Clay Culture: Community Education

Opening their studio to their new community through classes, hands-on workshops, and gallery sales has turned a cross-country move into an opportunity for engagement and enrichment.

Four years ago we moved from Helena, Montana, to Martha’s hometown of Bethel, Maine. Moving our studio practice 2400 miles across the country brought some big changes and opportunities to expand the reach of our studio into the community.

Expansion

The biggest change for both of us has been in our physical studio space. In Montana, we each had 12×12-foot studios. In Maine, we inherited a 6000-square-foot warehouse building. We have ample space to spread out. We have a retail showroom, individual studios, a shared office, and a custom-built glaze lab. We have a 1500-square-foot classroom space, and a full wood-working and metal-working studio. All of this space is wonderful; however, a larger space also equals larger bills—property taxes, insurance, heating, maintenance, etc.

The other big change is the community. In Montana, we were living in a ceramics mecca. Helena is the home of the well-known Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, and a community teeming with ceramic knowledge and appreciation. While we are certainly not the only potters in the mountains of western Maine, the clay culture is quite small.

1 Joshua and Martha in their teaching studio. Photo: M Dirk McKnight.

Teaching

Our response to these two changes has been to build a community teaching studio. Two-and-a-half years in, our classes are full and bringing in enough income to cover the overhead costs of our facility, but more importantly, we are educating our community about working with clay while fostering a love for pottery and making things by hand. Education has been a way to invite the public into our studio and teach them how making and using handmade pots can impact their lives, as well as give them an appreciation for the work that we both do in our own studio practices.

We started small, utilizing the local adult-education network to advertise our first classes, and have intentionally grown slowly from there, focusing on word-of-mouth recommendations. We now offer three throwing classes per week. Each class session lasts for eight weeks, and we run these sessions four times per year. We also offer two one-and-done handbuilding classes each month. To the best of our knowledge, we are the first clay teaching studio in the area, and the local response has been tremendous. Additionally, we started hosting annual holiday and spring sales, and attendance has grown each year.

Though we are still in the early stages of this endeavor, we can already see the benefits, both financially and in community building. The steady income from teaching is reassuring for our livelihood, but the most exciting part of creating a teaching studio is having an active, engaging place where people choose to spend their time. We are genuinely surprised each week at how many of our throwing students show up outside of class time on open-studio day. It is rewarding to watch our students’ skills grow and encouraging to hear them tease that they have clay withdrawals when the studio is closed between sessions.

2 Evening class in session with Joshua teaching. Photo: M Dirk McKnight.

The benefits of a teaching studio are numerous; however, the one downside to an active and engaged classroom is time. Our time is no longer just our own. As self-employed potters, we initially were used to making our own schedule, but a retail business and busy classroom schedule require regular and dependable hours, and time away for workshops or a vacation needs to be planned well in advance. We also didn’t fully appreciate just how much time is required each week for advertising and organizing the class schedule, communicating with students, preparing for and teaching classes, studio cleaning, maintenance, and firing kilns.

Strengthening Networks

Since the move, we have also connected with other potters and school programs in the area to network and ask for local advice. In return, Joshua’s experience with electric kiln repair and knowledge of studio equipment has been a valuable resource to the area. We also joined the Maine Pottery Tour to link our studio with the others in the state, and this year we will coordinate our holiday sale with another local potter’s sale. Two years ago, an area college recommended our first intern, Sasha Lennon, who has since gone on to start her own pottery business. Additionally, we’re able to use our collection of resource books, videos, and pots to familiarize our students with the broader clay community.

Diversification

The new studio location has required some adjustments to our sales strategies. In Montana, Martha’s income focused on national gallery sales, a steady supply of well-educated visitors to the Bray, teaching workshops, and some online sales; whereas Joshua worked full time at the Archie Bray Clay Business, so pottery sales were only a small part of his income.

3 A view of the classroom from above.

In Maine, we have had to adjust our tactics, given our retail space in a rural location with customers who are less accustomed to fine-art pottery styles and prices. Martha still sells at galleries around the country, but she has increased her workshop teaching engagements and direct online sales. Her local sales of signature work are still developing, but hopefully that will grow in time with the education outreach that we are doing through our classes. However, she has had great success with some new, lower price-point product lines that were developed specifically for sale to our local customers through our retail space. Joshua is starting somewhat fresh, being newly self-employed as a full-time studio potter. The local community has responded well to his production ware, and he has branched out to teach classes, offer local kiln repairs, participate in art fairs, and accept wholesale orders and custom commissions.

We are purposely growing the business slowly to keep the studio manageable for two people and sustainable over time in our small town. We are definitely trying to build a steady audience of long-term students and supporters. We never envisioned having such a large studio space, but we are making the most of it by creating and contributing to the community that we want to live in. Through making pots and teaching classes, we are fostering a new population of clay lovers in our small town who have a newfound appreciation for handmade ceramic objects. We have a long-range plan, and we’re just getting started.

the authors: Martha Grover is a potter living and working in Bethel, Maine. For more information, go to www.MarthaGrover.com. Joshua David Rysted is a Montanan braving the wilds of New England. He throws functional pots and teaches classes in a studio shared with his rock star potter wife and their dog, Maggie. For more information, follow him on Instagram @JDavidDesigns.

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