I’m fortunate enough to be able to call Kevin Merck a friend. I wish I were also fortunate enough to share the incredible natural sculpting gift that he possesses! These days, however, Kevin is more frequently known as his business persona, “Turkey Merck.”
Turkey Merck is not only a catchy and intriguing brand name, but it happens to be quite a unique and massively in-demand small business.
Turkey Merck produces highly detailed, and exquisitely made mugs.
A great deal of which are one-offs, fragile, and beautiful. Rare and one-of-a-kind.
Haunting and horrifying are Turkey Merck’s works of art that folks run faster to obtain than crowds on Black Friday to scoop up whenever and whatever they can.
Turkey Merck mugs can range in themes from some of his favorite movie characters to some of his earliest works: his jug face pieces.
Regardless of the theme, his mugs are in high-demand and sell-out almost instantly online every time he announces a new release.
What makes them so intriguing is that the best way of finding out when they are released is by signing up for the newsletter on his website. I love this.
It makes it feel like you’re part of a secret club, getting the latest awesome, new Turkey Merck mug before the rest of the world does.
It might be worth knowing that each mug has a capacity of between 15 and 33 oz. And despite their high level of detail and the fact they look like priceless works of art, they are entirely functional. They are also microwave and dishwasher safe.
However, Turkey Merck recommends hand washing your precious mugs after use.
I recently picked Kevin’s brain (pun firmly intended) to learn all about how he began in his niche business.
And how it enabled him to quit his ‘day job’ and pursue his passion for sculpture and pottery full-time.
This post may contain affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you. Please read full disclosure for more information. Having said that, I only ever recommend products or services that I truly love and stand behind!
Hi Kevin, Okay, I have to ask, where did “Turkey Merck” come from? How does it relate to mugs?
“Turkey” is an old nickname I was given in high school.
The potter that I studied under called me Turkey. So I started signing my face jugs “Turkey” instead of my name, Kevin, as a joke.
Why, you might ask, did he call me Turkey?
My legs were so skinny he said I looked like I was riding on a turkey.
Well, I guess we have him to thank in some small way. I’m doubtful you’d be called that if you were in school today!
Where was your childhood spent?
I grew up in Gillsville, which is a small town in the northeastern Georgia foothills. We were pretty poor growing up, but my aunt always made sure I had art supplies. She knew how much I loved drawing!
She was also the person that introduced me to the great horror, science-fiction, and fantasy flicks of the ’70s and ’80s.
I was always obsessed with movies that featured interesting makeups and costumes. Many of which still inspire me to this day.
I am currently based in Buford, GA which is just north of Atlanta.
How did you get into sculpting and pottery?
I have been sculpting for 19 years.
In 2001, I visited a friend’s house and saw his dad’s face jugs (pottery jugs sculpted to resemble faces). These caught my eye and piqued my interest in pottery and sculpting.
My friend’s dad, Wayne Hewell, is a Master Potter. And he took me on as his apprentice. I spent the next 5 years working in his shop, learning about working with clay, turning on the wheel, glazing, and kiln firing.
As soon as I got my hands in the clay, I became obsessed with sculpting traditional ceramic forms.
Although I studied under a Master Potter to learn the ceramic process, I suppose I would be considered self-taught as far as sculpting goes.
I’ve researched, studied, and been inspired by the works of various artists over the years.
How do you come up with ideas for your Turkey Merck mugs?
I have explored various genres that inspired me as a kid; fantasy, science-fiction, and horror.
I’ve also created some nature-inspired art in the past. I really enjoy taking a static object, like a fence post, and incorporating a humorous face into the design to give it some movement and life.
Back in the day, my focus was on fantasy-related art, being a huge fan of horror movies and literature. I would always create a monster/horror-themed mug or jug around Halloween each year.
In October 2015, I decided to create a few zombie mugs, and the images went viral on Facebook.
That led to my current full-time job producing horror-themed ceramics. Your husband was the first person (out of about a thousand) that contacted me that day about purchasing one of the zombie mugs!
