When Chris Landers could not find the perfect space to make his art, he created it. The Rockville-based ceramic artist had made an “exhaustive search in the commutable area” for a 500-square-foot studio that would accommodate the equipment he uses to craft functional tableware. But all the existing alternatives had deal-breaker drawbacks—from limited access to equipment that would keep him from controlling his process to inadequate ventilation for his kiln.
Realizing that for a few hundred dollars more a month in rent, he could have his ideal studio and also accommodate a small community of artists, Landers leased an unfinished space in a light industrial area of Rockville and set out to convert it to suit his vision. With the help of friends and family—Landers smiles with pride describing his mom hard at work atop a 15-foot ladder—the transformation was completed in 25 days that included “many long nights.”
On Feb. 25, the brand-new Clay CoOp hosted a pop-up gallery that featured the work of 16 established ceramic artists. “More than 250 people came for our opening night, and they bought close to 90 percent of the work on display,” Landers said. This kickoff experience, he added, “gave us a little bit of momentum and money,” with the profits recycled into the business as a reserve to buy new equipment, or make repairs.
The community aspect is key for the 30-year-old self-described “extroverted people person” who sees his studio as “the clay community center for working artists, a serious art making space.” Through the interaction, he observed, “we elevate the skills of the artist in ways that are impossible while working in isolation. The whole is greater than individual people—we exchange ideas, techniques, advice. Elevation of self happens through elevation of the people around you.”
Nine artists currently work in the space, paying a monthly membership fee–$325 for a full work space, $150 for two display shelves; a 40 percent commission on sales goes to the studio. All members have 24-hour access to the fully outfitted studio, which includes a potter’s wheel, an extruder, a slab roller and two electric kilns.
Meetings, exhibits and workshops are held there, and visitors who come to see the work of one artist will typically see, and perhaps appreciate, the work of the others. The first annual “Proximity” ceramics exhibit took place in July, and a two-day soda firing workshop, including a pit firing session, with Denise Joyal, a Wilson College ceramics professor, is coming up on Sept. 10 and Oct. 1.
Landers’ connection with clay began early. The Thomas S. Wootton High School alumnus has “vivid memories of playing with clay in kindergarten (at Dufief Elementary), what we made and how each piece was constructed.” Later, encouraged by his parents to pursue a creative career, he studied graphic design at Montgomery College, where he also took Judit Varga’s ceramics hand building class. “She changed my trajectory completely,” Landers recalled. “I found myself captivated by clay yet again and was there every available hour of open studio.” A wheel throwing class followed. “I didn’t leave that class for years. Xiasheng Bi’s precise methods of working with the material still influence me.”
Nearing the completion of his bachelor’s degree in graphic design from Full Sail University, Landers felt he “couldn’t deny my love for clay any longer.” His then-teacher, sculptor and performance artist J.J. McCracken, whom he credits as having shaped his growth as an artist, convinced him to enroll in a graduate-level ceramics program in China. In Jingdezhen, the birthplace of porcelain, Landers said he “created a body of work and learned about everything from traditional Chinese craft to product design and manufacturing.”
Back in the U.S., Landers enjoyed teaching ceramics in public schools and a children’s art center until opting to “further my professional development.” He recently embarked on a three-year master of fine art degree program in ceramics at Hood College.
Landers said he spends about 40 hours a week at the Clay CoOp, where he focuses on creating functional tableware, some electric-fired in the studio, the rest wood-fired at five different metro area kilns. He is also developing a catalogue of tableware in a palette of glazes for high-end restaurants.
Believing that fine art and the utilitarian can coincide, his artist statement says, “I look at daily ritual and want people to learn to enjoy and think while they eat and drink. It is my goal to help with this habit by introducing imperfect beauty into the pedestrian rituals of daily life. Through the use of my work, I hope to heighten the senses, allowing the user to gain more enjoyment from those daily moments that most of society so frequently overlook.”
He described his process: “I find solace in my process at the potter’s wheel, working hard to attempt a feeling of effortless existence in my pots. I work with speed and rhythm to try and find that elusive asymmetrical balance that becomes perfectly imperfect. It is my sincere hope that by exposing the public to my visions of humble, imperfect, utilitarian pots, will encourage my observers to take some time out of their hectic routine to appreciate the beauty of the underappreciated aspects of one’s daily life.”
Judith HeartSong, who created her own artist community at Artists & Makers Studios in a comparable area of Rockville, called Landers “a professional after my own heart with his work ethic, dedication to his business and his craft, and his way with people.” She commended him for doing “the hard work of building a new community of clay artists …. He is dedicated, community-minded, and a real asset to the larger Rockville arts community. He…is always networking and community building.”
For Landers, the Clay CoOp is just the beginning. “I am really looking at this space as a proof of concept for a larger ceramic art center and artist residency program. I would eventually like to purchase a dilapidated stand-alone industrial space, preferably with some history (that) would house established artist studios, separate classroom/ education space, and an outdoor kiln yard with atmospheric kilns.”
The Clay CoOp is located at 328-D North Stonestreet Ave., Rockville. Call 240-793-2226 or visit www.theclaycoop.com.