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Photo courtesy of Bluestone Pottery

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Dirty, hands-on, and social: Behind the ceramics boom in San Francisco

The tactile trend—blowing up thanks, in part, to social media—offers a creative outlet and sense of community

Clay is having a moment. The natural resource itself is, of course, nothing new. It’s earth; mud; a basic material borne of mineral-rich rocks and soil formed over the course of millennia. It’s also one of humanity’s original creative mediums, and a fast-growing subset of San Franciscans have rediscovered the primal charms of making something out of a remarkably malleable lump of the stuff.

And that’s only part of its appeal.

A transformation occurs when clay gets fired, which happens when it’s engulfed in scorching heat. Exposure to temperatures that hit almost 2,000 degrees changes its composition; that clay becomes drier and harder, but also more porous. That formerly wet, sticky earth is now ceramic—but it’s not done yet. It’s then prepped to be painted, dipped, or otherwise adorned in glaze, which, after being fired again in even more extreme heat, will give the surface color and texture: glassy, glossy, matte, mottled, and—because glaze can be devastatingly fickle—potentially something entirely unexpected.

This process isn’t magic. But ask anyone who’s constructed so much as a misshapen mug from start to finish, and they’ll likely tell you that it feels that way.

As recently as a decade ago, there were only a handful of studios in San Francisco offering public ceramic classes. Now there are nearly 20.

“We’re living with and evolving the legacy of all that’s come before,” says Carin Adams, curator of art at the Oakland Museum, of the Bay Area’s vast and varied clay history—and its impact on the current boom.

Class is in session at SMAart Gallery and Studio in Polk Gulch.
Photo courtesy of SMAart Gallery and Studio

Arequipa’s therapeutic practices for tuberculosis-inflicted women after the 1906 earthquake were emblematic of the ethos behind the Arts and Crafts movement, which encouraged creation as a means toward good health and social welfare. Potters focused on making utilitarian objects, like Edith Heath and her iconic midcentury dinnerware, helped define the concept of “good design” touted toward consumers of the era. (Heath’s resurrection under Cathy Bailey and Robin Petravic in 2003 kickstarted the brand’s growth into the artisan juggernaut it is today.)

And at universities like Mills College and UC Davis in the 1960s and 1970s, professors and practicing artists like Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson pushed the possibilities of ceramics to embrace the nascent Funk movement’s experimental weirdness.

“There were all these things coalescing towards what seems to be happening now, breaking down the distinctions between fine art and craft,” says Adams.

Recently, there’s been a relative swell of clay-maker spaces in SF, a big deal because ceramic arts not only benefit from a critical mass of people coming together to practice—they pretty much require it.

“The idea of a lone potter out in the woods somewhere is kind of a fantasy,” says Marnia Johnston, manager at Ruby’s Clay Studio, one of SF’s oldest studios, located in the Castro since it was founded in 1968. “The culture of ceramics is all about a shared environment. You have equipment that is very expensive and heavy. Processing and recycling clay is a difficult job that takes a lot of labor. You’re mixing large batches of glazes. This social aspect is ingrained in what we do.”

Ceramist Mel Rice insider her studio with her pet cat and dog.
Photos by Jordan Kushins (unless otherwise noted)
Bags of raw clay at Mel Ceramica.

About that expensive, heavy equipment: kilns, essentially custom ovens where ceramics are fired, are power-hungry beasts. A shift from gas kilns—which, as fuel burners, are near impossible to secure space and permits for—toward more manageable electric models, which can be quite compact, has made it possible for smaller studios to be increasingly nimble: slipping into Polk Gulch storefronts (like SMAart Gallery and Studio), retail corners in Potrero (like Clayroom), and Mission lofts (like Hickory Clay) that might have been off-limits before.

But there’s also wheels for throwing (yes, like in Ghost); expansive table surfaces for hand-building; plus slab rollers and damp cabinets and sinks and bins of miscellaneous tools and shelving units for pieces in every possible state of progress. It’s a lot.

It’s no accident that these spaces that are purpose-built for communal use become true community hubs. In fact, facilitating face-to-face, human-to-human contact is mission critical for every studio owner.

“We’re set up with two big family-style tables, so everyone’s next to each other, talking about what we’re making,” says Matt Goldberg, who has helmed Mud Months (formerly Clay Days) at SOMArts since 2016.

Sign up for Clay and Wine with Joshua Margolis, resident instructor at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco for 13 years, and class time will turn chatty.

“We’re going to sit around and drink and shoot the shit,” he says. “We can talk about all our feelings, or basketball, or pinch pots, or whatever, and make stuff.”

