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Ceramic studio is open for business and classes in East Nokomis

Posted on 20 February 2018 by calvin

Photos and article by STEPHANIE FOX
People passing by the former Pizza Hut takeout location on the corner of 34th Ave. and 50th St. in East Nokomis are doing double takes. Gone is the garish pizza sign, gone are the takeout counters, gone are the pizza ovens. Instead, there is a bright open space with shelves of hand-thrown pottery, jewelry, and photography for sale or viewing.

And, there are ten potter’s wheels, waiting for ceramic students—kids and adults—who want to learn the art of creating pottery. The shop’s tagline is “Come Play.”

Welcome to The Workshop Mpls, a new addition to the increasingly hip and creative East Nokomis neighborhood.

The impetus behind The Workshop is Jennie Tang (photo right), also known as Jennie the Potter. She’d managed to raise nearly $40 thousand dollars from 538 donors through a Kickstarter campaign. After nearly 17 years, she could finally move out of her basement studio to a large storefront.

Tang had spent years on the art fair circuit, “But,” she said, “I decided that I didn’t want to spend any more of my summers in 10’ by 10’ tents.” And, with two kids she knew it was time for a change.

Tang was first introduced to pottery, something that for her would someday become a calling, when she was 11-years old. As a child, her family moved around a lot, she said, and after moving to Minneapolis as a pre-teen, her grandmother told her that she and her brother needed hobbies to help focus their energies. Tang enrolled in a pottery class (her brother took up cartooning) and she soon found that she had a unique talent.

When she started at the University of Minnesota, she was thinking about attending journalism school. “But, I had a fine arts requirement,” she said. “I took ‘Intro to Wheel Throwing,’ and my professor talked me into majoring in ceramics. My grandmother agreed,” she said.

Photo left: Tang trimming a bowl after throwing.

After graduating, Tang set up a ceramic studio in her basement, selling her wares through the art fair circuit and teaching at the Edina Art Center and at Powderhorn Park. “That’s where I learned how to sell, not just create, pottery,” she said.

She found a large and enthusiastic fan-base by going to sheep and wool festivals, she said, referring to specialty art fairs that focus on farming, food and fiber crafts.

One of the largest of these celebrations and one of her favorites, she said, is the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival, which attracts visitors from around the country.

“When you go to these festivals, most of the souvenirs were screen printed and made in China,” she said. “But, I’m a knitter, so I know that people who work with their hands have an appreciation for handmade goods.

“And, my pots have a more modern look. They were different—not country kitsch. I have a whole line for knitters, including some with cute knitting themes,” Tang noted.

Meeting people at fairs helped her gain online celebrity with the fiber community. Many of her knitting fans, along with friends from the neighborhood where she is known as ‘that potter lady,’ helped her raise her Kickstarter funds. The fundraising began in the autumn of 2016, and within a year she began to look for locations.

Photo right: Jennie Tang (center) from The Workshop Mpls with fellow artists and staff members Simon Wolfe and Emma Heemstra.

“I saw the for rent sign on the Pizza Hut. I pulled over and called the phone number,” she said. Negotiations began last August and went on almost five months. “It took that long to convince the landlord that art was a smart business decision. But, I finally gave him a deadline of mid-January. We signed a lease on January 15,” she said.

There were other food-based businesses hoping for the space as well, but Tang said, “There are so many of those in this area already.”

The Workshop now has six employees who create pottery and who, with Tang, teach others how to work with clay on a potter’s wheel. The shop offers weekly beginning adult classes, adult day and evening classes, parent and child wheel classes, and classes just for kids. They also offer ‘pottery pop-ins’—short one hour ‘give it a try’ sessions, to let those who have never worked on a pottery wheel experiment with the technique.

The staff also throws children’s birthday parties and private parties for groups like book clubs, as well as corporate team-building sessions. “We hosted a team building for the Target design group,” Tang said.

The Workshop also holds special events, like a Super Bowl party where partygoers went through 200 lb. of clay, throwing 61 ‘super’ bowls while the big game was on. “I like puns,” she added.

“Now that I have the space, I can bring the public into the studio and help others become creative,” Tang said. “I love to teach in my own space and in my own way. Only five percent of my job is ceramics, and the rest is working with people.” She says that opening up to the creative process can help free people up and open them to new things.

Photo left: Some of Jennie Tang’s ceramic works. The birch tree theme is one of the most popular, she says.

“I had a clear vision for this space,” Tang said. “I wanted a calm a quiet workspace, not a place where every hour was programmed.

And, I get to make pots that people will buy and appreciate.”

“It’s important that my pieces are used,” she insisted. “My coffee mugs are my number-one seller. I like that my mugs get to be the first thing that people pull out of their cupboard in the morning.”

“It’s also something that gives me peace; to go back to the clay,” she said.

Tang encourages visitors to drop in and ask questions, or even to sit on the couch and watch while artists and students create clay art.

“The couch,” Tang said, “is always open.”

You can find The Workshop Mpls at 5004 34th Ave. S., or learn more about classes, events, and hours at theworkshopmpls.com, or call 612-729-2401.

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