Creating a Legacy: Berkeley Potters Guild Celebrates 50 Years

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 up for sale! We knew this might happen someday. Nonetheless, the news was a shock. Eighteen potters might soon be scrambling for new places to work. 

The owners of the building, 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. One group of these artists were potters who worked in a building in Berkeley that was soon 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 the inside walls, including three lofts, carved out 18 individual studio spaces, all still standing today, and built six natural-gas kilns for high-temperature firing. At the end of the year, they managed to hold a very successful sale. 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.

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. Some make their living with clay; some have national and international reputations; others are learning their craft. As one member said, she was not a developed artist when she arrived. The Guild provided a place where she could grow technically and artistically.

As time went on, many members moved from the popular high-fire functional stoneware of the early days and began producing fine porcelain and brightly decorated mid-fired ceramics. We now feature a fabulous variety of styles and functions, from tableware to sculpture; functional vases to decorative wall pieces; whimsical figures to unique jewelry; mixed media combining clay and fiber; and slumped glass. Members have shown work in other media at the Guild in addition to their ceramics, including painting, graphics, knitting, clothing, and other textiles.
New members generally find their way to the Guild through contact with current members or word of mouth. In the early years, the main criterion was a sense of commitment to ceramics and to working at the Guild. By the mid-80s, a jury system was established.

More than 124 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. All Guild members are voting board members with equal say in Guild matters. Decisions are made in a cooperative, democratic, group process: one member, one vote. The excellent bylaws have not changed much over the years and have enabled members to resolve issues that have arisen.

Other factors have contributed to the Guild’s longevity. One is that all members own their equipment and run their own business. The Guild provides a place for ceramicists – both skilled professionals and developing artists – to work independently and sell their work. They come together to hold two well-attended sales – a two-weekend Spring Sale and a four-weekend Holiday Sale – and participate together in annual community events, such as East Bay Open Studios and Berkeley Artisans Holiday Open Studios.
Another factor contributing to its endurance is the Guild’s ability to accommodate members’ needs. With changing membership, studios have been reconfigured, combined, or divided. Kilns have moved around the building. Also, in response to the increased firing of electric kilns over gas kilns, the Guild voted to subsidize all members for the cost of upgrading the electrical wiring in their studios.
An additional factor is that the Guild has not had to relocate, something that most certainly would have dispersed its members.

The Guild has been stable both as a place to work and as a fixture of the Berkeley art community. It 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.

The Berkeley Potters Guild has been self-sustaining for 50 years and has never received grants or subsidies. It has hosted workshops funded by the American Ceramics Council featuring renowned potters, such as Tom Coleman and Robin Hopper, with attendees from across the country.
The Guild has had a profound impact on the Berkeley art scene. Its large sales draw art lovers to the area. Several founding members built private studios within blocks of the building, strengthening the neighborhood as an artistic locus. Over the years, other art groups and private studios have gravitated to the neighborhood. Now, West Berkeley displays colorful city banners officially identifying it as an “Artisan District.”

The Berkeley Potters Guild is successfully surviving the pandemic. When we reopened for our Holiday Sale in December 2020, our customers lined up around the block waiting to enter. We rejoice in celebrating fifty years of providing workspace for potters, hosting sales and workshops, and contributing to the greater arts community.