Clayworks co-founder looks back as ceramic arts organization celebrates 35th year

Baltimore Messenger
Baltimore Clayworks' 35th birthday celebration will include a cake and the opening of a new exhibition July 10

Marlene Sokoloski Sandler isn't surprised that the nonprofit pottery organization she co-founded in 1978 is still alive and celebrating its 35th year in two historic buildings in Mount Washington.

"We always knew it was going to survive," she said.

But she is quite surprised that Baltimore Clayworks has grown as much as it has, with community outreach programs as far away as West Baltimore and an annual budget of $1.1 million, mostly from class fees, grants and private donors.

"I never dreamed it would become as large as it is now," she said. "Who would've known?"

As Baltimore Clayworks' year-long celebration continues with a birthday cake and the opening reception for a new exhibition July 10, Sandler isn't just wishing the organization well. She's a volunteer, member of the board of trustees and creator of functional ceramics, some of which is sold in the Clayworks gift shop at 5707 Smith Ave., in the Mount Washington Village retail, restaurant and business district.

Sandler even brings popcorn to board meetings, said Clayworks' executive director Sarah McCann.

"My family has grown up with Clayworks," said Sandler, 63, who has lived in Mount Washington for 34 years and teaches art to kindergartners and first-graders at the Mount Washington School, a city public school.

In the late 1970s, Sandler was earning a teaching degree in art education at what was then Towson State University and was working for the Tomlinson Art Collection in the Rotunda mall and teaching art in the area, when she and eight other students, recent graduates and faculty members began toying with the idea of starting a ceramic arts organization in the Baltimore area.

"We came together in the (university's) art department," she recalled last week. "We wanted a place where we could work, where we could teach, where we could be part of a community."

The nine co-founders took over the old Mount Washington library building, which the city donated to them, and spent the better part of two years preparing it as a pottery haven, including building kilns with the help of co-founder Deborah Bedwell's husband, who was a welder, Sandler remembered.

"We moved clay with forklifts" into the building, she said.

They wrote a teaching curriculum together and leaned a big piece of plywood against the building with the words, "Baltimore Clayworks classes coming soon."

Bedwell, who had grant-writing experience, became the first executive director of Clayworks, a post she held for 33 years. Sandler, who was raising a family at the time, started out teaching children's classes there.

In 1999, the St. Paul Companies, an insurance firm, donated a building across the street, a former convent and rectory for the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, to Baltimore Clayworks. That building now houses the gift shop and art gallery. The old library, expanded with a new wing in 2013, contains administrative offices and studio space for artists, and is known as the Studio Building.

The organization promotes itself on its website, http://www.baltimoreclayworks.org, as "a community-centered institution," with 17,500 square feet of facility space, a suite of seven gallery spaces, gas, wood-fired and electric kilns, offices, a kitchen and meeting space.

Clayworks boasts 13 resident artists and 30 member artists, 26 trustees, 15 full-time, part-time and contractual staff, more than 25 teachers, 20 interns and work-study students, dozens of volunteers and hundreds of donors. It teaches 1,200 students on the Mount Washington campus, as well as 500 students in some of the city's "most challenged neighborhoods," the website states. McCann said one such site is at the Harris-Marcus Arts Center in Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore.

The organization has a national reputation, which McCann said is helped by Bedwell, who still teaches at Clayworks and is president of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts.

"It's great to go to conferences and see (Bedwell) influence artists nationally," McCann said.

Exhibitions at Clayworks were once limited to local artists, but the organization "now showcases the best of international, national and local ceramic artists working in ceramic sculpture, pottery, tile, installation and conceptual ceramics," the website states. The exhibition opening July 10, "Torn and Unrefined," features functional work by Jeremy Wallace, who is the Lormina Salter Fellowship Artist at Clayworks.

Clayworks also has a visiting artist from Taiwan as part of an exchange program, McCann said.

Sandler said Clayworks is known internationally, too.

"When I travel, it's amazing," she said. "All I have to do is say Clayworks and people say, 'Oh!'"

Vacationing in the south of France some time back, she and her husband followed a small street sign that said "Pottery" to a shop and stopped in. The potter told them he knew of Baltimore Clayworks.

She said Clayworks is also well known at colleges and universities like the Rhode Island School of Design, from which her daughter, Lauren Sandler, graduated.

The organization appears to have weathered financial struggles in 2012, when Bedwell's successor as executive director, Benjamin Schulman, resigned under fire after he laid off two staff members, both of whom have since been rehired. Bedwell returned temporarily to lead Clayworks until Paul Derstine, retired executive director of a nonprofit global health company and a former interim head of Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland, was hired as interim director. Schulman now owns Schulman Project, an art gallery on The Avenue in Hampden.

In January 2014, McCann, a former pottery teacher and development director for Clayworks, was hired as permanent executive director.

"It's good," she says now. "We're busy. We're definitely moving forward."

McCann is happy to have the help of Clayworks veterans such as Sandler.

"I see her at least once a week," McCann said. "I think it's so important to have people who are here and can talk about things that happened and connect the dots to where we're going."

Like many in the Clayworks community, Sandler followed the organization's trials and tribulations closely in the past few years.

"It did worry me," she said. "But we came together as a community. Deb Bedwell came back and stepped up to the plate. That's what we do at Clayworks. We always come together."

Sandler believes the future success of Baltimore Clayworks lies in its community outreach programs.

"I love the direction we're going in," she said. "I think community outreach programs are where we're headed. Art is healing and is a wonderful way to express yourself. I'd like to see us continue what we're doing. We're headed in the right direction to help enrich other people's lives (through) clay."

Extolling the virtues of Baltimore Clayworks, the co-founder sounded like a proud mother.

"I think it's a special place," she said. "What can I say? I'm prejudiced."

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