By Sue Gray

Sopris Sun Correspondent

Carbondale’s last First Friday of 2013 was one of the coldest in memory, topping out at about 17 degrees. That didn’t deter the steadfast community spirit that permeates all First Friday events however, as the streets were filled with crowds of bundled up revelers.

After the lighting ceremony, caroling kids, Santa visit and marshmallow roasting at Fourth Street Plaza, restaurants and bars filled up with shivering souls looking to get warm. But a good majority set their sights on another target at the east end of town: the annual Benefit Cup Auction at the Carbondale Clay Center.

From 5:30 p.m. on, people trickled in to the garage-like cinderblock building with its concrete floors and track lighting, to view an assortment of handmade ceramic cups displayed on simple shelving. Donated by ceramic artists all over the country, the cups come in a wide range of sizes, colors and design complexity; each one unique.

By 7 p.m. the place was packed with community members of all ages and backgrounds, from high school students to retired doctors to local dignitaries; former Carbondale mayor Michael Hassig was seen hobnobbing with Clay Center founding director Diane Kenney. Though she’s no longer directly involved with the everyday events at the CCC, Kenney says she attends the fund-raisers and special events and loves to see the enthusiasm the community has for the center’s wares.

The annual cup auction fund-raiser always draws a large crowd, many of them repeat customers. Some buy the pieces to give as holiday gifts, others for themselves. Dick Wells said he and his wife Gayle have quite a collection of cups from past auctions.

Susan Casebeer comes every year to bid on and sometimes win a piece of ceramic art. “I think it’s just a great way for people to get interested in the arts on an affordable level, and it’s good to see all of these young people here,” said Casebeer as she gestured toward the beanie-clad and bearded 20-somethings clustered together around the room.

The average retail price of the cups is between $20 and $40, but bids can go to $60 or above. Casebeer pointed out that this year is special because any revenue collected above the retail price goes toward a current fund-raising project involving a potential matching grant.

Carbondale Clay Center Executive Director Jill Oberman explained that they have until the end of 2013 to raise $45,000 in order to receive a matching amount from an anonymous donor. That money will be used to pay off a long-standing debt that has plagued the CCC for several years.

But not all of the money from the cup auction will go toward the matching grant. The auction was originally conceived to raise funds for the Clay Center’s operating costs, a function it still serves. But this year, only the retail amount of the cup will go to the annual budget, the rest will go to the matching fund. So a cup that retailed for $20 but sold for $35 would give $15 to the fund.

Oberman said they’ve had an enormous outpouring of support since the matching grant campaign began only a little over a month ago. The whirlwind fund-raising effort has resulted in $33,000 toward the goal of $45,000, according to the Clay Center’s newsletter on Dec. 10. “If we don’t make it by Dec. 31,” said Oberman, “we’re not going to close our doors, but we can’t really go forward with new programs and improvements until we reduce that debt.”

Formed in 1997, the non-profit Carbondale Clay Center functioned well on grants, memberships and donations, but began experiencing hard times along with the rest of the country in the recession of 2008. In the last few years, proceeds from CCC’s three annual fund-raising events: Pairings (March), Cajun Clay Night (July), and the Benefit Cup Auction (December) dwindled to almost half of that raised in previous years.

The economic downturn resulted in several changeovers in the leadership of the Carbondale Clay Center. Oberman came on board as executive director in September 2012 and has been playing catch-up with the budget ever since.

Oberman has worked in ceramic arts studios and centers all over the country since graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology School for American Crafts. She was the studio manager of the ceramics program at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass from 1999 to 2005, and then worked at a clay center in Missoula, Montana before returning to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2012.  

Oberman says there is a close-knit bond and a lot of support between ceramic artists. “I’m here half because I love to make stuff and the other half because the people in the ceramic arts community are so interesting.”

The Clay Center’s contribution to the community at large is important in many ways, Oberman believes, not the least being the potential to teach kids to be creative problem solvers, which leads to being better adults, parents and business people. “Clay isn’t easy,” she said, “it’s technical.”

The Carbondale Clay Center offers classes for all ages, kids clay camps, gallery exhibitions, outreach programming, special events, and community parties. In addition there is an artist’s residency program.

“I sometimes consider the residency program as a halfway house for artists fresh out of art school, giving them access to an active studio and a lively local community as they begin their careers,” wrote Clay Center founder Kenney in a letter to the editor. “Many former resident artists go on to grad school and/or teach in universities, community colleges, clay centers, work in professional studios, and win fellowships and national awards.”

Clay Center residency program alumnus Alix Knipe stayed in Carbondale after her residency ended and now has a studio at SAW. “Many famous potters and ceramic artists around the United States have a CCC residency on their resume,” said Knipe. “In 2006 I was one of those residents, so I am intimately aware of how the Clay Center can have an impact on an artist’s life. Also, as one of the many former CCC residents that decided to make Carbondale their home, I see how the Clay Center has touched many hearts in our small town and has been instrumental in building a strong arts community in Carbondale.”

The Clay Center’s current resident artists — Matthew Eames, Staci DeBolt, Kendra Sparks and Mike Stumbras — share studio time for their personal artistic endeavors as well as responsibilities related to running the center’s various programs. They helped set up and decorate for the Cup Auction and then stayed to serve wine, beer and non-alcoholic beverages (for a suggested $2 donation). All of the food and drinks were donated by Carbondale businesses, Clay Center members and other supporters.

“The two values I have always wanted most for the Clay Center,” wrote Kenney in another letter to the editor, “(is) that it would be a grassroots organization dedicated to building community and promoting excellence in the arts.”

As throngs of guests continued to fill the room and the auction forms filled with bids, it was clear that the Carbondale Clay Center embodies this town’s strong community support of local non-profits and its artsy style.

To become a member and/or make a tax-deductible donation go to the website: or stop in at 135 Main Street.