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Arnold studio provides employment opportunities for people with disabilities

Nancy Beers cherishes the pieces of ceramics that she has bought for her home and for others from Providence Center Pottery Studio in Arnold.

Beers, who lives a couple of miles away from the studio, has been a loyal customer for more than 20 years.

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She has purchased countless items, including a plate featuring an asymmetrical Christmas tree design that she purchased for $10 and a light blue pitcher that she bought six years ago for $20.

Tom Wright, left, a sales manager at Provident Center, talks with Eddie Harris, 36, who works at the pottery studio at Provident Center, where participants make pottery for sale. The Provident Center helps individuals with disabilities to build independent lived in their community.
Tom Wright, left, a sales manager at Provident Center, talks with Eddie Harris, 36, who works at the pottery studio at Provident Center, where participants make pottery for sale. The Provident Center helps individuals with disabilities to build independent lived in their community. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

“They make great gifts: wedding gifts and Christmas gifts,” she said. “It’s really pretty pottery.”

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Providence Center Pottery Studio produces 5,000 pieces a year, sold in shops from New York to South Carolina. Pieces range from $10 for small ceramic jars to $100 for teapots, large serving bowls and custom work.

Lydia Ferwerda, potter and pottery instructor on staff at the Providence Center Pottery Studio, refines the shape of a pumpkin luminary she has just thrown on the potter's wheel.
Lydia Ferwerda, potter and pottery instructor on staff at the Providence Center Pottery Studio, refines the shape of a pumpkin luminary she has just thrown on the potter's wheel. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

The studio has made its mark with its coastal-themed ceramics — mostly in the shape of turtles, frogs and crabs — since the early ’90s, according to Ashley Wright, the studio manager.

“Our studio was ahead of the game,” she said referring to the tradition of making crab-inspired pottery.“Now crabs are everywhere.”

Eddie Harris, 36, holds an unglazed vase adorned with a crab that will be glazed at the pottery studio at Provident Center. Harris works at the pottery center, where participants make pottery for sale. The Provident Center helps individuals with disabilities to build independent lived in their community.
Eddie Harris, 36, holds an unglazed vase adorned with a crab that will be glazed at the pottery studio at Provident Center. Harris works at the pottery center, where participants make pottery for sale. The Provident Center helps individuals with disabilities to build independent lived in their community. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

Finding independence

The studio is also known for hiring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

About 400 people a year receive vocational services, including learning skills such as woodworking, horticulture and landscaping as well as pottery making, at the nonprofit’s four locations in Anne Arundel County.

Beers, who is a retired developmental disabilities teacher for Anne Arundel County Schools, said she can see the positive impact the studio has with people with developmental disabilities.

“It gives them a chance to earn money, and it gives them a chance to feel like a grown-up,” she said. “Depending on their ability, it gives them a chance to meet with other people. It makes them feel good.”

Eddie Harris, who works at the studio about two days a week, brightens when you mention the work he does at Providence Pottery Studio.

“I feel great when I finish my product,” the 36-year-old Riviera Beach resident said.

Harris specializes in slipcasting, one of the processes for creating pottery at the studio. Slipcasting consists of mixing a large batch of a liquid form of clay — called slip — and pouring the slip into plaster molds, according to Wright

In addition to his pottery work, Harris also creates sand art — plates adorned with colorful figures such as superheroes and anime characters.

“I do great work,” he said. “My family and friends think I’m a good person.”

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The pottery studio has been a place where Harris can improve his independence while developing better communication skills. Harris has been involved with Providence Center since 2005 and has worked at the pottery studio since 2014.

Lydia Ferwerda, potter and instructor on staff at the Providence Center Pottery Studio, throwing on the potter's wheel. She is making pumpkin luminaries. Ashley Wright, studio manager, behind her, places the freshly thrown clay pumpkins on the shelf to dry.
Lydia Ferwerda, potter and instructor on staff at the Providence Center Pottery Studio, throwing on the potter's wheel. She is making pumpkin luminaries. Ashley Wright, studio manager, behind her, places the freshly thrown clay pumpkins on the shelf to dry. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

Wright says she has noticed a difference in the way that Harris interacts with others since first being hired. .

“The communications skills have increased,” she said. “He’s much more professional with customers. It’s kind of cool that he is building all these relationships with community members.

“I would say a lot of people across Providence Center know Eddie. He is a popular person. They all know Eddie as an amazing artist as well,” Wright said. “That is one of the goals. To have them interact with members of the community instead of them being separated from others.”

Wright said that Harris is the studio’s most prolific employee of the six people who work there. She estimated that Harris makes up to 60 pieces a week.

Providence Center Pottery Studio manager Ashley Wright lifts the lid of an electric kiln to check on pottery that needs to cool off for 12 to 24 hours after firing.
Providence Center Pottery Studio manager Ashley Wright lifts the lid of an electric kiln to check on pottery that needs to cool off for 12 to 24 hours after firing. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

“He just gets better and better. He works more independently. Now he comes in the morning and gets to work and knows what to do,” she said. “There are a lot of jobs. And he helps with other regular studio tasks.”

Harris enjoys the interaction with others. “I like meeting a new friend,” he said.

After being away from the center a couple of months during the COVID-19 quarantine shutdown, Harris said he is happy to be back at work.

Jill Clements, owner of Nadina’s Cream, a Cambridge-based company known for its natural ingredients and cruelty-free approach, has been working with the pottery studio for the past 32 years. The studio makes the body cream containers for the company.

A finished pumpkin luminary created at the Providence Center Pottery Studio is held aloft by studio manager Ashley Wright. The luminaries are sold with an LED light that can be placed in the opening at the bottom.
A finished pumpkin luminary created at the Providence Center Pottery Studio is held aloft by studio manager Ashley Wright. The luminaries are sold with an LED light that can be placed in the opening at the bottom. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

“I love Providence Center,” she said. “One of my greatest joys is walking in and their employee asking ‘Do you like it? Do you like [my work]?’ It would bring me to tears.”

Clements estimates that the pottery studio has made more than a million ceramic containers during the three decades she has hired them.

“They are so beautiful,” she said in reference to the work. In fact “They are just gorgeous. This is a keepsake.”

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