By Diane Kenney
Founder of the Carbondale Clay Center
The Carbondale Clay Center was born in 1997. This year marks its 25th anniversary. As the founding director, I never could have imagined all that was to happen in that extremely humble building tucked in at the end of Main Street.
Recently, I found myself attending a planning meeting for the future of the Carbondale Clay Center. The plan? To build a new building, five times the original size and full of wish lists, at the Center’s current location. I sat there, pleasantly stunned.
I came out of the excellent ceramics program at the Kansas City Art Institute in the ‘70s and moved to Carbondale with my husband, John McCormick, in the early ‘80s. Carbondale was, and remains, a mix of ranchers, budding artists and people seeking connection with the outdoors, all huddled in a high mountain valley where two rivers meet and the wilderness is a stone’s throw away.
In the mid-90s, I had been ruminating about starting a clay center. I saw that Carbondale was the kind of community that would be fertile ground for just such a place, where people could get their hands in clay and experience that magic.
I already had my own studio and kilns just outside of town. I was teaching a few students there but quickly realized they needed a place where they could freely come and go. You can’t work with clay just once a week. I was inspired by other clay centers, like Lill Street in Chicago and, especially, Baltimore Clay works, and I dreamt of doing the same thing here.
It all started with a vision. A small group of us in the Valley met a few times. We had no funds but plenty of ideas. We might have become a small co-op but, by chance, or more likely by grace, a friend, Daniel Trautman, connected me with Michael Stranahan. Mike shared a passion for clay and wished to see a local clay center.
The three of us became a team, with Mike stepping up as the financial sponsor for the founding of the Carbondale Clay Center. For months, we planned to rent warehouse space in an old mining building in town but, as our plans escalated, the feasibility of that site evaporated. Mike asked me If I was going to give up. I asked him if he was and he said, “I’m not if you’re not.” So we didn’t.
I rode my bike to town and hung out on a corner, asking passersby questions about various buildings that dotted the community. A friend told me about a nondescript, lonely building at the forgotten end of Main Street — a dull, one-story thing. We ended up buying that 1,500-square-foot, cinder-block building, used to store equipment for property maintenance. It had a tiny bathroom with highly irregular plumbing and a giant forced air heater hanging up in the corner, blowing dust.
I had the luxury of having several months to research and work on the startup plans. Deborah Bedwell, the director of Baltimore Clayworks, generously shared information and advice about class structure and studio policies. We were able to purchase equipment and retrofit the building, which included cutting a channel in the concrete floor and installing a floor drain to a dry well so we could hose the floor in order to keep dust down.
That first year, Dan, Mike and I brainstormed together. There were hours of ideas to pursue and resources to scour for. Dan did most of the physical studio setup, using recycled materials as much as possible. I worked on the vision, programs and policy planning.
We took possession of the building in September 1997, becoming a bona fide nonprofit thanks to volunteer legal help. Before anything took root, we planned a dinner at a very long set of tables with 20 early supporters, just to bless the space. We made quite a few wine toasts to the unknown but glorious future of this empty building, and to all that it might become and all the wondrous, creative things that could possibly happen there.
Mike stood up and declared that the main thing that would make him the happiest would be to see children in there with clay under their fingernails. It was an exciting, heady time. It was also a little scary. Mike claimed, “Well, if we’re all going to jump off a cliff, let’s hold hands and jump together.” So we did.
First Friday, December 1997, marked our grand opening. We had paper bag luminaries lining and lighting the driveway. Holiday lights were strung outside; there was no streetlight at that end of the street in those days. Two hundred people trekked in the snow down Main Street and streamed through our unfinished studio that evening.
Classes started in January and the Geil Kiln arrived in spring. It didn’t fit through the door, so a beloved townsman with a giant crane lifted it into the air from the opposite side of the railroad track that bordered the back of the property. He swung it over as we stood below, doing our best to center it and gently lower it to the ground. It has survived, intact, to this day.
That building remains, bursting at the seams, along with two outbuildings housing resident studios. The Clay Center has grown, as has the town — now part of a statewide designated creative arts district. The programs remain robust: artist residencies drawn from national applicants, community classes, national-level workshops and a revolving gallery.
Over the years, we have counted more than 40 resident artists. Now, a second generation of students is joining our classes, discovering the artistic freedom found in clay. Just driving by, you can feel the Clay Center pulsating with creative energy, the mission more alive than ever: “Enriching lives through clay, promoting excellence in clay and building community.” It’s a welcoming, one-of-a-kind place, well-loved and well-used, focused solely on the possibilities found in clay and community. It fits Carbondale well, a town that prides itself on its “messy vitality.”
Now, a capital campaign is in the works to construct a new building, designed specifically to house an expanded, sustainable Clay Center. Integral parts of the design include housing for three resident artists, an expanded area for small, private studios, dedicated classrooms and a large gallery with retail space.
As I sat in the little cinder-block building listening to the future plans, I felt a sense of full circle… this vision, these exact words I wrote so long ago, have come true.
“The pressures of economic development are familiar to all of us as we struggle to maintain the beauty of this valley and the integrity of community life here. The Clay Center will be a refuge for the community.
A center, dedicated to fostering the growth of the human spirit through creative work and hands-on skill development, would genuinely contribute to deepening the cultural life of the entire valley. We live in an era when we are losing touch with ourselves, losing the pleasure of making something with our hands that didn’t exist before.
“To take clay into one’s hands, conceive an idea, and make a physical object of some quality becomes a redemptive, if not an almost revolutionary act. As ceramics teachers, we can say with some certainty that people in our culture desire to reclaim the use of their hands and spirits for something other than computer keyboards and remote controls. Clay is such a primal, organic,and ancient material. Making things out of clay can both comfort and nourish the human spirit.
“The Carbondale Clay Center will be a place of teaching ceramic skills on all levels, fostering appreciation of the ceramic arts, bringing the community together, offering real support for potters needing a place to do their work, and giving students of all ages and backgrounds a chance to work with clay. The exact programming will flow from the needs and desires of the community.”
There exists a full circle of gratitude.
Diane Kenney served as director from 1997-2004.
The Clay Center has seen many changes over the past 25 years. Friendly faces staffing the nonprofit’s day-to-day operations have remained a constant. Photo by Andrew Denaro