Face to Face: Caren Clarke with Hearts Afire


In the three years since Caren Clarke opened Hearts Afire, the pottery and art studio has grown in popularity, accommodating everything from drop-in artisans to creative parties.

But on March 15, it all came to an end.

“It’s just really changed everything for us,” said Clarke. “Usually our studio is full and we have people here having a good time. That hasn’t been able to happen. Everyone wants to be taking all the precautions. You wonder what your new normal is going to be.”

Clarke’s business is one of hundreds across Missoula that was forced to close its doors under the direction of local health officials, who were working to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Nearly 45 days have since passed, and Clarke isn’t sure when she’ll be permitted to reopen, and what the “new normal” will look like.

“I haven’t really gotten that far yet, because I don’t think we know when that’s going to be,” she said. “We kind of take it day by day to see what people are going to do, and if they’re going to open us back up.”

A report released Tuesday by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research found that certain industries in Montana will take the hardest hit from the pandemic over this calendar year. Along with recreation, in-dining food services, lodging and retail, the arts may take time to recover from the economic retraction.

But even with their doors closed, Hearts Afire has worked to find new ways to offer its services.

“We have not had people in the studio since March 15,” said Clarke. “We spent some time doing to-go kits with pottery painting, and they’d bring them back in to be fired. We decided not to do that anymore. We decided to do kits with acrylic paints so they don’t have to bring them in anymore.”

When she does reopen, Clarke imagines it won’t be an immediate return to normal.

“I would think there would be some changes,” she said. “I have a fairly large studio, so we can accommodate social distancing. I think a little of that is too early to tell yet.”