“We say that clay is the great equalizer,” says Jennifer Martin, executive director of The Clay Studio. “It doesn’t matter who you are. Everyone can work with clay—and everyone who works with clay once comes back to it again and again.”
Indeed, the Clay Studio exists to serve everyone, and there are many different paths that lead to the studio. Of course, you can visit the studio itself, situated in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood, for classes and programming. There is also exhibition space. And the Claymobile, launched in 1994, brings clay to nearly 100 different partnering sites throughout the city, serving school students, domestic violence survivors, children at the juvenile justice center, and senior populations.
“During the day, most students are retired. Evening students tend to be younger professionals. And on the weekend, we host adult-children classes—some of those kids are as young as three or four. And then you have our camps, which serve children as young as five and six,” says Martin. “If you want to come through the doors, we have something for you.”
One thing is for sure: your first visit to the Clay Studio is rarely your last. Sandi Pierantozzi had never worked with clay before her first class in 1984. She spent the next eleven years working her way through every program The Clay Studio has to offer, eventually landing one of the studios highly sought-after residencies.
“The idea that someone could make a living from pottery was so far from anything I knew,” said Pierantozzi. “Learning what can be done through clay—it’s a whole new way of expression.”
She now co-owns and operates training studio and retail shop Neighborhood Potters with Neil Patterson, who also served as a resident in the 1990s and a Claymobile teacher.
“The Clay Studio has educated so many people in Philadelphia about this incredible art form,” said Patterson. “We’re happy to be part of that—and it’s made our jobs as teachers and potters that much richer because so many people in our city have exposure to clay arts.”
In 2013, the end of Clay Studio’s 30-year lease in Old City was fast approaching. Though it had room for one five-year extension, it became clear that they were outgrowing the space. The school had quadrupled in growth, and the Clay Studio had already moved the Claymobile offsite.
“The conversation became, what do we want our next 45 years to be? How can we break down barriers and serve even more people?” said Martin. “Everything pointed to finding new space.”
The first step was to sit down with architects and plan the right space for an optimal user experience. Every detail was considered, from the way people typically move through the studio to how all body types should be accommodated.
“What we wanted was the best space for consumers to come together to experience what we all love—whether that’s looking at pieces or making the pieces or both,” said Martin. “Through every design decision, we thought about community gathering. What do we want people to be able to do? Are there barriers of any kind?”
The answers to those questions helped build out the design. A storefront window on ground floor of the new facility will show clay arts in progress, bringing pottery to life for passersby and inviting audiences into the space. Programming will take place on three floors and will allow for features previously impossible in the Old City location, including more flexible space, an innovation lab, and social areas. Another crucial component? An elevator. In addition to ADA compliance, having an elevator helps expand programming in unexpected ways.
“What some people might not know is that most Philly schools don’t have elevators,” said Nitza Rosari, The Clay Studio’s Director of Community Engagement and Claymobile teacher. “That means we can’t bring pottery wheels. In most classrooms, a group of 25 students may only have one chance at the wheel, but in this new facility, we can offer more children throwing pottery class.”
The new 34,000 square foot facility is the latest boost to the creative economy in South Kensington, which is quickly becoming a destination point. The neighborhood, a multicultural pocket largely composed of both Hispanic and white residents and families, is vibrant and home to organizations like Philadelphia Photo Arts Center and the arts and culture community at the Crane Arts Building. But the area was missing access to clay arts.
“To me, it’s important for brown faces to see that you can do this and make a living out of it,” said Rosari, also a resident of South Kensington. “You can play with clay and be happy and make money.”
The project broke ground in early 2020, thanks to $9.5 million in New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC), facilitated by Reinvestment Fund and partners, Wells Fargo, Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation and Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Financing from Reinvestment Fund also includes capital from the Nowak Creative Placemaking Fund. Reinvestment Fund has long invested in the arts and creative economy recognizing its role in strengthening neighborhoods, previously financing the Crane Arts facility in South Kensington.
Like many nonprofits, The Clay Studio was forced to halt operations due to the COVID pandemic. In this period of uncertainty, the economic implications on The Clay Studio and the people it serves are significant. But Jennifer Martin believes The Clay Studio will come back stronger than ever.
“From a numbers standpoint, we didn’t see a downturn when the recession hit in 2008. We saw a spike. In times like this, people are looking for a space to be creative. They want a meaningful experience,” said Martin. “People may cut back on a haircut, but they’re not cutting back on meaningful experiences, and everything comes full circle. If you have a happy, creative individual, there’s a ripple effect. You’re creating healthy people. And that’s what we need, now more than ever.”