Midpeninsula Post

South Bay Ceramics: An oasis amid a “pottery studio desert”

A South Bay Ceramics instructor demonstrates a technique on the wheel to his class. (Eason Dong)

A man places a meticulously crafted mug atop a shelf of ready-to-fire creations, where it’ll sit in the company of an array of other pieces before being carefully lowered into a fiery kiln. In about a week, he’ll be back at South Bay Ceramics and choosing from an array of glazes to finish off the piece before the mug undergoes a second round of firing and can finally go home-sweet-home.

South Bay Ceramics is a privately-owned pottery studio that sits in the middle of what Studio Manager Patty Abel calls a “pottery desert.” Before the studio opened in May, pottery enthusiasts’ options were the Palo Alto Art Center and classes at Mountain View’s Community School of Music and Art, and the closest privately-owned studios were in San Jose and San Francisco.

So when the studio owner, who requested to not be named, decided to open South Bay Ceramics, he had his eyes set on Mountain View, Abel said.

Opening wasn’t an easy process, though: The studio originally planned to welcome patrons in November, but the opening was delayed to early May after multiple issues with the permitting process. In the meanwhile, the team worked on social media outreach and renovating the studio, which previously served as a gym.

South Bay Ceramics's member shelves are packed with mugs, vases, and other creations. (Eason Dong)

“The walls were totally black and there was carpet, so he [the owner] painted the walls white, he ripped off the carpet, he hired someone to patch the concrete floors and then he painted the floors himself,” Abel said.

The owner also handmade nearly all of the furniture, including wooden tables, a communal tool storage area converted from an old rock-climbing wall and two eco-friendly water-recycling sinks. 

Abel — who insisted she knew nothing about woodworking — began creating content for social media, reaching out to instructors, planning class curricula and curating the studio’s clay and glaze selections.

“It was definitely a new experience for me because I’ve worked at a few studios before this one but they were all established studios and this one, it was really starting from scratch,” Abel said. 

But in the first few months of Abel working at the studio, she saw it go from an empty space to a functioning studio with lines of shelves, a lot of clay and a wide selection of glazes. Then, the studio posted its first session of classes in mid-April.

A woman applies glaze onto her pottery creation after its first round in the kiln. (Eason Dong)

“That’s kind of what saved us, Abel said. I don’t know how much longer we could have gone without being able to open, so it was sort of a tight timeline.”

Emily Baraf, 45, has been a member since the studio’s opening and said she first heard about it from a friend who worked nearby. She said having access to a studio just five minutes away from her house got her really excited; before, she had to go to San Jose for her pottery endeavors.

“They filled out the space really well and I love how busy it is,” Baraf said. “At the beginning, they had a little trickle of people coming in, [but now] they have classes all the time. And it’s a really great community. … Everybody is just so nice and supportive and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

The first few weeks after opening were overwhelming and exhausting, Abel said, because it was just her and the owner working. But in the following weeks, they brought on two new employees and part-time instructors to teach classes a couple of times a week to distribute the workload. 

“We both [me and the owner] really wanted the studio to open but it was just so hard with the permits,” Abel said. “So to actually see that the studio could open and the dream wasn’t going to die, it was super exciting.”

South Bay Ceramics currently offers 12 classes a week that range from beginner to intermediate levels. Each class is 2.5 hours long and customers can choose between 6-week long classes and one-time classes. Abel said people will typically take a class and then become members.

A woman works her clay on the pottery wheel on the member side of the studio. (Eason Dong)

“Something unfortunate but realistic about ceramics is that it is expensive,” Abel said. “If you look at our classes and memberships, they’re not like, $20, $30. They are expensive and it’s necessary because ceramics as a process is expensive.”

But the cost is well worth it for member Tiffany Chen, 26, who said that pottery has improved her mental health and joining the studio helped her make friends after moving back to Mountain View over the summer.

Chen recalled how one member brought individual charcuterie jars to share at one of the studio’s game nights, which she deemed “the most thoughtful thing I’ve ever seen.” She also emphasized the studio’s member perks, including a communal snack corner and lavender-scented warmed hand towels.

“This is the Equinox of pottery studios, I would say, just like out of the few that I’ve seen, this is definitely top tier,” Chen said.

A finished pottery piece sits on a shelf as it waits for pick up. (Eason Dong)

According to Abel, community — which is amplified by the snacks and studio events — is the “heart” of South Bay Ceramics: She said that she regularly introduces people to each other and tries to learn everyone’s name. Baraf said she often bounces ideas off other members and offers advice to those newer at the craft.

“Everywhere in the world, but especially the Bay Area, really needs more community spaces for people to get to know each other and make friends and build relationships,” Abel said. “And that’s the purpose of the studio at the end of the day.”

South Bay Ceramics is open at 1954 Old Middlefield Way Suite I, Mountain View, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information about classes and memberships, visit southbayceramics.com.

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