Seth Rogen, Brad Pitt...and you: Why is pottery having a moment?
Clay classes are selling out all over Toronto. It seems the stars are just like us
Between her three regular teaching jobs, Annika Hoefs gets plenty of special requests from her pottery students. Maybe they've discovered some dreamy DIY mug or bowl or vase online, and now, they want to re-create it themselves. "It's fun," she says. "Like a little engineering project."
Take this past week, for instance, when one of her students attempted a piece directly inspired by their latest Instagram discovery: an emerging Canadian talent whose rustic wares have been critiqued by Artsy and Garage — Seth Rogen.
Says Hoefs: "It's like a double ashtray or something."
Yes, Seth Rogen makes ashtrays. And vases. They make for extremely wholesome Instagram posts. (Maybe they're not as popular as the occasional super cas photo from the Lion King premiere, but to be fair, the dude's still learning.)
"There's something so therapeutic about it," he told GQ earlier this summer, in a cover story that included a trip to an L.A. ceramics space. "It's like yoga, if you got a thing at the end. If you were doing yoga and then some object was produced at the end of it."
Self-care with benefits? Leonardo DiCaprio's also into it. Not that he's talked about pottery — not yet, anyway. But he's apparently picked up the hobby thanks to Brad Pitt, who has his own private sculpture studio.
Leading men throw clay. Male models throw clay (please refer to Ryan Barrett, first winner of U.K. reality series The Great Pottery Throw Down.) And it's not just for bold-faced bros. Emily Ratjkowski and Lena Dunham were tweeting about ceramics ages ago. And Shailene Woodley? The Big Little Lies star loves clay so much that she eats it.
As for the stars who are actually getting their selvedge denim smocks dirty, if making homespun ashtrays is a trend, it started long before they showed up. Per that old tabloid truism, the stars are just like us, and they seem to be in it for the same reasons as the average pottery newb.
Entrée to clay
If you're in the Toronto area, there are at least 30 places where you can learn the basics, just like Brad and Leo and Seth before you. (The Ontario Clay and Glass Association lists that many options in the GTA, though to be fair, their directory isn't exhaustive.)
Toronto's Gardiner Museum, which specializes in ceramics, is one of the bigger places a beginner can, well, begin. Last year, they ran 65 courses for adults and 27 for kids, plus a variety of drop-in classes. "That being said, all of our classes throughout the entire year have sold out," says Rachel Weiner, the Gardiner's senior marketing manager. (An hour before that interview, fall registration opened. Several courses, she says, filled "within minutes.")
The Harbourfront Centre, another familiar institution in the city, offers courses every quarter. The amount of classes changes from season to season, says Amy Duval, a ceramics artist who's taught there since 2017. "Ever since I got here, every single course has been filled." Michelle Organ, owner and co-founder of The Shop, an artist-run studio in the Junction Triangle neighbourhood, also doesn't worry about vacancies. "Our classes have been sold out for the last four years," she says. (They opened in 2014.)
"There are certain places that are always full, places that are pretty established," says Hoefs. In addition to the Gardiner, she's currently teaching at clayArt, an independent pottery studio in the Junction and the Mississauga Potters Guild. And while Hoefs says demand for classes has always been there, she's also watched it climb higher. "It seems to have increased, especially in Mississauga. Sometimes they wouldn't always fill up in the summer, but now they're always full."
Blame the internet — or thank it. When talking about the influx of students, all three instructors say social media is the driving factor. "I think some of it has to do with a lot of these live video clips that are on Instagram," says Hoefs. "Being able to see behind the scenes instead of just seeing the finished product, people want to give it a try."
And there is, improbably enough, a species of influencer that has risen over the last few years like so many "oddly satisfying" towers of clay. On Instagram, there are enough latter day Patrick Swayze's to inspire thinkpieces about the "Male Glaze" and the "Rise of the Clay Jock." Dudes make pottery, sure. But in real life — in Toronto, at least — clay would seem to be an equal opportunity obsession. "Actually, I find it not bro-y at all," laughs Organ.
What students have in common, they say, is motivation. And what they want is chill.
More relaxing than your other spin class
Jenny Yoo is a lawyer, and for the last two months, she's spent part of her Friday evening in Duval's class at Harbourfront. "I'm sitting next to my emails all day and I'm on phone calls all day," she says. "I just wanted a creative outlet that wasn't tied to anything electronic or the internet or media."
