Pottery Northwest

  • By Kate Kershner
  • Posted 7/03/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10138
Pottery Northwest, a nonprofit pottery studio and education center, is located in lower Queen Anne in Seattle (226 1st Avenue N). It developed out of the Seattle Clay Club (1948-mid-1960s) after members decided to form an organization that could promote and educate the local ceramic arts community from a central facility. It gained its nonprofit status in 1966 and resided in the Center House of the Seattle Center until 1973. After a tumultuous real-estate search and move under the leadership of long-time director Jean Griffith (b. 1921), Pottery Northwest moved to its current location. The organization continues (in 2012) to provide residencies to artists and education to the community while promoting and sponsoring the Northwest ceramic arts scene.

The Seattle Clay Club

The Seattle Clay Club began in 1948, and members gathered to discuss and champion clay arts. It was started by members of a ceramics classes at the University of Washington. The club began as a rather informal affair, but by the 1960s, the group was a little more cohesive. Clay Club members Fred and Connie Jarvis, Kay Perine-Anson, and Ivarose Bovingdon (d. 1988) had organized members a bit more formally, but the Clay Club was still not an ideal place for education or artistic appreciation. In fact, it wasn't a place at all -- members just met at each other's houses in a book-club-type atmosphere.

"That was one of their big gripes, was that they didn't have the facility to do clay," says Jean Griffith, former president of the Seattle Clay Club and longtime director of Pottery Northwest. "And they were right! They had to have their own studio. As you look back on it, that was the reason for pushing what they pushed" (Kershner interview). As it turned out, Griffith's new membership in the Seattle Clay Club would prove to be instrumental as the group looked to establish a more organized physical space.

When Griffith came on board in the mid-1960s, her interest in pottery could almost be described as nascent -- especially when compared to the long and productive years that were still ahead. Griffith always had an interest in the arts, but her creative focus was quite different in her youth: she attended the University of Nebraska, eventually receiving a degree in Fashion Design.

It was not long after Griffith moved to Seattle with her husband and two small children that she decided to return to school, and signed up for a pottery class at the University of Washington. While she quickly became "hooked on clay" when a fellow student introduced Griffith into the Seattle Clay Club, she still found herself a bit intimidated (Kershner interview). Everyone in the group was at least 10 years older than her, and quite established as either supporters of the ceramic arts or ceramic artists themselves.

It didn't take long, however, before she had earned her stripes with the crew and was elected president -- although she admits that the older members might have been more interested in her connections than her credentials. "I'm quite sure they decided I should be the president because I was active at the university, in the School of Art at that time. And I knew the people who were visiting ... and I could get them to come and give lectures" (Kershner interview).

Griffith would remain involved in the ceramic arts as a working ceramicist. She worked often in raku, a traditional Japanese pottery style, and is credited as a pioneer in bringing Western attention to it.

Century 21 and Ceramics

Griffith's involvement with the Seattle Clay Club coincided with Century 21, the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Sparking a new interest (and financial support) for arts in the region, the arrival of Century 21 was the perfect time to push for a space -- and more recognition -- for the Seattle Clay Club. The Jarvises, Bovingdon, Perine-Anson, and Griffith decided to become a nonprofit to raise funds and push for a facility.

Pottery Northwest -- the name change reflected the broader approach they desired to achieve with the organization -- officially attained nonprofit status in December 1966, with a modest $6,500 in seed money. The Century 21 Seattle World's Fair was over and Seattle Center, trying to fill building spaces now left empty, granted the organization a space in what was the Food Circus (now referred to as Center House) for a paltry $100 a month. Given a spot on the second floor -- a balcony, Jean Griffith recalls, that overlooked the Ferris Wheel -- Pottery Northwest finally had a space for ceramic artists, students, and enthusiasts to utilize.

At this point, the organization needed more than just a small committee to make things happen. Not quite sure who to put at the helm, they asked well-known ceramics artist Paul Soldner (1921-2011) -- a raku artist from Scripps College -- for a recommendation. (Soldner was one of the many well-known ceramics artists to later hold workshops at Pottery Northwest.) Soldner recommended an artist he had trained at Scripps, Ken Hendry (b. 1939). Hendry, according to Griffith, was trying to make a living as a potter when he took the position in Seattle, becoming the first director of Pottery Northwest (Kershner interview).

The job was not cushy. For one, Hendry was dedicated to his art as a potter -- not easy when you have a full-time job running a non-profit as well. Then there was the larger problem at Pottery Northwest: the facilities, once a godsend for the roaming Seattle Clay Club, were not all they were cracked up to be.

The Kiln Problem

Hendry was tasked with building kilns, which he did, but they weren't entirely ideal. The kilns were built "on a level where there was a floor up above them," Griffith recalls. "Which is more or less idiotic. When you're building fire, no matter what size it is -- let alone a kiln -- it's going up to very high degrees. You've gotta vent it out somewhere. What you did to vent it out, you would open the window," Griffith says, which was not at all sufficient for lowering the temperature (Kershner interview). "When you really had problems with it, something that could happen -- or it did happen -- was that it would reach a certain temperature and shut down. So you could spend nine hours firing this kiln, you got stuck, and you had it. This the beginning of the Pottery!" (Kershner interview).

