Clay Culture: Hawaii Potters’ Guild

From its humble beginnings in 1967, the Hawaii Potters’ Guild has provided thousands of people in the Honolulu community with classes, workshops, and benefit activities. What once started in a caretaker’s shack has now evolved into a well-run, professional guild and ceramic center.

It has not always been easy, but the members and volunteers of the Hawaii Potters’ Guild (HPG) have always strived to keep looking forward, transforming the guild from a small organization into a busy non-profit ceramic center. HPG now provides year-round ceramics classes, independent work time (it is open every day for members and students), excellent one- or two-day workshops throughout the year (Sunshine Cobb just finished a two-day workshop in September 2019), sales events for members and students, benefit activities (such as an empty-bowl event), and loads of social camaraderie.

1 Members of the Hawaii Potters’ Guild in 2006. Pictured from left to right: Mike Shigeta, Eric Ikawa, Philip Kwock, Letty Geschwind, Drew Matsumoto, Etsuko Douglass, Sharon Nishi, Shelle Avecilla, Ike Ikawa, and Sidney Lynch.

HPG: The Beginning

In the late 1960s, UH-Manoa was seeing increasing enrollment, making it difficult for unclassified students to register for ceramics classes. Individual studios were too expensive and there was a growing interest in taking pottery classes.

In response to this problem, a small group of dedicated potters met to set up a cooperative organization that would provide a space for local potters to work, fire, gather, share tools and ideas, and connect with the Honolulu community and each other. Based on a good experience at the Ann Arbor (Michigan) Potter’s Guild, one of the Honolulu potters envisioned a similar guild in Hawaii.

It took a few years to find a suitable location for the guild. Some of the founding guild members were part of a local church near the university. The church knew of their search for pottery space. In 1967, as a part of the church’s outreach for culture and arts programs, the potters were approached by the church’s education director who offered some money, backyard space, and part of a caretaker’s house. This was the break that the new guild members were looking for. They eagerly agreed and the church has been an incredible supporter of HPG to this day. In fact, HPG has paid it forward recently; when the church needed a new roof, the guild donated money to help them reach their goal.

Finding a good location was incredibly important to the new potter’s guild. Having a good atmospheric gas kiln, one of the most expensive items for a pottery shop, was almost equal to that search. Some folks had heard of a new instructor at UH-Manoa. They approached him about holding a university kiln-building class at their new space. A class was organized, old bricks from a sugar mill were offered for free, and construction began. Through ups and downs, 6 months’ worth of time, and the intense labor and dedication of all of the original members and many others, a 54-cubic-foot downdraft gas kiln was completed. HPG was ready for classes and workshops.

2 Church of the Crossroads, about 100 feet from the HPG front gate.

3 Glazing area, under the freeway on-ramp, with students from Rochelle Lum’s handbuilding class.

The Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts (HI-SFCA) generously agreed to make funds available to get kiln shelves and posts, wheels, tables, chairs, and many of the other items that were necessary to get a community potter’s studio going, as well as funding for teachers. This money was a great boon to the fledgling guild. Teachers with master’s degrees in ceramics agreed to teach, including Sally Fletcher, Bob Flint, Roger Lintault, Shige Yamada, and many others.

Up and Running

Finally the stage was set to begin classes. Everything had fallen into place. The original group of members wanted to keep class fees low to attract more students, and, fortunately, the HI-SFCA supported this, too. The first classes were held under the freeway on-ramp (the roof for more than half the guild is still the on-ramp from University Ave. onto the H-1 freeway. HPG has no outside walls, only chain-link fencing . . . it’s warm most of the time). Conditions were tough; there were gravel floors, funky shelving, and the only bathroom was at the church. But pottery standards were held high and everyone helped to keep the guild clean and moving forward.

By 1968, HPG was ready to firm up their relationship with the church, and, sought and received a charter to be a non-profit organization. The major organizational stage of the guild had been completed: there were new wheels on order, along with good lighting, running water, plumbing, sinks, tables, clay storage and recycling areas, an electric kiln, and the 54-cubic-foot gas kiln. The guild even paid the church some rent money. Improvements continued constantly and classes were running well. I began teaching a wheel-throwing class in the mid-‘80s through the mid-‘90s and continue to teach there today.

This growth continued for many years—increasing membership, and improving constantly. The application process to become a member of the guild, which was set up by the original board members, consisted of writing an essay, showing work, and being interviewed—it was a very involved process. Once admitted, members were expected to do all the work of the guild, make glazes, fire kilns, serve on the board, coordinate classes, pay bills, etc., and pay $25 annual dues. It was exhausting. Through the 1990s and the early 2000s there were only about 25 members and new members were not a priority. There were independents, artists who took some classes but mostly focused on their own work, who were asked to work for three-hour shifts to monitor studio activities and help out. But eventually, it was too much for everyone and the studio was forced to close for four months to ease the burden on members.

