Berkeley Potters Guild celebrates a half-century of crafting ceramics, from mugs to museum pieces

The West Berkeley collective is home to 18 potters with a wide variety of styles.

At work in the Berkeley Potters Guild, Kiyomi Koide shapes a new piece. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

October 4, 2022

BERKELEYSIDE – On Oct. 7, the nation celebrates national Manufacturing Day, an annual showcase of all things Made in America. The day also kicks off Bay Area Manufacturing Week, when municipalities throughout the region will host tours of state-of-the-art labs, robot-assisted plants, and other businesses essential to the region’s manufacturing base: bakers, brewers, vintners, roasters, artisans, designers and craftspeople. 

To provide an insider’s view of the city’s collective talents, the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development is offering a series of free events, including tours and tastings with West Berkeley makers and producers. 

Among them: the ceramic wizards at Berkeley Potters Guild.  

A collective founded in 1971, today the guild is one of many thriving arts organizations in vibrant West Berkeley — Makers WorkspaceTrax Gallery, and The Potters Studio are just three examples located along nearby Fourth Street and in the Gilman District. In 1971, however, the guild was nothing more than an abandoned building on a decaying strip of Jones Street. But it was promising enough for 18 potters, whose previous workspaces had been condemned, to sign a five-year lease and get to work.  

Pamela Zimmerman, president of the Berkeley Potters Guild, in her studio at the collective space. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

After buying the building, the guild’s founders created a board called Clayshares that owned the building and leased it to the Potters Guild.  These same first members built six natural-gas kilns and carved out 18 individual studios. Despite ups and downs, buying and selling the building, getting rescued by a Berkeley arts patron when the shareholders wanted to sell the building, and decades of departures and newcomers, the guild hung on. The West Berkeley stalwart turns 51 this year, making it not only the oldest continuously operating ceramics cooperative in California, but also in the United States. 

“I’ll be the first to admit it, there was a period when it was chaotic,” said Pamela (Paz) Zimmerman, current guild president and its longest-tenured member. “But in the last 25 years things have really settled down. People are very professional, and there’s a strong feeling of commitment. Not just to the work, but to each other.” 

Pamela Zimmerman tests glazes on little bowls. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Zimmerman believes the guild’s business structure helps augment that sense of purpose. “We each have our own studio and own our own little business. We have a one-member, one-vote policy, so everyone has a say. Our own bottom line is our collective bottom line.”

The guild also exemplifies everything that is both old and new in ceramics, adhering to centuries-old traditions and incorporating painting and firing techniques that are more clay-for-art’s-sake than clay-for-function’s-sake. 

“There is so much diversity here now, both in terms of who we are and in how we create. We encompass every aspect of clay, from beautifully painted works of art to large sculptures to humble mugs,” Zimmerman said. Pieces by past and present Potters Guild members have garnered national and worldwide attention, including in exhibitions at the Smithsonian, the Oakland Museum of California, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the State Historical Museum in Moscow and at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and de Young Art Museum. 

Zimmerman, whose fascination with clay goes back to her childhood, falls on the “humble mugs” side of the spectrum. “I’m a simple potter,” she said. “I’m part of an old, old tradition making simple, everyday things people can use. Bowls and mugs. Plates. I love that people might pull something I made down from the cupboard and hold it in their hands every day.”  

Chanda Beck paints one of her mugs in her studio at the Berkeley Potters Guild. Credit: Chris Aynesworth

It’s a sentiment shared by Chanda S. Beck of Ezme Designs, who joined the Potters Guild in 2012. Beck, who first studied Anthropology, said she loves being part of a clay tradition that has been unfolding for more than 12,000 years. Beck also enjoys making functional, everyday things, but with a touch of whimsy: cat heads for bowls, “put a bird on it” mugs and tumblers. She focuses on hand-drawn abstract representations of forms found in nature. “I love to make work that makes people happy and smile. I’ve had many customers tell me that my mugs are the best part of their mornings. I feel like that means my work is done.” 

Kiyomi Koide, in her her studio at the Berkeley Potters Guild. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Kiyomi Koide, who operates Koide Studio, grew up in Japan, where the “exclusivity” of ceramics education kept her on the sidelines. A short course on clay during a trip to Mexico changed all that. Later, classes at Bay Area universities, including an ASUC Student Union studio class at UC Berkeley (open to both students and the community), reinforced clay as her “non-stop passion.” She, too, focuses on everyday objects, but concentrates on pieces that “enhance eating and cooking.” 

Her aesthetic is “simple, modern and stylish,” with the goal of making the everyday experience of eating and drinking into something “more personal and intimate.”  She says that when the receptacle was crafted by someone you know, or produced by a local artist, you have that added dimension of knowing it was a labor of love. 

Zimmerman believes the Potters Guild owes a large part of its longevity to Berkeley itself. “Berkeley is unique in that the city and the community make it so that we can keep going.”

Here’s to another 51 years.


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