Clay Culture: Staying Power

1 Samantha and Sutter Stremmel along with some of the 60 artist members who work together in the studio.

 

Two college grads in Reno, Nevada, couldn’t find a clay studio to work in, so they took a risk and opened their own. Six years later, The Wedge is an established rental studio and community hub.

Sutter Stremmel wanted to get his hands dirty. It was 2010, and he and his wife, Samantha, had both just earned English literature degrees from the University of Montana. He’d been studying pottery off and on since age 7, and he was ready to take up a serious studio practice and become part of a ceramics community.

The couple moved back to their hometown of Reno, Nevada, and bought a retail business, a specialty garden-supply store in a quiet, industrial neighborhood near downtown. They moved into a small house adjacent to the store and started looking for a clay studio to rent space in. The local university and community college each offer ceramics classes, but Sutter explained that unless you enrolled as a student, “There was no place to play with clay in Reno.”

Samantha remembered, “One of the units across street came up for rent. We hemmed and hawed too long, and someone rented it.”

Four months later, the same unit, a two-story warehouse with a roll-up door and a small, street-front parking lot, came up for rent again. This time, it seemed like a sign.

The Stremmels calculated their projected income versus the cost of a year’s worth of rent and equipment. They wouldn’t profit enough to justify a business loan, or even a maxed out credit card, but they figured if they invested their first-year profits from the garden store, lived beneath their means, and bought supplies at a discount, it might work. They knew it would be a gamble, but reasoned that, since they were young, they’d have the time and energy to recover from a loss.

“We felt like it was now or never,” Samantha said. Friends and family were skeptical. “We were both pretty terrified,” she confessed, but their drive eclipsed their doubt, and they signed a lease. In October 2011, the couple opened the Wedge Ceramics Studio as their second business.

2 The studio includes work tables, wheels, and plenty of storage space.

 

Setting up Shop
“Everything always happened out of cash flow,” Sutter said. “We only bought what we could afford.” He and a friend drove to San Francisco to purchase supplies from a clay studio that had gone out of business. They came back with enough used potters wheels, stools, kilns, and tools to equip beginning pottery classes and accommodate a few studio members.

Sutter is a trained auctioneer; he’s the nephew of Peter and Turkey Stremmel, owners of Reno’s largest commercial gallery, Stremmel Gallery, and the related Stremmel Auctions. This skill set and his connections to the field helped to furnish the studio; when some used shelving came up for auction, he bought enough to furnish the entire 1600-square-foot warehouse.

Learning Curve
It took time to establish enough momentum to be sure the studio could stay in business, especially during the first two years. Samantha and Sutter had a lot to learn, and one of the first things was how to balance their ideals of cooperation and community spirit with the realities of running a business.

“I consider myself more of a business guy that owns an art studio, as opposed to an artist who’s trying to be in business,” Sutter said.
Samantha credits the clientele with some of the Wedge’s success. She explained, “We’re not a co-op but it feels like we are, the way people take responsibility and have pride in it.” The attitude in the studio is exactly the mix of self-sufficiency and collaboration that the couple had hoped to achieve.

Samantha said, “Every member brings something unique to the studio and offers something special by being there.” And it doesn’t hurt at all, she said, that “sometimes people clean up before they’re even asked.”

3 The outside of the Wedge studio, showing the roll-up door that opens up into the main studio space.

 

Raising the Profile
A couple years in, even after it started to look like the Wedge would have some staying power, there were still some hurdles to overcome. One problem was that not enough people knew the place existed. To raise the studio’s profile, Samantha and Sutter established a gallery in the front room. They asked two prominent ceramic artists from the University of Nevada, Reno, Fred Reid and Richard Jackson, to exhibit there. Samantha strategically scheduled the show for July, during the city’s annual Artown festival, and it became an official festival event. The exhibit drew a lot of new visitors, and there’s been an active exhibition program since.

