Clay Culture: Nurturing Community

1 Mentors in the Advanced Studies Program from left to right: Judi Harwood, Sarah Wells Rolland, and Lori Theriault. Photo: Tim Barnwell.

The Advanced Studies Program at The Village Potters Clay Center offers emerging potters a chance to develop as artists in a community with established professionals.

Working the cash register at an Asheville coffee shop, Avery Wells lifted the mug a customer had brought in with her. She gripped the handle and peered at the mug’s base. “I like your mug. It balances really well.”

“You must be a potter,” the customer said. “I can tell by the way you picked up my mug.”

In fact Avery had recently completed a degree in ceramics at the University of North Carolina Asheville, and had not yet found studio space to continue her work.

The customer was Lori Theriault, a resident potter and mentor at The Village Potters Clay Center. She invited Avery over to her table to meet the center’s Operations Manager, Lindsey Mudge. They told Avery about the studio’s Advanced Studies Program, which is built on a model of independent study and mentoring. It is a low-cost program designed to help potters with foundational skills develop as artists in a community with established professionals. For monthly tuition and materials fees, students use studio and storage space, shared equipment, glaze materials, and kilns. They are mentored by resident potters, and study under visiting artists through the Master Series workshops. Scholarships defray the cost of tuition for a few participants with financial need, and apprenticeships are available for skilled, aspiring professional potters.

Avery applied and was admitted. Once the resident potters saw her skill level, they offered her an apprenticeship that covers her tuition. Four months into the program, Avery notes, “I’m exploding. I’m testing stuff that before I wouldn’t have had the confidence or time to do. My work is much more honest to who I am. And I’m also learning how to run a studio.”

2 Clive Earnhart wheel throwing in the Advanced Studies Program, 2016–2017. Photo: Tim Barnwell.

The Dream

The Village Potters Clay Center is the life’s dream of potter Sarah Wells Rolland and her husband George Rolland. Sarah began her career as a potter in the 1980s in the renowned ceramics program at Haywood Community College, studying with Gary Clontz, who would become her lifelong mentor. Following her studies, Sarah and George built a home pottery studio in Bethel, North Carolina. Sarah developed a distinctive line of functional ware with sculptural qualities. She learned to run a business. George learned to do wiring and install/fix plumbing, to build and fix kilns, and to make festival booths.

Sarah’s business thrived, but 20 years into her career she felt something was missing. With George working full-time as the IT director at the community college, when their daughter left for college, Sarah was alone in her home studio. She gave demonstrations and hosted workshops, and the opportunity to mentor an emerging potter, Amy Gelber, gave her a taste of the change she needed. “I got to a turning point in my life. It was essential that I get connected to people and not be in isolation anymore.”

Sarah realized that her next career step had to involve community. She wanted to work alongside others and mentor emerging artists as she had been mentored by Clontz. She wanted to provide space and equipment to enable artists to start what can otherwise be a prohibitively expensive career.

3 Sarah Wells Rolland’s closed-form pitcher, 16 in. (41 cm) in height, wheel thrown, altered, darted, sculpted, glazes poured and sprayed, fired to cone 10 in reduction. Photo: Tim Barnwell.

4 Tori Motyl from the Advanced Studies Program, 2016–2017. Photo: Tim Barnwell.

A New Community

In 2011, the Rollands found a space for that community in Asheville’s River Arts District, a formerly industrial area between the Norfolk Southern Railway and the French Broad River that is now home to over 200 artists. Its brick-red warehouses were built over a century ago, and those buildings and walls not yet in reuse have been commandeered by graffiti artists. “Everywhere you turn,” Village Potters student Keira Ochab notes, “there’s art.”

The Rollands rented space in one of these warehouses, Riverview Station, built in 1902 as a tannery. George oversaw major renovations, while Sarah teamed with a close-knit core team of resident potters to create and run The Village Potters Clay Center’s array of educational programs and services. In addition to the Advanced Studies Program, the clay center houses a gallery, resident potter studios, a teaching center, a clay distribution center, and incubator studios for Advanced Studies alumni ready to develop business plans. It’s a clean, bustling workspace, where one can find quiet focus, intense conversation, and occasional outbursts of laughter—a space dedicated to nurturing, in Sarah’s words, the next generation of potters.

