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New York Times / Life - Entertain

Pottery Is the New Pilates, and Macramé Takes Away the Crazy

Confounded by work, politics or just too much digital activity, anxious New Yorkers are turning to crafts as a balm and a corrective.
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Wheel work at Bklyn Clay in Sunset Park. Adrienne Grunwald for The New York Times

It was a typical evening at Bklyn Clay, an airy, year-old, 24-hour pottery studio in Sunset Park, the Brooklyn neighborhood that is still evolving from its industrial past into a hub for New York City’s creative classes.

Nadia Lachance, 37, who works in photo production, was making a batch of hands with the fingers crossed: an apt symbol for the group’s mood, both restive and optimistic (the red wine was flowing).

There, also, was Stephanie Shih, 31, the copy director at Plated, a meal-delivery company, who was in between jobs last spring when she started spending more time at the studio, sometimes until midnight.

And Urooj Khan, 29, a corporate lawyer who started making pottery after a breakup a few years ago. “The studio was my sanctuary,” she said. “I would spend entire weekends at the wheel. Clay requires a lot of presence. There are so many subtle movements that require attention and precision, all the more so when you are a beginner. And that was a relief. My brain hurts after long days at the firm, poring over documents and law treatises, and being at the wheel releases that stress.”

Bklyn Clay is a community ceramics space that offers studio memberships, workshops and classes. Adrienne Grunwald for The New York Times

Strung out by work, politics, thorny relationships, an empty nest or just too much digital activity, many New Yorkers are showing up at studios like this one, using the wheel as a balm and a corrective. Others are merely gaping at pottery porn such as that posted by Eric Landon, a Milwaukee-born talent at Tortus Copenhagen, who has over 700,000 Instagram followers.

Ms. Khan also posts her ceramics on Instagram, at RuthBaderKilnsburg: mugs and pitchers emblazoned with the words “male tears” and “i ain’t sorry,” for the Beyoncé song, in looping cursive. It is her habit to come straight from work, in full corporate drag — a tailored pantsuit and high heels.

“I have trashed more than one pair of heels,” she said.

“Those ‘male tears’ cups are gangsta,” Jacob Dorland, an information security consultant, said approvingly. “All this stuff really pisses me off. It’s so good.”

A single father whose son left for college this year, Mr. Dorland, 39, came to the studio because he is a friend of Jennifer Waverek’s, a co-founder, and because he was anticipating emotional fallout from his son’s departure. “It’s really strange how much your legs get kicked out from under when you’ve been a single dad for 15 years,” he said.

Also an extreme marathoner, Mr. Dorland likes the physicality of pottery, and the concentration it requires. “An errant pinkie or distracted moment can ruin a piece that you’ve spent a whole bunch of time on,” he said, “so all those anxious thoughts I might get about whatever problems I have in my life have to be shelved when I’m throwing.”

The ceramic work of member Stephanie Shih created at Bklyn Clay. Adrienne Grunwald for The New York Times

He finds clay manners amusing. “I once watched two potters get into an argument about wheel cleanup without ever raising their voices,” he said.

Embroidering Drake’s Face

At Greenwich House Pottery, there was a surge of attendance for the studio’s fall classes, said Jenni Lukasiewicz, the education coordinator there, to 500 students, aged 18 to 95. “Ceramics has attracted so many new makers because it is such an engaging practice,” she said. “You put clay on the wheel. It gives you a little fight and you get past it and there is this object.”

Most Friday mornings, Judi Roaman, a design consultant, can be found there, hand-building vessels she’ll glaze in black or white, because she finds colors are too complicated. “How much MSNBC can you watch?” she said. “I would bet every therapist would tell you their patients are beyond anxious. Everybody is looking for a place to put it. You can’t absorb anymore.”

Nora Abousteit, 41, has built a business around the soothing power of making stuff. She is the founder of CraftJam, which leads crafting events — macramé, pot painting, leather work — all over the city, more than 20 each week. “People are overwhelmed and feel totally powerless,” she said, “but they feel empowered when they make something. If you do something with your hands, it means you’re taking action.”

On Oct. 25, there was a Drake-themed embroidery jam at the Arlo Hotel in SoHo, in honor of the Canadian performer’s birthday the day before. Ten people showed up to embroider his face and lyrics on fabric squares. “People want to get together and do something more than just drink,” Ms. Abousteit said.

Bklyn Clay Co-owner Cor Garcia-Held at the studio. Adrienne Grunwald for The New York Times

Still, Ms. Waverek, 52, of Bklyn Clay said she often feels like a bartender in a very modern bar. She was a creative director who ran her own ad agency before taking pottery classes at Greenwich House. “You hear a lot of stories,” she said. “I hear more than I should about people’s therapy sessions. We had a woman who came in last year who was going through a divorce. She opted to do ceramics classes rather than traditional therapy. It was great. Cor likes to say that clay absorbs emotion.”

