It started in 1971 with a group of “young hippie potters” looking for a cheap place to live and practice their craft. Today, the Berkeley Potters Guild, which claims to be the oldest and largest ceramics guild in northern California, is known nationwide for the high quality of its members’ clay work.
It celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with a show and sale that continues at the Guild’s Jones Street studios in West Berkeley through Dec. 23.
Punning on the words “guild” and “gild,” the artists have put together an anniversary exhibit, “The Guilded Age: 30 Years in Clay,” that features a number of gold-colored clay items, most prominently a large gilded urn resembling a trophy cup. You can also see a collection of postcards announcing the Guild’s sales every year since 1972; in the first years, bearded, longhaired young artists cluster together and smile out at the camera.
As a special gift to their customers this year, the potters have made thousands of tiny clay magnets, which they hand out at the door.
The Guild has achieved considerable renown worldwide: members’ works have been exhibited at SFMOMA, The Asian Art Museum, the Smithsonian and in museums and galleries as far away as London and Belgrade.
“There are good potters everywhere, but there is a real concentration of superb work here,” says Jessie Cotkin, who has been a full-time professional since 1977 and a Guild member since 1983.
The Guild is regularly mentioned in travel sections from the New York Times to Sunset magazine.
“They know the quality is generally very high, and there’s a wide variety of styles,” Cotkin says.
It’s that variety that usually draws several thousand holiday shoppers and collectors out to the Guild’s annual December sale. It offers a delectable variety – everything from cups and plates to sculpture, ikebana vases, and porcelain earrings. This year’s items range from whimsical Christmas ornaments, which go for as little as $5, to elaborate clay sculptures which run into the hundreds of dollars.
There are realistic clay fruits and vegetables and classically simple Japanese-style bowls. There are plain earthenware vessels and brightly glazed and painted ones.
A wide variety of firing and glazing techniques are in evidence, from wheel-thrown vessels to slab construction, from raku to luster glazing. Cotkin’s work features “mishima,” a time-consuming process that involves etching the clay, firing it once, sanding it down and refiring it.
Among the more eye-catching pieces are those by Russian-born artist Julia Kirillova, whose curious “Russian Tea Ceremony” series features sculptural teapots and cups shaped like people. Each figure has significance derived from Russian folklore, Kirillova, explains: a woman clutching a purse is supposed to bring prosperity into the home, while a musician figure exerts the influence of joy. Each is unique and has its own distinct personality. “Actually, I find it very hard to part with them,” Kirillova admits.
The stability of the Guild makes it possible for East Bay residents to enjoy this sale year after year. The original Guild members incorporated and bought the building at the corner of Jones and Fourth in order to secure the space for 20 studios, which were then leased individually. A few years ago, when several of the original owners were ready to move on, the Guild found a new buyer who supported the arts and agreed to continue the studio arrangement.
While each artist is an independent businessperson, members find there are advantages to sharing space. The annual sales – in May, June, and December – are well coordinated and benefit each artist. The potters also draw on one another’s expertise. “We use each other as a resource, because we’re all so different,” says Cotkin. “Somebody might be an expert in certain glazes, another person might know more about a certain firing technique. The technical aspects are so vast and varied.”
Because their art is mostly a solitary pursuit, the Guild members say they find balance and community in having other potters around. “Pretty much I don’t talk to anybody for hours,” says Cotkin. “It’s kind of nice to be able to come out into the gallery or take a break and talk to other artists.”