Pandemic Zoom Group Becomes Forum for Potters
When Deborah Bedwell transitioned from Executive Director to Trustee of Baltimore Clayworks, she made a point of continuing to teach one class each semester. Her retirement at the end of 2011 from the organization she and a group of artists founded in 1980 did not curtail her enthusiasm for teaching. For over a decade, Bedwell has continued to guide potters in a variety of topics in her Thursday morning class. In March of 2020, she was doing just that when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Baltimore Clayworks. The determination of Bedwell and her students not to be idled led to a response that transitioned from a simple on-line Zoom substitute for class to a generative forum that speaks to the collective nature of the origins of Baltimore Clayworks itself.
Bedwell left Baltimore Clayworks to become President-elect of NCECA, the National Council on Education in Ceramic Arts, where she served from 2012 through 2017. “I plunged into NCECA,” she says, “but I really wanted to teach one class at BCW. I enjoyed a privileged stewardship there.” As Director, she had a “teach it or take it” policy for all employees. All staff members were encouraged to either teach or take a course in clay. She says, “It helped to create a clay consciousness in the organization, a platform that we all understood.” Bedwell’s guidance gave rise to a cooperative community of teachers, artists, board members, staff and volunteers, all focused on the core values of artist-centeredness, excellence, inclusivity, integrity, and joy.
In 2020, Bedwell’s class had met just one Thursday morning in March when the pandemic closed down regular life at Baltimore Clayworks. “I packed up and went to quarantine with my son and his family in Frederick,” she recalls, “figuring I’d return in a couple of weeks when it was all over. He is a computer guy, and he helped me get the group together on a Zoom meeting.” By the third week, the class group was up and running online. Bedwell never permanently returned to Baltimore and her class never resumed in person at Baltimore Clayworks. She renovated and moved into a house in Frederick and has led the Zoom group from there.
Bedwell’s class took on a different nature in the digital format. She called it “Clay Conversation.” With the hands-on element all but lost, the students shared their experiences in lively discussion. Bedwell says, “We started to have a good time discussing specific topics, things that we never really had time to spool out during class. We were exploring some issues in critical thinking and delving into the more formal elements of art making.” The participants began to suggest topics for future meetings, and Bedwell would facilitate. “I would do some research, talk to people who were good friends, colleagues and resources in the field,” she explains. Soon she was inviting visitors to speak occasionally. The group welcomed Ohio artists Kelly and Kyle Phelps, Indiana potter Rebecca Lowery, West Virginia University’s Shoji Satake, Skutt Kilns’ Mike Sievers, and Standard Ceramics’ Julie Hregdovic. Topics included collecting, demonstrations, joint making sessions, and technical discussions on kilns, clays and glazes.
Over the months, “Clay Conversation” began to expand. The original class members told others about the group and they wanted to join. What began with about eight Clayworks students grew to more than twenty-five artists who attend. Bedwell says that each session has at least fifteen stalwart participants. “Recently,” she says, “the group has taken on a highly personal tone. We have had some specific losses and health struggles that have caused individuals to become personally empathetic and supportive. We have become an intentional community, centered in clay.”
Now that the pandemic is waning, and with the increased availability of vaccines, Bedwell ponders how this forum will evolve. Classes will resume in person at Clayworks, but the “Clay Conversation” shows no signs of breaking up. When asked if the group is a replacement for classes or something different or new, Bedwell says, “The COVID-19 pandemic has, of necessity, created new ways of communicating. Thursday morning ‘Clay Conversation’ is one of those new ways. It hasn’t replaced instruction, lectures or workshops. It is not a class, although we are always learning from each other. It reminds me of a book club in a way, or maybe a Quaker spiritual formation group, where you meet to discern a life issue or a systemic situation.” She says that friendships have formed there in a way that is very different from those which might occur in the classroom. Relationships that are deep and sustaining have developed and are likely to continue. The closeness of the group was evident in recent weeks, when members offered tours of their studios, homes, and collections, holding their devices while walking and sharing their personal spaces.
For now, Bedwell plans to continue “Clay Conversation“ in the existing Thursday morning slot, and is proposing to teach an in-person class at Baltimore Clayworks on Tuesdays. The logistics of the Zoom group are stable, with participants coming and going as they are able. Most are experienced ceramic artists, middle-aged or older. She emails a reminder with the topic on Wednesday evenings. If a member misses three meetings in a row without communicating their intention to maintain or leave, their name is simply omitted from the Wednesday reminder. To date, there has been no discussion in the group about disbanding. An in-person picnic is in the works for mid-summer, pandemic-permitting.
Bedwell attributes the success of the group (and to Baltimore Clayworks) to the collective nature of work in clay. She tells of a discussion with James Turnbull, Sr., founder of Standard Ceramic Supply, years ago when she and her fellow artists were trying to start Baltimore Clayworks. They were told it would never work because there were too many people involved. “I went to Pittsburgh to see about being a distributor for Standard clay and met with Jim. Sr. We were drinking Manhattans (my first) and Jim said to me, ‘That’s exactly why it will work – because there are so many people involved.’ At that moment, he put ceramics in context for me. It sharpened my vision. It is collective. It’s in the DNA. No one starts out owning their own kiln. So,” she jests, “Jim taught me to love good clay and good bourbon!” Bedwell’s Zoom forum stands as a testament to her years of community, relationships, and collective creativity.
Learn more about Baltimore Clayworks at www.baltimoreclayworks.org
You can reach Deborah at firstname.lastname@example.org