Cor Garcia-Held, 38, Bklyn Clay’s co-founder, studio manager and educational director, trained as an art therapist. Clay is absorptive, to be sure, Ms. Garcia-Held said, but it’s also a fine medium for Freudian sublimation, as she explained in an email recently.

“The grandmother of art therapy, Edith Kramer, borrowed heavily from Freud and Freud believed that sublimation was a mature and healthy defense mechanism,” Ms. Garcia-Held wrote. “The basic idea is you take socially unacceptable behavior or ideations and channel them into something that is socially acceptable like art. In other words, you reach the studio fuming over the sexism that you had to put up with at work. Then you and your studio mates share pizza and beer and discuss how sexism affects you on an everyday basis. You take those emotions and make a mug that says, ‘male tears.’ You leave the studio not wanting to yell at the next innocent man you see on the street. Bam, Sublimation!”

“Clay Talks Back”

The commonality with kindergarten notwithstanding, crafts like this aren’t easy, and perhaps that’s the point.

“People come in thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have this ‘Ghost’-like experience,” Ms. Held-Garcia said. “They think it’s going to be really soothing and satisfying. But it’s hard. They get really frustrated. But they learn about persisting. You have bad days. You can spend four hours and just have one plate. That can make you crazy. But you come back the next day, and you learn from it. That’s huge.”

Finished work by members of Bklyn Clay. Adrienne Grunwald for The New York Times

Fernando Aciar, an Argentine restaurateur, started making ceramics two years ago, when he closed his Manhattan restaurant, FeelFood, worn out by staff politics and fighting with the health department. He is lucky, he said, that his colleagues — at Momofuku Nishi, Contra and Wildair in New York City — have been happy to fill their restaurants with his elegant work.

This early-midlife crisis has been extremely productive: In 2015, Mr. Aciar, now 38, made 1,200 pieces for an installation commissioned by Alexandre de Betak, the fashion show producer, for Coach, the luxury brand. Now, he’s working on 700 pieces for a restaurant in Houston; this summer, he will spend a few months in Nimes, France, working on a collection for the Hotel Imperator.

“I was losing my brain before,” Mr. Aciar said. “With ceramics you don’t have to solve problems with people and the health department, which in restaurants you have to do all the time. Clay is like baking, which I learned how to do growing up in the country in Argentina. You need to be very strong, but soft and subtle at the same time.”

Ashleygetsmuddy is the Instagram handle of Ashley Warner, 50, a ceramic artist who is also a psychotherapist. The other day, Ms. Warner noted studies that show how creative work can alter the brain’s neural pathways, and how working with your hands can produce changes in multiple brain regions, which can alleviate depression and improve one’s ability to problem-solve.

“Paint stays where you put it,” she said. “But clay talks back. It asserts its own demands. You have to be attuned to it in a way you don’t with other mediums. Working with clay integrates mental, emotional and kinesthetic brain functions. It’s a full-on experience, and a great way to get out of a slump. There is research that shows our brains are wired to feel good in response to rewarding physical activity, which isn’t usually a part of our day-to-day lives anymore. Making a pot is a pleasure, and so is the planning of it.”

The wheel folks and the hand-builders tend to self-select. Ellen Burnie, an art director who has lately turned to pottery — making platters and vessels with appealingly lumpy surfaces — likes the imperfection of hand-building and the challenge of glazing.

“At every stage it’s treacherous,” she said.

On that Thursday evening in October, Jane D’Haene, an interior and fashion designer, appeared suddenly, wearing an elegant black evening outfit, having come straight from an event at her children’s school. She scooped a mass of clay out of a tub, shoved it in a plastic bag and just as quickly walked out.

“She doesn’t sleep much,” Ms. Waverek said. “She likes to work at night.”

Later, Ms. D’Haene said she did spend half the night hand-building a piece at home. Earlier this year, she had shuttered a business after a health issue, she said, “and I was very worn down and depressed. A friend took me to a wheel class. I usually catch on quick, but I kept not getting better. It was insanely difficult. One day it just clicked. What I love is it teaches me patience.”

She is 11 months into her pottery making, though she has yet to decide what do with the pieces, which are graceful, dark and geometric.

Some potters are selling their work for charity through initiatives like Crafting Resistance. Last April, a sale at Greenwich House Pottery made $25,000 for the American Civil Liberties Union in four hours. In September, Bklyn Clay hosted a sale that earned just under $10,000 for the Natural Resources Defense Council and GrowNYC; in October, Ms. Shih sold her ceramics to benefit hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.

But even the people who buy the work have to figure out where to put it.

Kathleen Hackett is a design writer who has also taken up pottery, making pieces that are agreeably lopsided, like her friend Ms. Burnie’s work.

“I love handmade things,” she said. “My house is full of stuff friends and family have made. But when it comes to ceramics and the sheer amount of it around these days, I wonder what on earth will become of it all.”

Correction: November 30, 2017

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Bklyn Clay’s co-founder. She is Jennifer Waverek, not Wavereck. The article also misspelled the name of a restaurant that displays the work of Fernando Aciar. It is Momofuku Nishi, not Momofuko Nishi.

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