Separate clay-focused epiphanies and an introduction arranged by an instructor led two scientists to form a community-focused studio business.
For both of the scientists who founded Full-Circle Pottery in Los Angeles, California, the moment they put their hands on clay, they knew they were home.
From the instant of that revelation, their lives took a new course and they would eventually partner to bring their specialties into the studio to create a community-focused business model, a studio where all ages could learn from each other and experience personal growth.
Patty Housen was doing her post-doctoral research in gerontology when her partner purchased four pottery classes for her to help her relax. Liz Rosenblatt was just about to start a private psychology practice when family issues began to distract her. She remembered a promise she made to learn how to throw pots from a friend. The experiences were life-changing for both of them.
The owner of the studio where Housen and Rosenblatt learned to throw pots introduced them to each other, and after that woman’s death, they joined together to create Full-Circle Pottery, a clay studio that brings their individual skills to minister to a community and help their customers make the same discoveries they did. “I consider myself a clay psychologist as opposed to a play psychologist,” Rosenblatt said. “I find that even sitting in individual sessions, if people have their hands on clay, they are able to be quiet. They are able to process whatever is going on without necessarily having to think about it. They’re freer to talk and if they aren’t able to talk, they’re really good at expressing themselves through the clay.”
Lessons in Life
Working with clay becomes a metaphor for the sort of work done during therapy. Rosenblatt uses terms like centering and malleable as she describes how she can take whatever the clay gives her and learn from her mistakes with it—all lessons that are important in life as well as throwing pots. “It’s a very meditative process where you learn about yourself,” Rosenblatt said. “The more you learn, the more you make mistakes. The more you make mistakes, the freer you are to experiment, the freer you are to play and create and move from more traditional forms into more expressive, personalized forms. There is something about the steps of learning to throw where you wedge and then you center and then you open and grow up into a cylinder. The art of learning those steps and trusting yourself in that process and supporting each other through that process—that’s generative.”
Housen applied her skills as a gerontologist to Full-Circle Pottery’s programming. “One of my inspirations as a gerontologist when we first set out was the older adults, recent retirees, and Baby Boomers like us,” Housen said. “Creating a program in our heads, we thought of creative adventures close to home. When you put that message out there, people find you.”
Creating a Community
Their programs aren’t just for older adults. Housen said that one of the things that makes them stand out from other studios is that they have intentionally created an intergenerational community with members from ages 8 to 80+. “It is the clay that brings us together, it wedges us together,” Housen said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are with clay. You could have a younger potter in their 20s who might have more experience than someone in their 60s. On the other hand, we have people in their 60s who have been doing it for 30 years and have gone to workshops around the world to explore clay and met many different potters. It is really the clay that brings us together and is the great equalizer.”
She said they’ve worked hard to make every age group feel welcome in the studio and that when they come together, they are focused on how to work the clay and not their ages.
For both of them, it was important to grow a community where people spent intimate time together and grew to care about each other. They build upon research that says working with clay can release stress, reduce anxiety, improve depression, and help with the quality of life and daily functioning. “It is community,” Housen said. “Loneliness and isolation are not good for you.”
“That is what motivated us to move to figure out a way for potters in our community to continue to connect throughout the pandemic,” Rosenblatt added.
They work to help their customers—their community—to get the best of both of their worlds. When members start their work, they may engage in the meditative state that Rosenblatt described. Then, after they’ve made the piece, they share with others how they did it, from the forming processes to the glazing techniques they used. They reinvigorate community bonds.
A Well of Clay Life
Housen and Rosenblatt point out that they try not to focus on the pots themselves. While they bring in speakers to talk about ancient pots, organize field trips to go look at pots, and they read and share books about pots—it is more than just the pots, it is a deep well of clay life. “It’s an embodied experience,” Rosenblatt said. “That is true of any potter. Their body is embodied in clay by the time they are done.”
In the nine years that Full-Circle Pottery has been open, they have developed activities designed to bring their community together and offer them the benefits of their respective fields of study. In addition to field trips and special events, they hold kids’ camps and classes. As the pandemic winds down and they are able to do more in groups, they will offer horsehair and pit-firing sessions.
They have high praise for other studios and the communities that they form, while focusing on their niche—that they build their communities from a mental health and gerontology standpoint. Of her role as a clay psychologist, Rosenblatt says, “I provide a supportive environment for people with co-occurring disorders. We build community using clay, but we have things that are specifically mental-health focused. It gets infused in all we do because of who we are.”
“Clay culture—that is our culture,” Housen said. “It springs from the psychological and gerontological perspective.”
the author Bridgette M. Redman is an arts and culture writer for publications around the country. She’s a second-generation journalist who earned her degree from Michigan State University. To learn more, visit www.bridgetteredman.com.