The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.

1 The hands-on workshop studio at The Village Potters Clay Center (TVPCC). Photo: TVPCC.

What is a creative community? The mission of The Village Potters Clay Center (TVPCC) is “To inspire a passion for ceramic art and nurture creative exploration through education, experience, relationship, and community.” For almost a decade before it became our mission statement, it was the dream and vision of our founder/owner, Sarah Wells Rolland. For 25 years, Wells Rolland had a beautiful private studio in western North Carolina. She felt certain this vision of an expanded community would manifest and collected wheels and other equipment in faith and anticipation. In 2011, after percolating the concept with some fellow potters of similar spirit and vision, a space was found in Asheville, North Carolina’s River Arts District, and a small group of amazing women, all full-time, professional potters, decided to come together to create something bigger than themselves. It was ambitious, risky, intentional, and very exciting. 

Development and Intention 

From the very beginning, we operated in community with each other. Wells Rolland and her husband George are the owners of The Village Potters Clay Center, but, while they shoulder the largest financial risk in establishing the business, we are not just any business. We call ourselves a collective because we operate and make decisions as a collective. Each unique individual contributes to the shape and tenor of the community, and our community informs each of us, our work, our process, and most importantly, our connections. Community and creativity are interconnected. They both nurture our spirit and establish a safe place to learn, grow, and take risks. 

2 The Village Potters, left to right: Caroline Renée Woolard, Judi Harwood, Julia Mann, Keira Peterson, Lori Theriault, Katie Meili Messersmith, Sarah Wells Rolland. Photo: TVPCC. 3 Sarah Wells Rolland’s trio of vessels, to 18 in. (46 cm) in height, reduction-fired stoneware. Photo: Tim Barnwell.

A key point in our early development was the intention placed on creating and living our core values. They are a compass for us in our relationships and decision making that keep us on track with each other in all the ups and downs that business and life present. These values are respect, integrity, service, kindness, and excellence. We are very proud of the skills and excellence on display in our work and in our studios, but we are prouder still that we firmly believe in people before pots, and that guiding force is at the base of all of our community-building efforts. 

Expansion and Growth 

Community continues to drive our growth. Our teaching center started in a small room with a crooked floor, yet quickly filled with dedicated students who soon wanted a way to study more with us. When an adjacent studio space became available in 2015, we expanded and began our advanced ceramics program: the Independent Study and Mentoring program (ISM). 

The ISM program is built upon the historic tradition of learning from master potters and the passing down of knowledge and experience. Artists are immersed in a flexible environment designed for their goals and includes apprenticeship opportunities. Graduates of the ISM program are now full-time potters, instructors, and community builders. We are incredibly proud of all the work the potters who have come through the ISM program have accomplished, both when they were studying with us and all their accomplishments since. There is no greater joy as an instructor and mentor than to see former students thrive and succeed in their chosen field, and the caliber and excellence of the artists we have had the privilege to work with is truly humbling. 

4 Independent Study and Mentoring studio at The Village Potters Clay Center. 5 Stoking the Kazegama kiln.

Community also drove our decision to become Laguna Clay distributors. Wells Rolland had been using clay from Laguna for years, and several resident potters began ordering clay with her. As we opened the ISM program and our ongoing classes grew, we were ordering more clay, and more people in the community were asking to order with us. In a head-spinning two years of development and growth from 2015–2017, we launched the ISM program, hired an operations manager, became a Laguna Clay distributor, and acquired another 5000-square-foot space that would eventually house the clay company. 

As our ongoing classes also grew in popularity, we saw a need for an expanded teaching center, so in 2017 we moved our resident potter studios to the space adjacent to the clay company and relocated our teaching center from the room with the crooked floor into a space that allowed us to double our class sizes. Our teaching community grew more during the pandemic when Wells Rolland began live-streaming throwing demonstrations as part of fundraising efforts, and requests from potters around the country, and indeed some from outside the US, inspired a new “Study from Afar” program of virtual learning. 

Today, our 14,000-square-foot facility includes a fine craft gallery, teaching center, ISM studios, 14 kilns, clay company, resident potter’s studios, and a dynamic studio space that operates as both a hands-on workshop space and fully-equipped studio for producing live and recorded online classes. 

