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14 Jun 2018

Hooray for Clay: Palm Springs' Silica Studios Offers Ceramic Artists a Place to Commune and Create

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Artists at work at Silica Studios. Artists at work at Silica Studios. Silica Studios website

Do you remember what it was like to play in the mud? Well, Silica Studios in Palm Springs has elevated this cherished childhood memory into an artistic experience.

For 15 years, owners Daric Harvie, Dona Vanden Heuvel, and Tim McMullen have been providing professional studio space and supplies to Coachella Valley ceramic artists. It all started when longtime friends Harvie and McMullen came to the valley to take ceramic classes at College of the Desert. There, they met Vanden Heuvel—and the three of them determined there was a demand for a professional studio space where artists could have access to equipment and supplies that were otherwise available to only students in a ceramics program.

They decided a membership program made the most financial sense and opened Silica Studios in 2003. Their decisions paid off: Silica Studios allows students, novices and professional artists to grow and develop their work outside of a classroom. Still in the original location on Williams Road—near Sunny Dunes Road and Gene Autry Trail, the studios have doubled in size since opening, to approximately 3,000 square feet.

Daric Harvie gave me a tour of the facilities. At the entry, a small but impressive gallery introduces creative possibilities available through the studio door. Beyond that door are two large high-ceiling rooms. One room is for throwing clay on a potter's wheel; the other is dedicated to hand-building. Light pours in from the industrial-sized garage doors thrown open to the desert sky. Despite an outside temperature beyond 100 degrees during my visit, the space was cool and comfortable. It's meticulously organized and very clean—despite all of the, you know, mud. It felt very laid-back.

Through the garage doors are two large concrete courtyards with tables, potter's wheels and a collection of kilns that would make any ceramic artist envious. I've had my own ceramic studios over the years; they always were in a basement, dark and cramped, so I was obviously excited by the atmosphere, the space, the coolness of the air and the fragrance of the wet clay.

“Clay is such a primal experience,” Harvie said.

“I think I need to come here and make something,” I replied.

Harvie told me that he and his co-owners have tried to make a safe place to create—one that is encouraging and filled with positive energy. The focus is on high-fire stoneware and porcelain, but the studio can also fire lower-temperature terra cottas. The studio has begun producing custom dinnerware in limited productions for chef-oriented restaurants in the area. Studio artists can also do commissions for local designers.

“Is that a reduction kiln that I see out there?” I asked. Reduction firing requires a gas-fired kiln with the ability to burn off all the oxygen inside so that the glazes are chemically altered. It produces interesting glazes that cannot be achieved any other way—and it is something I could never do in a basement.

“Yes, it is” Harvie replied. “We also have electric kilns and a raku kiln in the back.”

Raku is a Japanese technique of removing a piece of ceramic from the kiln, while it is still red-hot, with a pair of tongs. It is then thrown into wood chips or other combustible materials. The burning wood chips produce iridescence and velvety textures on the clay. It's the most theatrical of firings.

Harvie said Silica Studios is home to between 25 and 45 members; it varies with the season. For a monthly fee, members have access to the studios during all business hours, and also receive a discount on workshops and firings; the latter are priced by how much space someone uses in the kiln. Members are also invited to participate in shows and sales—one during the Christmas season, and the other in the spring. Nonmembers can also use the studios for a daily fee and can bring in pieces to be fired. During the winter season, a four-session introduction to working with clay is offered for beginners. There are also kids’ classes, workshops, and instruction for both individuals and groups. Clay and ceramic tools are on sale, as are pieces by member artists in the gallery. The gallery is open to the public during all business hours.

Silica Studios is located at 752 S. Williams Road, in Palm Springs. During the summer, Silica is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday; and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday. For more information, call 760-325-7007, or visit www.silicastudios.com.

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