As the Wheel Spins

Form and function merge for artisans of the Ventura County Potters’ Guild.

By Mark Storer


ne of the coolest things about the Ventura Harbor is the diversity of shops surrounding the boat docks. Ethnic eateries, fish vendors, kite shops, dive shops, toy stores, boutiques, and art galleries abound. Case in point: the Ventura County Potters’ Guild shop, located in the courtyard on the harbor’s west side.

Home to artists and artisans who create beautiful works of art and practical everyday items, the shop is filled with the decorative colors of handcrafted clay, porcelain, and glass pieces. It’s a tactile learner’s dream come true. But this four-year-old shop houses a history that goes back much further than that. The group just celebrated 55 years, showing off its wares at Libbey Park in Ojai and holding a dinner plate making competition.

The guild is currently home to about 150 members, all of whom make their own pottery and many of whom display those wares at the shop in the harbor. “The guild goes back to 1957,” said Richard Franklin, vice president for shows and exhibits; Franklin’s wife, Yvette, is the guild’s current president. “There were some students of the head of the ceramics department at Ventura College, Bill Winterbourne. They were pretty proficient, and they decided to get together and provide outlets for more learning, crafting, and working.”

For a group of artists who decided to provide a place to show their wares and share ideas and techniques, the Ventura County Potters’ Guild is something of a watershed. “I would imagine that the people who founded the guild were primarily functional potters,” said Franklin. “They made things they used, bowls and mugs and things. But over time, we’ve seen a lot more art, a lot more decorative items.”

It is, of course, all in the hands. Pottery as an art and a craft is entirely tactile and the potter has to feel as much as he or she has to see. Scenes from the ‘80s movie Ghost notwithstanding, there is indeed something sensual in the spinning wheel and the throwing of clay. But if so, it is more in the intimacy between the artist and his or her medium. Painters are tactile, yes, but the finished product is less so. One of the real joys of owning pottery or ceramics is holding or touching them. It is art that is useful, art you can use to perform basic functions like eating or drinking—and it all starts with the vision of raw materials as something more than earth and water.

Franklin said the guild’s best-known members, Otto and Vivika Heino, were locals who became internationally famous, entering shows in Europe and all across the U.S. “Otto did all the throwing of the pottery, and Vivika was more interested in the glazes, so they worked as a team,” said Jackie Sanford, a guild member. “She was actually his teacher and they began to work together.”

In talking with guild members now, one gets the idea that one could learn a lot about the history of the guild and the past members without talking much about the work itself. But it is the work that brings people together.

“Most of us work at our homes,” said Cecile Gurrola-Faulconer, vice president of programs for the guild. “I have one of Otto’s old wheels and I haven’t even used it yet. But most of us have electric kilns, and I also do raku firing.”

Raku firing is a technique that originated in Japan. The high-temperature process was used to fire tea bowls in the morning and rapidly cool them for tea ceremonies the same day. “Now, rather than just pull them out of the fire, a potter will take the item out of the kiln and put it in a container with combustible material, then slap a lid on it,” Gurrola-Faulconer explained. “The fire sucks all the oxygen out of the container and also pulls oxygen out of the item.”

Indeed, the elements of life come together in pottery to form something that is much more than the sum of its parts. And perhaps that lends to its enduring appeal. “We get new people coming in all the time, and I think that new blood keeps it growing,” said Sanford.

Franklin agreed. “It’s a fun thing to do, and a lot of people are looking for more creative outlets. It can be a business or a hobby, though very few people actually make a living at it.”

The group’s historian, Troy Schmitt, keeps a Flickr account with photos of various shows, and more guild members are getting involved in local art walks. Last month, the group set up a show at the W Gallery inside downtown Ventura’s Earle Stanley Gardner building. “Not only that,” said Franklin, “but the gallery here at the harbor has done very well. The harbor district likes us and we like them, it’s a great situation.”

History has been kind to the guild, but not so kind to the arts. Willpower keeps these potters together. Like so many art classes, ceramics has suffered the budget cutter’s axe. “It used to be that people could take the classes over and over at junior colleges,” said Franklin. “But in the last few years, they got rid of the program at Oxnard College completely, and at Ventura they went from five instructors down to two. There’s an emphasis on pushing people through; they don’t want people lingering, taking classes.”

Sanford was indignant about the situation: “These are community colleges, and they should serve the community. There are plenty of people who would want to take ceramics and pottery classes, but the colleges won’t allow it now.”

And though that injustice probably won’t be righted soon, members of the Ventura County Potters’ Guild are out to change the rules.

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The whimsical figurines of Ventura ceramicist Kim Clarke.

Ojai-based master potter Otto Heino, a former Guild member, symbolized the midcentury California studio crafts movement. Photo by Donna Granata, Focus on the Masters Portrait Series 1996.

Inside the VCPG Gallery at Ventura Harbor.

Downtown Ventura Street Fair circa-1980 with the Potters’ Guild booth in foreground.

Hand-thrown vase by Mexican-born Armando de La Rocha of Santa Barbara.


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