All Fired Up

By Carmen Elliott and Steve Wright

From tableware and serving bowls to portrait busts, bird baths, and garden beasts, Chapel Hill’s Community Clay Studio has offered an extensive variety of ceramics classes to residents of the Chapel Hill and Carrboro communities in North Carolina since 1981, introducing more than 20,000 children, teens, and adults to the joys of exploring the art of clay in a nurturing, fun-filled environment. North Carolina has always had a vibrant tradition in clay as craft and art, and Chapel Hill specifically has been a well-known home for music and other cultural arts for decades, yet even in this most fertile of environments, the life of a clay studio and the audience it serves require constant attention and calibration in order to thrive. The Community Clay Studio has managed to do just this during changes of venue and the economic climate because of its dedicated and highly respected roster of artist-teachers and the innovative support of the town’s parks and recreation department.

A Program Is Born
In 1981, the department decided to expand its arts programming. A 2,600-square-foot building owned by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School System was converted into a clay studio and christened The Lincoln Arts Center. The space was rough, “funky,” and cement-floored, with plenty of space, light, and parking for patrons and activities—perhaps not nice enough for offices or commerce, but a perfect place for a ceramic-arts studio. The center began offering classes that fall thanks to a partnership between the town and the school system, which leased the space to the town for $1 per year. The town in turn subsidized 50 percent of the cost of the children’s classes for the first 10 years of the studio’s existence. Carol Walborn was the department’s liaison who worked with local artists Susan Grossman and Carmen Elliott to launch the new ceramics program, which included classes in Majolica, Wheel Throwing, Ceramic Sculpture, Garden Totems, Homemade Tiles, and six after-school classes for children. With a large pre-internet promotional push, consisting of flyers, brochures, newspaper articles, and word of mouth, the program was launched with a surprisingly full number of classes for such a fledgling operation. Elliott attributes much of the early success to this constant promotion and the town’s subsidization of the children’s classes, which made the activities some of the most affordable opportunities in the area.


Moving To A New Building
In the mid- to late-2000s, a number of challenges emerged: The school system needed the leased space back for other uses, the department’s leadership and studio liaisons were changing, and a recession hit. Fortunately, the newly hired parks and recreation director Butch Kisiah understood the importance of the arts from his time in Asheville, N.C., and so a space on town property was found, a 1,600-square-foot garage behind the Chapel Hill Community Center and adjacent to its administrative offices. Items kept in the garage had to be creatively stored elsewhere and HVAC issues addressed, but the ceramics program was able to make the garage its new home, and was renamed The Community Clay Studio. While the move and recession negatively affected program participation for a few years, publicity and the dedicated teaching of long-time studio instructors began bringing in new participants to join the students who made the move from the Lincoln Center classes. Concurrently, a Cultural Arts Division was formed in the department, and its staff and members of the advisory Cultural Arts Commission took interest in the studio, and began to strategically add new classes to fill empty spaces in the weekly schedule and meet specific audience needs, such as more wheel classes, classes for pre-teens, and summer camps for youth.

Flourishing Sessions
Currently, the studio is flourishing with over 100 creative students, aged 4 to 75, taking classes in a typical 8-week session; classes for eight to 10 participants are held weekdays, weeknights, and weekends. Open studio sessions for participants currently taking a class are offered free of charge, and these have proved to be attractive bonuses that set the program apart from others in the area. The studio provides a changing diversity of classes, ranging from Raku, Pit Firing, Wheel Throwing, and Portraits in Clay to Mosaics, Garden Arts, and Vessels of Light. Through close relationships between students and instructors, and regular input gained by online and paper class evaluations, new classes and timeslots are offered in order to grow the program. If a particular class is not successful, that timeslot is offered as an open studio until the next session with a new class and a different theme or age group. Eventually, a niche class is found and filled, and the studio is now close to offering a class during every programmable timeslot during the week.

Dedicated Teachers
The Community Clay Studio’s great strength has been and remains the quality of its instructors, many of whom have been with the program for at least 10 years. Their success as teachers and artists is evident, not only in the program’s longevity and growth but also in the number of former students who are now professional ceramic artists and teachers themselves. Other former students have their own children in the program. The parks and recreation staff members who support the studio recognize this special quality, and do everything they can to treat the program and studio as an art school whose instructors and their reputations are core assets. The town of Chapel Hill also recognizes the studio’s success, and has included its continued growth in its recently adopted Cultural Arts Plan, which should ensure that the Community Clay Studio remains available and vital to area residents for many years.

Carmen Elliott is an Arts Instructor for the Cultural Arts Division of the town of Chapel Hill’s Parks & Recreation Department in North Carolina.

Steve Wright is the Public Art Coordinator for the Cultural Arts Division of the town of Chapel Hill’s Parks & Recreation Department. Reach him at