Clayroom Molds its Future

in by
Clay artist working at potter's wheel.
Photo: Zoe Tribur

Whenever Catherine Rathsam sinks her fingers into a ball of clay the monotony and stress of the pandemic momentarily dissolves, replaced by a calm focus familiar to creatives everywhere. Rathsam engages in her art at Clayroom SoMa, the latest addition to San Francisco’s growing roster of ceramic studios. 

“It has been a lifesaver, because otherwise I’d be stuck in a one-bedroom loft with my husband who is working there all day long, who has meetings and we’ve got two doors to the bathroom and that’s it,” said Rathsam. “I can’t imagine what it would be like if I had to sit at home seven days a week.” 

Clayroom SoMa, which shares co-owner Neil Gershgorn with Clayroom Potrero, started accepting members and holding classes last summer after initially opening in March 2020. 

“It was probably the worst time you could open a business, especially a studio where the core offering is the antithesis of what people feel comfortable with during a pandemic,” Gershgorn remembered.

By the end of that first week, Clayroom had cancelled classes and issued refunds. Both studios closed for several months. They lost revenue, and members. 

Clayroom SoMa is located on the same block as the Stud, the legendary LGBTQIA2+ bar, which sits empty after shutting its doors last May. It features a fully stocked woodworking studio, with insurance needs that’re quite different from Clayroom Potrero, creating the need for legally separate entities. As a new business Clayroom SoMa is ineligible for government assistance. To stay afloat, it briefly rented pottery wheels for members to use at home, and offered digital classes, something that may continue. 

“Things are okay now,” Gershgorn said, “but our goal post wasn’t to do well, but to survive; to come through the pandemic and make sure that we’re taking care of our employees and providing a safe environment.”

Jonah Nuñez, who has worked as a tech and teacher at the Hill studio since October, described working at Clayroom in the midst of COVID as “a dream. Despite how terrible everything has been going on with the world, I feel like I’ve been just constantly moving up. The first time I stepped foot in here it was amazing. Management is always trying to teach us, not just management skills, but also helping me to pony up my pottery skills. It’s just good co-workers and good members.”

“I don’t know what it was like before the pandemic,” concurred Jamie Westermeyer, a Clayroom SoMa studio manager and head of instruction for both locations. “But so far it’s been great.” 

Even as the two Clayrooms struggle financially, Gershgorn and his two partners, Dan K. and Kevin Waller, continued to hire staff. Ali Jenson, a student at the Hill location since 2018, now works parttime at the SoMa studio.  Prior to joining Clayroom, Jenson had never worked with clay before, though it was something she always wanted to do. That desire was enough to prompt her to deviate from her career in the restaurant industry. 

“As a cook, you don’t make a lot of money and you don’t have any time off,” she said.

Jenson quit her cooking job and worked parttime as a bartender to pay for ceramic classes. When the pandemic hit, Jenson joined Clayroom as a member, renting a pottery wheel to work at home. 

“It’s been amazing,” she said. 

Jenson wants to ultimately start a commercial studio of her own specializing in dishware and other goods for dining use.  

“I really just want to share my food in a way that’s a little different than cooking,” she said. 

“It’s been a struggle,” said Waller, the second co-owner of the Hill studio, “but people have been very supportive.” 

Waller previously owned Clay Underground on Eddy Street, which closed in 2016. He said a big difference between the Clayroom and other ceramic studios is the former’s interest in social outreach. Waller created a residency program that provides qualifying artists with a free three-month membership. The program is intended for people of color but is open to anyone with a hunger for ceramic art and no resources to pursue that passion. 

Clayroom is unique among clay studios in offering woodworking in its SoMa studio. 

“The wood room is something I’ve never heard of in another studio, and I think there are so many possibilities with that,” said Lily Wikoff, a member and studio tech, who worked as a ceramics instructor and ran her own ceramic jewelry business in South Carolina for 12 years. “Some of the employees, and even the founders, have a tech background, so Clayroom has a different way that it is organized than I have seen before, which is awesome because I do appreciate learning different things and different processes.”

“In college, everyone just had kind of came in and put their ear plugs in and did their own thing and left, but here people are chatting and talking about different techniques and just interacting,” said Kelsey Segasser. “Every time I come in here, I feel like I’m just hanging out with friends.”

As Head of Instruction, Jamie Westermeyer is tasked with finding new and interesting ways to combine woodworking and claymaking. The studio offers a homeware class that includes throwing or hand-building a table lamp base with wooden components. A popular class has students making a chess set that consists of a woodworked board and ceramic slip cast pieces.  The studio also offers classes that just focus on woodworking skills.

Both the SoMa and Hill locations are expanding. SoMa will offer a second floor, members-only space; Potrero is building a dedicated mold-making station, as well as adding tools for glazing, like a spray station. Westermeyer is planning a summer art camp to be held at the Hill studio, “because there is the [Jackson] Playground right across the street.” 

“People have different areas of expertise,” Gershgorn explained. “From a business perspective, we are nowhere near the same place that we were [before the pandemic] but in terms of a value proposition, or services, it feels like we are super important. And the business is doing okay, but obviously we have had a steep decline. With the pandemic, what we offer as a service for the community has been even more important. We’ve been largely confined to our houses, in very small social circles for many, many months; for some individuals, it’s been over a year.  We need that interaction. We need that connection…We provide the ability to come somewhere to unwind and get yourself away from that daily grind is super important to people’s mental health. There’s always uncertainty. What I do think is that there is that community space, that creative environment, that ability to build a skillset. Those things are always going to be valued by people.”