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Given that the Ann Arbor Potters Guild will be celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2019, and is believed to be one of the oldest surviving cooperative workshops in the country, you might say that AAPG is composed of anything but “the common clay.” 

PG2017summercollageArtwork by current Guild members Sherry Hall, Brigitte Lang, Shirley Knudsvig and Autumn Aslakson.

Founded by nine local potters in the summer of 1949, AAPG rented a small, awkwardly laid out studio in an alley off William and Maynard Streets, near the University of Michigan campus. Within a year, they incorporated as a nonprofit. These artists sought to establish a place not only to practice their craft, but to learn from teachers as well. Two of the founding members built a kiln, and the first pottery wheels were constructed from material culled from a local junkyard. From these humble beginnings is an organization that currently boasts around 40 members, and is looking to connect with the next generation of artists.

In a video interview about the Guild’s history, a young artist from the Guild's early years, Eppie Potts, recalled what working as a female artist in the 1950s was like: “When I started, it wasn’t possible (for women) to buy pants. You could buy riding jodhpurs, but women didn’t wear pants, and we needed pants for doing physical work. We had to go down to the farm store in downtown. You could get bib overalls. That was about it for clothing.”

Potts was an instrumental member of the Guild. Nearly a decade after its founding, tensions were flaring between members, and Potts, along with Jean Hazen and Janka McClatchey, was charged with the task of figuring out how to navigate these waters. 

“The Guild almost fell apart several times,” said Potts in her video interview. “We didn’t all get along. There were some prima donnas who would drive up into parking lot, drop off their pots for someone to fire, drive away, and never lift a finger.”

What the women devised was a point system that dictated how much material each member could have fired in a kiln based on how much they contributed to the upkeep of the organization and/or the space.

“The inspiration came like a flash, that we would set up a ledger system,” Potts continued. “For every pot we got fired, and every piece of material we used, we would then have to pay, but not in money. You couldn’t buy your way out of this. You had to pay in labor. So we set up a scheme of labor.”

Incredibly, this same point system is still in use today.

“The Potters Guild point system is critical,” said Mary Avrakotos, a new AAPG member who co-chairs the group’s public relations and marketing. “It ensures that everybody is contributing equally to the Guild, and no one is exempt from weekend cleanings or spring cleaning, … all of which keep our environment safe as a space to work in. … The members meet on a regular basis, and if a job is not getting done, the system is tweaked. If no one’s signing up for a particular task, they’ll increase the point value for that job.”

AAPG was part of the inaugural Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the Original, in 1960, and they’ve been part of the Art Fair ever since (these days, you’ll find their work on the steps of Hill Auditorium). Additionally, in 1963, after members donated proceeds from their sales to a “building fund” and additional fundraising efforts, the Guild left its cramped first studio and moved to its current building, located at 201 Hill Street. (One of the ways members can earn points is to help oversee football parking in AAPG’s lot, which can raise the organization upwards of $5,000 a year.)

IMG 6207At the 2016 Ann Arbor Art Fair.

Guild members run the gamut from serious hobbyists to professional production potters. 

“I don’t think there’s any typical trajectory for people who become involved,” said Avrakotos, who’d built a career in marketing and public relations in upstate New York after studying ceramics in college. “For me personally, (working with clay) is a source of great personal expression and an opportunity to work with my hands, which I like. And it’s a very challenging field. It really takes a long-term commitment to develop a level of artistic proficiency. … I also enjoy the ceramic community, and certainly, when I became involved with the Potters Guild, I quickly realized that they are my people—people who share my interests and values, to a great extent. It’s a deeply caring community.”

"When I became involved with the Potters Guild, I quickly realized that they are my people—people who share my interests and values, to a great extent. It’s a deeply caring community.”

Members have access to the space 24/7, and while some pick up clay and do much of their work in home studios—bringing their projects in for firing—others, like nonagenarian J.T. Abernathy, a member since the early '50s, come in nearly every day.

But how do they get involved to start with? Often, through taking a class.

That’s how Avrakotos’ journey began. Upon learning more about the organization, she submitted samples of her work and an artistic statement, and she was granted adjunct membership.

“You have a mentor during those two years, and then you need to bring in work again, and the membership votes on whether to ask you to become a full-time member,” said Avrakotos. 

Now one of Avrakotos’ points of focus, as a marketer for AAPG, concerns reaching out to younger people who might be interested in ceramics. In early June, AAPG’s spring sale featured hands-on-demonstrations and a clay area for kids. Additionally, all members selling work were required to make eight small pieces for the “kiddie table.”

“These are things we need to do in order to sustain interest in ceramics,” said Avrakotos. “We need to educate and bring into the fold a younger cohort. I’m excited to see younger people interested in taking classes.” 

Diversity in age and experience, as well as in approaches to the medium, keeps an artistic community robust and healthy, and for AAPG, that’s always the bottom line, since it wants to stretch its long, impressive history far into the future.

“One of (AAPG)’s strengths is the willingness of members to share their knowledge with each other constantly,” said Avrakotos. “When, as an artist, you need to get feedback about what you’re doing, there are always members willing to do that. And over the course of time, you develop a special relationship with the people there. There’s lots of reciprocation, and that helps sustain your own growth as an artist.”20170604 GroupPhotoMembers of the Ann Arbor Potters Guild in 2017.

All photos courtesy of the Ann Arbor Potters Guild.