FIRING A NEW ARTISTIC FUTURE
New pottery studio is a place to shape clay and community
BY SUSAN BURGESS
Cathleen Sullivan’s dream of creating a pottery studio came true. But she made more than that happen; her vision brought the dreams of others to life.
Treasure Coast Pottery was an immediate hit when it opened in March. Sullivan’s studio attracted an eager group of students — both experienced and inexperienced — who signed up for classes.
Along with creating mugs, vases, sculptures, bowls, plates and more, friendships blossom from their shared experiences as they learn from and inspire each other.
This new artistic space on Heritage Drive is filled with the fun, the excitement and the amazement that comes with learning to create something that never existed before and knowing you made it. The finished pieces will be signed, glazed and fired in kilns at the studio.
Mia Iken of Port St. Lucie is just 16 years old, a junior at Fort Pierce Central High School and a talented summer studio student.
“I really like handbuilding,” she said, referring to a style of pottery making that doesn’t require a wheel. “I just get lost in it when I am making something.”
Iken is an imaginative creator. One of her vertical pieces is a long arm in a sleeve, with its hand on the table clutching something round. Her talent and skill allow her to pluck something from her imagination and sculpt it in clay.
She took ceramics at Central, which gave her a leg up when she joined Treasure Coast Pottery. This summer she plans to learn to use a pottery wheel: yet another experience that will move her closer to her dream of a degree and career in the visual arts.
Sullivan, the Port St. Lucie resident who owns the studio, ran into clay by accident.
Or, as she likes to say, “Clay ran into me.”
Artistic as a child, she took lessons and painted as she grew up. She was inspired by her dad who was a master woodworker.
“I wanted to make things in three dimensions like he did,” Sullivan says. “I always loved the feel of 3-D shapes — and now I can do it with clay.”
But life gets in the way of such aspirations sometimes: she was a mother with two small children before clay became the focus of her artistic life.
“I was doing a ‘mommy and me’ get-together with friends,” she explains, “when one of the mothers said she couldn’t be there the next day because she had to be at a pottery studio.”
That was all the inspiration Sullivan needed.
“The very next day I went [to a class],” she says. “I loved it. I couldn’t get enough of it.”
She started spending every spare moment honing her sculpting skills and experimenting with glazes. She immersed herself in her craft even further when she decided to construct her own home studio. When friends dropped by and were intrigued, she happily shared what she was learning with them.
Then, she went on a pottery tour of Italy. That was the eye-opener that changed her life. Suddenly, she was hungry to learn the history and language of art.
First, she won an $18,000 scholarship to C.W. Post College, part of Long Island University. She eventually earned her degree in 2020 at Empire State College, now University, graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor of visual arts.
She calls college her “greatest gift” because she learned how to work in different media, which directed her creative interests into new areas. Now, as a teacher, she is skilled in many different methods of working with clay. Her breadth of experience makes her pottery studio a well-rounded place to learn.
“Today I’m enjoying what I was meant to do,” she said.
There were no pottery studios like hers on the Treasure Coast when it opened, she said. But there was a nonprofit organization, Indian River Clay, in Vero Beach. That was where the idea for Treasure Coast Pottery began. She met another potter there, Travis Thomason, and the pair decided to open a studio.
Pent-up demand in St. Lucie County made Treasure Coast Pottery an instant hit.
Thomason has since moved to another state, where he continues his own pottery journey. So learning to run a studio by herself was and is a big challenge for Sullivan. Her husband, Gerard, encouraged and supported her all the way.
“He is always there for me,” she says. “He made everything possible.”
Shaping clay by hand on a wheel — known as wheel thrown pottery — is one of the many methods for forming clay taught at Treasure Coast Pottery. Students can sign up for single-lesson workshops or classes taught over a six-week period.
Wheel thrown is a style that fires the imagination of many beginners who are compelled by the sight and feel of wet clay taking instant shape, guided by their palms and fingers, on the wheel as it spins.
Students learn to change the shape of the clay — by pinching or pulling the sides as it spins, or by cutting it and putting it back together. They can learn to make separate parts, such as teapot spouts, handles or lids, and add them to their creations. Or the potter can create an object — known as a pot no matter what the shape — and carve designs into it or cut slices off the outside.
