Clay Pittsburgh fires up pottery community with studio tours, big plans for the future | Visual Art | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Clay Pittsburgh fires up pottery community with studio tours, big plans for the future

click to enlarge Clay Pittsburgh fires up pottery community with studio tours, big plans for the future (3)
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Daniel Vito in the doorway of Fireborn
Pottery had a moment over the pandemic, as celebrities like actor Seth Rogen proudly posted their creations on Instagram, inspiring others to take a stab at clay. Longtime Pittsburgh potter Daniel Vito, who teaches classes at his South Side business Fireborn Studios, credits one influence attracting people to the art form — the British reality competition series The Great Pottery Throw Down.

“So many people said they had seen it and they just wanted to try it,” Vito says of the show, which became available to American audiences in 2020 after HBO Max acquired the distribution rights. “There’s just a lot of interest these days.”

That interest has made a noticeable impact at Fireborn, where Vito claims classes and workshops often fill up shortly after being posted.

Once a student becomes experienced enough to set off on a pottery career — or, as Vito puts it, “graduate” to a higher level — the next issue becomes finding a studio space to fire and create pieces. Kilns can range in cost from $5,000 to $75,000, making them too expensive for newcomers. Vito also points to the lack of open studio space in the region.

Vito wants to break down barriers to pottery through Clay Pittsburgh, a nonprofit he describes as “connecting potters with potters and also connecting the Pittsburgh buying public with potters.” Formed in April 2023, the organization’s main focus is on studio tours during which Pittsburgh ceramic artists “open their studios and invite the public to see behind the scenes, appreciate their creative process, and explore the immense variety and creativity exhibited by Pittsburgh’s clay community,” according to the Clay Pittsburgh website.
click to enlarge Clay Pittsburgh fires up pottery community with studio tours, big plans for the future
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Inside Fireborn Studios
The latest tour, happening from Sat., April 27 to Sun., April 28, will include over 50 potters across 20 studios in Pittsburgh neighborhoods like Lawrenceville, the North Side, and the Strip District, and extends as far out as Homestead and McCandless. Participating artists “range in age and experience” from established career potters like Reiko Yamamoto, Jenna Vanden Brink, and Andrew Jowdy Collins to “budding young artists.”

Vito says the concept for Clay Pittsburgh came from often attending the Potter’s Tours in Indiana County, Pa. Right now, the tours act as a way to generate interest in the city’s pottery scene, but over time, Vito and his colleagues plan to grow the organization to run workshops and learning opportunities, coordinate gallery shows, and strengthen “both the connections between community members and the opportunities available for professional and creative development.”

Vito acknowledges that, while spaces like Radiant Hall in McKees Rocks and the Pittsburgh Center for Arts & Media in Point Breeze offer access to kilns, that access is limited to members, resident artists, or tenants renting studio space. One exception is the Union Project in Highland Park, where, as its website states, artists "can drop off work created outside UP studios to have it fired for a Kiln Rental."

Then there’s the issue of glazing, a process where a liquid is applied to waterproof, decorate, and add shine to ceramics.

“I think a lot of people are hesitant about going off on their own because of the whole glaze thing,” says Vito. “Where are they going to get glaze? They don’t know enough about the chemistry and the firing process.”

click to enlarge Clay Pittsburgh fires up pottery community with studio tours, big plans for the future (2)
CP Photo: Mars Johnson
Daniel Vito works in his studio at Fireborn
Ideally, Vito would like to see every pottery-making component become widely available, similar to what he experienced while visiting China. There, he says potters could acquire pre-made glaze at shops. There were also places where potters could fire their pieces.

“And so it’s all segmented, and it’s actually very cool, but it’s not like that over here, not at all,” says Vito. “I would love to see that kind of breakdown happen here, where people could make something at home and buy a small quantity of glaze. I think that would be wonderful.”

As for the long-term vision, Vito says Clay Pittsburgh would like to eventually operate a facility where potters can fire their work, which he says is a “major hurdle for many people working from home studios.”

“What I would like to do down the road is get a physical space, put some kilns in it, and offer firing for the general public,” he says. “That doesn’t really exist right now.”

Correction: The original version of the article stated that the Union Project did not offer public access to its kilns. The article has been updated to read that the UP allows all artists to rent its kilns.

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