Joining a Shared Ceramic Studio? Ask These Questions First

Every time my husband and I move to a new city I begin the exciting hunt for a new ceramic space… and the dreaded final decision making process.

It starts off being an inspiring adventure into the unknown of this new home, the different options around, the opportunities and the community I might build. Then when I actually have to make a choice it’s a total headache. Decisions aren’t my forte. As a card-holding member of the ‘can’t make a decision club’ I struggle when I have to decide pretty much anything… and unfortunately with ceramics I do eventually have to make a selection, otherwise I’ll end up with a less-than-useful room of unfired mud.

Do I prioritise location or atmosphere? Can I manage in a place where the staff have patchy English or will it be too stressful? The last time I had to choose, I woke up from a dream one morning thinking of firing fees and volumes.

Over our nomadic past few years I’ve been lucky enough to visit a handful of shared spaces that all had their pros and cons (some more than others) and have made it a liiiittle bit easier to come to an answer:

Here are some questions I use to safeguard my membership choice, and which might help you to feel more confident choosing a space to call home.

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brown background with line illustrations of pots and pottery tools. Text reads 8 key questions you should ask before joining a shared ceramic studio. the humble mud, a ceramics blog by Carragh Amos. thehumblemud.com carraghamos.com

How much does it cost?

… Duh. Usually the first question for cash – strapped artists. Membership fees may be exclusive or inclusive of firing, keyholder and hourly studio hire fees. Other studios have no membership fee, but the firing rates can be higher… and don’t assume that bisque and glaze rates will be the same, either.

It’s common for charges to be based on volume – eg. per crate (Goodman) or weight (WellingtonPA and NorthcotePS). Another example is SMK Pottery in Singapore, who fire based on volume and temperature – the rate jumps massively between 1000 and 1200 degrees C to reflect the power usage.

Who fires the kilns?

If you want full control over your firing, you’ll need to check that will be possible with the studio manager. Kilns are seriously expensive pieces of equipment, and some studios won’t let anyone but the staff touch them – regardless of how many thousands of times you’ve run a firing before.

If you’re a beginner or an artist and have no idea what you’re doing with a firing, this could work to your advantage. Check the studio offers kiln stacking and firing on your behalf (but be willing to trust your precious babes in the hands of a stranger).

Atelier Bernard / Le Cylindre | Ceramic studio | Drying shelves with my pots | Pots on wedging bench

Do you accept lustre or experimental clays?

Most of the studios I’ve enquired at will fire these under certain conditions, but it’s important to clarify if you think you’ll be using these. Lustres are dangerous and require very good ventilation, both during application and when fumes are released during firing. It’s not a great idea to give yourself (or your studio mates) some form of chemical induced cardiac arrhythmia, or who knows what cancer down the line. In addition for both lustres and experimental clays you will probably have to hire a full kiln to prevent experiments damaging other work.

What’s the turn around time?

Urgently need pieces for an exhibition? Market stall this Saturday? I’ve just had some vases fired at a pottery space that can do a rush job of 2 – 3 days, but another one down the road has a hard 2 week policy. On top of that, any backed up work is going to be fired before yours – and who knows if Jane Doe down the road had a big making month. What’s on the shelves is usually fired chronologically i.e. first in first served. Do your homework in advance and save yourself the stress.

Northcote Pottery Supplies| Sculptures waiting on the bisque firing shelves | Glazing mugs in the shared workroom

Will there be other artists in the space?

This is definitely a personal preference question. Do you want to build a community, network and make friends? Or are you there to bliss out and put your head down for a peaceful few hours?

If you’re looking for community, be cautious of overbooking. Knocking elbows in packed rooms where you can’t even find a wedging space is not an efficient way to work. Also consider the space schedule – classes in larger spaces can block out the rooms for huge sections of time, so if you only have one or two days free a week this could be a deal-breaker.

As for the lone potters – consider opting for a smaller ceramist run studio and check when / how often your fellow studio mates will be using the space.

Are there safety protocols in place?

Messy makers, dusty floors, muddy tools…. yikes. So many ceramic materials are toxic, including the clay dust. I freak out about silicosis and sometimes mop multiple times in the day (better safe than sorry) so a messy workbench is a massive no-no for me. Add to that the hazard of accidentally bumping other clays from the dirty bench onto your piece.

You shouldn’t be seeing stacks of old filthy clay covered bats or mouldy wood boards in the space. That’s all going into the air, mate… and then through your snoz into your breathers.

As a safety protocol example, at Atelier Bernard there was a handy little ‘ready to leave’ checklist on the door which included clean floors and checking the kiln room door was shut. Other spaces I’ve been to have a declaration you need to sign, promising you will keep the area safe – although adherence to this is better checked in person.

Wellington Potters Association | Fresh thrown pots on workbench | Cute apology note left on a bowl | Firing shelves

What are the access hours like?

This might seem obvious, but how will this space work in with your schedule? Don’t assume all of these spaces have 24 hr keyholder access like Wellington Potters Association. Some have reduced hours on the weekend, or close at 5 – 6pm on weekdays. Check opening hours thoroughly if you’re working a day job, have other commitments or are responsible for kids during business hours.

Am I liable for insurance costs?

This is a bit of a weird one, but if you’re working with expensive materials and precious objects be aware of who pays for what. Are you okay with losing your items if there’s a fire? A break in? What if you accidentally cause damage in the space, are you liable? Some spaces offer an application info sheet, read the fineprint closely so that you can evaluate the risk.

Wellington Potters Association club rooms, taken on my last day in 2015
  • Choose a studio that saves you $$ – and that’s not just in rent. Pay attention to what materials are included in your fees. At Wellington Potters their range of tools and some of the glazes were free to use, but usually you need to bring these yourself.
  • Temperature is an important part of the making process, especially if you’re running to a tight deadline. While I was in residence at Daly St studios a cold blast came through Melbourne and froze my making in its tracks (as well as my fingers). In Montreal, heaters had to be left on overnight to stop the clay freezing – but it was very pleasant for working in! And here in Singapore, the heat and humidity can be so high that working in a shared studio without air conditioning is a nightmare for anyone not accustomed to the extreme heat. The studio is somewhere you’ll (hopefully!) be spending a lot of time, so make sure you’ll be comfortable there.
  • The best way to get the vibe of a place is in person. Try and arrange a brief viewing where you can get an impression of the overall environment and atmosphere so that you can be sure you’re investing in a space conducive to making. And if you really can’t go yourself, talk to someone who has used the space recently. I had a couple of unpleasant panic-attack inducing run-ins with a very abrasive man at one studio, only to later hear that the space was known locally for its ‘business over service’ approach.
  • Pay attention to whether they sell the supplies you need on site. Some studios purchase products in bulk and resell at cheaper rates than retail.
The Asian chaos of Sam Mui Kuang Pottery | Shopfront | Interior, looking toward shared space at end of hall

I might do a more thorough write up of my personal experiences (at the studios listed above) if that would be of interest to anyone, so let me know below if this has been helpful for you.

I wish there had been some kind of guide like this when I was blindly trying out my first spaces. Shared studios are awesome for sharing knowledge, skills and building community, as long as you do your homework first. I’ve made some great friends, found mentors and built valuable connections in these places.

Happy studio searching!

Need more mud? You can find the rest of my How-Tos in my STUDIO collection, here.

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