Clay Room Molds Community

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On a weekday evening in spring, the Clay Room, located at 17th and Arkansas streets, welcomed visitors with lit candles, hot tea, a plush lounge, beautiful wall accents, and a vibe of a place where people laugh and socialize as they unwind from their day.

The Clay Room isn’t a café, bar or yoga studio; it’s a place to make pottery. A youthful clientele attend classes there, while “members” rent space to pursue their pottery passions. According to one student, Ofri, 35, “the Clay Room is the perfect place to unwind from computer culture”. 

Pottery making requires working with clay on a table, wheel throwing – using a spinning wheel – and applying paints and glazes, a process that can bring on a meditative state.

Clay Room co-owner, Neil Gershgorn, developed a love of pottery when he lived in Los Angeles. Working at a studio there made him happy and gave him a chance to socialize and unwind after work. To him it was a place of, “people coming together and working together with a community feel where the shift from brainwork to handiwork can happen”.

With a background in business and finance, Gershgorn wanted to offer the experience to others. A year ago, he moved to San Francisco and Instagram-searched for potential partners. Ryan McCullen, a San Francisco potter, jumped onboard.  He connected Gershgorn with Kevin Waller, who had studied ceramics at City College of San Francisco and San Francisco State University and was looking to reinvent his Clay Underground art school, where he’d hosted serious and novice potters in a laidback environment, with BYOB late-night pottery sessions. Clay Underground folded after the Tenderloin building that housed it was sold.

The three chose to setup shop in Potrero Hill because, as Gershgorn said, “it is a place within the City that has an outside the City feel, just right for an urban respite”.

Sophie, 25, a Clay Room member who was part of the Clay Underground, enjoys engaging in the new studio because it’s bright, inviting, and offers “freedom to make suggestions and has a democratic feel”.

The Clay Room features two classrooms and two separate areas of throwing wheels.  In addition, the “Ghost room” offers a private space to throw on the wheel or reenact everyone’s favorite Swayze-Moore pottery scene from the 1990 movie, Ghost.  The studio currently has 25 members. There’s a growing repertoire of programs and events, including Ghost night, where two people throw on the wheel together, and meditation.  As stated by Cam, 24, a wheel throwing student, “this is the best part of my day”.

The Clay Room recently partnered with Hamilton Families to create a membership program for kids living in transitional housing. While it focuses on pottery, the curriculum includes an emphasis on enhancing self-worth, learning tangible skills, and connecting with others outside of standard circles of influence.

Children’s classes are offered, tailored to the group. When Teresa wanted to bring her son’s Potrero Hill elementary school class to learn about and play with clay, a special five-week program was created for them.  “The owners are very flexible, the experience has been a full 10 out of 10, and if they continue this way they will knock it out of the park,” she said. Her son, Laslo, seven, is excited about clay art and made a habitat for his beta fish, Speedy the Great. He said the owners, “know so much, I want to be smart like them.” According to Theresa, the tactile experience makes Laslo happy and curious about what else he can build.

According to another clay student, Tom, 27, “it is cool to meet people in the neighborhood and hang out in a way that doesn’t necessarily involve drinking”.