From Wall Street to a Potter’s Wheel — Judy Weddle’s Novel Journey
Tell us about your professional background, which is a fascinating journey defined by great success across multiple sectors.
After college, I had intended to go to law school, but I got interested in business and decided to aim for business school instead. To gain some experience I got a job in mortgage banking in Colorado, where I’m from originally. I rose into management, but was thinking all along that I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. I had an itch to leave Colorado. And the best way to leave any place if you don’t know exactly what you want to do is to go to school.
So, I applied to Wharton to get my MBA and much to my surprise — I was a philosophy and political science major, my GMATs weren’t that terrific, and I’d been out of school for six years — I was accepted.
After Wharton, I got a job at Lehman Brothers working with mortgage-backed securities. It was a relatively new asset class at the time and I always thought I got the job because I knew how to spell ‘mortgage’!
Even though investment banking ultimately wasn’t a good fit, I did have a very interesting career at Lehman, even working closely on some projects with the likes of Dick Fuld, Joe Gregory and others who ended up taking the company back from Shearson American Express. As a young banker, I found myself in some really, really bizarre situations. And of course, mortgage-backed securities really took off but some of the iterations they were doing didn’t really make sense. In typical woman logic, I thought maybe it was me, that I just wasn’t smart enough. But in hind sight, who knows. At any rate, I knew I had to get out.
After leaving Lehman I traveled for the next four months, first to Nepal, then India and Kashmir, and finally to Africa. In Nepal, I trekked to the Everest Base Camp and an elevation of about 19,500 feet. I spent two weeks on a houseboat in Kashmir and then spent five weeks on safari and on the beach in Africa. But then I needed to come back down to earth and, once again, decided the best way to make a transition was to go back to school. I enrolled in a masters program at NYU studying global policy and decision making. The first course I took was on the Press and the Arms Race, looking at the impact of the news media on international relations and nuclear issues at the height of the nuclear arms race.
The best way to make a transition was to go back to school again.
Taking this course ultimately led me to a position as Associate Director of the Center for War, Peace and the News Media, a non-profit within the Journalism School at NYU. Even though it meant a significant earnings drop from my six figure Wall Street salary, I loved the experience working with countries that were newly released from Soviet control to build a free press. We also did a project with Bloomberg working with a small company that was started by a brilliant young man working at his mother’s kitchen table to develop the Moscow Times 100, which was kind of like the Dow Jones for Russia, long before there was any public information about companies there.
Fast forward to the last 20 years of my career, I ended up getting involved with Wall Street once again by becoming an executive search professional focused on investment banking. After seven years working in executive search firms, I went “in house” to lead the recruiting function, first at Wachovia and finally at Credit Suisse, where I finished my career as Director and Global Head of Experienced Recruitment, Investment Banking & Capital Markets Division.
Let’s jump to the present. What prompted you to switch from a career at the top of your field in Executive Recruiting to becoming a’ Teapotter’?
I was in my early 60’s and thought, this is not where I want to spend my time and energy for the rest of my life. Ironically, despite devoting 20 years to it, I always had a sense that recruiting wasn’t really what I was meant to do. I was nagged by the constant voice in my head saying, “I'm not really doing what I should be doing with my life. Even though I did like recruiting and was always learning new things, I finally just hit a wall. Among other things, the recruiting process was becoming very much technology driven, and I felt I was more attuned to the “old-school” executive search approach which is very hands on and personalized.
I’d always had an interest in tea that stemmed from my older brother who I always looked up to. Unfortunately, he passed away many years ago. But when we were young, he went away to private school and when he came home he was drinking Constant Comment tea. Remember that? Naturally, I tried it and became hooked on tea. Years later, he became a potter. I trace the interest in both tea and pottery to my brother and a fascination with the unique history shared between tea and clay.
While I was still working and thinking about my post-career life, I did consider setting up a tea shop, similar to those Vienna coffee houses. I fancied myself creating the Starbucks of tea houses. And I knew a woman who ran a little tea place on 20th Street and I ended up doing a business plan for her. From there I began to learn everything I could about tea. I went to fancy food shows. I hunted down tea vendors. I traveled all over taking tea courses. I just followed my curiosity. I thought, when I retire I’m going into that business.
