Around 40 years ago — maybe earlier, perhaps a bit later — a small group of civic-minded artists and arts patrons started a pottery cooperative in a former office building on the 200 block of West Washington Street.
They named the venture Arts for Success, and indeed, that is what it has been. Today, the Arts for Success Pottery Co-op thrives, with a year-in, year-out membership of approximately 40, pottery lessons and a friendly, focused atmosphere of potters doing what they love: Making pottery.
It’s likely the nonprofit co-op is regionally unique, the co-op’s board members say. They’ve searched Mississippi and neighboring states, said the co-op’s director, Sue Hitt. The conclusion?
“As far as we know, we are the only one in Mississippi,” Hitt said. “I can’t find anybody! ... Do you know that Memphis and Birmingham don’t have one? It’s a rarity.”
She’s not sure why. Pottery is so appealing, she said. “Anybody can do it. All you have to do is want to do it and enjoy it.”
Another board member, Susan Sheridan, explained, “Pottery is something that if you can think it, you can do it.” Hitt and Sheridan are veterans, as are many co-op members. Hitt said she used to love other crafts, such as cross-stitching, but then she found pottery. “Clay is the only one that stuck. It’s so addictive.”
Sheridan laughed as she remembered why she started selling pottery as well as creating it. Her story was the same as Hitt’s and others’. She made more than she could house or give away, so she began selling it here and there. She explained, “You’ve got to find an outlet or you’ve got to stop.” That, she did not want to do.
Nor have many of the others. Hitt and potters Kathie Sutphen, Vicky Patridge and Karen Archer sell pottery at the Greenwood vendors’ mall, Delta Emporium, for example. Others have chosen different outlets, and many have business names. Board member Rima Williams calls hers Roots and Wings. Sheridan has Muddy Mushroom, and Sutphen — Delta Gumbo. Patridge’s is VickyP, and Hitt’s Potter’s Hand, is taken from Isaiah 64:8.
The passage reads, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
Hitt said just picking up a piece of clay feels creative. “It reminds me of God making us. You get to take a piece of dirt and make something beautiful.”
Well, sometimes. The Arts for Success potters have a saying for when they lose a piece. If one breaks, for example, they say to themselves, “It’s only a piece of dirt.” Hitt said she sometimes shows one of her shattered pieces to new students to explain that accidents happen, or sometimes things don’t work out. But that’s not earth shaking.
The co-op on Tuesday began a set of classes for new students. There are 10 in the class, which is a good size for the co-op. The co-op members teach the course, taking turns at guiding students as they progress. The price is $350 for a two-hour session once a week for 10 weeks. All supplies are included.
After that, students are eligible to join the co-op. There’s a one-time $100 fee and then dues of $40 a month. The money covers utilities and property taxes, the use of the co-op’s three kilns, two slab rollers and two pottery wheels, access to 25 to 30 different pottery glazes, and services, including Hitt’s as director and the work of two others. One handles finances, and another makes the glazes.
“The glazes are expensive,” Hitt said, but “the only thing you have to purchase is the clay.” Members are required to spend two hours a month helping out. This might range from sweeping up or maybe loading and unloading kilns.
After pottery is constructed, it takes about a week to dry. Then it is bisque fired in a kiln, cooled, glazed and fired again. The final “baking,” Hitt said, is at 2,178 degrees for 12 to 15 hours.
Kristi Bussey doesn’t mind pitching in. She’s a new board member and a relatively new potter. She’s been working hard, not only constructing slab pieces but also throwing pots. “It’s very relaxing. You focus on what you are doing. You come up here and you can lose track of time.”
There’s also the opportunity to vent frustration. “You can take it out on the clay,” observed board member Kathie Sutphen.
“We have people who need this,” Hitt said. “They need something in their life to give them a spark again.”
There also is the opportunity to share. “We try to help people who need money,” Hitt said. “I’d rather make pottery for a good cause than just sell it.” She paused and laughed, mentioning her pottery “addiction” by saying, “Of course, I have to sell a little bit to pay from my ‘habit.’”
She particularly enjoys helping to teach classes for newcomers. “This is a passion,” she said. “People love it, and I love to watch people loving this.”