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Ceramic Connection: The Potters Guild of Baltimore

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Whenever I drink out of a dimpled mug I made at the Potters Guild a few years ago, I remember how it felt pressing the clay to form the lip, shaping the soft gray mud into something else, uncertain how it would turn out. Using vessels made by other potters, my fingers find the indentations and irregularities, fitting into a cup’s scalloped foot and calculating the tactile difference between a smooth pink glaze blanketing its sandy clay body.

The objects and art that populate my home are often vessels for textured memories and inquiries like this. Part of this pleasure comes from recognizing another person’s labor, touch, and skill. “We’re just so used to buying things, not knowing where they come from, not knowing how they’re made. But it’s something that we all crave and value,” says Claire Di Salvo, a Potters Guild member since 2019. “I have stuff from everyone here, and it means so much to use it. And that changes the way I consume things and appreciate what I’m putting into my body.”

“Ceramics has always been a way of connecting with people,” adds Vianney Paul, a Guild member since 2012. “I want this thing that I made to be in someone’s home and have a relationship. But there’s also the human interaction of coming to the studio.”

Other members agree: When you walk into the Meadow Mill studio, you tend to do a quick lap around. “You have to go to the glaze room, look at this shelf and touch all the things, see what people are doing, and just sort of familiarize yourself with what’s going on,” says Guild President Lindsay Aura Miller, who became a member in 2016.

 

Potters Guild member's shelf
Reclaim clay on plaster slab
Bisqueware by Whitney Simpkins

The Potters Guild of Baltimore was founded in 1955 with the goal “to further interest in sincere, honest and creative craftsmanship,” according to a short typed history tucked into the archive—a cardboard box that sits on a wooden shelf amid cubbies stuffed with members’ clay, tools, and glazes. A group of fifteen potters formed the Guild after taking two years of classes taught by Monkton-based sculptor Olin Russum at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Then-director Adelyn Breeskin and Board of Trustees chair Arthur Hooper helped the artists draft bylaws and articles of incorporation, and for the next two years, potters left trails of “red clay dust on [the BMA’s] highly polished marble floors.”

The next sequence of events is fuzzy, but according to the guild’s lore, on more than one occasion the kilns were left burning for too long because a member forgot to check on them, resulting in a mess of melted kiln furniture and pots. “It came as no surprise when Mrs. Breeskin suggested the Guild look for a new location,” which became a basement studio in the former Knights of Columbus building at 201 Homeland Avenue. A bank loan and contributions from members and friends secured this spot for the next thirty-plus years before they moved into their more spacious current digs at Meadow Mill in 1991.

The Guild’s original animating purpose—to encourage curiosity about clay, push craftsmanship, and, perhaps most vitally, sustain a community clay studio—continues to motivate its membership, who collectively make decisions and volunteer their time to shop-sit, load and unload kilns, and perform other duties to keep the place going 65 years after its founding. Membership fees, revenue from classes and workshops, and a small percentage from gallery sales keep the lights on, despite occasional setbacks such as flooding from the nearby Jones Falls or the sudden onset of a global pandemic. There are no paid employees of the guild (although members are paid to teach classes), and it functions overall as a cooperative: The nearly fifty members share equal voting rights and responsibilities, and a handful hold board positions.

 

Potters Guild of Baltimore glaze room and kilns
Finished work by members Anna Crooks, Claire Di Salvo, Vianney Paul, Diane Wacks, and others

The current membership comprises professionals who sell their wares and sculptures, hobbyists, and long-term potters alongside new converts. “I’m not a die-hard potter, I’m a social potter,” says Olivia Cavaluzzi, one of the eldest current Guild members, who joined in 1986 and has held “just about every elected office” except for treasurer. (She says she’d prefer not to worry about the money.) Cavaluzzi counts pottery as just one of her hobbies, but she loves the community and friends she’s made over the years, gifting them occasional homemade pizzelles and hand-knit socks.

One unifying feature bringing together such disparate folks is, of course, the primal and ancient attractiveness of clay, and the desire to form something out of this mud. Although ceramics can be technical and intimidating as a process, clay as a raw material is disarming. “You’re forced to be dirty and wet and hunched over in weird positions,” says Guild secretary Stephanie Wicker, who’s worked with clay since 2000 and became a member five years ago. “As soon as you sit down at this wheel and start to wrestle this piece of clay, or start to hammer a slab out, it has this way of feeling like you’re just a little kid again, playing with playdough.”

