Laura Hull has had an on-and-off relationship with ceramics over the last half century, one that has sent her from Denmark to Australia to do apprenticeships. But after noticing the popularity of pottery drop off in the 1980s, she couldn't see how she could make a living with it and turned to her other passion, photography.
Five years ago, Hull was commissioned to photograph the works of Helen Jean Taylor, an influential ceramics artist and former teacher at Community Center of La Cañada Flintridge (CCLCF), for a book. That connection rekindled her romance with the pottery wheel.
"Jean talked me into taking some classes, and now I'm throwing pots again," Hull said. "It's been fun."
In many ways, Hull's bond with the craft mirrors how the ancient art form (that's at least 26,000 years old) has ridden the waves of prevalence over time. She, along with others, have been seeing a rise in the medium's prominence again, especially among hobbyists, over the last few years as people have been searching for something more analog in an over-digitized world.
"I think all the crafts are getting a reboot," Hull said. "There are all kinds of potteries all over the United States, and young people are especially gravitating toward it."
Ceramics is also having a moment in mainstream pop culture. In July 2020, HBO Max began streaming episodes of "The Great Pottery Throw Down," a popular British TV competition series that echoes (and is even produced by the folks behind) "The Great British Bake Off." On NPR's "Pop Culture Happy Hour" podcast, correspondent Linda Holmes called the show "one of the gentlest, the kindest, the warmest competitive reality shows you will ever see, even when things literally explode."
In 2019, actor Seth Rogen began posting photos of his ceramic creations — ashtrays, bottles and vases — to his millions of social media followers. He's since honed his craft and is even selling his ashtrays online at Houseplant, a cannabis company he cofounded with screenwriter Evan Goldberg.
Patricia "Patty" Housen and Elizabeth "Liz" Rosenblatt, co-owners of Full-Circle Pottery in Mar Vista, have seen a swell of ceramics studios open across the Southland. "In the last three or four years, there's been a real growth in the number of studios in the West L.A. area and other parts of town, right to Pasadena," Housen said.
There's Green & Bisque in Pasadena, a place billed as a "clean, modern, clutter-free ceramics studio." Claytivity Pottery Studio, with locations in Silver Lake and Frogtown, makes throwing pots accessible with beginner wheel and hand-building workshops. And a new generation of potters, some of which are operated by women of color, like Cobalt & Clay in Frogtown, and POT in Echo Park and Jefferson Park, have made a splash on the scene.
The growing interest in this craft seems especially poignant during a time when many of us are doomscrolling on our phones and dreading yet another Zoom video meeting. The tactile process of forming something out of clay and minerals with your hands, firing it in the kiln, and then glazing it, has long played an important role in mental health and community.
Unplugging from the internet
Making pottery is a meditative experience, both physically and mentally. It's one that forces people to focus on the ball of clay in front of them, and not on the happenings of the digital world.
"They're sitting there manipulating clay, throwing pots and doing all these things that involve hand-eye connection, and texture and tactile sensations. And all those things don't really exist in their digital universe," said Ethan Stern, the executive director of CCLCF.
In order to work with this medium, you need a sense of balance within yourself and be fully present mentally, according to Hull.
"In order to throw on the wheel, the clay has to be centered on that wheel — and it's not as easy as it looks," Hull explained. "It takes much practice to get that balance between your hands and the clay, and you have to be pretty balanced within yourself …. And you can't really be somewhere else. You have to be totally with what you're doing."
Cobalt & Clay owner Nicole Reyes says that once your hands touch the clay, they're dirty and you can't really pick up your cell phone. And maybe that's the point for many pottery enthusiasts. She's noticed a growing interest in the medium during the pandemic in part from TV shows like "Great Pottery Throw Down" and the general public's strong desire to unplug.
"People were looking for an outlet to disconnect from all the screen time," she said. "It was so excessive in the lockdown and COVID situation."
But as people have been returning to work and school in recent months, she's starting to notice a few folks peeking at their Apple Watches again while working in her studio.
Molding clay as therapy
When Stern was in college, he faced a difficult year. His father died from a terminal illness in his senior year. He considered his ceramics studio as a place of solace, and his art practice a form of therapy.
"That was a place where I could turn off everything and focus on something that was real and that I had control over to a certain extent, and I could really get absorbed in," said Stern, who is also a professional glass artist. "My art-making practice still provides that for me today."
He adds that sitting with a therapist will yield different results than throwing pots.
The founders of Full-Circle Pottery have similarly seen the benefits of working with clay in regards to their own and others' mental health. They've been working with a dual-diagnosis treatment center for addiction and mental health since 2013, in which patients come to their studio to do recreational therapy.
Rosenblatt, a licensed clinical psychologist, has used plastilina modeling clay in nursing homes in her practice. "Clay is incredibly therapeutic," she said. "You can't work with clay and not be impacted and not be able to see your impact on it."
When Rosenblatt first started her clinical practice, friends were worried about her own mental health. "They were concerned that I wasn't taking care of myself, so I called up my friend and said, 'I'm ready to do this,' and that's how I began," she said.
Housen, who has a PhD in gerontology, got into pottery after her partner suggested she find a way to de-stress while working on her postdoctoral at a VA hospital.
There's also an undercurrent of resiliency and dealing with loss in working in ceramics. Reyes says a piece typically takes about three weeks from start to finish. "When you paint a picture, if you make one mistake, you can blend it out or rework it a bit, but with ceramics, once it breaks, you have to start back from the beginning," Reyes said. "So, it's being comfortable with being uncomfortable, and then also [knowing] failure leads to success and really building on that."
A place to build community
Many potters share the sentiment that ceramic studios can help grow a sense of community.
"Part of building community is noticing, realizing and hearing one's impact," Rosenblatt said. "It's noticeable when you work with clay: There's the need for community and to be around like-minded people, [especially] when there's been so much Sturm and Drang," Rosenblatt said.