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A Black woman forms a clay bowl with her hands. Other dishes in progress sit on the table in the foreground.

Ife Williams in Hambidge’s Antinori Pottery Studio.

Photo courtesy of the artist

  • The Power of Cups: Ife Williams Teaches Craft Skills and Entrepreneurship through Pottery

    In April 2020, the Center for Craft, based in Asheville, North Carolina, established the Craft Futures Fund (CFF) to support craft communities around the United States and their creative responses to the coronavirus pandemic. This grant sought to recognize and invest in projects that cultivate strength and sustainability within the field of craft. As a group, the CFF recipients’ projects represented diverse and multidisciplinary efforts to envision and build new, resilient futures. Through this initiative, from May to October 2020, the Center for Craft awarded over thirty craft-based education projects that now serve communities impacted by COVID-19.

    In the summer of 2021, Folklife Magazine reached out to the Center for Craft to create a mini-series highlighting CFF recipients and projects as part of its Chronicling Culture in Crisis series.

    In Part Two, we spoke to Ife Williams, ceramicist and deputy director of the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences in Rabun Gap, Georgia. In her project Work Creative/Creative Work, she introduces “the practice of craft (clay) and entrepreneurship to BIPOC teens, allowing them to benefit from the positive touchpoints of creating functional wares with one’s own hands and developing the sense of empowerment that comes from generating an income from your own business.”

    When asked what brought her joy in the project, Williams recounted watching “the new makers receive and evaluate their works fresh from the glaze kiln, especially when the outcome has matched or exceeded their expectations, and hear them plan who they will share their successes with.”

    Keep reading to learn more about how Williams designed her project, about the social life of cups, and the importance of changing expectations about who can be a potter.

    A woman holds up a ceramic bowl in progress. Other bowls, including one that appears crumpled, sit on her worktable.
    A display of the varied personalities of cups by some of Ife Williams’s favorite makers. Top row, left to right: Ty Nicholson, Gwendolyn Yoppolo, Jeff Campana, Min Soo Yuh. Bottom row: Ife Williams, Ehren Tool, Allex Thullen, Justin Donofrio, Mike Jabbur.
    Photo courtesy of Ife Williams

    Can you tell us more about Work Creative/Creative Work? How is the project going, and how has it evolved as the pandemic has progressed?

    Just before the pandemic began, I was working as a director of an art center in Gwinnett County, which is on the northside of metro Atlanta, Georgia. However, at the end of 2019, I decided to step away from that position and dedicate my time to my own work and to thinking more about what makes me happy. I’ve been in arts administration my entire adult career, but I’m also an artist—I have a BFA in sculpture and metalsmithing, so on the side, I have always dabbled in being creative. I decided to make that my main practice, and I set up my home studio.

    I had just found an arrangement with a local community arts center that would allow me to fire my clay, which was critical for my art practice when COVID forced all the arts centers to shut down, and I had to find other ways to fire the ceramics I was making. At the same time, my sixteen-year-old daughter was upset that she couldn’t find a job, which was certainly made more difficult during the pandemic. I, on the other hand, actually had time to carry out my artistic ideas—to start the projects I had always wanted to do.

    By having that space and watching my daughter look for work in a socially distanced world, I started thinking about how there are simple pieces of ceramics that, if you were given step-by-step instructions, you could make hundreds of without actually needing to be well versed in technical aspects of clay work or especially talented as a designer. I thought about how someone could be given a template and be told what to do, and how they could make something marvelous from it.

    A woman holds up a ceramic bowl in progress. Other bowls, including one that appears crumpled, sit on her worktable.
    Photo courtesy of Ife Williams
    A person concentrates on applying glaze with a brush to a dark brown cermic cup.
    Photo courtesy of Ife Williams

    So, I came up with the idea of creating cup-making kits, doing Zoom workshops, and holding socially distanced classes with high school students. I wanted to not only teach them about the great things that come from doing craft—for instance, the satisfaction of having created something with your own hands—but also to  teach them the difference between having a job and having their own business.

    For example, if you want to make cups, you can go out and find someone who wants to buy them before you make them, and then you know that you’re going to get paid for the product you create, or you can make cups that you love and find someone who will sell them in their shop on a consignment agreement. A third option is that you can open an online shop where you don’t have to meet with people in person during the pandemic, you make a combination of what you want and what others decide to order, and you don’t have to share your profits with a brick-and-mortar shop owner. With this project, I wanted to help these teens learn entrepreneurial skills, which your typical sixteen-year-old simply isn’t exposed to.

    I focused on teens in this project also because, in my work with schools and arts centers, I found that kids are interested in using their hands. Some are athletes who don’t have time to engage with art at school because they spend so much time on sports, even though they love art and very much want to connect. Other students have made art their sport.  I’ve worked with a good variety of students. I could see that engaging with my projects helped them all find moments of joy and instilled pride in having completed something.