Sculptor Vicki McComas appreciates the playfulness of clay. “And if you’re in pain and you’re working in it, the pain just goes away,” she says. After earning a degree from MICA, McComas worked in restaurants and used MICA’s clay studio at night starting in the 1980s. She was the youngest Guild member when she joined sixteen years ago (then in her fifties), so she set out to recruit younger members, some of whom she met in MICA’s clay studio. “That’s what will keep you alive,” McComas says, “if you get young people in.”

 

Clockwise from top left: Vianney Paul, Diana Adhikari, Krystal Osman, Vianney Paul, Krystal Osman, Elaine Ozol, Diana Adhikari, Claire Di Salvo, Lindsay Aura Miller, and Diane Wacks

In 2014, a major flood at Meadow Mill nearly destroyed the studio along with other businesses in the complex. “I walked in to teach my class, and I watched a glaze bucket float by, and I sat on the stairs and cried for a little while,” McComas, then Guild President, recalls. “And then I went wading in the water.” With financial assistance from flood insurance and a GoFundMe set up by a member, the Guild purchased new kilns, wheels, and other equipment. After rebuilding, an influx of new students taking classes helped the Guild cover most of its bills.

Pre-pandemic, 8- or 12-week-long classes taught by members at the Potters Guild would often sell out. People at all skill levels could learn hand-building, wheel-throwing, glazing, and more for a couple hundred bucks, which covered weekly instruction, some clay and glazes, kiln firings, and open studio hours. After the pandemic hit and the studio closed, the Guild began offering shorter virtual workshops that focus on specific techniques and forms, such as slab-built planters or pinch pots. Miller says they might continue the virtual workshops even after reopening because they “were able to reach more people because they can do it from the comfort of their home.”

Martine Richards has not yet stepped inside the physical studio, but she’s hooked: She found the virtual class format ideal as a self-described recovering perfectionist. “I didn’t have to feel self-conscious about something not looking the way that I wanted it to yet,” Richards says. She likes the slow deliberation and flexibility of hand-building, she says, because “if something isn’t turning out the way that you want it, then you can gently coax things into shape.”

For the virtual classes, students pick up pre-assembled kits, work throughout the week and hop on Zoom a few times with the instructor and other students, and then drop off their creations to get fired. These classes satisfy an intrinsic desire to create within a communal setting, although there’s no replacement for the studio’s energy. Along with classes, people learn through osmosis simply by working among one another at the long community tables, in the glaze nook, and at the wedging stations. “I think all of us are significantly better artists and potters because we’re around people,” Miller says.

 

Clockwise from top left: Vianney Paul, Stephanie Wicker, Barbara Ruble, Krystal Osman, Kristine Utley, Anna Crooks, Shannon McArdle-Dugan, Barbara Han, and Anna Crooks

The Guild’s openness enticed Lauren Brick, who got a sculpture degree in 2011 but hadn’t considered ceramics until 2018, when she took her first class. She was initially intimidated to try something she wasn’t sure she’d be good at. “You’re all in the same room, kind of on top of each other, and everyone is messing up, it’s not just you,” Brick, now a Guild member, says. “You’re not passing judgment on them, so you know they’re not passing judgment on you.”

Members talk about the Guild like it’s a family or a circle of friends, negotiating group dynamics and studio maintenance while also trying to make their ceramics and work at their day jobs and be humans. But nearly everyone I interviewed said that during this pandemic isolation, getting to hold, use, and examine ceramic objects fellow members made—that they’ve traded, gifted, or bought from each other—has been nourishing in its own way.

“I think part of what is so powerful about having other people’s ceramics, it’s that evidence of their action,” says Anna Crooks, a Guild member since 2015 (and whose class I took in 2016). “There’s that sort of archaeological mindset involved in participating in ceramics, picking it up and looking and wondering, Was this hand-built? Was this wheel-thrown? Is it heavy? I need to know!”

 

*****

Photography by Joseph Hyde for BmoreArt Issue 11: Comfort.

Header image: Ceramics from the Potters Guild by Diana Adhikari, Lindsay Aura Miller, Chinen Aimi Bouillon, Anna Crooks, Claire Di Salvo, Barbara Han, Wei Hann, Danielle Lombardi, Shannon McArdle-Dugan, Nicole Miles, Krystal Osman, Elaine Ozol, Vianney Paul, Toby Rivkin, Barbara Ruble, B.G. Sterne, Kristine Utley, Diane Wacks, Stephanie Wicker, Julia Yensho, and other unidentified makers

 

Ceramics from the Potters Guild

This story is from Issue 11: Comfort,

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