Deborah Bedwell’s first encounter with a potter’s wheel was less than auspicious. The West Virginia native was a recent transplant to Maryland in 1969 when she signed up for a ceramics class at University of Maryland, College Park. She needed to fulfill a teaching certification requirement for her new position as an art teacher at Malcolm Middle School in Waldorf, and ceramics seemed like an easy, fun choice.
She was late to her first class, though, and missed the instructions about how to operate the wheel. “I put way too much clay on the wheel, and I was going way too fast,” she says now. When she put her hands on the clay, its centrifugal force threw her to the floor. No bones were broken, but she was carried from the room on a stretcher.
Despite—or maybe because of—the challenge, Bedwell was smitten.
“The problem with clay is that it tends to be addictive,” she laughs. “You have both an emotional and a sensory experience . . . You touch it and you’ve made your mark on it immediately.”
Soon, she was attending graduate school at Towson University and spending all her spare time in the ceramics department. That’s where, in 1978, she and eight others got the idea of forming their own studio.
Two years later, Bedwell, along with four sculptors and four fellow potters, opened Baltimore Clayworks in the former Enoch Pratt library branch in Mt. Washington Village.
Today, Baltimore Clayworks is the only nonprofit in the state solely devoted to ceramic arts and one of just a few nationwide. Its Mt. Washington campus has become a Mecca for clay artists around the world providing community, connections, and career opportunities.
But now, as the organization she nurtured celebrates its 30th anniversary, Bedwell, 63, is preparing to step aside. A nationwide search is underway for a new executive director, though Bedwell says she will remain involved in fundraising and strategic planning.
“I think we need someone who is younger, with more energy,” she says, sitting in a conference room at the gallery building, which, like nearly every other space, is decorated with clay works of art. “I’m very excited about a different kind of leadership, a change.”
Bedwell’s continued involvement—albeit in a diminished capacity—is no doubt reassuring to the Clayworks faithful who have seen the operation grow from an artists’ collective to a multi-tentacled organization offering classes for children and adults, summer camps, seminars, exhibitions, and an annual gala fundraiser, Clay Ball, which is scheduled for September 25 at the American Visionary Art Museum.
“For me, Clayworks is a great community,” says Amanda Pellerin, who has been teaching at Clayworks since 1997. She says her involvement with the organization has given her work a stamp of approval that has helped her career. “People know it’s a quality place,” she remarks confidently.
Success did not come overnight, however. Bedwell recalls the early years as rewarding but exhausting. For starters, though the mortgage was less than $60,000, renovations to the Pratt building cost nearly three times that amount and the group contributed long hours of sweat equity, carving studios and classrooms out of the space. Then, there was the small matter of attracting clients. “The first 10 years were focused on bringing in students and potential purchasers of pottery and sculpture,” says Bedwell. “We pedaled very fast to keep it afloat.”
The effort paid off, and, by 1999, Clayworks was bursting at the seams in the Pratt building. Luckily, that same year, the St. Paul Companies was looking to unload an 1898 stone building across the street that had been used as a convent for the Sisters of Mercy. St. Paul gifted the building to Clayworks, which turned it into office and gallery space. Now, the entire campus boasts three classrooms equipped with 40 potter’s wheels, five slab rollers, a glaze lab, a spray booth, 16 kilns (including the region’s only public-access woodfiring kiln), multiple galleries, and an apartment for visiting artists.
“Few organizations compare in size, scope, and quality,” says Keith J. Williams, president of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA), which chose Clayworks as the venue for its yearly conference in 2005.
“Usually NCECA conferences are hosted by major universities, but Baltimore Clayworks is of such high quality that it was the first ceramics arts center to host our conference,” he says.
Most importantly though, Clayworks was—and remains—accessible to anyone and everyone who doesn’t mind getting his or her hands a little dirty.
On a quiet Monday night in early August, a class of 12 novices is ready to do just that via one of Clayworks’s popular “Ceramics Sampler” classes. These one-day, three-hour sessions give the curious a taste of the process and, hopefully, will supply the organization with its next generation of artists, staffers, and volunteers. After a quick tour of the facilities, the students crowd around instructor Nick Ramey, who recently relocated from St. Louis for the job at Clayworks, and is teaching his first class tonight. Two students—intermediate level ceramicists who mistakenly signed up for the beginner class—are allowed to start working while the rest watch Ramey go through the basic steps of “throwing,” or working with, the clay. He briefs the class—who range from teenagers to late middle agers—on centering the clay on the wheel, forming a base, and “pulling”—that is, drawing the clay upward from the wheel to form the contours of a vessel. Students listen attentively at first, but begin to fidget as the minutes tick by. Finally, after close to an hour, Ramey asks if there are any questions.
“Can we get started?” chirps Vicki Kline, a curly-haired twentysomething wearing jean overalls.
“Do it,” he says, “Looks easy, right?”
The wheels whirr to life and wet clay is slapped down on them. Ramey circulates through the room, stopping to correct techniques and offer advice as forms emerge. Ramey tells the class not to worry about perfection.
One young woman, though deviating from standard pulling technique, seems to be achieving particularly good results. Ramey is impressed.
“It’s not like math. There’s no right answer,” he tells her. “You might have 25 people tell you not to do it like that, but that’s what I like about ceramics and art. It’s like, if you can figure out a way to do it like that, you can do it like that.”
Still, the majority of the room is filled with grimaces and furrowed brows as the uncooperative clay spins, rises, collapses, and then rises again. One woman’s splashguard—a shallow, plastic tub in which the wheel sits—comes unfastened and falls to the floor. Another woman is warned to keep her wheel speed down. (“We have a 25-mile-per-hour speed limit in here,” Ramey teases.) It’s kind of a mess. And yet, everyone seems to be having a great time.
“Just the making process is fun,” Ramey told the class during his demonstration. “I get to play with mud and fire every day. It’s every boy’s dream!”
Patti Neuhof and her redheaded daughter, Katie, are here squeezing in some mother-daughter bonding time before Katie leaves for college in Boston. Latonya Dulin is here because she wants to cultivate a creative hobby, and Kline is already hooked, saying this is her second session.
If Clayworks is to survive another 30 years—and there’s no reason it shouldn’t (other than what Bedwell terms its “financial fragility”)—these upstarts could very well be the reason. Just like Bedwell more than 40 years ago, they are falling under the spell of the process, it’s difficulty only increasing their desire to master it.
As class wears on, some students start to get the hang of it, and looks of pride replace looks of consternation. Even better: No one ends up leaving on a stretcher.