Berkeley Potters Guild Celebrates Fifty Years After Tons of Clay and Thousands of Pots

Authors: Diane Blacker (Former Guild Member) and Pam Zimmerman (Current Guild President)

Twenty-one years ago , in the Spring of 2000, a notice appeared on the bulletin board in the entrance to the Berkeley Potters Guild informing its eighteen members that the building was for sale. We all knew this might happen someday. Nonetheless, when I walked into our building and read the sign, I stood there in shock. Eighteen potters might soon be scrambling for new places to work. 

The owners, called Clayshares, consisted of the original potters who first rented the space in 1971 and others who bought shares along the way. Clayshares had kept rents affordable for nearly 30 years, a rarity for workspace in Berkeley. Now reaching retirement age, they were ready to cash out. They offered the Guild first option to buy, with a discounted asking price, but even that was beyond the means of most of us.

Moments after I had read our building was for sale, a friend rang the doorbell. Pivoting quickly, I showed him the For Sale sign. “You won’t believe this!” Rich exclaimed. “I just had a conversation with a neighbor who wants to buy a building for artists in Berkeley!” His neighbor had recently adopted two children and wanted this purchase to be an investment for them. She came to see the building the next day, and as I watched her, wide-eyed while she toured the large space with its warren of working studios and multiple kilns, I knew I had met our new landlady. By the fall, it was a done deal. We had a 25-year lease.

In buying the building, the new owner rescued the oldest continuously operating ceramic studio in Berkeley. And we got a dream landlady. Her kindness and generosity cannot be overstated. She not only has given us a 25-year lease, but she has also taken good care of the building and has never interfered with our operation. During the pandemic, she gave everyone a month’s free rent. She enabled the Berkeley Potters Guild to reach its 50th Anniversary!

The Guild was born in the 1970’s, on the heels of a world-wide cultural revolution of which California, and Berkeley in particular, was a major center. It was a heady, creatively explosive time. Young people were coming together from all over the country to make art and make a living by selling their work. A few of these artists were potters in Berkeley who worked in a building that became condemned. They found a new home in an 8,000 square-foot barren warehouse in West Berkeley and signed a five-year lease. In their first year they built all of the inside walls, including three lofts, and carved out 18 individual studio spaces, all still standing today. They built six natural-gas kilns for high-temperature firing and managed to hold a very successful sale (even by today’s standards) at the end of the year. After renewing the lease for another five years, they bought the building, and went on to create one of the most successful working spaces for ceramic artists in the Bay Area.

Many people have worked at the Guild over the last 50 years. While potters have come and gone, the Guild has survived, mainly because of the structure of the organization. The Guild provides a place for ceramicists – both skilled professionals and developing artists – to work independently. Each member runs and owns their own business, and each owns their own equipment. They come together to hold two well-attended sales a year – a two-week Spring Sale and a four-week Holiday Sale. They also participate together in annual community events such as the East Bay Open Studios and Berkeley Artisans Holiday Open Studios.

Another factor for the Guild’s longevity is that Guild members are all voting board members with equal say in Guild matters. Their excellent bylaws, which have not changed much, have been indispensable in resolving issues over the years. Also, the Guild never had to relocate, something that most certainly would have dispersed its members.

The Guild not only provides workspace for its members; it provides community. It is a place of acceptance and encouragement. Members are colleagues who support each other’s creative and professional development. Most members are professionals who make their living with clay; others are learning their craft. As one member said, when she arrived, she was not a developed artist. The Guild provided a place where she could grow technically and artistically.

People come and go, but the Guild is stable both as a place to work and as a fixture of the Berkeley art community. The Guild has enjoyed the wonderful support of loyal customers from the Bay Area and beyond. Its semi-annual sales are extremely successful and well attended. Customers love to roam the building through the maze of studios, making b-lines to their favorite artists and also discovering new ones. During the rest of the year, they visit the Guild’s beautiful gallery, open Saturdays and staffed by members. Members’ work has been highly regarded through the years and has been shown in fine galleries locally, including the Asian Art Museum, the DeYoung Museum, and the Oakland Museum, as well in national and international shows and galleries.

Another feature of the Guild’s longevity is that it adapts to change. With changing membership, studios have been reconfigured. Spaces have been combined or divided. Kilns have been moved around the building. Styles of work have changed as well. From the popular high-fire functional stoneware of the early days, members now also produce fine porcelain and brightly decorated mid-fired ceramics. This means a predominance of electric kilns over gas. There is also a fabulous variety of styles and function, from tableware to sculpture, large and small; functional vases to decorative wall pieces; whimsical figures to unique jewelry. Some members work in mixed media, combining clay and fiber. In recent years, one member has branched into working with slumped glass.

The Berkeley Potters Guild has been self-sustaining for 50 years. It has never received grants or subsidies. It has hosted workshops featuring renowned potters such as Gary Coleman, Robin Hopper, Chris Gustin, Lana Wilson and Sam Chung, with attendees from across the country.

The Guild has had a profound impact on the Berkeley art scene. Several founding members built private studios within blocks of the building. Our large sales draw art lovers to the area. Over the years, other art groups and private studios have gravitated to the neighborhood. Now, West Berkeley has officially been identified with colorful city banners as “Berkeley’s Art District”.

The Berkeley Potters Guild survived the pandemic, with lines around the block waiting to enter the Spring Sale. It rejoices in celebrating fifty years of providing a workspace that can accommodate about 20 potters, hosting sales and workshops, and contributing to the greater community.