"And pottery is that outlet. Like, you're covered in clay. You can't even really check your phone while you're in class."
"I always ask students who come in, 'Why are you here? What do you want to get out of it?' And there's a lot of things," says Organ. "But pretty much, they're all just wanting a new activity that takes them away from computers or a busy life."
"If you're sitting at a desk staring at a computer all day, to be able to work with your hands is very refreshing. It feels very good; it's very therapeutic," says Hoefs. "You know, I have some people they don't really even care what they make. They just like the feeling of it on their hands, like on the wheel or the way it looks and so they're just happy with that."
Rogen calls it "therapeutic." Says Duval: "That's why a lot of people take pottery classes, I think, especially wheel throwing classes. I think there definitely is a certain therapeutic element to working on the wheel" — if you're not particularly invested in the results. "Ceramics has such a dedication to such a high level of craftsmanship. That's where the therapeutic aspect, for me, kind of goes out the door," she says.
But merely squishing, shaping and re-squishing can have its own rewards. At the Gardiner, Weiner says that staff noticed students coming away from lessons with more than fresh skills and some earthenware. "The experience of the class has become more important than the finished product," she says. So in 2017, partly inspired by an article in Vogue — "Pottery Is the New Yoga!" — they approached registered art therapist Suzanne Thomson about developing a program that "could tap into the mindfulness potential of clay."
People will say, 'I can't draw,' but they never say, 'I can't do clay.'- Suzanne Thomson, art therapist
Since launching, Thomson's "ReCLAYming Your Centre" classes have consistently sold out. (In 2018, the Gardiner offered 15 of the workshops, nearly double their offering from the previous year.)
Students are invariably open-minded, she says. "People will say, 'I can't draw,' but they never say, 'I can't do clay.'" Over two hours, she leads the room through mindfulness exercises — guiding them to work with their breath, for example. The clay comes in as a way for students to sort of pinpoint and externalize the different bodily sensations they might be feeling during the session. "After a while," says Thomson, "they find they're no longer thinking and they're just kind of moving and expressing and playing and being with the clay."
Maybe they'll have built a pinch pot by the end, but that thing's not going in the kiln. Everything's balled up and recycled at the end of the class, says Thomson. "In terms of mindfulness with clay, it's about just being with the clay and experiencing non-attachment."
Self-care...but with stuff
But that's unusual for a pottery class, and Thomson admits it: "Usually people want to fire, right? They want to create a product — and glaze!"
And for a lot of students, being able to create something — even something a little janky — is the appeal. "[It's] rewarding, as well, to give others something that you've made with your hands," says Yoo. "It's a little bit old school, but I enjoy it."
Kristina Hodorowski also takes lessons at the Harbourfront. A recent university grad, she's currently working in the admin department of a major corporation. "I take a lot of pride in making, and that's really what I'm not getting in my everyday life," she says.
I just wanted a creative outlet that wasn't tied to anything electronic or the internet or media.- Jenny Yoo, pottery student
Like a lot of jobs, when she logs off for the day, it's not like she's coming home with some tangible evidence of all her hard work. Say, an endearingly rough-hewn ashtray — positive re-enforcement with a satin glaze. "So I really love completing a project with pottery," she says. "That's really what I get out of it."
Duval speculates that other trends with a sustainability bent may have boosted pottery's appeal — things like the 100-Mile diet, which promotes better understanding of the things we consume. Get back to the earth — the clay, really — by sculpting your own dinner plates.
And that sort of simple, self-sufficient living is such a 2019 fantasy. Yoo admits that she and a friend (a friend who's also taking pottery classes) think about that sort of thing all the time. "We always dream about just, like, quitting," she says, "and knitting and crocheting and painting and doing pottery for a living in some random barn studio somewhere."
"[Pottery] does seem very trendy right now, and it's a very celebrity-endorsed kind of trend, too," says Duval. "But ultimately, I'm excited for anybody and everybody to be working with the medium I work with every day." For her, it's a way of connecting with the objects we use and the people who make them. And when it comes to embracing those ideas, clay-covered stars are nailing it.
Before this week, Hodorowski knew Rogen as an actor, not a guy who'd stan for speckled clay. But he makes ashtrays; she makes ashtrays. "I like him a little bit more now."