We’re the Mad Potters01 January 2019 Written by By Jerry Illers, with Stephanie Stewart
Published in January 2019 Articles
(Actually, We’re Not Even Annoyed)
We opened Brentwood’s Mad Potters to the public on November 4, 2017. It is the only place this side of Walnut Creek where anybody can drop in and shape a piece of clay into something that will certainly be unique and might even be lovely. Budding artists form unique creations on the wheel, mold clay into free-form objects, or customize pre-formed greenware to create figurines, utensils, dishware, or whatever else they desire. After painting the objects, they are fired in our commercial kiln where they are transformed into ceramic pieces that are useful or beautiful and often both.
The ages of our nascent artists range from as young as babes in arms to 102.
Sixty percent of our clients choose paint-your-own activities. The others work on the wheel or create hand-crafted objects. For people who simply like fine wheel-thrown ceramic objects, we also offer for sale a variety of vases, bowls, cups, and other original pieces.
Children may choose to make an ice cream bowl. They manage the entire process from start to finish, shaping the clay on the wheel, letting the bowl set for a day, then trimming excess clay and smoothing rough places. They can further customize their creation by etching pictures, symbols, and words into the clay. After firing, they apply colorful glazes, then the bowl is put back into the kiln where it is transformed into a fine-looking ceramic object.
People interested in mastering the art of pottery can sign up for either five or ten hours of instruction spread over several days. We also provide art instruction for home schoolers, for local day care programs, such as Resurrection Ministries’ Wee Care Children’s Center’s summer camp program. Brownies and Girl Scouts come by to work on their Pottery Badge. Students from Golden Hills Christian School came on a field trip to paint cups for Mother’s Day.
We have become the go-to afterschool destination for students who would rather create than play sports. Some of them simply want a clump of clay so they can “go crazy” with their creative energies. Others come with a specific plan in mind — for example, to create a nice vase they can fill with flowers as a gift for their mother’s birthday.
Our spacious Mad Potter facility regularly transforms into a venue for birthday parties, celebrations, and corporate morale raising events, Kaiser Hospital groups have used Mad Potters for team building exercises.
“We have become the go-to afterschool destination for students who would rather create than play sports. Some of them simply want a clump of clay so they can “go crazy” with their creative energies.”
Stephanie, the Mad Potters manager (and my daughter) has been organizing a series of Ladies Nights. Several times a month a couple dozen women gather for a care-free, after-hours, no-kids creative event. They bring their own wine, if they wish, and we serve them dinner and dessert catered by Jalisco’s.
The women choose an object from our extensive Paint Your Own gallery or an original hand-thrown item. Ladies Nights has turned into a popular event. We limit the number of attendees to 30 and they are regularly selling out because some women can’t wait to come back and do it again.
We also sponsor a Gals Get Together for women aged 10 and above. Each event attracts a lot of moms-and-daughters plus a number of sisters and “besties.” The women have a joyous time sharing with each other the results of their creative endeavors that are sometimes genuinely beautiful, usually lovely, and occasionally intentionally bizarre. During the recent holidays we sponsored a series of Ugly Christmas Sweater Ornament events.
Stephanie plays Roy Disney to my Walt. She manages both the upfront and behind-the-scenes parts of the business including such things as our Facebook page, bookings, and our finances. Stephanie is here all day every day, leaving me to attend to the hands-on part of the enterprise.
Mad Potters is a family affair. Five grandkids are stocking shelves, washing brushes, pouring paint, and learning the art of throwing clay themselves.
I was born in San Francisco and attended Pacifica’s Oceana High School, which in those days offered a progressive forward-thinking teaching style and curriculum. Oceana classes followed a flexible schedule with 21-minute modules. An English class might be three modules in length; a study hall one. The schedule was arranged in order to provide students with opportunities to choose electives from a variety of research based and hands-on creative labs.
My life was enriched when I signed up for a course in the lab that taught ceramics and glass blowing. I can clearly remember the sensations that came to me when I first walked through the door and saw the line of pottery wheels, which in those days were the old fashion kick wheel-type. I was attracted by the mounds of clay sitting nearby waiting to be shaped into whatever beautiful or bizarre object the craftsman chose. Our instructor gave us freedom to follow our muse wherever it led and encouraged discovery-based learning. I always enjoyed working with my hands, so I figured out what to do to a lump of clay the first time I sat at a wheel.
