For every full-time studio artist, there are probably a dozen artists trying to incorporate a creative component into a working life. For years, artist Jennifer Waverek worked for big New York graphic corporations while raising her two children. Frustrated by always working on other peoples’ ideas, she envisioned a day when she could be part of a community of artists, sharing ideas and resources, and developing her own creative voice. Two years ago, her hope became a reality with the opening of her studio, BKLYN CLAY. In a short time, the group of ceramic artists and students grew into the vibrant community she imagined, a community that has weathered a global pandemic and adapted to address new sensibilities about race and justice.
Waverek’s path to BKLYN CLAY marked a transformation, not only in her professional life, but in the very medium of her creative endeavors. As her children grew and became more independent, she returned to school, pursuing a degree in Visual Art and Art History at Columbia University. She says, “My study of art history, especially ancient and Eastern art, triggered an interest in ceramics. I had taken on the task of curating a friend’s store that focused on ceramic pieces and found myself drawn to the medium.” She found the three-dimensional nature of clay to be more dynamic than two-dimensional art. Soon, she was seeking out studio time at local venues and enjoyed the concept of working beside others.
Waverek says that ceramics is a hard art to manage. “Space is a big issue here,” she says, “as is equipment. There are so many parts and components. It’s very cumbersome to take on.” Though there is no dearth of studios in the New York area, Waverek struggled with scheduling studio time around family and work life. The challenges she faced led her to a clear idea of the kind of studio she wanted to create. “I wanted a place where artists can easily dovetail their work onto the life that they are leading,” she explains, “a place where people have the resources they need, when they need them.” Her model incorporates membership plans and classes. Member potters provide the richness of experience while students provide teaching opportunities and a source of potential members.
As 2020 began, BKLYN CLAY was offering a full range of in-person classes, seven days a week, from 9 a.m. through 10:30 p.m. There were private lessons on-site and Friday evening “TryDay Nights.” Memberships offered access to the studio and all its equipment 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with 210 active members onsite. Membership included clay, glazes, and use of wheels, a slab roller, an extruder, a ceramic 3-D printer, color decal printer, slip casting, and spray and photo booths. Waverek could confidently say that she had solved the problem of access and had built an environment that fostered collaboration. “We really had taken off,” she recalls. She and her Operations Director Laura Vogel were in conversations with two other ceramic artists – Gustav and Anders Hamilton - about starting a portfolio development program for local high school students and launching a long-planned Artist Residency program.
In March, BKLYN CLAY closed its doors for four months. The COVID-19 pandemic brought New York City to a standstill, but Waverek’s BKLYN CLAY community was still alive. She says, “It’s a testament to the strength of our community that we kept the community going. Some members were able to continue paying their fees. We were delivering clay. We offered online content. We had artist talks, Zoom calls. People were trapped in their homes and bored and were desperate to connect.”
When the studio was able to open again in July, changes were made to keep people safe. An alternate at-home membership was developed for artists who still wanted to do most of their work at home. Studio hours were reduced to provide ample time for sanitizing the environment. On-site classes resumed in September, with limited capacity and COVID social distancing and cleaning procedures in place.
With the reopening, talks resumed about starting the residency and youth programs, though altered by national events that had arisen during the pandemic months. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Waverek and her colleagues began to think hard about what a local clay studio could do to affect change. Waverek says, “We are two blocks from Barclays Center. It was a real wake-up call. We realized we have to do better, to reach out to the artists in the community where we are.” The plans for a high school program became more relevant. Waverek is eager to offer programs for children in the community, work that will have to wait until the pandemic restrictions ease. She says, “Sadly, our hands are tied now. With children and with clay, this is something that has to be done in person.”
A new conception for the residency program has emerged, with the position designated for a member of the BIPOC community. The new program “serves as a vehicle to honor and uplift the artistic vision and work of BIPOC artists, in an effort to promote equity, opportunity, and access within our field. Artists-in-residence are encouraged to use the residency to continue their current practice, execute specific projects, or experiment with ways of implementing clay into their practice with the support of BKLYN CLAY instructors.” BKLYN CLAY welcomed founding and active member of BKLYN CLAY Kyle Lee as the first recipient of the Residency. He is currently creating work for West Elm and Paul Smith and is preparing for the 28th Annual St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour, coming in 2021, which is nationally recognized as a gathering of exceptional potters.
Waverek’s journey seems to have come to a serendipitous juncture of creativity, community, and change at a time when unity is greatly needed, reminding us of the power the arts to affect change through individual and collective action.
For more information about BKLYN CLAY, visit www.bklynclay.com