BLACKSBURG—The open studio for potters at Blacksburg YMCA looks somewhat like an orderly playroom.
Bags of clay marked with names are stacked on shelves. Finished items sit in clusters above the names of their makers. Items ready for firing occupy one cart; glazed items inhabit another, awaiting their turn in the kiln for a second firing.
“How often in life do you get to play in the mud and make things,” teased Paige Detrick, a member of the studio group.
She was helping at an Open House in late September. The event was designed to raise public awareness that the pottery studio exists.
In the parking lot of the YMCA building on North Main Street, teacher Michael LaRoche set up a wheel for any member of the public to try his or her hand at throwing a pot—even youngsters. In addition, a series of tables and shelves featured work for sale by students and artists who already use the open studio.
La Roche fires pottery works that open studio participants have created. Two kilns, capable of heating to thousands of degrees—2200 degrees and 1850 degrees Fahrenheit–are strictly under his authority.
LaRoche also teaches classes. The current list includes evening wheel throwing on Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus a class in hand building on Mondays. Classes run from 6:30-9 p.m., so busy students and working folks can join, as well as retirees.
“It’s not just one demographic,” said Mary Ratliff, a member who likes to create owls and other figures from nature. “It’s a great resource.”
There are 12 electric wheels, but because students are learning a variety of steps in the, there can be 20 people in a class. Right now overall enrollment is about 160, LaRoche said.
“It’s really more affordable in relation to other places,” said LaRoche, who has compared pottery studio offerings in Durham and Charlottesville to those at the Y.
Students can take advantage of bulk buying their clay and glazes, another savings.
The studio is open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12 noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Having their own entrance in the large YMCA building allows member potters to come and go. Membership costs $45 per month. A potter will need to take at least one class to become a member; classes run from $120 to $180, depending on how many weeks the class continues.
LaRoche is not paid unless he is teaching, so he doesn’t spend entire days there. Instead, he works using his landscape architecture degree from Virginia Tech.
A decade ago an open pottery studio was located in Squires Student Center, equipped with two wheels. When the Y bought the former Wade’s Food Store building, the studio moved to its present location and acquired 10 more wheels.
Eric Cowan, a member, said he likes to spend at least five hours a week at the studio. He studied ceramics in Akron, Ohio and has taught hand building classes in Brooklyn, N.Y. He uses a second-hard extruder (Was it once used for cake decorating?) to construct elaborate exterior “scaffolding” around his works.
Marcella Kaplan is a junior in civil engineering at Virginia Tech. She started doing ceramics when she was in highs school. She uses her time at the open studio to practice making larger pieces.
Stephanie Duston, originally from Maine, is working at Tech and intends to pursue her graduate degree there next year. In the meantime, she is using the studio to expand her pottery skills.
At the Saturday open house. Debarati Basu and Subhradeep Roy took a tour of the pottery studio and went outside to check out items for sale. “We have been using a lot of pottery in our daily lives, like cups,” Basu said. “It would be fascinating if we can make some.”
“Now you can start to find the center,” said LaRoche as he coached Tech aerospace engineering student Chi Young Moon on the wheel. “Add water.” Controlling an electric wheel with his foot, Moon was beginning to shape a ball of clay into a vessel. “You’re going to have your fingers diving in the middle, gradually creating a belly button, ” LaRoche said. “Sometimes people push too hard. You have a nice, gentle push.”
How do all these pottery buffs keep their studio so organized? LaRoche said they take a lesson from hikers. When a potter is finished for the day, he or she is expected to “Leave no trace.”
To find out more about the classes available at the studio, visit www.vtymca.org/ymca-pottery/.