1 The Clay Studio, DIGSAU Architects, exterior view in the bustling urban neighborhood. South-facing wall features The Talented Mr. Trotter: You Can Be Anything (mural), by Roberto Lugo and Mural Arts Philadelphia, 1425 N. American Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Sam Oberter.

Expansion of The Clay Studio Philadelphia to a custom-designed, newly constructed space in South Kensington is complete and the community—both clay and local­—are making use of the facilities.

Paul Greenhalgh’s book, Ceramic, Art and Civilization, reminds us that the word ceramic comes from the ancient Greek Kerameikos, a district of Athens occupied by potters and the funeral trade between 520 and 430 BCE.1 The derivation of ceramic, as Greenhalgh states, “refers not only to clay, but to a place, and a specific group of skilled people.”2 He also points out that: “Clay is the stuff, and ceramic is the culture that has emerged from the process of manufacturing the stuff in a particular way.”3

Whether the initiators of The Clay Studio (TCS) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, consciously made the distinction between clay and ceramic when giving their enterprise a title is unknown. In 1974, they wisely chose “stuff” as their mandate. The timeline of the evolution of TCS reflects the outreach to proponents of clay in Philadelphia, North America, and internationally, and while the culture and heritage of ceramics have not been neglected, it is clay as what Walter Ostrom describes as “the art of the proletariat” that has especially inspired TCS’s new location in South Kensington.4 

Those familiar with TCS probably know it best in its 137–139 N. 2nd Street location in the Old City, a narrow shop front whose facilities extended into the basement and upper floors. Amazing accomplishments—exhibitions, classes, residencies, Claymobile educational outreach programs, and co-hosting the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in 1992 and 2010—emanated from the tight vertical space. Inevitably, personnel and patrons aspired to more room(s), expanded programs, and (pragmatically) more toilets. In 2016, a capital campaign was launched to create a purpose-built facility, and January 2020 saw the breaking of ground at 1425 N. American Street. The Clay Studio opened its new doors on April 8, 2022.

2 The Clay Studio’s open-air roof deck event space with view of Center City Philadelphia. Photo: Sam Oberter. 3 The Clay Studio’s school hallway with ware carts in use for student and in-house artists’ work. The large common corridor is designed to promote engagement across programs. Pictured: Guest Artist Stefani Threet. Photo: Sam Oberter.

The previous location was surrounded by galleries, boutiques, gourmet restaurants, and expensive condos. The new location is not. South Kensington was formerly an industrial area devoted to iron, steel, and textiles; the laborers in those industries lived nearby. Now, some of the abandoned factories have been repurposed; others have been replaced by similarly-proportioned and equally unfriendly warehouse and storage edifices. The resident population has remained working class and lower. It is a haven for immigrants who speak Spanish (Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans) and Arabic (Palestinians). 

Gentrification abounds, including the presence of TCS. However, unlike the faceless interlopers taking advantage of affordable land, TCS made an exhaustive and concerted effort to be a new neighbor keen on being embraced by the locals and seen as a coexisting presence. This has been achieved through design, community engagement, and programming.

Place for Stuff

Designed by the Philadelphia architectural firm DIGSAU, the four-story building is appropriately faced with clay bricks in two colors: textured buff and glazed orange. The box form of the building is relatively plain except for some windows having beveled surrounds, thereby setting them back from the façade to create shadows. The windows are irregularly placed, eschewing uniformity, with large openings at ground level so that pedestrians can see the gallery and shop interiors. Fittingly, the DIGSAU team liaised with the skilled masons installing the brickwork so that the quality craftwork on the outside complemented the craft being done in classrooms and studios inside. 

The upper floors, as seen in the architects’ section (see 4), contain: classrooms large enough for 20 wheels; classrooms for handbuilding; kiln rooms housing 20 electric, 3 gas, and an indoor soda kiln; rooms for clay mixing, mold making, and glazing; guest- and associate-artists’ spaces; a residents’ space with 12 cubicles; a research/library room; offices; storage areas; and toilets on each floor. There is also a fourth-floor patio with bright terra cotta-colored walls punctured by picture windows that offer vistas of central Philadelphia. This is for public and private functions as well as a retreat for denizens to take a break from clay.