It can take years to perfect the skills, but a soaring imagination can keep right on creating new pieces.
Typically, wheel-thrown pots are functional, used in everyday life. But hand-built pieces can take many different forms. This freedom makes it a favorite of learners of all ages.
There are many ways a potter can hand build a piece. Coils can be rolled out like snakes and stacked or curved in simple or intricate shapes. Slabs, which are flat pieces of clay rolled out like pie dough and cut, are used to make a variety of objects with flat surfaces. Or slabs can be put together to make curved and rounded shapes.
Sculpture, which fascinates many pottery students, can take any imaginable form that can be made from clay. Pieces can be abstract or realistic, serious or funny. Some make you wonder what the artist was thinking, while others instantly mesh with your own mindset.
START TO FINISH
Students are taught the whole magical process: they form the clay, which is then partially dried, trimmed where needed, put in a kiln and heated to a high temperature. After the clay hardens, it is removed for glazing. The pieces are then dipped or dribbled with glaze or painted with special paint. They are again fired [heated to high temperature] and the glaze becomes glass, giving the piece its shine, color and design. Some kilns use electricity for heat while others use flames.
“I love opening the kiln,” Sullivan says. “You never know how it’s going to come out.”
That’s because glazes, as they melt and move with the heat, seem to have a mind of their own.
Kiln-opening day is exciting for the students, too, because they get to see the results of their hard work and learn more about what they do and don’t want to try with their next piece.
Rhaina Smed, who lives in Fort Pierce but grew up in Rockledge, is an experienced clay artist. She began taking ceramics courses in 1992, as a college student in California. She loved it so much that she bought her own pottery wheel.
“I moved and carried that wheel around the country, wherever I went,” she says.
Last year she was at the Zen Music Festival in Port St. Lucie when she spotted Sullivan’s pottery booth and went over to talk clay.
“Cathleen told me she was working toward setting up a studio,” Smed says. “She was teaching from her home then.”
Smed became an early studio member, which allows her to attend Treasure Coast Pottery’s workshops and the open studio days when potters can come in and work, either on their own or with others, without an instructor.
“It’s so great to have a studio nearby to learn new things or refresh the old,” she says.
Smed is a psychologist and working with clay helps her deal with the stories she’s heard all day from patients.
“It’s a big stress reliever and takes my mind off the pain I absorb,” she explains. “It just puts my mind in a different place and getting back to it has been very satisfying.”
Sullivan and Iken agree that clay does something special for them too.
“It’s very calming,” Iken says. “You can focus on just the clay and forget everything else.”
Sullivan mentions the soft feel and texture of the clay and the way it can be formed into shapes.
“My family says they’ve never seen me happier,” she says.
The studio occupies a 2,000-square-foot space in a commercial building at 6911 Heritage Drive. One of its rooms is especially for young people, including homeschooled students, set up for their lessons.
Sullivan envisions it as a warm, giving, collaborative space.
“I want this studio to be a place that will create community and give back to the larger community,” she says. “I couldn’t believe the warm welcome I had from this community when I was thinking about opening the studio. In other places, it can be so hard for an artist to be accepted. But here it was different.”
The studio already offers a variety of classes and workshops. For people who have never worked with clay before there are “try it” days.
Workshops on decorative techniques and glazing are offered. Students can learn to make animal sculptures, to weave baskets using only clay and special decorating techniques.
Wheel classes are a staple for all skill levels, as are lessons in various kinds of handbuilding and sculpture. The studio even hosts private creative clay parties for groups.
Sullivan also has an eye on the future. Her hopes include making art a larger part of life on the Treasure Coast with more public art placed around the city and county, as well as creating a space for art at the evolving city center on the corner of Walton Road and U.S. 1. She has plans to work with the St. Lucie Chamber of Commerce and the St. Lucie Cultural Alliance.
Bringing to life her magical studio, where ideas become reality in clay under the hands of her students, is just the beginning of Sullivan’s new artistic quest: now she wants nothing less than to shape a new appreciation for art, in her community and beyond.