Art of the Earth

Ellen Wohstadter “[Ventura County Potters’ Guild] is just a wonderful community of people.”

Ventura County Potters’ Guild is grounded in tradition and community.

By Marina Dunbar | Photos by Viktor Budnik

Since the group’s inception over sixty years ago, the Ventura County Potters’ Guild has been the county’s premiere organization for artists who wield the Earth’s most fundamental material. Attracting potters from far beyond Ventura, the Guild is one of only three in all of California and includes members who range from those with a budding interest in ceramics to seasoned experts in molding clay. This November, VCPG is inviting local residents to view, learn about and purchase pieces made by local potters to support both the Guild and the homeless population of Ventura.

The Bowl of Thanks event will take place Nov. 5-6 on Main Street in Downtown Ventura. There, visitors will be able to browse a collection of one-of-a-kind, handmade art. In collaboration with the Guild’s Pottery Market, customers can purchase a bowl for $25. Each bowl has been uniquely handcrafted and donated by a VCPG artist. With the purchase of a bowl, customers will receive a punch card to receive free food samples from over 15 restaurants and pubs downtown.

Ceramic bowl made by Ellen Wohlstadter to be included in the offerings for sale at Bowl of Thanks, Nov. 5-6.

Bowl of Thanks is one of the group’s most visible fundraising projects: As artists whose very medium is of the earth, they make sure that they give back to it. 

“There’s an organization called [Downtown Ventura Partners] and they do all these types of events and so forth,” explains Ellen Wohlstadter, the Guild’s Marketing Chair. “All the stores on Main Street, all the owners pay into a fund. I was introduced to Kevin [Clerici] of the [Downtown Ventura Partners]. He has a charity that works with homeless people in Ventura who want to go back home. We thought it was a very good cause and we wanted to participate.”

Proceeds from the Bowl of Thanks event will go to Ventura’s Family Reconnect Program. This program serves the homeless population of Ventura and provides free transportation to vulnerable and impoverished individuals who are seeking a way to reconnect with a family member or support group.

The Guild’s Mission

VCPG also hopes that this event will bring more attention to the gallery and perhaps even inspire a deeper appreciation for pottery in the hearts of Ventura residents. The county is a hotspot for creativity and artistic expression, but many locals have yet to take full advantage of the originality that their hometown has to offer.

“I was really surprised when I did the Bowl of Thanks a few years ago that a lot of people have not been to our gallery before,” says Wohlstadter. “So, a part of it [the fundraiser] is just bringing awareness. We also have the pottery market which is meant to bring awareness to the gallery we have.”

It has always been the goal of the Guild to spread awareness. Awareness about the history, benefits and process of pottery is a core curriculum for VCPG members. They aim not only to teach the steps necessary to create a competent piece of art, but also to make sure potters understand the significance of wielding clay.

Wyn Matthews “Having handmade things that you touch and you use, it’s
a grounding experience.”

“We occasionally did, pre-COVID, one or two workshops a year, that were available not just to members but were open to anyone who was interested in clay,” explains Guild President Wyn Matthews. “We’ve been going on for over 60 years. It was started by a group of eight or nine potters and the original purpose of them coming together was to do a show every year in Ojai at the same time as the music festival, and we’ve done that every year since then.”

Member Rebecca Catterall can attest to the group’s commitment to their mission. “The Guild is more active than probably any other clay group I’ve been in,” she says. “Their monthly meetings are great because it’s not just talking, it’s always about learning something else, so there was always some sort of workshop and we’ve been able to continue that through Zoom. Although I look forward to getting back in person because it is really a social thing as well.”

VCPG also offers its members the opportunity to make money off of their art, an often overlooked aspect of arts-oriented organizations. Though the enjoyment may come from the creative process, at the end of the day, artists still must be able to fund their craft, something the Guild recognizes and encourages.

“I got involved because I was living in Sherman Oaks and I was beginning to teach ceramics,” says Wohlstadter. “I joined because I wanted to learn more about pottery and it’s just a wonderful community of people, and it was also a way of touching your foot into selling. So, there was the educational part of it and also the opportunity to sell and grow as a potter.”

The Guild has taken every opportunity to help its community grow as potters, including taking unfortunate circumstances and flipping them into a positive. For most artistic communities, the pandemic has been a time of devastation for both funds and collaboration between individuals. For the Guild, however, it has been a chance to expand its reach beyond what members previously thought feasible. 

“Our meetings all went onto Zoom,” says Matthews. “We all thought it was a problem initially and it turned out to also be a blessing in that people could participate with us who were all over the country. We had guests and presentations that never would’ve happened in person. So, it totally opened up what we had access to in terms of information.”

Handcrafted bowl by Guild President Wyn Matthews.

The Oldest Artform

Though they are proud of their ability to reach all corners of the country, VCPG’s home remains in Ventura County, for good reason. The area stands out amongst its neighbors as a sanctuary for those whose passions lie in the arts. The county’s support for its artists is unmatched by other suburban communities, a truth for which local artists will vouch.

“I’ve been involved with a lot of arts organizations and research, and I chose Ventura,” says Catterall. “One of the things that was outstanding to me is that they have a building called The WAV which is an artists’ workspace and living space. I thought, ‘Gee, a community that gets behind and supports its artists is something I need to look into.’ I ended up thinking that Ventura would be an arts-rich community where I’d be happy.”

Pottery is one of the world’s oldest inventions and artforms. Serving both beauty and utility, potters take great pride and appreciation in their craft. In the mind of an artist, there is perhaps no greater honor than to take material from the earth and mold it into an object that provides sustenance and emotion to other humans.

“It’s part of what we do as potters,” says Matthews. “It’s dirt, it’s just dirt. The people who buy our pots have a sense of that while they use them. There’s sort of a grounding that happens. Having handmade things that you touch and you use, it’s a grounding experience. And I think that’s a big part of what we provide.”

Ventura Pottery Market and Bowl of Thanks

10 a.m.-6 p.m., Nov. 5-6

Plaza Park, Santa Clara and Chestnut Streets, Ventura

Ventura County Potters’ Guild

Ventura Pottery Gallery

1567 Spinnaker Drive, Suite 105, Ventura Harbor