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Chelsea Ceramic Guild Makes a New Start in Midtown

By DNAinfo Staff on May 31, 2011 2:48pm

By Lily Rothman

Special to DNAinfo

CHELSEA — When a hunk of clay hit the wheel at the Chelsea Ceramic Guild studio, there's no telling what it will become.

It might start to take shape as a pair of of matching mugs, or it could be accidentally flattened by the force of the wheel's spin, or be squeezed into something completely different by the unpredictable pressure of human hands.

But you can always start over — and that's the same philosophy the Guild is employing now that they've been forced to leave their home of two decades and take up shop in a new space in Midtown.

"You are forced to the fork in the road that you didn't expect," Fred Rose, who founded the Guild in 1988, wrote in an email.

Rose was forced to close the studio in late April due to rising rents, as his longstanding $3,700 per month rate became so far out of pace with his neighbors, who paid twice as much, that the building's new management opted not to renew their lease.

The Guild has already got a slate of classes lined up for their new home at the Tribeca Potters studio at 313 W. 37th St., which hasn't hosted a class in years.

The first classes at the Midtown studio are set to begin on Wednesday — and the price will stay at the rock-bottom rate of $250.

That leaves Rose and optimistic about the future.

"I am on the other side of a major change and I am unscathed," he wrote.

The studio is also expected to host another round of open workshop Saturdays, when students and experts alike are free to work on their own projects.

Rose, who first discovered his own love of pottery as a high school student in Queens, said that his long-term students stuck around because the clay speaks to something artistic within each of them. Other students stayed for the company of other artists, he said.

Tom McCarley, a Brooklyn-based potter, said he grew so familiar with his other artists that he considered them an extension of his relatives.

"It becomes like a family of people," said McCarley, after dropping a thick clay block onto his wheel with a resounding thwack, warning his fellow potters by shouting "Noise!" before it hit the wheel.

"You stay for a while, you get to know each other, you get to know each other's lives," McCarley added.

Another student, Ana Larrea, used to keep a pair of extra shoes on her pottery cubby so she didn't coat her street shoes with the thick layer of dust everywhere in the studio.

Students would meet up for drinks after class and invite one another to dinner parties. Rose spent one Thanksgiving with one of his student's families, and the Guild has played matchmaker for at least one marriage.

Rose said that sense of community is crucial to the Guild's survival, especially in the face of a harsh economy.

"I believe there's a core group that's going to follow me into the new space," he said, adding that there are still spots open in the class for new students.

Rose said ceramists are well equipped to handle unexpected change, thanks to the unpredictable nature of the pedal, the surprise effect of a sponge or slip, or the faith you have to have about what will happen to your work once you lift it off the wheel and place it into the kiln.

In the 12 hours it takes the electric oven to heat to 2,300 degrees and in the 12 more it takes for it to cool, the results are completely beyond your control, Rose said.

And that's one of the greatest preparation for life's unpredictable twists and turns.

"The accidents are what's most enjoyable—when the piece on the shelf above drips, when the kiln misfires, that's what I look forward to," said Rose. "That's why I'm here: I want to unload the kiln and see what happened."