Local studios making pottery business into playtime for patrons

Vicki Snell, left, and daughter Kelsey Snell are co-owners of the Mud Mill in Lodi.

Lodi — Anything handcrafted is trendy again. The do-it-yourself (DIY) market is growing as paint-your-own classes have popped up all around the world from Lodi to London.
In the Central Valley, contemporary pottery businesses — known today as “paint your own pottery” (PYOP) studios — offer customers the ability to create their own piece of functional or decorative art.

PYOP studios began to emerge in the 1990s, according to the Contemporary Ceramic Studio Association (CCSA). They’ve gained popularity throughout the decades since. Today, there are approximately 1,200 to 1,500 individual studios nationwide, reported The Pottery Consultant, a division of the American Ceramic Supply Co.

The number of studios is doubling every year, said Andi Barness, spokeswoman for the Contemporary Ceramic Studio Association (CCSA) in an interview with the College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC.org).

Contemporary studios differ from the traditional; PYOP shops, for example, evolved to offer pottery that’s ready to paint, whereas traditional studios allow customers to mold, clean, glaze and fire pottery themselves.

Vicki Snell, owner of Downtown Lodi’s The Mud Mill, said pieces there are ready to be designed. “[We’re a] one-stop shop where you pick an item, paint it and add detailed work,” she said. Customers then leave their finished work at the studio, where it is glazed, and put in the studio’s onsite kiln.

The process, said Snell, takes about a week, as she only runs the kiln — or furnace — at night. Each item sits in the kiln for approximately 36 hours (depending on its size, etc.).
Snell said it’s like Christmas when opening the kiln; there are always surprises, and unique projects to uncover.

There are more than 300 different items for customers to choose from at The Mud Mill — all are made from bisque porcelain, Snell said. Inventory includes: kitchenware (plates, cups, bowls, platters), seasonal items such as holiday figurines, banks and boxes, cookies jars, etc.

While business has remained steady since The Mud Mill opened in January 2004, Snell said she’s seen increased popularity for the studio’s services since opening shop 14 years ago this January.

“Sales have been up,” Snell said. “I’m not really sure if it has to do with trends or just the fact that there are not a lot of options for art in the classroom anymore.” Regardless, she added, the studio is an opportunity to push pause and spend time with family members, friends or partners. “There’s no TV, just music, and time to connect and also be artistic.”
PYOP isn’t just for camp-goers or crafters; children and adults alike can find entertainment, relaxation and creativity in the activity. While The Mud Mill is popular for children’s birthday parties and field trips, the studio also hosts adult-geared events, including their once-per-month “Ladies Night” event.

Field trips offer students a chance to learn about the traditional and contemporary forms of the art, said Cynthia Dario, owner of Pottery Magic on McHenry Ave in Modesto.
“One reason why I try to do field trips is to educate young people; it’s fun to build and make stuff on your own,” Dario said.

Pottery Magic, a PYOP studio, has more than 350 different products made from earthenware ceramic.

Depending on the customer’s age, and vision, Dario said projects can take anywhere from 40 minutes to several hours, weeks or months to complete.

“I try to tell people … not to expect perfection,” she laughed. “I try to tell myself that [too]. If it’s perfect, it’s not my art.”

Just because a piece has been baked, it’s not permanent.

“I’ve learned too that there’s always a way to fix something,” Dario said, even after the piece is fired.

Dario first opened the contemporary studio in 2009 after she acquired the local “Color Me Mine” franchise. Three years ago, Dario disenfranchised and launched her own studio, known today as Pottery Magic.

Dario said she soon hopes to introduce stoneware (a more durable ceramic), age-versatile classes and more traditional studio elements — like the ability to hand-build pieces.

Such traditional services, unlike the contemporary models, are in decline, Dario explained.
“That’s unfortunate,” Dario said. “As an art person, I want to see kids well-rounded [and learn to] solve problems; instead of thinking in a grove, think outside the box. That’s my hope, that we train to kids to do that not to be little computers.”


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