Another problem was declining membership. At the end of 2011, membership dipped below a half dozen. The studio’s pricing structure had been modeled after those of similar facilities in San Francisco, where rents are more expensive than in Reno. Early in 2012 the studio lowered its rates by about 25 percent, then lowered them again shortly afterward. That resulted in slowly but steadily growing membership.
Word caught on and community support started mounting. Samantha recalled, “We started getting donations, often from people we didn’t know.” Supplies such as a wheel and a few tubs of glazes were dropped off at the door during the night.

In 2013 the Wedge hit a jackpot. Vantuil Varges, a physician and potter from Georgia, donated his entire studio, including dry materials, wheels, kilns, pug mills and a pneumatic extruder. Sutter flew out to Georgia, packed a shipping container, and sent it to the studio. (Varges is now a Reno resident and a lifetime Wedge member.)

Reaching out
Samantha and Sutter’s efforts to stay in business were paying off, but there was still one more obstacle. Samantha recalls, “I still felt like we needed to do it on our own.” At some point, her perspective changed and she realized, “It’s not just our studio; it’s everybody’s studio. We realized we didn’t have all the skills and knowledge to do everything without advice.” She started reaching out to the community for help.
That summer, through Truckee Meadows Community College, the Wedge got an intern, who pitched in with daily studio maintenance. “That was the best thing ever,” Samantha said. She and Sutter had found by then that while pugging clay, loading kilns, mopping, and sweeping are the daily activities required to run a studio, their time would be better spent planning, networking, and making their own artwork.

They realized they could also use a hand curating the gallery. Several artists and teachers advised them on the nuances of hanging shows and managing a gallery. Those efforts at soliciting advice paid off. Now the Wedge has about 60 members, ranging from professional, full- and part-time artists to hobbyists.

A view of the Wedge studio showing the extruder,  slab rollers, some of the wheels, and pots in progress filling the numerous shelves.

 

Samantha said one of the most important things she does for the studio is to keep it in the public eye. To make that happen, she spends a lot of time in front of her computer screen. “I put so much time into online stuff,” she said, “keeping the website updated, keeping events current.” She posts often on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. She always carries a cell phone, and answers calls and emails as quickly as possible.

Inside Perspective
Catherine Schmid-Maybach is a professional ceramic artist and a member at the Wedge, where she teaches workshops on transferring images and handbuilding. She began to settle in Reno in 2012 and kept residences there and in Ojai, California, for a few years during the transition. She explained, “Finding this place gave me the chance to get settled. Meeting a community of people here at the studio made a huge difference. . . . You learn from everybody. . . . I’ve picked up lots of different things.”

Catherine pointed out that while a lot of information is available online, having a clay artist at the table next to you demonstrating first hand is a faster way to learn. Raku and high-fire reduction are two skills she’s picked up from colleagues, and once, a student in her workshop introduced her to a technique using tattoo transfer paper.

The People in Your Neighborhood
The Wedge is located on Dickerson Road, which was, as of 2010, a sleepy, light industrial strip adjacent to Reno’s downtown. It’s a dead-end street bordered by the Truckee River to the south and the train tracks to the north, so it didn’t get much traffic back then, just people on their way to a few creative businesses that were there: a blacksmith, an auto pin-striper, a printing press, and a home-brew supply shop.
Dickerson Road has since expanded into a full-fledged DIY arts district with more art studios, a black-box theater, a full-service café, and its own annual festival. The Wedge has become an integral part of the neighborhood community. It collaborates each year with nearby Infinity Forge on a holiday sale, where the highlight is handmade bowls of homemade chili, served with hand-forged spoons. And on any given Friday at quitting time, a mechanic or actor from down the road is likely to drop by to crack open a beer and shoot the breeze.

“Sometime we have the barbecue grill on more than the kiln,” Sutter said. The future looks bright for the Wedge. In 2015, the Stremmels purchased a warehouse abutting their current one, and added 2200 square feet of studio space.

For more information, visit www.thewedgeceramics.com.

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