Shoulders to the Wheel

At the Barnard Clay Collective, a malleable material offers students a solid chance to connect and unwind

By Liz Galst

Photos by Lucy Schaeffer

Located in the basement of Plimpton Hall, the Barnard Clay Collective is many things: a 24/7 ceramics studio, an instructional program for beginning and intermediate potters, an intergenerational community, a nonacademic learning opportunity, a place to de-stress, and more.

Begun in the late 1960s, it provides instruction and studio access each semester to about 50 students (and some alums); the waiting list for entry is at least as long. Jane Schachat ’73 (pictured, center), a one-time professional potter, teaches the two beginning and two intermediate ceramics classes that the Collective offers each week. She’s offered classes at the studio, almost without interruption, since 1971. “It’s enormously rewarding — total joy and satisfaction,” she says of her work teaching the next generation of Barnard ceramicists.

And while students learn the clay basics — hand-building, mixing glazes, throwing on a wheel — the Collective and the practice of ceramics itself imparts other important lessons, starting with community: Many of the students become close friends with one another and with Schachat.

Then there’s the learning that can come from allowing oneself to be really, really bad at something for a while. (Ceramics, like many things, is not nearly as easy as it appears on YouTube.) This is especially true for the high achievers that Barnard attracts: “Nothing that I make looks good. It’s humbling,” says beginner Carly Frederickson ’21. “But it’s cool to be learning something like this because I feel like all I do is study.”

Indeed, the studio’s function as a stress reliever is not to be underestimated. Says Sonia Cisneros ’19, who served as one of the Clay Collective’s five student coordinators, “This is a space where you use your hands and your mind in a really different way than you do at school. When I get here, I never want to leave.”

Pottery class