‘It’s Been a Really Important Lifeline for Me During COVID’: Non-Profit Pottery Studio Brings Ceramics to Rogers Park

Heather HigginsSarah Ortlieb teaches a class in her Rogers Park pottery studio, Nodd Pottery. Ortlieb, the primary instructor and owner, said the art form is therapeutic.

A large metal cylinder sits in the corner of the room. Popping open the lid and reaching in, Sarah Ortlieb, the primary instructor at Nodd Pottery, leans down and grabs colorful bowls and cups from a kiln that reaches almost 2200 degrees. She carefully inspects each item, checking to make sure they didn’t crack under the intense heat of the firing process.

Nodd Pottery (7063 N. Glenwood Ave.), a non-profit ceramics studio off the Morse Red line stop, is trying to make the art form of ceramics accessible to the Rogers Park community. Because of the equipment needed to get from wet clay to a finished piece, most people are reliant on studios if they want to do ceramic work. With many studios having high fees and little flexibility, ceramics can be an inaccessible art form for many people.

Nodd, which opened its doors in 2017, is trying to change that by offering individual services like classes and studio sessions instead of the rigid, multi-week course model favored by most studios.

“I feel like the more people who are exposed to [pottery] and can afford it, that’s really the main thing is that it’s more accessible,” Ortlieb said. “We’ve got a great diverse community of people that want to come in, and they do it because it’s fun, it’s relaxing and they learn something.”

The studio sits in a cozy room that boasts four wheels, a kiln and a small tortoise named Bobby. When class is in full swing, the room becomes a bustling hub of activity, passersby often peeking through the large windows with curiosity as Ortlieb gives directions and cracks jokes over the hum of the wheels. 

“[With] that ball of clay, you get to decide what it gets to be and a lot of people don’t get that feeling of control in their lives.”

Sarah Ortlieb, owner

The studio is open to people of all ages and skill levels. Classes often have a mix of skill levels from first-timers to people with over a decade of throwing experience, according to Teegan Walsh-Davis, a resident artist at Nodd.

“I’ve definitely been in there with people who were throwing for the first time, or you know kids who were just learning how everything works,” Walsh-Davis said. “And there was that same level of enthusiasm for them as for somebody who’s been doing it for 20 years.” 

The small studio lends itself to Ortlieb’s teaching style, which takes the hands-on approach beyond its usual definition. During class, she will frequently get up and, with permission, place her hands over a student’s to help them guide the clay as they throw on the wheel.

Throwing is the process of using a wheel to turn a lump of clay into a usable object. It’s a highly technical skill that requires intense focus even from seasoned potters. For new students, patience and perseverance are key. 

“You are the constant and the clay is the variable,” Ortlieb said as she helped them gain control of the lump of clay spinning out of control on their wheel. “So if your arms are not constant the clay is in charge, or at the very least you’re fighting each other.” 

Ortlieb is also passionate about the therapeutic nature of ceramics.

Courtesy of Teegan Walsh-Davis Teegan Walsh-Davis, a resident artist at Nodd Pottery, crafted the cup.

“You start with a lump of clay and then you turn it into something you have 100% control over,” Ortlieb said. “[With] this ball of clay, you get to decide what it gets to be and a lot of people don’t get that feeling of control in their lives.” 

For some, the mindfulness involved in this activity can be very therapeutic. Ortlieb described ceramics as “stereotypically zen” and compared the muscle memory and postures involved in throwing to the practice of yoga.

Julie Izumi, who has more than 10 years of ceramics experience and was attending Nodd for the first time, said the process of throwing as cathartic.

“It’s part of my meditative practice, when I’m throwing I don’t have to think about anything else except throwing,” Izumi said.  

Classes have begun again after a hiatus during the pandemic, students must wear masks and show proof of vaccination as they check-in. The studio managed to keep its doors open for resident artists during the pandemic.

“It’s been a really important lifeline for me during COVID,” Walsh-Davis said. “Having this as a creative outlet is really important.”

Walsh-Davis said the convenient location of the studio attracted her, but it was Ortlieb’s teaching style and the freeing, creative atmosphere that kept her there.

Nodd has partnered with several organizations, including Trilogy rehabilitation center, to put on workshops for those struggling with addiction and mental health. Ortlieb hopes that expanding the accessibility of ceramics will not only draw new people to the art form but may benefit them on a deeper level. 

“I don’t think I’d be alive without ceramics,” Ortlieb said.

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