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Potters Enclave

Visit a West Berkeley neighborhood where clay becomes art.


Photography by David Fenton

It's an ancient alchemy. Join earth, water, air, and fire. Add the work of the human hand. The result is pottery, simple and basic or stylized and refined. For centuries, people have made, used, and prized vessels of clay.
Rae Dunn at fourth & claysuppliesLeslie's Ceramics storefront

For decades, the East Bay has attracted more than its share of fine potters, with a notable cluster found in west Berkeley. Many open their doors on weekends throughout the year. In early May, they join forces in a two-weekend burst of springtime hospitality, holding sales at which visitors can pick up first-quality work straight from the artist. May’s open studios also provide a rare opportunity to buy seconds (slightly flawed pieces) and older stock at bargain prices. This spring’s open studio weekends are May 3–4 and 10–11.

Why west Berkeley? The answer is partly the inspiration provided by the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts), founded in 1907 during the Arts and Crafts movement in architecture and interior design. It’s partly the influence of ceramics pioneer Peter Voulkos, who taught at UC Berkeley’s department of design for 26 years and boldly led the way from the functional to the sculptural. It’s also partly a quirk of zoning laws in the area, which permit a mix of residential and light industrial use—important to people who rely on gas-powered kilns requiring heavy-duty lines. And, it’s partly because this flatland bordering the railroad tracks, less desirable than the hills for traditional home building, was historically more affordable for artists.

Flatland or not, this territory now holds additional retail temptations. The gentrified Fourth Street commercial district, with its attractive shops and restaurants, can round out a visitor’s day.

Two outstanding home studios

Neighbors and master potters Gary Holt and Mary Law are longtime residents with home studios in the community. Both are must-visits.

Holt shows a sophisticated Asian influence in his translucent porcelain forms. He is one of a handful of potters worldwide working with chemists to develop the potential of using water-soluble metal salts in ceramics. He also makes functional stoneware of great beauty and utility. The two May weekends are the only times he offers seconds.

Gary Holt Pottery, 1449 Fifth St., Saturdays 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and by appointment; open studio weekends, 10 a.m.–5 p.m; (510) 527-4183, www.garyholt.com.

Law’s work has been highly regarded for decades, especially her carved and faceted teapots and bowls. Her hand is quick and deft. “I try not to labor over pots,” she says. “They can look contrived. And, you can tire out the clay if you work it too much.”

Mary Law Pottery, 1421 Fifth St., Saturdays 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and by appointment; Saturdays and Sundays during open studio weekends, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; (510) 524-7546, www.marylawpottery.com.

Erin McGuiness in her studio at EarthworksGary Holt's habds at work
Holt's unfinished potsFinished work

Group spaces with variety and character

The Berkeley Potters Guild, established in 1971, is the oldest clay co-op on the West Coast. It can accommodate up to 19 members, a limit set so the collective would not be viewed as a “ceramics tenement house,” says Rikki Gill, one of the longest-term studio holders and a former student of Voulkos’s.
The group presents a wide range of styles and methods under one roof. Gill is known for porcelain tableware glazed with very rich color, an effect achieved by firing pieces at high temperatures. Equally colorful but very different in spirit is the playful, nonutilitarian work of Julia Kirillova, who calls her creative output “The Russian Tea Ceremony.”

At another extreme is the guild’s newest member, Cuong Ta. He uses tape and latex resist to create bold shapes implying negative space.
Berkeley Potters Guild, 731 Jones St., Saturdays 12–5 p.m. or by appointment, open studio weekends 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; (510) 524-7031, www.berkeleypotters.com.

The Potters’ Studio, which provides materials, instruction, and kiln space for students as well as facilities for established potters, is another opportunity for bargains in quality ceramics.

This is the place to discover new talent in emerging artists. One of the studio’s outstanding potters is Itsuko Zenitani. Her bowls are glazed in gleaming black, their
interiors streaked with linear patterns of electric blue.

The Potters’ Studio, 637 Cedar St., most weekends 11:30 a.m.– 4:30 p.m., during open studios 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; (510) 528-3286, www.berkeleypottersstudio.com.

Earthworks is a small pottery group located in a rambling low-rise brick building with a striking sawtooth roof. Metal-frame windows were once made here. Now, the building provides space for artisans working in many media.

