October 10, 2023
The Clay Studio Puts Down New Roots in Philadelphia
Right away, it’s clear—if astonishing—that a lot happens inside The Clay Studio. The organization’s new building, opened in 2022, is the result of a years-long collaborative design process that brought together neighbors, potters, architects, and seasoned arts administrators. Local architecture firm Digsau helped the institution’s dreams of a world-class urban ceramics studio come to life, and from the exquisite brick facade to the state-of-the-art ventilation system, the fingerprints of ceramic expertise can be found everywhere.
Before moving into its new 34,000-square-foot space, The Clay Studio had occupied two adjacent row houses in Philadelphia’s Old City since its founding by five local artists in 1974. While much bigger than the storefront studios that many small potteries occupy, as the organization grew, it was bursting at the seams. And it wasn’t just the square footage, says Jennifer Martin, the organization’s executive director. “The old building just wasn’t set up for artists to move their work in and out, it was not modern or updated, it was definitely not accessible. We had a big freight elevator that worked…sometimes.”
Shoehorning offices, studios, classrooms, materials, tools, kilns, retail, and exhibition spaces into a building that was never designed to house any of those things meant that it was rarely possible for any one activity to be granted the perfect spot, much less all of them. Quarters were close, efficiencies were lost to architectural limitations, and it was also hard for the team to convey to visitors what the organization was all about. “One thing that we heard from people all the time about our old building was when they walked by, they didn’t necessarily know that we made things here,” Martin says. The entryway led directly into the shop, gallery, and offices, and you’d have to know in advance that there were kilns and classrooms full of wheels on the upper floors.
Adebunmi Gbadebo worked primarily in handmade paper and found material until 2020 when she took her first trip to True Blue Plantation in South Carolina—a place where her own ancestors were enslaved. There she had the profound experience of realizing that her family was quite literally part of the soil, and that although their remains were not marked, their presence was a physical reality. “I really started to think about the land and the soil being a way of holding information and history that is not present in archival documents or history papers,” she says. Her gallerist Claire Oliver suggested that Gbadebo explore this idea, and The Clay Studio was the perfect place to do that. “That’s when I met [curator of artistic programs] Jennifer Zwilling, and luckily one of the other residents at the time, Nathan Willever, works with wild clay and together we worked on a formula to transform the soil I collected into clay.” Now in its second year, her residency at The Clay Studio has allowed her the space, community, and collected knowledge to explore her central question: “to make a body of work from the very land where my ancestors were enslaved and are buried.”
Indeed, it can seem there’s little The Clay Studio doesn’t do: In addition to the retail shop, there’s a gallery with rotating exhibitions, the Claymobile (a community outreach program that brings ceramics to schools, senior living facilities, and community centers in Philadelphia), elegant display cases that house works from the permanent collection, hands-on classes for new and experienced artists of all ages, an associate artists program for serious local makers, the iconic Mug Wall—a nod to a beloved display area in the old shop—and a renowned residency program that draws early-career professional artists from all over the world. “Building the new space was really about rightsizing our programs,” Martin says, “offering the equipment that our artists deserve, addressing the demands for the school, and bringing the Claymobile home.”
For Digsau principal Mark Sanderson, the challenge was programmatic. “The old building was a conglomeration,” he says, “and they had made it work overtime, but they felt that it didn’t foster an expanded community, or the overlap and integration of different elements.” In other words, it was a collection of zones, and people who participated in different aspects of their programming didn’t always have the opportunity to meet by chance. The Clay Studio team was initially set on keeping everything on one story, but their need for square footage quickly outgrew that idea. “The initial challenge was trying to meet their goals of mixing community learning with a world-class museum into a vertical building,” Sanderson says. In the new building, the ground floor houses the galleries, the shop, and the demonstration studio, and it has a covered outdoor space for the Claymobile that can also be used for events. Classrooms and kiln rooms occupy the second floor, while the third floor is home to artists’ workspaces and prototyping labs, and the fourth floor combines office space and a multipurpose children’s classroom and an open-air rooftop event space with views of Center City.
Roberto Lugo began working with The Clay Studio back when he was accepted into its Annual Graduate Student Exhibition as an MFA student at Penn State, and he was a visiting artist in its old location. “It was amazing to be able to come back home to Philadelphia as an artist and be surrounded by my newfound love of clay. I was able to witness firsthand how the Claymobile program serves Philadelphia youth, and I was even able to work with a group of young men in a juvenile detention center. One made a cup with a rose on it for his mother as a gift for when he comes out,” he explains. “This program is so important to the city as it provides an opportunity for people who would otherwise never be able to work with clay, to have access to it in their schools,” he says. Now an assistant professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture, Lugo grew up not far from The Clay Studio’s new building. “The inspiration for this mural and my work with The Clay Studio is largely in inspiring the community I grew up in to see themselves reflected in murals and as artists,” he says. “Both Black Thought [Tariq Trotter] and myself come from some of the toughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and if we can make it, so can anyone in the community.”
With buildings on either side and a party wall in the back, the front facade of the building was the only place to communicate to visitors and The Clay Studio’s new neighbors who they are as an organization, so Digsau’s solution was a delicate brick facade that subtly undulates thanks to the technique of corbeling. Jesse Mainwaring, another architect on the Digsau team, says the brickwork also helps the building fit in visually with all its industrial warehouse neighbors in Olde Kensington: “The bricks are an unusual color, sort of a bisqueware color, and then inside there’s glazed tile that’s vibrant orange.” That orange color is visible in the open-air atrium on the building’s top floor (a stellar event space), and it appears to glow at night—not unlike a gas kiln.
A breakthrough came when Digsau realized something profound about sinks and rolling storage carts: Neither of them need to be inside classrooms. This may seem like a small thing, but multiplied by several large classrooms, it added up to a transformational insight about the spine of the building and helped bring its various constituencies together. A typical art classroom has plenty of storage and a place to clean up. For ceramics, the storage needs to be substantial, and the sinks need special traps to catch clay particles. The Digsau team wondered why all this couldn’t reside in a large central hall, connecting the classrooms with a big common area, and sure enough, it worked. The classrooms sit just off the hallway and provide the dedicated makerspace needed for classwork and open studio time, but the shared sinks and storage areas bring different people into a single space, subtly offering them a glimpse at who else is around, what they’re working on, and what creations are being wheeled off to the kiln room for firing.
All this makes possible exactly the kind of creative cross-pollination that wasn’t possible in the old building, and makes the new building its own kind of artwork. “If you’re a little kid taking a summer class,” Sanderson says, “coming to this space, you walk through the gallery, see the shop, see grown-up artists making things, you see the arts in action.”
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