    Having moved recently into a new environment, I’m hoping to be able to build a program with local schools or local teen organizations to build on the grant and to keep connecting with my new community.

    Ceramics materials laid out on a table: a block of clay, glazes in jars, a rolling pin, paintbrushes, towel, sponges, bowl of water, and paperboard template.
    All the materials to make a clay cup
    Photo courtesy of Ife Williams

    Why are the kits important?

    While workshops are still really important, kits can give people a finite project to work on. You have enough clay to make a cup or a bowl. You have the glazes. You know that if you have a simple pattern, you can make one of that thing. And you can get more kits or refills, or you can move on to other kits if you want. In COVID times, each kit has instructions so you can complete it without making physical contact with another person, or you can talk about it over Zoom.

    A lot of craft is done in groups. Often people who have  been working in a particular material for years still enroll in classes because they want to be a part of that community. Even if they don’t need direct instruction, they are able to push themselves and grow their skills in the company of others. I think that as time continues, the social pieces of craft will come back together, but kits still play an important role in getting them started.

    Why did you design the kits around a cup?

    I started with a cup because making a cup teaches you a lot of different techniques and skills that you need to make other things. You have to learn to put things together, you have to learn timing, and you can let your personality show in how you want to finish it. There’s a lot of things you can do with a cup. And it can be affordable. Someone can see a cup and, if they’re interested in it aesthetically, fall in love with it and purchase it because it typically has a lower price point and much more personality than a sculpture or vase.

    There’s a lot that goes into the cup, even a store-bought one. Whether you realize it or not, you probably have a favorite cup. A cup is something that you enjoy having, even if you’re not into collecting dishes. A cup is something that you appreciate. Bowls are another thing, but the size of a bowl can get really personal, and purchasing a bowl is something that might take more convincing for a buyer. For example, a bowl might need to be part of a set, whereas a cup can be its own standalone object.

    Close-up of a pair of hands using a paper template to carve out a shape, like a curved rectangle, from a slab of gray clay. On the person's left wrist is a light blue Tar Heels bracelet.
    Photo courtesy of Ife Williams
    Close-up of the same pair of hands cutting out a circle from the same slab of clay.
    Photo courtesy of Ife Williams
    Close-up of the same pair of hands forming a cylindrical cup from the clay.
    Photo courtesy of Ife Williams

    The other thing about a cup is that people like to sit down and talk over a cup of something. So cups also reinforce the community that everyone is missing during this pandemic, of getting a cup of tea with someone, or a cup of hot chocolate. You can even put cold things in cups! Cups connect us, and that’s especially important when we’re so isolated. They have the potential of being a social piece.

    When I was little, in my family, we used to give each other cups for Christmas. And probably every year the cup was dropped or something happened to the cup, and I have a big family—six siblings. But everyone had their own cup—that was your cup, and no one else used it.

    Before I started making ceramics, I bought cups from different artists because I liked different things about them. Ceramic galleries have cup shows, and artists will sometimes trade cups between each other. Cups really have so much personality, and it’s something that artists can afford to trade. For example, at Hambidge, we have a broad variety of artists working with different mediums, and when you go to trade with someone outside of your craft, it’s more about having a little piece of that person—it’s not about trading an economic equivalent, but a personal one.

    What were some of your other goals in carrying out this project?

    The main goal was to convince teens who didn’t consider themselves to be creative makers or skilled in the arts  that they could do this, and that this is something they could consider as a career path. In high school, there are all sorts of things that people say you can and can’t make a living off of.  I want to show that just because you’re not the most creative or “artistic” person, you can still make things, you can sell them, and you can be a potter even if you don’t fit the stereotype of who a potter is. 

    Anyone can make art. You just have to come at it the right way. Not overwhelming teens with styles or techniques—by just giving them a kit and helping them fall in love with ceramics—is really about showing them a possible future or an alternative path.

    I am really looking forward to continuing to share this project with new communities and encouraging more teens to embrace their creative entrepreneurial selves.

    Close-up of two handmade ceramic cups. On the left, painted red with a yellow and orange leaf design. On the right, a patchwork design in earthen tones.
    The finished results: two cups made from the same template, carrying the unique aesthetics of their makers.
    Photo courtesy of Ife Williams

    Emily Buhrow Rogers was an ACLS Leading Edge Fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is also a recipient of the Center for Craft’s Craft Research Fund and its Craft Futures Fund.

    Juliana Rowen Barton is the director of the Center for the Arts at Northeastern University. From 2020 to 2021, she was an ACLS Leading Edge Fellow at the Center for Craft. She comes from a family of architects and spends her free time in the pottery studio and the kitchen.

    The Center for Craft is celebrating twenty-five years of advancing the field of craft through awarding grants, offering exhibitions and public programs, building strategic community and national partnerships, and spearheading initiatives in the United States. Founded in 1996, the Center has become a vital community resource, serving thousands of visitors annually and administering more than $300,000 in grants to those working in the craft field.

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