I quickly immersed myself in the joy of creating common objects, such as vases, mugs, plates, and casserole dishes while using my creative energies to make each one unique. The art of forming clay and glass into lovely objects became a central-life passion. Following graduation, I spent a year teaching a weekly adult night-school class on glass blowing and the wheel. In 1973 I extended glass-blowing into an actual job at HP’s Palo Alto plant. I began by hand-crafting bubblers and glass quartz piping that were used in manufacturing silicon diodes transistors, semiconductors, and microchips. I also worked in the epitaxial department where we deposited crystalline overlayers on substrates to create the silicon wafers that are fundamental to the operation of your automobile, cellphone, thermostat, possibly your doorbell, and eventually your refrigerator (so they say).
I worked at HP for 28 years and spent the last half of my employment managing their 534-acre Little Basin employee retreat center in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We lived on the site and implemented a program of repair and improvement. My daughter Stephanie would work by my side, assisting with construction, hauling garbage, killing snakes, and doing whatever else she could to maintain and improve the camp. During my 14 years in that position, we transformed the place from a primitive dust bowl to a lovely vacation facility.
While working for HP, I maintained a work-from-home business called Illers Creative Pottery. I sold to fellow employees custom order vases, bowls, and other household ceramic objects that I formed on a wheel in my garage. Each year HP transformed their large cafeteria into a venue for spring and summer in-house craft/talent shows. Employees would bring in whatever quilts, paintings, macramé, or jewelry they had made since the previous show.
“The art of forming clay and glass into lovely objects became a central-life passion.”
Of course, the Illers Creative Pottery corner of the room was a popular go-to place at these events.
In 2000, I left HP because the culture was changing. There was less community. They were tightening morale-building purse strings, and our beautiful Little Basin employee retreat center became a Basin Redwoods State Park campground. For another thing Bill Hewlett died. I figured if he had left I might as well move on, as well.
They say that you should retire to something rather than from something; I left HP with a genuine feeling that I could at last begin doing fulltime what I had wanted to do since that long-ago day when I shaped that first lump of clay in that Oceana High School classroom.
We moved to the little community of Pioneer, California, which is 60 miles northeast from Stockton. We were actually moving fulltime into a home that I had built 14 years earlier as a weekend-and-holiday get-away destination. I added a studio to the place and began showing my pieces at street fairs, fairgrounds, and craft shows throughout Northern California. Five years later I leased a store front in nearby Jackson, and for the next five years did business under the name Potter’s Workshop, Studio, and Gallery.
There were too few residents in the area to fully support a business like mine. However, Potter’s Workshop managed to provide opportunities for Gold Country residents to manifest their creative talents. For example, every Tuesday three women would car pool more than 100 miles roundtrip to Potter’s Workshop and spend five hours merrily engaged in creating ceramic pieces. They would even throw in an occasional in-between-Tuesdays trip to my studio. I imagine their friends and family members knew what kind of present they would receive from them for Christmas, birthdays, christenings, and any other gift-giving occasion.
After five years the economy crashed taking my economically fragile pottery business down with it. Rather than holding a big Going Out of Business sale, the “hope that springs eternal in the human breast” compelled me to move the contents of the entire store into storage.
I moved to Brentwood in 2013 to join my daughter Stephanie, who had moved here ten years earlier. There were zero employment opportunities for professional potters, so I continued conducting my business at local street fairs, etc. Without a brick-and-mortar venue, the business couldn’t earn fulltime-level profits, so I augmented my income by working at a number of jobs, beginning with installing home security systems for Vivint Home Security Systems, running my own “The Installer” handyman business, and working in the electrical department at Lowes.
Everything changed when I was displaying my Potter’s Workshop wares at Brentwood’s 2017 Art & Wine Festival. Sean McCauley came by and asked if I could install some pieces in a nook above his grand piano. Sean was so pleased with the result that he asked me why I didn’t have a store front. His Sean McCauley Investments company owns a lot of properties so, when I told him that I couldn’t afford a shop, he made my present downtown location available at terms that I could afford. It was like a dream come true because, unlike Jackson, Brentwood has enough school children and families to support a thriving pottery business. We completely renovated the space, which had been a book store. I retrieved the contents of my Jackson shop from its storage unit, and we had the business up and running in a single month.
Mad Potters is providing me with satisfying opportunities to practice my beloved art. They say that “A pleasure shared is twice enjoyed,” so a delightful part of the business is introducing others to the craft that has brought me such pleasure and fulfillment for the past five decades. It is especially nice when my pottery students go on to become professional potters themselves.
Mad Potters is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and until 5:00 p.m. on Sunday.
C’mon by and see what nice object you can make with your hands for family members and friends to admire. Clay lasts forever so who knows?
Generations from now some of your descendants may still be admiring and using some figurine or utensil that you will make at Mad Potters next week.
That would be nice, wouldn’t it?
Photos By Ron Essex