When I finally did retire, I found I had as much of a love for and interest in tea ware as for tea and realized that I had quite an extensive collection of “tea equipage.” To gain a deeper understanding of the different tea wares in my collection I went to Greenwich House Pottery to learn about clays, glazes, firing techniques and the like. What I thought would be one class quickly turned into a life passion. In 2018, I attended a workshop with Ken Matsuzaki, one of Japan’s most celebrated ceramic artists, and immediately felt the pull of the Japanese aesthetic that has inspired my work ever since.
It's been a constant learning process. Led by my curiosity, I went to Japan in 2019 where I was able to interact with some of the country’s most iconic master potters. I also study Chanoyu, the Japanese Tea Ceremony, under the guidance of Souheki Mori of the Dai Nihon Chado Gakki (Japan Tea Ceremony Association) in order to imbue my creations with a personal experience of the culture. Over time, the convergence of tea and pottery seemed extremely appealing. So now I call myself a ‘Teapotter’.
It's been an exploration, going into the artistic world and getting to know a whole other group of people that I would never have met carrying my business card.
What, if anything, do you miss about your previous career?
I don't miss wearing high heels and for sure my feet feel a lot better, although sometimes I miss just dressing up.
I did love doing deals both as an investment banker, and on the executive recruitment side where hiring a senior banker is much like doing an M&A deal.
And I do miss the money. A little bit . . .
But to be absolutely honest, I don't really miss very much because I’m so happy doing what I’m doing now.
What do you find most gratifying now?
Recently it has been having my first solo exhibit, which just opened last week in New York City. This is very exciting because I never really thought I was going to be an exhibiting artist or even a selling artist. I just like doing what I do. However, having other people look at your work and say, ‘This is good’ and want to display your work or have it in their show is gratifying.
But the most gratifying thing is—and this first happened probably two years ago, but it keeps happening — is just sitting down at the wheel making something and turning to the person next to you and saying, ‘Do you realize how lucky we are to be here doing this at this moment?’ There’s so much joy in it, even if it’s just creating a little pot, and thinking ‘Oh my God, I did it!’
‘Do you realize how lucky we are to be here doing this at this moment?’ There’s so much joy in it, even if it’s just creating a little pot, and thinking ‘Oh my God, I did it!’
What advice would you give to anyone about pursuing their passions, no matter how unrelated they may be to a professional identity?
Well, the obvious answer is, ‘It’s never too late.’ I never thought in a million years I would be able to do what I’m doing now.
But a couple of other pieces of advice come to mind.
When I was getting ready to leave my career, I felt this urgency to have a ‘next thing’. Part of it was because people would ask ‘What’s next?’, and I felt I had to have something to say.
Most people in my position would think of the typical thing and make a business plan for doing some consultant work which is very much the logical thing to do. My advice would be, yes do that, because it’s an exercise that probably should be done.
But be completely open to the unexpected. Don’t close your mind to something that might pop up and surprise you. And if it does end up being something creative, something you have a passion for, be as serious about it as you were about your career. Creativity is hard work. You can multi-task corporate jobs, but creativity, even if you take it on just as a hobby, requires a singular focus.
Finally. Don’t be afraid to follow a blank piece of paper. You might be surprised that it turns out to be the most colorful thing you’ve ever done.
Don’t be afraid to follow a blank piece of paper. You might be surprised that it turns out to be the most colorful thing you’ve ever done.
Judy Weddle is a ceramic artist based in New York City where she works at Greenwich House Pottery in the West Village. She grew up in Western Colorado. As the daughter of a horticulturist, Judy had her hands in soil from a young age, but it took many years for that influence to find expression in clay. She had first contact with pottery as an art form as a teenager through her brother who studied with some of the West’s early experimenters in “American Raku.” Judy followed a more practical path, studying political science and philosophy, plus a little art, at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and receiving an MBA from the Wharton Graduate School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. She enjoyed a successful career in investment banking and executive search before becoming a potter.