When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the full-service pottery studio, POT, to prudently close the doors in early March, it meant more than just a temporary loss of access to materials and studio space for their students and members. It also meant the loss of a regular gathering spot, routine creative practice and a space to unwind and focus intently on something separate from regular life — the kind of space that seems even more valuable now when stressors have multiplied and anxiety is heightened. The pandemic forced co-owners Mandy Kolahi and Ambar Arias to pivot quickly, temporarily transitioning from a hands-on pottery studio rooted in community, to a virtual, contactless business.
POT is notably different from most pottery studios in Los Angeles. Kolahi and Arias, two women of color and L.A. natives, opened the space in Echo Park in 2017. Kolahi carefully and intentionally crafted the studio environment, setting out to make the space feel like her living room. “I’ve noticed that in spaces for people of color, there’s just a little more soul in them, you know?” Kolahi shared in a phone interview with “Southland Sessions.” “I’ve been to a lot of pottery studios and I’ve just felt dust and metal shelves from Uline.” At POT, there are thirteen pottery wheels, a few work tables and shelves lining the walls. Among the unfinished bowls, mugs and vases, there are clay dildos and pipes and Arias’ mugs for sale that say “f-ck the police.” The plants hanging from the ceiling and the pink hue that emanates from the neon logo sign on the wall make the space feel warm, intimate and unpretentious. Even their permanently capitalized name is a subtle ode to the commonly used “POC” acronym—the Gothic font of their storefront signage carefully chosen in part because of the close resemblance between the style of the letter “T” to the letter “C.” This environment helps create a space that feels inviting to those that might feel most unwelcome at other pottery studios in Los Angeles — people of color, queer people and people who have never picked up clay or sat down at a wheel.
Click through below to see what POT is like.
Ebony Hobbs took her first pottery class at POT in April 2019 after winning a free class at a bingo night event. She views the prize (and the run-in with Kolahi at a Vince Staples concert two weeks later) as fate — she had always been interested in taking a pottery class, but in the past, they were in accessible to her. Either there were no studios where she grew up in South Florida (classes were reserved for a specific major track at her college) or the studios she did find in Orlando were too expensive.
“When I moved out here to L.A. and started working with mostly white co-workers, it was very draining day-to-day,” Hobbs explained in a phone interview. “So, when I found POT, it was just like this beautiful Brown mecca.” Although she was nervous attending her first class, Arias and Kolahi made her feel like she was part of the studio, like she deserved to be there. “It made me feel more confident in that space,” Hobbs reflected.
Only a day after the official Stay-at-Home order in California began, POT began offering pottery wheel rentals and take-home hand-building kits. Soon after, they launched virtual classes online and encouraged their students to recreate the studio atmosphere in their own home by lighting incense or adding a plant. The community feeling followed naturally: “Yeah, [the online classes] were different in terms of pacing and being able to see what people were making” Kolahi admitted. “But the core of the laughing, the jokes, the conversations that end up having nothing to do with pottery, were still there.”
Around the same time, Hobbs found herself with without a job, but she did have clay and access to POT’s online classes. She decided to dedicate her time to refining her skills. I spoke to Hobbs a few days after she launched her own business on Instagram, Ebony Sade Ceramics. She is now selling her handmade pottery with the encouragement of Kolahi and support of the POT community (another POT member skilled at graphic design helped her design her logo). “I’ve never thought of myself as an entrepreneur, that’s just never been something that I would have wanted to do. But when I met [Kolahi and Arias] it was like, oh you can just carve out a little section into the world of what you want to do.”
Since social distancing began, POT has started weekly flash pottery sales on their Instagram page and held a free virtual pipe-making workshop for the Black community as an offering for a space of healing and connectivity in a time of collective grief. It was their largest workshop yet with over 70 participants, revealing an unexpected positive outcome of online classes: a limitless class size and accommodating students who cannot commute to Echo Park and those who live outside of Los Angeles or even former members that moved elsewhere in the country.
In February, Kolahi and Arias signed a lease for a second pottery studio in Jefferson Park, right before businesses were ordered to close in California. Their second location, POT Gardens, was supposed to open in June 2020 before the pandemic interrupted their plans and their budget. Much like at the Echo Park location, POT Gardens will continue to center people of color by prioritizing membership from Black and Brown applicants and offering sliding scale prices. The recent Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd also inspired the decision to fundraise for member scholarships and free classes for Black teens and transitional age youth in South L.A. “Seeing all these young people in the streets was so inspiring,” Kolahi commented. “I want to pivot a little bit and focus more on them and provide a space where they can make art and be radical and be themselves and be political and keep the energy going.”
Despite loosened restrictions in L.A. County that allow in-person businesses like POT to open with socially distancing measures in place, Kolahi and Arias are operating cautiously. “[COVID-19] reminded us that we had burnt ourselves out for a system that granted us no grace, no savings, no health, no loans, nothing,” Kolahi explained. “So, when we were talking about reopening in July, we were like, you know what, if there’s one thing we’ve learned it’s that slowing down is okay and that this hustle that we’re taught to do, it’s not right.” For now, POT is continuing online workshops with tentative plans to re-open POT and open POT Gardens in August.
Top Image: A ceramic work being created at POT | Rikki Wright