Jill Birschbach, president of the Midwest Clay Guild, in the new building's well-stocked glaze room. (Photo: Gay Riseborough)

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After 50 years in Evanston, the Midwest Clay Guild has moved to Skokie, setting up shop in a newly renovated industrial space that perfectly suits its needs.

With clean white walls, a 20-foot plus ceiling, a loading dock, two garage doors and a parking lot, Guild members are already hard at work throwing pots and making their ceramic functional ware, sculpture and tiles. The new location, at 8124 N. Lawndale Ave., is just two blocks north of Oakton Street.

Guild President Jill Birschbach said, “The move was a huge one – it took four months, plus time to reconnect and vent all the equipment in the new space.”

For the last nine years, the Guild occupied a space at 1609 Payne St. in Evanston, in a building owned and occupied by Soul & Smoke, with Double Clutch Brewing Company across the street. The Evanston neighborhood seems to be moving away from light industry and towards consumer-driven business. Building owners asked Clay Guild to pay almost double their usual rent on Payne. When they had to decline, their lease was not renewed.

Previously the Guild had operated for 40 years at 1236 Sherman Ave., near the intersection of Dempster and Sherman, on the west side of the Metra tracks. They had become a true fixture at that location.

There are several rooms in the new Skokie location: the “wheel room” for ceramists who use pottery wheels, a room for storing powdered glazes and a huge room with five kilns, four hand-building tables on casters, a big slab roller and six large “ware carts” for works in progress. A new spray booth is coming soon. There is an outdoor area for raku or soda firings and a front yard for displays and sales.

The Guild also offers its members a large supply of glazes for free. Birschbach explained that public schools have stopped mixing their own glazes because the powdered ingredients are dangerous for breathing and must be used with masks. Both Evanston Township High school and New Trier have made large donations of glaze chemicals to the Guild.

Guild members Cecelia Mitchell and Will Van Dyke work in the center’s new wheel room. (Photo: Gay Riseborough)

The five kilns comprise four rewired electric kilns (one is so small they call it the “baby”) and a big, new $20,000 gas kiln. This kiln required an industrial mover using a forklift and a flatbed semi to deliver it and set it in place. Once in, it had to be hooked up, and all the kilns had to be vented through the roof. A Go Fund Me page that brought in $10,000 helped with the move.

And there is, at last, air conditioning – a new amenity for Guild members. Birschbach said that when the kilns were fired up during the summer in their old space, the heat was almost unbearable.

A members-only studio facility, the Guild does not offer classes. Instead, it is a place where ceramic artists “take their work to the next level,” offering not only a place to work, but also community, dialogue and inspiration. Each member has 32 feet of shelving for their individual supplies and the products of their work. The Guild has 14 members at present, with room for two more. The monthly fee includes rent, equipment, storage space, access to five kilns and free glaze chemicals.

The drive for financial help with the move brought donations and remembrances from several former members. James Connell, former member and now a professor at Winthrop University in South Carolina, says, “I’m happy to hear the Midwest Clay Guild is still going strong. YAY!! I was a proud member back in the late 1970s. Being there was an important part of my growth as an artist. When I left in 1980, I went on to earn two art degrees and secured a tenure track teaching position.”

Eric Jensen, former member and one-time head of the ceramics department at the Evanston Art Center, says, “The ‘potters guild’ provided the fire when I arrived full of hopes and wishes and scant resources in 1973.” Jensen has gone on to success as a full-time ceramist in Chicago.

COVID-19 caused problems at the Guild, like everywhere else. Before vaccinations became available, only two people were allowed in the studio at a time, for just three hours. Once vaccinations were available, that grew to four people for four hours at a time. Masks were always, and are still, recommended. Some members fell behind in their rent.

But new people came from Chicago’s bustling Lillstreet Art Center, which shut down in-person classes and limited studio time when the pandemic hit. Those new people liked the Midwest Guild, stayed and joined as members.

A Mothers’ Day sale of functional ceramics is planned for May 7 and 8 and will be held on the grass in the front yard on Lawndale. And there are hopes for a big, celebratory 50th anniversary exhibition in a suitable Evanston gallery space.

For more information, contact Info@midwestclayguild.net.

Gay Riseborough

Gay Riseborough is an artist, has served the City of Evanston for 11 years on arts committees, and is now an arts writer at the Evanston RoundTable.

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