The Advanced Studies Program is designed for adults of all ages who may have other jobs but can devote significant attention to ceramics. Some potters participate after studying art in college, others after years of community pottery classes. Skill refinement is the first order of business. Keira Ochab began the program after a gap in study. “The first three months,” she says, “I focused on building back my muscle memory and getting a sense of what forms really appeal to me.”

5 Julie Lee taking part in the Advanced Studies Program, 2017–present.

Others To Lean On

The program’s current mentors are Sarah, who continues to throw and alter large sculptural vessels; Lori Theriault, who specializes in restaurant and home kitchen ware, and Judi Harwood, a sculptor and raku artist. “They have vastly different bodies of work,” program graduate Margaret Ellis says. “Yet I see them all lean on each other for opinions and support. That energy flows into the rest of us.” The mentors offer assignments and meetings over a series of twelve-week thematic units, but the self-directed nature of the program means students are mainly accountable to themselves.

Program graduate Clive Earnhart remembers how he was mentored. “Sarah’s encouragement is to make six to twelve, if not more, of the same shape and repeat, and as you do that, you’ll discover amazing things. At first, I was scattered, wanting to try all the different possibilities. Over a year later, she continued to bring me back to repeating the same form. That’s when I started to find my voice.”

Once they can consistently create forms they love, students learn to mix glazes and to fire the studio’s electric, gas reduction, raku, and kazegama kilns. With this expanded perspective, many shift from experimentation to intention.

Catherine Healy had built a successful career as an interior designer when she uprooted her life from Orlando, Florida, to study in the program. Her transformative learning happened when she applied carbon-trapping shinos to sculptural wall pieces, and fired the work in reduction in a gas-fired kiln. This work opened a path for her, where she now plans to integrate interior design with custom-made art. “I want my pieces to draw a person in,” Catherine explains, “and they don’t even know what is happening. It just touches them in kind of an unseen place.”

Everyone in the program offers and receives constructive criticism, formally through small group critiques, and also organically. Clive Earnhart explains, “There’s something to being in the studio with other potters and watching something unfold.” He remembers one of the mentors stopping at his wheel. “She said, ‘Clive, I notice I can help you with something you’re struggling with. Can I?’ After she showed me, it solved a huge problem, and I was able to move on to something new.”

Resident potter Lori Theriault explains, “People create their template based on what they want to accomplish. For those who aren’t sure what they want to accomplish, we have our own structure: try this until something speaks to you.”

6 Julia Mann, a resident potter and mentor at The Village Potters Clay Center.

Additional Opportunities and Growth

For those who want even more structure, the Teaching Center offers additional classes, including Advanced Throwing, Surface Design, and Alternative Firings. Each year also features six weekend Master Series workshops with acclaimed potters based in Asheville or in nearby Mitchell County, home to Penland School of Crafts. This year’s roster of visiting artists includes John Britt, Kyle Carpenter, Nick Joerling, Reiko Miyagi, and Liz Zlot Summerfield.

Nearly a century ago, Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” In 2018, The Village Potters have their own take on what artists need. Money and resources are absolutely necessary. George Rolland expresses The Village Potters’ commitment to building a community of people with different financial means. “We want to make it affordable for people to learn to make pots and learn the craft business, to have a leg up. Sarah and I both know that starting a craft business, particularly in pottery, is expensive and time-consuming, and it requires a huge commitment of resources on a lot of levels that a lot of people don’t have. We want to see them succeed, and for it not to be so hard for them as it was for us.”

These artists aren’t looking for the solitude that Woolf craved. Artists thrive in Advanced Studies because they find interconnectedness. Sarah, George, and the resident potters model how to mutually support one another; student artists follow suit, whether it’s offering a throwing tip, collaborating on a surface design technique, or jointly starting a new festival (the North Carolina Ceramics Arts Festival is the brainchild of Advanced Studies alumni).

“In the end,” Sarah says, “we are as committed to the success of others as we are to our own success. Whatever you want, that’s what we want, and we believe it with you. We’re partners in dreaming.”

the author Julie Wilson directs the Writing Studio at Warren Wilson College. She writes about education, social justice, and pottery.

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