Pieces drying from “Clay and Wine” at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

You don’t have to engage, but something about clay makes it happen naturally—and that promise is a draw for many. “I always think part of the appeal of ceramics comes from good, old-fashioned loneliness,” says Mel Rice, who formed lasting bonds with a crew she met doing ceramics at CCSF, which pushed her to launch her Richmond District studio over two years ago. “One of the reasons you stay friends with people you go to school with is because you learn things with them. As adults we don’t really get those kinds of opportunities anymore.”

While there’s vulnerability in being a newbie or starting fresh on a challenging skill, there’s also freedom found by stepping outside of a comfort zone into a welcoming environment with folks you wouldn’t meet during your typical day-to-day.

“We’re all busy, and we’re all hustling to be here in the city—but we’re just dying for a deeper connection,” she says. It’s remarkable how many people feel like they finally fit in once they find a studio that suits them.

As our lives are further occupied by long stretches of screen time, it’s comforting to be reminded that our fingers can do more than scroll and tap.

“Mindfulness can seem like such an abstract concept, but doing ceramics is exactly that,” says Pinckney Templeton, proprietor of her eponymous Bernal Heights studio, which she opened in 2017. “You’re present and focused on this one thing—and as a bonus, you end up with a tangible result.”

For Templeton, that inner peace goes deeper than just a distraction from the digital world; ceramics became her therapy after her brother unexpectedly died a few years ago.

“Putting my hands in clay affected me in a really positive way. It’s amazing how much it helped me.”

When wet, clay can be manipulated every which way, molded into shapes and forms that are fully functional, purely sculptural, or just plain bizarre. In this state, the earthy material can be both forgiving and fickle; getting better requires commitment and patience. For instructors, this means their job is also managing expectations.

“We definitely have people coming in who think they are going to make an entire dinnerware set in one class,” says Johnston. “A lot of illusions are broken in the first night.”

Margolis is more honest. “I talk about finding success through failure,” he says. “Failing forward.”

Some of the students’ misconceptions stem from the same thing inspiring them to get involved in the first place—social media. From the bare breasts of Group Partner to Kat and Roger’s bold geometric patterns to the organic tactility of Kenesha Sneed’s multidisciplinary work, clay gives undeniably good ’gram; ceramics are almost impossibly photogenic. As such, it’s easy to see something awesome online that belies how much effort it took to create it.

Sarah Wright of Bluestone Pottery in the Outer Richmond.
Photo courtesy of Bluestone Pottery

“Instagram changed everything,” says Linda Fahey, who moved Yonder, her Pacifica shop and studio, to the Inner Richmond in 2017. “There used to be a ceramic bubble, where people were much more concerned with the voice of their work, their technique, and could it stand as an art piece. It’s not good or bad, but that preciousness has gone away. Instagram blew up the bubble.”

When the modern maker movement began gaining momentum in the early 2000s, handmade items were considered a niche market. Then DIY culture began infiltrating the mainstream—with help from sites like Etsy and retail craft fairs across our Handmade Nation—and the provenance of products, including who made them, and how, and from what, became something people were not only increasingly aware of, but actually cared about.

Today artisanal ceramics can be found in many cities and in a variety of spaces: dish ware at trendy eateries, stocked at design boutiques, and the pages of design publications. As exposure continues to grow, it makes sense that more people would begin to wonder: “Maybe I can make something like this, too.”

So demand is at an all-time high—and not just from individuals. SF is home to a lot of large, wealthy companies, and corporate team-building sessions are a significant source of income for a lot of these newer studios. Providing an afternoon’s worth of messy right-brain action for an audience that consists of a lot of tech-minded worker types—think Facebook and Google employees—introduces the art to a new audience. It’s not uncommon for these first-timers to follow up with more classes, sharing space with other curious individuals for a dynamic exchange of ideas and enthusiasm.

Freshly glazed plates with bike art from Ruby’s Clay Studio.

Oli Quezada has been teaching ceramics at CCSF for 33 years, and still gets a thrill at the start of every semester.

“One of my greatest joys is working with beginners, because I feel their excitement,” he says. “A lot of people come in and they’re just searching for something; then I see the light bulbs going off. More often than not I see it change people’s lives.”

The idea that clay could make that kind of impact might seem tough to believe, but those who’ve experienced that additive agony and ecstasy can attest to its power.

“It’s something you find in the ground, then light it on fire, and everyone’s happy,” says Matt Mauger, resident ceramicist and teacher at Artillery.

It’s intoxicating, and only continues to evolve—both as a practice, and as a personal journey.

“We connect and transform doing ceramics; it’s good for the spirit,” says Tomoko Nakazato, who’s been teaching at the Randall Museum for about a decade. “Sometimes people get overwhelmed. Sometimes they’re overjoyed. Some people are more open; they can let go in this place of unknown. Other people are very fearful. They ask me: ‘Is it going to be okay?’ My answer to that is: ‘I don’t know—but we can find out together.’”

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