With headache kilns and a desire to make his way as an artist, Ken Hendry decided to leave Pottery Northwest in 1973. Griffith applied for the position. At that point, she had been teaching classes and was firmly entrenched in the organization. Still, they decided to do a national search. "But they couldn't afford to pay anybody to come and apply," Griffith said.  "I don’t think they had much applications. So finally they had to hire me!" (Kershner interview).

The Griffith Era Begins

And from the very beginning of Griffith's tenure, her mettle was tested. The biggest -- and most urgent -- challenge was that everyone had failed to mention to her during the hiring process that the Seattle Center was finally realizing that an organization with more money than Pottery Northwest would pay a lot more than $100 a month for the space. "Nobody told me that they were going to redevelop the building we were in," Griffith said. "It was not long after I became the director that I was made aware of this ... . We had to be out of there by September '72," a daunting deadline for someone who had assumed the position not a year earlier (Kershner interview).

Griffith had her work cut out for her. "I looked at 40 places in the city, as far away as Black Diamond," she says. "That's one thing I will say. I got so I knew by just walking into a place what would be a great place for pottery and what wouldn't work" (Kershner interview). Eventually, they did find a spot not far from their old location. A former parking garage with about 7,000 feet, in the Queen Anne neighborhood, located at 226 1st Avenue N, Griffith decided it could fit the bill. Unfortunately, it needed new plumbing and electrical systems, heat, and a new roof. Most importantly, it certainly didn’t have kilns. And the Center House had no need for the kilns after Pottery Northwest had vacated. Which meant that the large kilns had to be taken apart -- brick by brick -- in the former space, and new kilns had to be built (with all new bricks) in the Queen Anne facility.

The Seattle Center wasn't able to provide support financially, but Griffith stumbled upon people willing to help during the process of building the space into a ceramics center and facility. "They just appeared! I had a guy -- not just one but several -- who were just walking by, looking in to see what was going on. They ended up helping us a great deal. I had a carpenter ... who just looked in to see what we were doing, and ended up building the steps in our gallery for us" (Kershner interview).

New Space, New Era

By November 1975, the new building was open and ready for business. An outdoor kiln yard and mezzanine were just a few of the perks of their new and improved space. The space began to be used in a way that Pottery Northwest always envisioned for the organization: a place to teach ceramics class, provide studio space to regional ceramic artists, and even display ceramics work now coming out of the facility.

In 1976 the death of her father, Walter Henry Echtenkamp (1894-1976), caused an interruption in Griffith's tenure as director. "I thought I'd done everything that was required," Griffith says (Kershner interview). Griffith gave her year's notice and in 1977, the role was taken over by Sid Morton.

Morton was an enthusiastic patron of the arts, and a sculptor in his own right. He graduated in 1966 with a degree in art from Seattle University, but made ends meet as a buyer at the Bon Marche, according to Griffith, before becoming director. But his tenure was short-lived; he resigned in 1980. The board of Pottery Northwest once again came ringing Jean Griffith's doorbell.

The Return of Jean Griffith

"I said, well, I'll come back for six months," Griffith says of her new tenure in 1980. (Griffith ended up staying on until 2003.) During her second term as director, Griffith wasn't as distracted by leases and leaking roofs.

One of the high points came in 1983 when Mutsuo Yanagihara (b. 1934), an associate professor of ceramics at Osaka University, took up residency for the summer at Pottery Northwest. One of the best-selling potters in Japan, Yanagihara appreciated the ethic instilled by the organization and in the United States in general. "All of us in Japan have a certain ambivalence between keeping to tradition and going toward the new. In this country, you have no conflict. I envy how quickly potters here move to the new," Yanagihara said of his time in the States (Tarzan).

In the late nineties, Pottery Northwest met its next obstacle. It began in 1991, when the United States Navy announced it was closing Naval Station Puget Sound, located at Sand Point. Griffith had taken a keen interest in Bay A of Building 5 in the old station; she thought it would be the ideal place for ceramics and Pottery Northwest, and let her desire be known to the City of Seattle. Meanwhile, the University of Washington had acquired some of the former airfield in 1997, when the City decided it couldn't afford to keep the land.

In 1999, the University of Washington got title to the land, which included five other buildings from the former base. The next step was for the University to begin negotiating with organizations who had expressed interest in leasing the site. Griffith began negotiating in 1999 with the University's director of real estate, and came to an agreement. However, the agreement went unsigned and when a new real-estate director took over, the price for Bay A Building 5 took a skyward hike.

The University then decided that instead of housing Pottery Northwest, the building would be suitable for UW Hospital's medical record storage. Griffith maintained that violated the agreement originally held with the City that stated the building must "provide space for specialized university level research, [and] education related storage" (Joseph). In 2002, the situation came to a head, and both sides maintained they had a right to the space. The "showdown," as Griffith called it at the time, went the way of University of Washington. Pottery Northwest remains at their Queen Anne location (Joseph). 

