Fired up: New studios and upcoming exhibition at City Clay

The classes offered at City Clay run the gamut, from basic hand-building for beginners to intermediate wheel or workshops in glazing techniques. Photo: Courtesy City Clay The classes offered at City Clay run the gamut, from basic hand-building for beginners to intermediate wheel or workshops in glazing techniques. Photo: Courtesy City Clay

When City Clay owner and artist Randy Bill started her business in 2011, she knew that her rented space on West Main Street wasn’t long for this world. Though the specter of the new Marriott loomed large, Bill refused to be daunted by it. “I knew it was the best location possible for visibility and that it would put me on the map,” she says. “And it did exactly that.” Celebrating its fourth anniversary last month, City Clay has had a couple of years to settle in to its new home in the historic Silk Mill building behind Bodo’s on Preston Avenue. All the while, it’s continued to develop its class offerings and facilities.

Any time the doors are open the space is bustling with clay enthusiasts tackling projects that range from minute to monstrous. As long as it can fit into one of City Clay’s three kilns, it can be made. The space has a wide variety of public and member work areas, a kitchen and office, and a deck to encourage teachers and students alike to relax and take time to build relationships. City Clay participates in efforts like last month’s Virginia Clay Festival in Stanardsville as well as the upcoming Artisans Studio Tour in November. All of these details are signs of Bill’s ongoing efforts to foster the development of a close-knit group of clay artists in Charlottesville. “The big benefit for me is the community because I really do love it,” says Bill.

Over the summer, City Clay added a new space, rather than relocating from its home for the past two years. A short walk down the hall from the main City Clay space, the expansion provides a separate section of individual studios for more experienced artists. “The only rule in here is that you can’t put up opaque walls. You can hunker down, you can be by yourself, and people will leave you alone—but if you want to talk, you can,” says Bill. She also has a studio space for herself in the expansion, a new luxury for the artist-turned-small business owner. “I haven’t had a studio of my own since I was in McGuffey,” she says. However, her studio practice must coexist with her work building the business side of City Clay, so it makes sense to do her creative work on-site as well, albeit at a slight remove. Now, Bill has shelves of her works-in-progress and her tools, allowing her to access and see everything that she’s working with at once. “The value of that is amazing, and I don’t think I quite fully appreciated it until I got in here and could see it,” she says.

Currently, 16 artists have studio space in the new wing and, interestingly enough, it’s not all clay artists. “I advertised that I wanted a mix of people because I thought it was good cross-fertilization,” says Bill. She didn’t receive as varied a response as she’d hoped, but there is one artist in the space who makes decorative floor cloths. Bill remains excited by the prospect that other non-clay artists will join in the future, fostering a more vibrant culture of idea- and skill-sharing between artists. “A lot of the people who come to us have studios in their basement, but they don’t use them. In the creative process, you get to a certain point where it either isn’t working or you don’t know what else to do. And so, suddenly the sink is full of dishes or you have to do this other thing and you avoid it like the plague. What you really need to do is push through it, but most people don’t get that. That’s where being in a group can really help give you that support and good critical feedback,” she says.

In addition to providing artists with studio space, Bill hopes the new addition to City Clay will provide opportunities to mentor the artists working there and help them professionalize their craft. In the coming year, she plans to host exhibitions of work by the studio artists, helping curate and promote their work. “A lot of these people have never been in shows, so to have the opportunity to put their work up is really nice. This coming year, most of the shows will be member shows,” says Bill.

This month, City Clay hosts an exhibition of member work that focuses on surface textures in clay. “We have an awful lot of people doing really interesting surface design and it’s become more and more important in the studio. As people get more proficient with making things, they get more interested in surface,” says Bill. This is easy to understand once one observes the studio shelves of knickknacks used to imprint clay, leaving trails of tire-like tracks around the base of a bowl or adding a pleasing texture to the handle of a mug. Works in the exhibition will range from sculptural to functional, but all are made by member artists, teachers and advanced students from City Clay, and all are a direct result of Bill’s deep, personal investment in clay and community.

An opening reception will be held at City Clay on October 9 from 5:30-7pm. For additional details, visit cityclaycville.com.

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