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Alumna creates a community around clay

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working on clay

When asked how they would describe their work, ceramic artists Emily Wicks (BFA ’16) and Alexis Courtney look at each another.

“Can you talk about my work?” Courtney asks Wicks.

“You really love functional forms and how they interact in a space,” Wicks responds. She describes how Courtney can take a shape, or a saturated blue, or an intricately textured surface and create a work of art that transforms a room.

As Wicks, who majored in Craft/Material Studies at VCUarts, shifts to talk about her own search for a connection between functional and sculptural work, Courtney interjects with details.

“You’ve also started to experiment with much larger forms recently,” she adds. “When you sit down to make one of those, do you have a shape in mind? Or do you just let it go where it wants to go?”

The ebb and flow of their conversation shifts from creative processes to the moment they met while working and taking classes at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.

“[Alexis saw my work] and said, ‘Do you sell this? You should.’ And walked away,” Wicks says.

“We were instant friends,” Courtney adds.

Emily Wicks, left, and Alexis Courtney in their community ceramics studio, Hand/Thrown.

Three months later, Wicks and Courtney were signing a lease on a shared studio.

Their natural comfort and familiarity extends throughout their Northside Richmond studio, Hand/Thrown, which has evolved into a community space for other clay artists in the city. The pair hadn’t planned on opening a collaborative workspace and arts education center, but when they visited an empty storefront on Brookland Park Boulevard, they sensed the potential for something bigger.

“In the moment, it felt like taking a leap,” Wicks says. “Both of us came into the space and said, really quickly, this isn’t just a thing that you and I are doing. We’re going to own a business and we’re going to give other people the opportunity to have the same space that we thought we needed.”

Wicks and Courtney opened Hand/Thrown in October 2018 as a membership-based studio for ceramic artists looking for a middle ground between a large community arts center and a home studio. Members get a shelving unit with space in front to place a pottery wheel. They also have access to Hand/Thrown’s slab roller, extruder, two kilns, large work surfaces, and a glaze area.

Artist workspaces inside Hand/Thrown

Early the following year—after numerous requests—Hand/Thrown started offering public classes in handbuilding, wheel throwing and slip casting.

Today, Hand/Thrown is part makerspace, part classroom, part gallery and retail shop—and one complete community, rooted in the ceramic arts.

“We’re still learning,” Courtney says. “Every week there’s something that we’re brainstorming, whether it’s programming or improving the space or something else our members and students need.”

In March, the Hand/Thrown community will take part in the 54th annual National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference as it arrives in Richmond, bringing with it ceramic artists and enthusiasts from across the country. Exhibitions featuring local and international talent will stretch throughout the region.

Wicks and Courtney will host artist Elliott Kayser at Courtney’s photography studio, Focal Point Space, as well as an exhibition of work by Hand/Thrown members and students, and pieces created by the local community during a recent open studio day.

“Hand/Thrown is a member space and a student space,” Wicks says, “and we wanted people coming to NCECA to see that, and to know what is important to us.”

The NCECA conference, MULTIVALENT: Clay, Mindfulness and Memory, will be held in Richmond, March 25-28. For a full schedule of events and area exhibitions, featuring a number of VCUarts faculty and alumni, visit nceca.net.