4 Schematic of The Clay Studio, 1425 N. American Street, DIGSAU Architects. Photo: Sam Oberter.

Lengthy corridors almost require roller skates, except that speed would hinder viewing of TCS’s ceramic collection that fills glass-fronted cabinets on the fourth floor. Here, ceramic, as well as the organization’s, heritage is invoked, since objects have been accumulating since the 1990s. Displays also feature in each of the elevator lobbies.

On the ground floor, visitors enter via the shop, which, in itself, is a changing exhibition of functional work by a stable of 100 practicing artists. Some have been taught at or were residents of TCS. The retail manager, Naimah Stith, indicates that the shop is smaller than in the Old City location, yet maintains a colorful, appealing range of display units and shelving that show work by a changing roster of featured artists. Adjacent to the shop is a maker space where activities that can be seen from the street align with the current exhibition. Also on this level and unseen by the public are a preparation area and a vehicle bay that houses the Claymobile vans. The vans can be loaded with equipment, materials, and teachers under cover in all weather. 

The gallery and an event pavilion take up the remainder of the ground floor. The building’s total area of approximately 37,000 square feet offers TCS personnel plenty of freedom to continue the programs for which it is known, as well as make it the only facility of its kind in North America.

Finally, in keeping with Philadelphia’s self-designation as The City of Murals (over 4000 existing with 50 to 100 commissioned each year), the exterior south wall of TCS has been dedicated to Tariq Trotter, vocalist and hip-hop lyricist for The Roots. Designed by Roberto Lugo, the mural, The Talented Mr. Trotter: You Can Be Anything, is further indication of TCS’ desire to be welcomed in South Kensington. Both Trotter and Lugo grew up nearby. Trotter is depicted in a cartouche on a Sèvres vase, while profiles of poets Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka form the handles of the vase. Lugo chose to represent Black heroes past, present, and future. The mural is intricate and lively; its colors echo DIGSAU’s choices for the building. A portion of the design is monochrome, as if anticipating the art education and vibrancy that will be forthcoming.

5 View of The Clay Studio’s shop, featuring 100+ artists and gallery (in the background, center) with more than 12 exhibitions annually. Photo: Sam Oberter.

Making Place

A vision for the consequences of the move to South Kensington was projected by Josie Bockelman, deputy director, five years prior to opening the new premises. Bockelman recognized the need to build trust, over time, with the community that would envelop TCS. Initiatives were established—Maker Days, where free activities occurred during local festivals, and “Clay & Conversations” in which artists engaged with 40 nearby residents in art-making and discussion. Deep connections were made through sharing meals, dialog, and human care. From the relationships arising in both projects, an exhibition council was formed.

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage provided funding to compensate council members as well as provide meals and childcare. Discussion and collaboration between the council, curators, and artists focused on the theme, title, and how to make all visitors to “Making Place Matter” feel welcome. The inclusivity of non-professionals in the process was an indication of TCS’s walking the talk of diversity. 

Similarly, exhibition council members, guided by Tiny WPA—a nonprofit organization “committed to building equity, better designed spaces, and stronger places in Philadelphia by supporting citizen-led design improvements”—designed, prototyped, and built furniture for the gallery.5 A bench, table, and trays were constructed by council members in the Tiny WPA workshops. The end products are testament to the pride and commitment with which participants undertook the work. 

The catalog for Making Place Matter contains photos and essays that outline how the stuff of clay brought the neighborhood together. Ana Gabriela Jiménez and María Albornoz summarize their experience, “Craft unites hand and mind. In a little over two years and a total of eight meetings with the council, we developed meaningful relationships. We sought to explore and build with our hands, while our dialog around the exhibition grew.”6

6 The Clay Studio classroom 1 (of 7), with Resident Artist Ruth Easterbrook teaching wheel throwing. Photo: Sam Oberter.

Making Stuff

Paul Greenhalgh notes that there is a politics of materials. Whereas stone and metal are indicative of power and control, ceramic, which is used for cooking food, construction of shelter, and storage of essentials like water and grain, is associated with stability and domesticity. He astutely asserts: “Its value is in lifestyle improvement.”