Earthworks potters include Jiri Minarik, who experiments with shino, called “the glaze of a thousand faces” because firing results are so variable. Dina Gewing produces teapots with densely textured surfaces that almost resemble metalwork. Diane Winters offers stoneware tiles, available as coasters and trivets, or for fireplace surrounds and kitchen backsplashes.

In the same complex is the studio of internationally renowned ceramic tableware artist Bob Pool.

Earthworks, 2547 Eighth St., Saturdays 10 a.m.– 5 p.m. and by appointment, Saturdays and Sundays during open studios 11 a.m.–6 p.m.; (510) 841-9810, www.earthworksberkeley.com.

fourth & clay is a new space shared by Rae Dunn and Josie Jurczenia, who studied at California College of the Arts and was a founder of the children’s clothing company Sweet Potatoes. Jurczenia creates wheel-thrown stoneware with hand-built elements, producing functional ceramics with surfaces that express her textile background—stitching, darting, and stamping with carved Indian textile–print blocks.

Dunn hand-builds all her work, incorporating letters and language in most of it. In the spirit of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, she welcomes the accidental.
“You never really know what comes out of the kiln,” Dunn says. “You can do the same exact thing twice and have two completely different results. There are so many happy surprises—as well as many mind-blowing frustrations. Just like life.”

Fourth and clay, 2390-C Fourth St., the first Saturday of each month 11 a.m.–5 p.m., and open studios 10 a.m.–6 p.m. (on May 3 and 4 the two artists will host a barbecue); (510) 848-2390, www.fourthandclay.com.

Trax Ceramics Gallery, adjoining the Fourth Street shopping district, carries functional work by some of the most highly regarded potters in the country, including that of owner Sandy Simon and her husband, Robert Brady. Since this is a gallery (versus a private studio), prices reflect a gallery’s commission. The additional expense doesn’t stop Trax’s clientele from clamoring for more.

Trax, 1812 Fifth St., Wednesday–Sunday noon–5:30 p.m. and by appointment; (510) 540-8729, www.traxgallery.com.

Leslie Ceramics Supply Co., an equipment and tools shop for ceramic artists, has been in business in the East Bay since 1946. The owner, John Toki, a noted artist himself, displays a selection of artwork amid the supplies that expresses his wide-ranging interests. His store is definitely worth a look. Some of the works were acquired as gifts or in-trade service from artists the Toki family helped, and the collection includes pieces by Robert Arneson, Viola Frey, and Peter Voulkos, as well as contemporary masters such as Stephen de Staebler. John Toki is also devoted to today’s emerging potters, who make up most of his staff.

Leslie Ceramics Supply Co., 1212 San Pablo Ave., Monday–Saturday 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; (510) 524-7363, www.leslieceramics.com.

Vessel by Rae Dunn of fourth & clayWord stones
Dunn's supply deskFish and bok choy at O Chame
Where to learn how to play with clay

The Potters’ Studio offers lessons from accomplished potters; call for a schedule. Brushstrokes hosts parties and workshops where people can hand-decorate preformed ceramic pieces, such as picture frames. Summer camps are also available. Kids ’N Clay holds classes for five- to 18-year-olds, with each student given access to a potter’s wheel.
Brushstrokes, 745 Page St., (510) 528-1360, www.brushstrokestudio.com; Kids ’N Clay, 1824 Fifth St., (510) 845-0982, www.kidsnclay.com.

A kiln at Leslie Ceramics

About that lunch break . . .

Some of the potters shared recommendations for nearby restaurants: the minimalist Japanese restaurant

O Chamé (1830 Fourth St., 510-841-8783); chef Christopher Lee’s upscale Eccolo (1820 Fourth St., 510-644-0444, www.eccolo.com); Bette’s Oceanview Diner’s classic American fare (1807 Fourth St., 510-644-3932); Jimmy Bean’s, a funky café (1290 Sixth St., 510-528-3435, www.jimmybeans.com); two casual but excellent Mexican eateries, Tacubaya (1788 Fourth St., 510-525-5160, www.tacubaya.net) and Picante (1328 Sixth St., 510-525-3121); and a little farther afield, for Indian snacks, Vik’s Chaat Corner (724 Allston Way, 510-644-4412, www.vikdistributors.com).

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