Anyone who has ever sat down at the wheel or the workbench with a block of clay knows the total absorption of the solitary creative experience. The intense focus of imagination erases time and funnels the senses toward the target of the created object. The potter can be a lone figure. These recent years of pandemic-forced isolation brought forth great productivity in many artists but have left many seeking the connections of community. Potter John Beck, of the Chicago suburb Oak Park, manages ViaClay, a new studio founded by Oak Park potter Gabe Tetrev, where a resurgence of shared gathering is bringing potters and students together.
Ceramic Supply Chicago featured Gabe Tetrev’s GPTetrev Pottery on our web page in November of 2018. [READ STORY HERE] An ambitious entrepreneur and talented potter, Tetrev became a familiar figure to Oak Park residents, as he sat for hours at his wheel in the storefront window along South Oak Park Avenue, determinedly and efficiently filling commissioned orders of tableware for local eateries. Just home from his sophomore year at Iowa State in the summer of 2018, Beck was intrigued by Tetrev’s studio and spent a lot of time there.
“I got the pottery bug in high school,” Beck says. I have three sisters, and two of them are very artistic, but 2-D art never clicked with me. It didn’t make sense. I needed to use my hands, to have the tactile element.” Beck attended Oak Park River Forest High School, which has extensive programming in the arts. His teacher, Pennie Ebsen, has inspired countless young people to explore the ceramic arts. Beck embraced the opportunity, working closely with Ebsen and serving as her Studio Technician and Student Teacher during his junior and senior years. During the summers, he took independent classes. “These were great,” he says, “because I could succeed or fail at my own pace.”
Beck chose to study Materials Engineering at Iowa State, eventually zeroing in on ceramics, but he found himself repeatedly drawn back to clay. By winter break of 2018, he was spending all his free time at Tetrev’s studio. He recalls, “I was making glazes and getting more involved with Gabe’s operation. He had a bunch of commissions, and I spent a lot of time helping him organize them. This was the first inkling for me of my managerial skills.” By the fall of his senior year, Beck and Tetrev were working well together. Beck says, “Gabe had this well-established studio, but everyone kept asking for classes. There seemed to be a huge demand.” Tetrev wanted to open a new space where people could learn and develop their own styles through a cohesive community. He asked Beck to be a part of it.
The two men got to work, finding a space and building it out. Beck was finishing his last semester of college when the COVID lockdown hit in March of 2020. “I came home for spring break and never went back,” he says. He continued his classes remotely and received his degree but spent most of his time getting the space ready and planning for a June 2020 opening. Despite surges of the pandemic, the studio opened as scheduled and has remained in operation continuously.
ViaClay offers a monthly membership for adults to work independently seven days a week. The monthly fee includes 25 pounds of clay, a dedicated private shelf, and the use of all tools, glazes, and firing times. Viaclay started with 15 to 20 members. Classes are offered for adults and children in the evenings, after school, and on weekends. This past summer, 40 members regularly used the space.
The studio opened about eight blocks from Tetrev’s studio, with eight wheels in 2,000 square feet of space. In December of 2020, an adjacent business closed, allowing Viaclay to expand to two studios, add five wheels, and double its footprint. Tetrev moved his personal studio to the basement of the new space. New equipment is planned for later this year, including a slab roller, a new kiln, and more wheels.
For Beck, the decision to join Tetrev was almost inevitable. “I went to a lot of career fairs for engineering,” he says, “but this offer to be Gabe’s Operations Manager was very enticing. I love pottery. I love sharing that. I love watching a student move from ‘This is hard!’ to mastering the wheel. I realized both my parents are teachers; my sisters are teachers.” Beck’s education in glass engineering is germane to his work with glazes. He and Tetrev developed and tested a series of ten glazes for use at the new ViaClay studio. “We tested over a hundred formulas, changing firing cycles, rating texture and color, and narrowed it down to ten,” he says.
Beck continues to develop his own work. He says, “For me, pottery is a functional art. I want people to look at what I make and use it. I want people to use my work and when I buy pottery, I want to use it.” The community at ViaClay has allowed Beck and the many members to share a collaboration of ideas. “We sit around a talk a lot,” he explains, “bouncing ideas off each other. We have amassed a team of teachers with a huge font of knowledge.” With amenities like an in-shop laundry, kitchen, and personal lockers, members almost have no need to go home. Tetrev and Beck have succeeded in creating a community that feeds the individual artist with inspiration, ideas, and a sense of shared belonging.
Learn more at www.viaclay.com
Read about Gabe Tetrev here: https://ceramicsupplychicago.com/blogs/featured-articles/gabe-tetrev-a-presenter-at-csc-s-local-artist-series