6 Julia Mann leading a class demonstration at The Village Potters Clay Center.

The Core Resident Group 

Growth and change have also come to our core resident group, and we have been so fortunate to have many incredible and skillful artists who have worked with us as resident potters. Every resident potter, past and present, has served an important role and has been integral to the development and growth of The Village Potters Clay Center. 

We still have three founding members among the resident potters: Sarah Wells Rolland is always our guiding force; she mentors in our advanced program and teaches workshops and classes for advanced potters; Judi Harwood teaches wheel and alternative firing and is a mentor in our ISM program; and myself, Lori Theriault, I handle most of our marketing and mentor our advanced students. Our other three resident potters are Julia Mann, who teaches wheel and handbuilding classes while working as our studio manager and technical mentor; Katie Meili Messersmith, who supports our marketing and communication efforts, teaches classes, and mentors in the ISM program; and Caroline Renée Woolard, who teaches classes and mentors in the ISM program. Messersmith and Woolard are our two newest and youngest resident potters, who are both not only strong examples of the next generation of potters, but are successful graduates and former apprentices in our ISM program. Our operations manager Keira Peterson, who rounds out our core staff, was also in the ISM program and has her own studio at The Second Story Potters, a second-floor incubator space we created in 2019. 

Providing New Experiences 

Our goal of establishing a space to raise up the next generation of potters expanded to include developing ways for them to gain experiences in this environment of exploration and mentorship. Since we began the ISM program, opportunities have manifested themselves by enabling students to attend and assist with hands-on demonstrations and workshops with master potters, create and exhibit in sales opportunities, and participate in community firings in our special atmospheric kilns: a kazegama wood and soda-ash kiln, and more recently, a fast-fire soda kiln. 

7 Judi Harwood at the wheel in her studio at The Village Potters Clay Center.

The kazegama, which translates to “wind kiln,” was designed by Steve Davis in California, in an attempt to build a gas-fired kiln that would yield ceramic surfaces similar to those achieved in Japanese wood-fired kilns or anagamas. At TVPCC, it was our own Karen Dubois, then a resident potter, who led the charge to create this atmospheric firing option for our advanced students. George Rolland, who has been the driving force in the literal building of The Village Potters, consulted several times with Davis, and he and Dubois built our modified version of the kazegama. It’s built on a trailer for easy mobility, and in keeping with our mission to nurture creative exploration through community, our kazegama (known as “Kazie”) had one of its first firings at the WNC Pottery Festival in 2016, where the contents of the community firing were sold to benefit the local food bank. In 2020, we delved deeper into our exploration and began spraying soda ash into the kiln for even more lush results. 

Just this past year, we hosted a hands-on workshop with North Carolina potter Ron Philbeck. During a slideshow, we learned about his design for a fast-fire soda kiln, and we immediately saw that not only would that be a perfect addition to our family of kilns, but the actual building of it would be a great teaching opportunity. In August of 2023, we welcomed “Ms. Stein,” and, while she has had only a couple of firings, she is already a valued member of our kiln family. 

So many potters wish they had the opportunity to experience alternative firing techniques like wood and soda, but the expense and sometimes lack of community are often prohibiting factors. In May 2024, we will host our first-ever week-long workshop firing both the Kazie and Ms. Stein kilns. This event will be taught by Sarah Wells Rolland and Karen Dubois, who have led all of our firings in these special kilns. The week will be filled with instruction and demonstration of making pots for the wood/soda ash environment, and everyone will be involved in the loading and firing of both kilns. We will also share a presentation on how to build an updraft soda kiln. 

8 Katie Meili Messersmith’s Slip Dot Platter. 9 Caroline Renée Woolard’s horse-hair vessel.

 

Community 

Building community might be an abstract concept for some, but, in our opinion, it is really about relationships, openness, generosity, and personal growth, and is truly what our whole business is built on. We believe that our mission is greater than any one of us, and we are so proud of the work we do. We are serving emerging artists in clay, offering beautiful pots for homes, educating others about the importance of handmade, providing quality clay for professional potters, and serving our greater community at large. We share dreams. We cultivate ambition. We work with people who, like us, are creative and intentional, and who want connection and community. People just like you. 

the author Lori Theriault is a founding member of The Village Potters Clay Center. 

Topics: Ceramic Artists