Hands Together

Hands Together

Back between a salon and an accountant’s office, a pair of plain garage doors off Edwards Street hides a creative wonderland: Wet Clay Works, a coworking ceramics studio where, in the back left corner, Ericka Saracho and Gabriela Margarita De Jesus of Bright Raven Studio work side by side turning humble clay into fine and decorative art.

Originally from Los Angeles, Saracho was drawn to clay when they decided to shadow a class Margarita De Jesus happened to be taking at Creative Arts Workshop. Saracho had worked as a union organizer in Las Vegas before moving back to New Haven, where she had previously attended Yale. Margarita De Jesus had grown up in The Hill neighborhood and studied film photography, also at Yale. She found clay while studying abroad in a small Brazil town, having signed up on whim for a one-off pottery workshop. “I was having a good time,” she recalls, “and the teacher looked at me, smiling. He said, ‘You have to do this when you go back.’”

It took a few years for Margarita De Jesus to reapproach clay, but in reflecting on what led her back to it, she didn’t hesitate. “For me it was the process. Having all those different stages, it eliminates that need to think too much. You can get into a meditative state.” On Bright Raven’s website, she elaborates: “For me the process has always been analog and slow—requiring hands, physical ritual, a bit of intuition, and most of all curiosity for what will be revealed.”

Three years after the class at Creative Arts Workshop, the duo behind Bright Raven—who chose that name for its folkloric quality and as a totem for curiosity and resilience—also work out of a home studio set up in response to the pandemic’s shutdown of pottery studios. As a result, Bright Raven was able to sell at popup markets across Connecticut in 2021, gaining market insights along the way. At one popup in Coventry, a farmer approached their table and picked up a mug to inspect it. “The handle,” he concluded, and put it back. But rather than being defeated by such moments, Bright Raven adapted and even thrived. Every potential customer “has their own preference, and been a benefit for us,” Saracho says, providing creative and commercial encouragement.

The night of my visit to Wet Clay Works, the pair set up on their pottery wheels. Margarita De Jesus began trimming a pot-in-progress that had already been shaped, while Saracho started to build one from scratch, attentively keeping the clay moist and pliable, their hands gaining a thick gray coat as the pot grew and took form.

The whole process seems to involve eight basic stages—selecting the material, wedging (removing any air from) it, choosing a technique, sculpting the clay, trimming and decorating it, bisque firing it, glazing it and finally glaze firing it—an often lengthy process requiring patience, mindfulness and, in Bright Raven’s case, precision and attention to detail. “I’m inspired a lot by texture and by drawing onto my pots,” Margarita De Jesus says. “I like to do a lot of sgraffito work. Scratching into the clay after putting an underglaze and making botanical designs. That’s inspired by my time doing analog photography. I think I’ve always had this interest in art process that takes a long time.”

Walking through Wet Clay Works, I lingered at a rack of test tiles in different hues and glazes. “We’re experimenting with color to see what story we want to tell,” Margarita De Jesus says. Adjacent to the test tiles, a shelf of brightly colored chemicals were lined in a row. At times, they say, the area mimics a busy laboratory, as the countertop fills with freshly glazed experiments.

A culture of testing will certainly help with a “Make 100 Throw Down” campaign Bright Raven recently launched on Kickstarter, which is, as of this writing, 95% of the way to its goal with 17 days left. Their first such campaign happened in 2021, “after Covid-19 shut down our community studio” and the duo needed a creative way to get their wares out there. This time, backers can secure rewards from a tiny pot/photobook combo to a choice of four unique bowls, with private pottery lessons also in the mix.

Rewards, as applicable, will be produced in spring and summer, then delivered in October 2023. For backers, the wait to receive their rewards will be its own exercise in patience and mindfulness, in communion with the creative process behind them.

Written by Lindsay Skedgell. Images 1, 3 (Saracho), 4 (Margarita De Jesus) and 5 photographed by Lindsay Skedgell. Image 2 courtesy of Bright Raven Studio.

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