The Clay Studio has been about lifestyle improvement from its beginnings. Initially it was the lives of potters who could share a studio, equipment, and camaraderie that were improved, but within five years of its launch in 1974, it began to reach outside itself. It became a nonprofit educational institution for the promotion of ceramic art, support of ceramic artists, and ceramic instruction.

The resident-artist program that began in 1981 continues with 12 endowed residencies that last up to 3 years, to permit a transition from tertiary studies to establishment of a professional studio or employment in a ceramic-related industry. The guest-artist program, inaugurated in 1992, was aimed, in the first instance, at artists living behind the Iron Curtain and has since seen practitioners from 40 countries who are able to live and work in Philadelphia for 4 to 8 weeks. The N. American Street location also allows for 40 associate artists who rent access to work and storage space for $210 month, a modest cost, given the amenities provided. These include a clay 3D printer, decal printer, and equipment for slip casting and mold making.

The Claymobile program, which brings clay classes to children and adults in schools, retirement homes, homeless shelters, and cultural centers in the inner city, has been operating since 1994; in 2021 the program served 4000 people with hands-on instruction in pottery making that would otherwise have been unavailable. The Claymobile vans return to the home base with trays of unfired treasures that go into the kilns and are returned to their makers after firing. In 2014, the combined anniversaries of the Claymobile (20 years) and The Clay Studio (40 years) were cause for celebration.

7 The Clay Studio glaze studio and chemical lab with artists at work and state-of-the-art ventilation systems. Photo: Sam Oberter. 8 The Clay Studio school kiln room with artist and studio technician Duc Tang, with electric and gas kilns installed by All Kiln Services. Photo: Sam Oberter.

Classes in handbuilding, wheel throwing, slip casting, and glazing are held year round, with four semesters per year. Again, the cost to attend the classes is affordable and possibly free, depending on the participants’ economic circumstances. Approximately 1500 students pass through TCS per year. Three technicians supervise access to kilns, with a kiln roster assisting in distribution of firing space. There are summer camps for children, aged 6 years and up, and an after-school program for kids who attend school or live in the neighborhood. 

TCS’s exhibitions are renowned. With a change-over of about every other month, the gallery roster has included juried solo and thematic group shows that feature various levels of skill, genre, materials, and historical periods. Recognition has been accorded to international artists, whether working in this country or abroad. For example, in September 2023, Korean ceramic artists living in the US will display their expertise. Gallery programming is complemented with artist and curator talks as well as general ceramics lectures given by prominent practitioners, critics, educators, and scholars.

Strut Your Stuff

Elizabeth Essner, co-curator of Making Place Matter, made this observation: “Clay is not inert. It insists on finding its center.”8 Clay has an effective and affective center at The (new) Clay Studio. Under the guidance of Jennifer Martin, executive director; Josie Bockelman, deputy director; and Jennifer Zwilling, curator and director of artistic programs; along with other employees, including those mentioned above, the bigger and better facility is a multicultural place maker for its neighbors, its city, and beyond.

1 Paul Greenhalgh uses ceramic throughout his book Ceramic, Art and Civilization: “Ceramic is a thing in itself: a many-headed but nevertheless singular entity, with an ongoing intellectual discourse. That is why I have used the term ‘ceramic’, rather than the commonly used plural.” (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020), 15.

2 Greenhalgh, Ceramic, Art and Civilization, 30.

3 Greenhalgh, Ceramic, Art and Civilization, 46.

4 D Wood, “Walter Ostrom: The Personal is Political, Ceramics Monthly 70, no. 3 (March 2022).

5 “Our Mission,” on Tiny WPA’s website, accessed November 28, 2022, www.tinywpa.org/our-mission.

6  The Clay Studio, Making Place Matter: Clay, Cultural Identity, and Community, (Philadelphia: The Clay Studio, 2022) 84. 

7 Greenhalgh, 57.

8 The Clay Studio, Making Place Matter, p. 26. 

the author D Wood has a PhD in design studies and is an independent craft scholar whose artist profiles and exhibition reviews have appeared in an international roster of art and design publications. She is the editor of and contributor to Craft is Political (Bloomsbury, 2021).

Topics: Ceramic Artists