4 Present day front entrance to HPG. The entrance gate is on the right.

5 Throwing area at HPG.

Then in 2003 and 2004 the HPG board started a provisional membership, which granted minimal membership privileges to some. Six more members were added, but things remained in flux. Shelle Avecilla, a long-term member, recalls that in the early 2000s the guild’s survival was not looking too good. It was time to make a decision.

Rebuilding the Organization

In the early 2000s, the physical structure of HPG was dissolving; the roof was leaking, it needed electric and plumbing upgrades, more permanent floors, chain-link fence work, and new equipment—electric kilns, new wheels, etc. Then in 2004, HPG was notified by the church that it must bring the facility up to city code or cease operations and tear it down. The members deliberated and found themselves divided, as some did not want to deal with the cost and effort of a renovation. Eight members and a few independent artists agreed to proceed.

As a group, these members donated about $20,000 and got a loan for about $50,000. The HPG would survive. Sidney Lynch, one of the eight members, took on the responsibility of the planning and renovation. She served as the guild’s president and developed a plan to increase the board size, keep the studio open 365 days each year (24/7), increase the number of classes from 1 to 5, and change the membership structure. Now a person could take up to 4 classes and then they would have to become a member. This membership restructuring would extend the responsibility of the studio to everyone, including members, students, and volunteers. All tasks would be shared. As a result, HPG has developed a strong community spirit of cooperation, which continues to this day.

Construction was chaotic, but everything was brought up to code. In fact, construction continued with a dedicated construction crew, who subsequently fixed and maintained (and still do) the roof, put a solid floor under the glaze area, and installed better plumbing.

6 Shige Miyamoto building out the front of the kiln to accommodate the new sliding door.

7 Finished sliding, soft-brick door on the large gas kiln.

The loan was gradually paid off and classes resumed after six months. HPG had resurfaced. There was now a larger board and close to 200 members. Classes grew eventually to 12, each a 10-week session (4 sessions per year–handbuilding, sculpture, and wheel throwing), clay was being recycled, new wheels were secured, and the guild continued to grow. In 2009 HPG was fortunate to be the benefactor of some pro-bono construction work, which was used to build a bathroom, and in 2011 kiln door improvements were also completed. The guild made, fired, and installed art tiles for the walls. It was also time to expand the guild’s ideas for community outreach.

Building on a Foundation

One member had experienced an Empty Bowl event in Texas and suggested that HPG organize an event here in Honolulu. The first Empty Bowl event sponsored by the guild was held in 2009. HPG members, high-school students, and other area potters made about 750 bowls and 5 restaurants participated. All the bowls sold out in an hour and $12,000 was donated to the Hawaii Food Bank. HPG was very surprised and very encouraged. Since that first event, the guild has sponsored or helped support Empty Bowl events every 2 years. Thousands of bowls have been sold, restaurants have been continually supportive, and an average of about $50,000 per biennial event has been donated to Meals on Wheels, the Hawaii Food Bank, Aloha Harvest, and other organizations.

HPG outreach did not stop there. The guild thought it would be a good idea to support children’s educational workshops. Interested members began to develop educational programs and ceramic workshops at local elementary schools in 2006. This volunteer program continues in the public schools to this day.

Ceramic exhibitions were also on the minds of HPG members. Sure, many HPG members have been part of juried and curated exhibits in Honolulu and elsewhere across the country. But the guild wanted to see a state-wide, ceramics-only exhibition. In 2017, HPG selected David Kuraoka as the juror for a show at the Honolulu Museum of Art School Gallery. The exhibition featured a historical section with work by Isami Enomoto, Claude Horan, Harue McVay, and Toshiko Takaezu and was a great success. The guild is now in the planning stages for another exhibit scheduled for 2020 at the Honolulu Museum of Art School Gallery.

8 Glaze mixing and material storage area under the freeway on ramp.

The story of HPG continues. Despite a tough economy (Oahu’s only two ceramic suppliers have ceased operations), little time for extra activities for working folks, and a difficult art scene in Hawaii, well-run co-ops can survive and thrive. Lynch (past president of HPG and the present treasurer) comments, “Since 2004, HPG has grown to have a very strong, unique culture. In part due to the expense of land in Hawaii, people must work in a cooperative environment. To keep it affordable, all must do their part. And by working together, people grow strong bonds. Success also requires good leadership to keep the community on track, as the potential for sliding back into factionalism always exists. The fact that almost everything is done by volunteers at HPG is truly amazing.”

I think one of the main things HPG does to help keep it together is to allow everyone to feel that they are an equal part of something that benefits us all. No one has too much control or special responsibilities. We all contribute as much as we can and we expect everyone to pitch in. We all are a guild because we love to work in clay, we love the camaraderie, and we love the struggle. It is always a challenge to keep the guild on track, but we are friends and we talk it out and solve the problems. There is a great need to keep communication open and honest among all.

the author Bob McWilliams has been a full-time potter in Honolulu, Hawaii, since 1976. Starting in 2000, he has taught high-school ceramics and art at Punahou School and did so until retiring in 2018.

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