After her fight with the University of Washington, Griffith was spent. "I went through the Sandpoint thing, and I was busier than I'd ever been. I think people thought it was probably time for me to leave," Griffith says (Kershner interview). Griffith retired for good from Pottery Northwest in 2003.

Pottery Northwest Today

Wally Bivens, a ceramic artist, was chosen as her successor, and remains in the position. The organization continued to grow, and in March 2012, Seattle was picked to host the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) convention, an honor that brought 5,000 ceramics enthusiasts to venues throughout the region. 

Pottery Northwest continues its commitment to education by holding classes that cater to both beginners (one introductory course is called Welcome to the Wheel World) and those seeking specialized instruction (Portrait Busts in Clay, for instance). Membership is not required, and all classes are open to the public (with a tuition fee). Classes are taught by working ceramicists, and workshops are also held that invite local and guest artists to detail their work or technique. A gallery is available for those seeking to buy or browse. Most importantly, anyone is welcome to visit the studio whenever a student or resident artist is present.

The residency program is the cornerstone of Pottery Northwest. Typically for a period of six months to two years, a resident artist will have access to 24 hour studio space, as well as sales and exhibition opportunities. Many of the artists teach classes at the facility, but are also expected to dedicate at least 20 hours a week to their studio work.Many prominent artists have conducted workshops at the studio over the years, and the residency program has fostered talent. Jamie Walker, currently a professor of ceramics and associate director of the School of Art at the University of Washington and Flintridge Foundation Fellowship recipient, was a resident at the studio. A recipient of the Virginia A. Groot Foundation Award for Sculpture, Tip Toland worked and taught at Pottery Northwest before receiving the Jean Griffith Fellowship, which seeks to host national artists at Pottery Northwest. Beth Cavener Stichter, Josh DeWeese, Richard Notkin, Andy Nasisse, and Chris Staley have also been Jean Griffith Fellowship recipients. 

In 1991, Jean Griffith said, "the prime reason for our existence is for potters to come together, use the shop, and continue their education" (Mathieson). Pottery Northwest has managed to complete this mission -- while also providing an audience and appreciation for the ceramic arts in the Pacific Northwest -- for nearly half a decade.

Sources: Kate Kershner interview with Jean Griffith, June 13, 2012, Seattle, audio in possession of Kate Kershner; Brangien Davis, "Jean Griffith: Seattle's Patron Saint of Pottery," Seattle Magazine, March 2010; Brangien Davis. "Local Rock Stars of Clay," March 2012; "About," Pottery Northwest website accessed July 1, 2012 (http://www.potterynorthwest.org/About.htm);  Matthew Kangas, "A Million Pounds of Clay," Ceramics Monthly, Vol 44, No. 9 (November 1996); "A Place to Make Pots," American Craft, October/November 1991; Matthew Kangas, "Northwest Ceramics Pioneers," Vol. 42 No. 7 (September 1994); Regina Hackett, "National Honors for Seattle's 'Muse of Clay,'" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 26, 1996, C-1; "Mayor announces 2007 Mayor's Arts Awards Winners," City of Seattle website accessed July 1, 2012 (http://www.seattlechannel.org/news/detail.asp?ID=7437&Dept=1); Karen Mathieson, "Pottery Northwest: The Clay's The Thing," The Seattle Times, February 24, 1991, (http://seattletimes.com); 1948 to 1973, "Seattle Clay Club Scrapbook," Accession no: 2646-001, Manuscript Collection no: 2646, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Paul Soldner's official website accessed July 1, 2012 (http://www.paulsoldner.com/); Philip S. Rawson, Ceramics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), 217; Anne G. Todd, "Clay Club for Potters Finds Willing Local Aid," The Seattle Times, August 7, 1966, p. 76; "Partygoers Get Preview of Facility," Ibid., February 5, 1967, p. 96; John Hinterberger, "Pottery Makers Losing their Home," Ibid., June 10, 1973, A-10; "Pottery Center Gets New Home," Ibid., November 17, 1974, p. E-2; Sue Olsen. "A Creative Setting For Potters," Ibid., April 16, 1972, p. 168; June Anderson Almquist, "Notes from June's Journal," Ibid., November 13, 1974, p. D-4; Deloris Tarzan, "'Sky Landscapes on Clay' Emerge on Horizon of Yanagihara's Art," Ibid., July 31, 1983, p. F-4; Deloris Tarzan, "Seattle Is Among Ceramists' Host," Ibid., March 23, 1984, p. 57; Obituary, "Ivarose Bovingdon," Ibid., March 9, 1988, p. H-4; Brian Joseph, "Squabble Grows Over Warehouse at Sand Point -- Art center, UW Quarrel over Best Use," Ibid., June 10, 2002, p. B-3; Deloris Tarzan, "First-timers Show the Way," Ibid., March 21, 1977, p. B-10; "Wally Bivins," National Coucil on Education for the Ceramic Arts website accessed July 1, 2012, (http://nceca.net/static/about_board_wally.php).

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