Spotlight: A Shared Focus

Portrait of Ellen Day. Photo: Steven Speliotis.

BrickHouse’s handbuilding classroom.

Ceramics Monthly: What inspired you to start BrickHouse Ceramic Art Center?

Ellen Day: BrickHouse was born out of being at a crossroads. I had been the director of the ceramics department at the Crafts Students League, YWCA/NYC (CSL) in Manhattan for 8 years. CSL closed and the space was gone, but my 200 students wanted to continue making. I loved my job and I took this as an opportunity to start my own school. I imagined a one-floor studio, bright, airy, and spacious. I knew I wanted BrickHouse to be a teaching studio where learning would be a priority with high-quality instruction. Above all, I wanted BrickHouse to be a place where people could be comfortable, fill their need for creativity, and have a second home among others who are connected through clay.

CM: What helped you to take that plan and turn it into a reality?

ED: Opening this dream studio took much time and energy. At each stumbling block, I had to remind myself of my vision and stay focused. It took a year and a half to find just the right 4000-square-foot space. I found it in Long Island City, a great, supportive art community across the East River from Manhattan, near public transportation.

When CSL closed, I purchased the equipment, which was a huge advantage since outfitting a studio can take a lot of time and money. My experience was an asset, along with my certificate in art administration and an MFA in ceramics. However, I did not accomplish opening BrickHouse alone. Instructors and studio assistants from CSL were willing to donate their time to teach classes, stack kilns, etc., until there was income for salaries. There was a true desire to see BrickHouse succeed. We all needed clay to be part of our lives and we wanted to share our love of clay with others.

CM: What is your perspective on the source and importance of creativity?

ED: Creativity is a way for us to interrogate ourselves, our relationships to the world around us, and to consider alternatives. When we make something, it’s really a question. This is what I saw, what do you see? It doesn’t just apply to sculpture. One person’s pitcher is another person’s vase, and a perfect handle for you may be a frustration for someone else. Creativity is about opening yourself up to confusion, wonder, surprise, and curiosity. Many new-to-clay students walk in the door and announce that they aren’t creative. But then they pick up some clay, and push a little, press a little, learn some patience, relax, get into the flow, and suddenly there’s a pot and delight. The trick as you get more and more experience is to keep chasing that same feeling.

CM: How do you and the staff encourage and cultivate creativity in the studio?

ED: It was important to me, when I established the studio, that there would be the broadest possible community of makers. We have everyone from people who have never touched clay before, to those who earned MFAs, and people exhibiting nationally. Some make their living from clay, some have work in textbooks and magazines, and some have just discovered their first glazed pot. What happens is that everyone inspires everyone. The less-experienced makers see someone doing something and ask how it was done, and everyone shares. The experienced makers—even those who have been working for decades—see someone new do something and realize they’ve gotten too settled in their approach to the material. It sounds really simple, but in the end, the way to inspire creativity in all is for everyone to come in and go about their work. For that to happen, you need a space where it’s possible to be comfortable and confused, focused and open, laughing and absorbed. I couldn’t dream of a better place.

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