I remember that day very well, as I had also seen your image online. I’d never seen anything like a Turkey Merck mug. How did you go keeping up with the demands from then until now?
As I mentioned, I posted an image of my three zombie mugs on Instagram and Facebook in 2015, and that’s when my social media accounts really took off.
The post went viral on Facebook with over 500k viewers. That led to multiple large art accounts sharing my work, which in turn led to more followers.
I was receiving around 500-1000 messages a day from folks wanting to buy a Turkey Merck mug.
I had three mugs, and your husband, Kevin, had already bought one.
That’s when I decided to explore molding and casting options. Which, of course, led me to where I am today.
That’s pretty amazing! Where do you get your ideas from?
Most of my art has been inspired by the books I read and movies that I watched as a kid.
Classic monster movies like The Creature from the Black Lagoon to 80’s movies like Fright Night, to modern zombie movies like World War Z. Cult movies like these have always had a huge impact on the type of art that I like to create.
There is also a lot of fantasy and sci-fi movies that have inspired me. The Wizard of Oz, The Dark Crystal, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings, to name a few.
That’s a diverse grouping of movies, for sure!
How long does one Turkey Merck mug take to produce?
An original mug design takes anywhere from 20-40 hours to produce. The production mugs take a lot less time since I’ve refined the process over the years.
Molding and casting my work has allowed me to produce enough products to make art full-time.
That’s incredible. It’s inspiring to hear of any artist that can turn it into a full-time business.
Would you mind telling us more about your process?
Sure. I usually like to produce a batch of mugs at a time. A batch consists of about 20-30 mugs and takes 3 weeks from start to finish. That is unless issues arise during the firing process. Any setbacks in the firing can add another week or more to the process.
- The first step is to come up with my design.
- And then I sculpt it.
- After the sculpted model is finished, a plaster mold of it is created.
- I take the first mold and create silicone master molds from which I can pour the working plaster molds that we use for production.
- Next, we pour slip clay into those molds. The slip dwells for about 30-40 minutes and then we dump the excess slip back into the slip tank.
- The mug then dries in the plaster mold for another hour until it is hard.
- Once the mug is removed from the plaster mold, my production artists clean up the seam lines and add any detail that was lost during the casting process.
- The handles are cast separately and attached to the mug.
Then comes the kiln!
- Once the mug is bone dry (referred to as greenware), the mugs are fired in an electric kiln for 16 hours (plus another 12+ hours for cool down) to 1800℉.
- The first kiln firing, called the bisque fire, hardens the clay enough where my artists can begin the glaze work, but the mug is still slightly fragile and porous.
- Multiple layers of ceramic glaze are applied with a combination of airbrush and brushes.
- Yet again, the mugs are bisque fired to 1800℉. The second bisque firing ensures that the first layers of glaze will not wipe off when the second layers are applied.
- Next, another round of glazes is then applied.
- After the second layers of glaze are applied, the mugs are fired to cone 6 for 8 hours, to a temperature of 2200℉ which causes the clay to vitrify (all the pores close, and the clay and glaze become watertight).
- The last firing makes the stoneware and glaze-work strong and durable. Some designs require an additional cone 6 firing.
That is quite an intense process. And incredibly time-consuming. What tools do you like to sculpt with?
Oh, that’s great. Here’s a little trivia – my husband actually drew the logo for Ken’s Tools years ago! Small world!
Do you work with strict deadlines? Sometimes being creative and working to a set schedule don’t really go hand in hand.
Yes! It is very challenging to meet deadlines since I have about a million things to take care of in the shop each day!
Also, I have found that the use of a schedule is paramount.
I also set deadlines for projects, but I rarely meet those deadlines. At this point, I think I’m about 2 years behind schedule!
Do you have a hard time with a day to day schedule? What does an average day consist of in your studio?
I utilize a schedule to keep up with everything. There are so many things that I have to take care of in the shop.
By the same token, ceramics can be such a fickle and difficult medium to work with.
