Two Wheelers

A storefront tucked away on Howe Street has long been a source of curiosity for passersby. The door is almost always locked; the lights are almost always out. But when you peer into the windows, you can see rows of impressive-looking ceramics on display. Pots, mugs and giant vases all stand silently in the small space. Inside, the floor is covered in a thick white dust.

“Folks come to the door, and they really don’t know what we are or who we are,” says Laura Litvinoff. “They’re constantly asking, ‘When are you guys ever open? What do you do?’”

The confusion may arise from the fact that while the business name, Clay Studio New Haven, seems straightforward, there are a few competing interpretations. It could be a pottery shop, or one of those make-your-own classrooms, or a private studio space.

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Or it could be some combination thereof, and sure enough, Clay Studio’s partners Laura Litvinoff and Chris Alexiades use the space to make their pottery, teach occasional classes and, for just one day a year—2016’s is this Saturday, from noon to six—sell their work to the public. The two women met at Southern Connecticut State University when Litvinoff took a hand-building class (working clay with only your hands and tools, without the wheel) taught by Alexiades. “We became fast friends and I recognized her as a great teacher,” Litvinoff says. When the class ended, however, the friends thought they would have to go their separate ways, since Alexiades wasn’t teaching the class that Litvinoff most wanted to take: wheel throwing, which refers to the classic ceramics technique of forming wet clay on a briskly turning wheel. Think Ghost, with less Patrick Swayze.

Even though Alexiades wasn’t offering the class at Southern, Litvinoff found out about Alexiades’s studio on Howe. “She had this little space here that had wheels, so I pretty much just camped out on her doorstep until she said yes,” Litvinoff says. “And I’ve been here ever since. Sixteen years.” For 11 of them, the two have offered wheel throwing classes a few times a year, and the teaching “brings us both great satisfaction,” according to Alexiades.

Their students—from beginners to the more experienced potters who have been working with them for over two years—learn more than the tricky magic of pottery, according to the instructors. “We’re not a craft center. We’re not a traditional school. We’re a private studio space—two working artists who want to share what they do. And people who like that and understand it tend to gravitate towards it,” Litvinoff says.

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In addition to the essential skills of clay throwing, Litvinoff and Alexiades teach the ability to appreciate the result. After a pot is shaped, fired, glazed and fired again, there’s one last step: “We tell the students that it’s not done until you take it home and use it,” so that “you have an experience with that pot,” Litvinoff says. “You put things in it and you eat from it or drink from it. You hold it, look at it and share it with other people. Then the pot is finished.”

The impulse to scrap imperfect pieces is strong in beginning potters. But Litvinoff and Alexiades say that they don’t allow their students to abandon apparently flawed work so easily. Instead, they save whatever project brought its creator grief, and, at the end of the class, they pull it back out to show them. “Nine times out of 10, it’s their favorite pot,” Litvinoff says. “It happens all the time.”

The ability to “welcome the happy mistake,” as Alexiades puts it, is central to the art of pottery. She first saw someone throwing clay as an eight-year-old, and remembers thinking to herself, “It looked like magic. This guy was defying gravity. I thought: I need to do this.” She says that even after 20 years, even as a master potter, she still gets butterflies every time she turns the key in Clay Studio New Haven’s lock. “You never know what’s going to happen… You need to look at something and not see it for what it isn’t, but for what it might be. I think that’s where creativity comes from.”

The art of pottery has endured for millennia, despite a famously fragile product and a creation process fraught with the “potential for disaster at every turn,” as Alexiades puts it. She and Litvinoff are mindful of the long line of ceramicists that’ve thrown before them. “When you go to an archeological dig, what’s the first thing they always find?” Litvinoff asks. “Shards of pottery.” The long tradition of clay throwing is part of their motivation as teachers, especially in a time when “industry has eliminated the need for handcrafted items,” turning it into a desire that must be cultivated. “I feel like teaching is a responsibility,” Alexiades says. “Somebody has to do it. We can’t just forget it.”

If you want to reacquaint yourself with this ancient art, you can visit Clay Studio New Haven this Saturday during its once-a-year sale. In addition to opening their doors for curious holiday shoppers, the pair is opening their doors for the just plain curious. It’s an “opportunity,” Litvinoff says, “for all those folks in the neighborhood who think, ‘What the heck is that place?’ to come and check us out.”

Clay Studio New Haven
89 Howe St, New Haven (map)
“Open by chance or by appointment.”
Open House: Saturday, Dec. 10, from 12-6pm
laura@claystudionewhaven.com
www.claystudionewhaven.com

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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