A community of artists came together to transform a pottery studio into a ceramics school in Seattle.

Rain City, aka Seattle, is mixing up some fresh mud with the addition of a new ceramics school, gallery, and studio. The place, Rain City Clay, is thanks to Deborah Schwartzkopf, her dedicated team of collaborators, and Loren Lukens with his wife, Beth Kirchhoff—a Seattle potter who is helping pass along an amazing pottery studio ripe to be rejuvenated into a new, learning-focused community facility that opened in April 2022.

1 Loren Lukens and Deb Schwartzkopf outside the entrance for the new Rain City Clay.

A Vision Becoming Reality

Rain City Clay (RCC) has been in gestation as Deb dreamed of a commercial space since she opened Rat City Studios (RCS) about eight years ago. RCS, Deb’s residence and business, operates currently with small workshops, membership rental space, and a variety of studios. It’s not a commercial property, so there are limitations. RCC is a vision becoming real, and Deb impressed on me she’s not going at it alone. Considering the team and the grand opening in spring, I equate what I’m seeing to bees moving through a garden, gathering and connecting for the hive. Together they build, energize, and sustain each other. Through their stories, the promise of RCC came to life, buzzing with possibility as a thriving creative community and a sister studio to RCS.

2 Ribbon cutting on opening day for the new studio with the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

Two important figures in the story of this new facility are Loren Lukens and his wife of almost 50 years, Beth Kirchhoff. Without them, this wouldn’t be possible. When Deb first moved to White Center, Washington, also known as Rat City, in 2013, Loren excitedly knocked on her door and invited her to join the neighborhood artist tour. His studio, Brace Point Pottery in Arbor Heights, is located about a mile and a half northwest from Deb’s. Both areas are part of West Seattle—a southwest offshoot of Seattle proper. Welcoming a newcomer back then led to the launch of Rain City Clay. 

Dreams, Joy, and Wisdom

When I asked to learn more about RCC, Deb invited me over for dinner with the team: Brooke Felix (second-year assistant who will help manage the studio), Rene Gutierrez (brother-in-law and studio assistant), Jess Lee (first-year assistant), Anika Major (studio manager), Hayley Reed (marketing assistant), Finn Park (work exchange), and Joe Wilkinson (partner). After a RCS holiday sale in early December of 2021, we ate chili and cornbread and discussed the new project.

As an educator, I’m intrigued by curiosity, while also challenging people to learn. Making anything is a risk, as success and failure can be scary and create tension. At times, we find ourselves lost between these two potential outcomes. When something feels too risky, how can we as teachers and learners move with it, search, and find sweet growth? 

3 Left to right: Hayley Reed, Finn Park, Joe Wilkinson, Rene Gutierrez, Deb Schwartzkopf, Brooke Felix, Anika Major, and Jess Lee at the April 2022 opening event for Rain City Clay. 4 Deb Schwartzkopf pictured in the newly renovated handbuilding classroom area.

During our gathering, the team shared first about the unknowns. Joe, a sculptor and Deb’s partner of over five years, discussed being overwhelmed with the back and forth between both studios and staying sane and positive. Another team member, Anika explained, “I’m unsure and glad to be here. I’ve never started a studio from the ground up. It’s not the path I imagined for myself.” Hayley talked about their nervousness relating to what people will and won’t do as far as maintaining the studio. As we discussed the new project, it was clear that the tension of creation, challenge, risk, flow, and success was palpable, and each person felt supported by the team. 

Deb discussed balancing what team members can do and utilizing their gifts, “. . . matching skills to interest,” and stated, “I want to help balance career building for people; shared community; and having a job you can do, and do well, with room to grow. A big goal is making jobs that foster learning through matching someone’s skill set while creating the right amount of challenge.” Anika added, “Doing this with a community is a joy—it’s a lift.” Practicing with clay was a big theme, and having a place and community to share in the practice is what Rain City Clay is all about.

5 Glaze-area setup. 6 Studio assistant Rene Gutierrez working on cups.

We ended our discussion with the dreams, joys, and possible wisdom that could be shared with others who might be starting a new studio. The repeating theme was “create together, communicate, and connect with the surrounding community.” Jess, Brooke, and Hayley shared that they appreciate being involved in the clay community, and the Rat City Studios and Rain City Clay specifically, to share with others, see others grow as artists, be in a place where ideas take form, and have fun while being creative.

A Thriving Creative Community

I spoke to Loren on the phone. His vision and determination are significant in the birth of RCC. Loren built Brace Point Pottery back in the late 1990s and is now moving to California to be closer to family. Loren is a known fixture in the Seattle pottery scene and he really wanted his home, studio, and gallery to stay within this community. He tells me, “During an artwalk, standing outside my gallery I shared my plans to sell, and Deb said, ‘Well, I’ll buy it!’” Realistically this wasn’t feasible. Getting a commercial loan is tough as a small businessperson. Loren and Beth decided to carry the loan for RCC for the next five years. In essence, they are the bank for this incredible opportunity. 

7 Wheel-throwing class at Rain City Clay taught by Brooke Felix. 8 Jess Lee teaching introduction to wheel throwing.

Renovations to the space that RCC now calls home created a wheel-throwing classroom for up to sixteen students, extra studios in the basement, a handbuilding and glazing area, a kiln yard, plus a gallery and an office. The property also includes an attached residence, which will be used as an office and Airbnb.

The schedule each week will include single-evening clay experiences, workshops, longer 8-week sessional classes, and practice hours for enrolled students. The Rat City Studios and Rain City Clay staff and community artists will teach many of the classes. The studio will serve around 150 students during each of the 5 sessions offered throughout the year. In addition to courses, the studio will also host two big sales/open-studio events, which will be held in the spring and winter.

9 Jen Mills teaching introduction to wheel throwing. 10 Handbuilding class taught by Anika Major.

The shared purpose is one craftsperson helping another, shifting resources to support a thriving community of love, learning, and growth with clay. The team envisions youth programming and more access for the surrounding neighborhoods. Any time a group of artists gets the chance to lift creativity and learning—there’s nothing to lose and more beauty to gain in the world. We are lucky here in Seattle. Stating the obvious cliché, I’m envisioning instead of gold at the end of the Rain City rainbow there will be an abundance of beautiful pots, detailed, perhaps with a wee bit of gold luster.

Learn more at https://raincityclay.com and https://ratcitystudios.com, and follow on Instagram @ratcitystudios and @rain.city.clay.

the author Erin Shafkind is an artist and educator living in Seattle, Washington. To learn more, visit  www.erinshafkind.com and Instagram @eshaffy.

Topics: Ceramic Artists