Of course, there are always issues we run into. And they must be addressed as quickly as possible. It is pretty hectic. I work a lot of late nights and weekends.
Have you created any commission pieces?
I don’t work on commission pieces at this time. I’d rather make what I want to make.
I know that in recent years, you have branched out a little more, creatively. Do you have plans to expand in the future?
Well, to keep Turkey Merck running, I must primarily focus on the mugs.
So, working with resin, latex, and silicone is more of a hobby. Sometimes I need a break from the grind of ceramics, and that’s when I play around and explore various materials.
I think it would be cool to branch out and offer a line of latex or silicon masks at some point, but I have to stay focused on the mugs right now.
How has the pandemic affected your business this year?
There were a few issues with our clay in February, which slowed down production for almost a month. We had to shut down the shop for over a month at the beginning of the pandemic, so sales took a big hit. But slowly, we are catching back up with all the mug designs we had planned to release.
Is producing a Turkey Merck mug a one-man business?
When I first started producing the mugs in 2016 I did everything by myself. It was a serious grind. By the end of the first year, I decided to hire my first employee.
Also, I employ two production artists and an assistant that handles casting, shipping, graphic design, and various other duties.
My wife, Kayla, handles the books.
I love that this has become a family business, as well. Very inspiring!
Is there a favorite character of yours that you haven’t created yet?
I really want to make a werewolf mug.
Oh, I’d love to see that!
Is it difficult or challenging working with such a fragile medium as a Turkey Merck mug? Have you had any casualties?
At the most basic level, ceramics is quite simple. But due to the organic nature of the materials and firing process, it can quickly become extremely complicated. Especially when you try to push the limits of the materials and firing process as we do.
These factors can present a real challenge, but I enjoy problem-solving, which is one of the aspects of ceramics that I find most interesting.
We haven’t had many casualties over the years.
Everyone is very careful with the mugs.
Speaking of casualties, how is the shipping process taken care of? I suspect that would be a cause of huge stress!
I have come up with a pretty good packing system for the mugs so we haven’t had any mugs broken during transit…yet!
The Turkey Merck success story (and your mugs!) are very inspiring.
What kind of advice do you have for creative people who may be unsure how to follow their dreams?
And when you think you are working hard, work harder. Grind it out. Outwork everybody else.
Work when others are playing.
Natural talent can only go so far. Pair your talent with hard work and you can get somewhere.
If you are like me and don’t have much natural talent, research, study, and learn from the masters.
And then practice.
And then practice some more.
Practice until you are tired of practicing. Then practice some more after that.
Make every piece better than the last.
Get over your fears of failure. Just go for it.
Be sure to put out quality work.
Our motto in the shop is, “just make it look cool”.
If you produce quality work that looks cool and get enough eyes on it, you can sell your work.
Once you get your work out there, if it is high-quality and you treat your collectors right, you can continue to sell your work.
Most folks can tell when they buy something with a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and passion behind it. And those things are certainly behind Turkey Merck mugs.
Utilize social media.
I think social media is one of the greatest tools for artists that has ever existed. There’s no better way to get your work seen than social media. However, it can be a real grind due to all of the crazy algorithms.
Stick with it because you never know what can happen with just one post.
Thanks, Turkey Merck! Well said, indeed.
Ultimately, I think what is most refreshing and endearing about Kevin is his total lack of ego. He is an incredibly skilled and naturally gifted sculptor in his own right. And a self-taught sculptor at that.
He also has a wonderful, self-deprecating manner that makes his appeal even more engaging.
We wish him continued success in the future.
If you haven’t seen his work, take a look at his epic social media accounts right here: Turkey Merck is active on Instagram and Facebook. And take a close look for one of my favorite features of his social media presence.
Collectors and fans of Turkey Merck are encouraged to post photos of their mugs in use. It makes for some exciting images online. And is also a great way to create a sense of community relating to the mugs. So much fun!
Do you have a Turkey Merck original mug? Or do you dream of owning one?
Until then, we look forward to your comments below!
Featured Image by Turkey Merck