical happy birds, ceramic canvases with Up North landscapes painted or glazed on them. It has been an amazing roller coaster ride so far. Last summer, with COVID hitting, we tried to transition into other markets; for instance, we partnered with Emily Pangborn of 5:14 Candles. [Editor’s Note: This collaboration was previously profiled in a Q&A with Pangborn during 2020; find it in The Betsie Current archives online.] We would make the clay vessels, and she would fill them with her amazing candles. We’ve also partnered with a handful of shops and galleries to do special pieces, just for their market. But all the while, we’ve been trying to create our own pieces to bring a little smile to each person’s home.
Current: What are some of your favorite projects that you have worked on? What are your top three best sellers? Any special awards or accolades that you have received?
Stacey: I absolutely love hand drawing and hand painting our large rectangle and square tiles. A few of my favorites are our large whimsical bird tiles, our large fish tiles, and our portrait tiles. Our customer favorite has to be our whimsical birds.
Corey: We’ve dabbled in a great many different forms over the years, but people have especially loved our clay robots, our Up North landscapes, our whimsical happy birds, and even our little screwy dogs, where we use pieces of screws and nails to make a little five-inch-tall dog sculpture. Traveling the Midwest over the summers, we have gotten numerous awards and accolades from various shows, but one of the most rewarding parts of this job is seeing the smiles that we bring to so many people’s faces at each and every show!
Current: What kinds of things do you do for fun, when you are not working? What other things are you involved with? How did you get involved with them, and why are you passionate about these causes?
Stacey: I love my family! Our three children mean the world to us. When I’m not working on our business, we love spending time with our kids and being a part of their lives. We are also very fortunate to live close to my parents, mother-in-law, sister and her family, and our extended family. Our family members that live out of town frequently make the time to travel Up North to visit us, as well. We try to spend as much time with our family as possible. We enjoy escaping to the lakes and beaches around us in Benzie County. We love beach walks, hunting for Petoskey stones, watching the sunset, taking our small boat out on Crystal Lake for some tubing fun. And, of course, our Labrador retriever, Ellie, is always with us.
Corey: Besides teaching and playing with clay, I also coach basketball and volleyball. I don’t have a tremendous amount of free time beyond those activities, but when I do, I try to go on nice, long walks on the beach, finding Petoskey stones and cool pieces of driftwood. We live in God’s country, and every day that I get to walk on the beach is a great day.
Current: How have you seen Benzie County/Northern Michigan change since you first moved here, Corey? Or since you grew up here, Stacey? What are your hopes for the area in the future?
Stacey: I had a fantastic childhood growing up on Crystal Lake in Frankfort. I am so happy my kids get to experience this area as they grow up. Benzie County has definitely expanded in businesses and people over the past couple of decades. It is amazing to see the amount of people that vacation here in the summer or have second homes/cabins up here. It truly is a beautiful area.
Corey: Benzie County has always been home for me during the summers. However, I have noticed that this place has gotten crazier and crazier, year after year. As a kid, I remember seeing hundreds of people at the Fourth of July fireworks on Frankfort beach; now, as an adult, I see thousands of people on the beach, and it’s almost impossible to find a parking spot in town that night. The secret is out—Benzie County is a fantastic place to be, and I am glad to be a part of it.
Current: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of living/working in Benzie County and in Northern Michigan, in general? What is the best or most rewarding part of your job?
Stacey: Biggest reward for having a business in Benzie County would be our customers coming back to see us year after year. It’s a great feeling to get to know the people we are creating our art for. It’s humbling to witness someone look at your art and fall in love with a piece. It’s also a very cool feeling when we get to see our art in someone’s space, whether in person or a photo they have shared with us.
Corey: We have developed a very good following in downstate towns like Ann Arbor, Lansing, and Royal Oak, but working and living here in Benzie County, we are truly blessed. We’re able to drive to whatever we need to, but we like to start our mornings off with beach walks and sunrises. Evenings are spent getting ice cream at our favorite spots, watching the sunsets, and finishing up in the studio.
Current: What could Northern Michigan do to attract more talented young people to this area?
Stacey: Keeping our young adults in this area after school and attracting young adults from other areas is a challenge for our area. We need more housing for all incomes and more businesses to employ all ages. We could always use more fun events like music festivals, art shows, concerts, food market pop-ups, creative art classes such as painting, pottery, beach yoga, more organized sports for all age groups, outdoor exercise classes, guided trail hiking, overnight camping experiences.
Corey: Whether it is attracting more young people or keeping the young people around that are local high school graduates, having more affordable housing and good-paying year-round jobs would certainly attract young people to this area.
Current: What else does Northern Michigan/Benzie County need?
Stacey: A youth recreation center would be fantastic for our youth and all age groups; combining it with sports and the arts would be very cool for all ages. More parks for our kids and families to enjoy.
Corey: As a school teacher and a coach in the community, I see the need for some sort of a rec center for our area youth—a place for our kids to play and hang out in a safe atmosphere.
Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, hiking spots?
Stacey: We love The Roadhouse, Cherry Hut pies, lemon custard at The Dairy Maid in Frankfort. We enjoy the 4th of July parade and fireworks in Frankfort and Beulah. When we aren’t traveling for our own art shows, we enjoy looking at other artists’ artwork at local art shows. Canoeing the Platte River, swimming in Lake Michigan, boating on Crystal Lake, Point Betsie, Esch Beach, mouth of the Platte River, pontooning on Herring Lake.
Corey: I love hanging out at St. Ambrose. It is fun for the whole family. Great food, great spirits, great people, and great times to relax, play some games, and enjoy the day.
Current: What does your perfect summer day look like in Benzie County? How would you spend it?
Stacey: A perfect summer day for us in Benzie County would be spent with our children and our families—sun up to sun down—doing any of the following: BBQ-ing, swimming, beach walking, skipping stones, boating/tubing, campfiring, s’mores, game playing, fireworks, good conversation, sunset watching, star gazing.
Corey: We got married on Peterson Beach along Platte Bay in the Sleeping Bear Dunes park. My perfect day is walking hand in hand with my wife along the beach, catching up with each other on our day, skipping stones, and taking in the view from one of the most beautiful places on this Earth.
Visit BechlerPottery.com or Etsy.com/shop/BechlerPottery online to learn more. Follow the couple via the “Bechler Pottery” group on Facebook. The studio gallery is open throughout the summer by appointment. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call/text 231-944-5925 for more information. The Bechlers will also have their artwork on display and for sale at the following upcoming art shows: Saugatuck (July 3), Charlevoix (July 10-11), Ann Arbor (July 15-17), Glen Arbor (July 21), Traverse City (July 31), Coast Guard Festival in Grand Haven (August 6-7), Charlevoix Waterfront Fine Art Festival (August 14), Art on the Riverfront in Grand Haven (August 21), Arts, Beats, and Eats in Royal Oak (September 3-6), Art and Apples in Rochester (September 10-12).
Featured Photo Caption: Stacey and Corey Bechler have been married since 2001, and they have been making art together since 2007. Corey Bechler creates the works in clay—for instance, a tile of a fish, a tile of the Lake Michigan bluffs, a robot—and Stacey Bechler brings the creations to life with color. Images courtesy of BechlerPottery.com.