Clay TherapyCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In Prospect Heights, a ceramics studio taps into the wellness benefits of clay. Published: April 27, 2021
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!
At the peak of the pandemic in New York, my best friend started making three NYT Cooking recipes a week. Her objectives were simple: shake up the monotony of quarantine weeknights, and hopefully gain some culinary skills in the process. But what started as a humble exercise in meal prep morphed into a critical — and enduring — practice of self care: to this day, she says that her mental health for the week hinges on the three recipes (she’s only half-joking).
The aphorism “It’s the little things” used to make my eyes roll, but after COVID, I have a new respect for quotidian pleasures. This is not to dismiss the big things like health care access, social justice, and economic equality — those issues matter much more than viral shallot pasta. Still, reveling in small joys helps shore up energy to tackle the hard stuff.
Small joys take many forms: pie for breakfast, fresh tulips from the bodega, an extra-long walk on a weekday afternoon ... Anything that prompts a brief release, a moment of quiet. This week, I spoke with someone in the business of creating calm by way of clay: Jennifer Waverek, Owner of BKLYN CLAY, a ceramics studio in Prospect Heights for amateurs and artists. Throughout the pandemic, Waverek and her team have continually reimagined what a collaborative art practice can look like. Keep reading for our conversation on Zoom classes, the fear of the unknown, and why ceramics are especially therapeutic in these times.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to open BKLYN CLAY?
I worked for years in branding and advertising. When I had kids, those hours were pretty rough for me, so I went back to school and studied art history and visual arts, and got really interested in ceramics there. Working in [ceramics] studios in New York, I realized, "Wow, these environments are so antiquated." That inspired this idea for creating a studio that would fit modern lives.
How does it do that?
Probably the biggest difference [from traditional studios] is that in non-COVID times, our studio is open 24/7/365. We have students and then we have a membership model, and if you are a member, you can come in anytime and use it like your own studio. Ceramics depends on a lot of expensive and time-consuming processes, and you need a lot of space. From the start, we designed the environment to make every part of the experience enjoyable, so you don’t have to worry about ad hoc operations in order to make your work. There are people who use the space therapeutically, like working out or something. A lot of people use it socially. In some ways it's like a bar or pub. It's a big space, so you can be around people, but also be very much by yourself if you want.
You opened in 2018; how was business when the pandemic hit?
So our third year was a pandemic year, which was rough for a relatively new business ... I have a lot of loans, I'm not a wealthy person. I leveraged a lot of my life resources, friends, and investors in order to pull this together. We were doing well, hitting our goals and beyond, paying back our loans and things like that, and then the pandemic hit and forced us to close ... It was bananas to suddenly not be sure of what's going on. My house is leveraged in order to have this business, so it wasn’t just like, "I'm going to lose my job and look for another job." It would be life-crushing for this not to work at this point, because I have really put everything into it.
Tell me about your staff.
We have five of us on staff who are full time, and then we have a lot of part-time employees. All of our teachers are 1099 employees. There could be up to 20 people at any time who are teaching classes and private lessons. The problem for a business like ours that has 1099 employees is a lot of them are artists who are working part time to supplement their arts practice. I felt awful and responsible for those people because we had no classes, we weren't selling anything. We paid all of our 1099 people through the end of their classes, and we were able to continue to pay our [full-time] employees through the entire pandemic.
Wow, that's amazing.
I mean, it was so much scrambling. Things were changing so fast; first it would change from week to week, and then it would change from the beginning of the day to the end of the day. I was listening to the news for updates constantly, just to get the latest information on what was happening, what was going on with the PPP ... Our operations manager was crushing it, and it didn't hurt that she is a trained lawyer, so she was able to get through some of that stuff. We were also able to call our accountant and get them to help us pull all the information together that we needed, and just help us through the process. Because those first PPP packages were really crazy.
Did you get the PPP?
We did, and I'm very grateful for that, because that's what helped us pay our staff.
How long were you closed for?
Four months. And we have an expensive rent, so the negotiations for some kind of rent forgiveness were crucial. We got a little bit, but it wasn't incredible.
What programming did you offer while the studio was closed?
We immediately started online conversations with artists. We started doing clay deliveries to people's houses and selling at-home classes ... What else did we do? It seems like 20 years ago, but it was just last summer. We have a beer and wine license, and so we started selling beer and wine with a pack of Cheetos with our deliveries, in order to bump up sales.
How do the at-home classes work?
So these are the silver linings of COVID — the innovations we figured out. We decided to teach our handbuilding classes on Zoom, and we created these kits that you could buy with the class if you needed the tools. Just figuring out the format for an online class was a lot: How do people interact? Are they talking throughout, or do they talk at the end? We hit our sweet spot. It’s a great class taught by two of our teachers, Cammi and Nadine, who are so good at teaching in tandem.
Did memberships drop?
Many of our members lost their jobs; I would say we lost a third of our members. But there were a lot of people who continued to be members and paid their monthly fees, even though they weren't getting anything. We ultimately gave them a lot of [discounts] in the back end as a thank you, and we would deliver clay for free to their homes. I was so touched and grateful for [that], because a studio like this is really a community, and it was nice to know that people are happy to have this resource.
Was there ever a point when you felt like the business was seriously at risk?
At the beginning, I had no idea. It was the biggest fear of, How long is this going to go on? But I don't know if I ever felt like, We're going to lose this, because I have invested so much. My commitment was to pivot in some other way and find a way to do it.
What changes did you make in order to reopen?
We started checking temperatures and oxygen levels, and everyone has to wear masks, and as soon as they come in they wash their hands. We thinned out our wheels [to make space for social distancing] and created an at-home membership where you can rent a wheel and we deliver it to your home, which is for people who are immune-compromised or live with someone immune-compromised. We took all of our aprons out, which might potentially hold germs, so people have to bring their own. We started fogging the spaces throughout the day. We made a video to show everybody what the experience would be like if they came in: this is what's going to happen, and this is how to disinfect your area after you work. The other thing that has changed is we're no longer 24/7/365 — we’re nine to nine. We now have a door person, and if you come in at 9:00 at night, they’ll take your temperature, and you can go to work and stay as long as you like, but you can’t show up at 1:00 in the morning and make work.
How did people respond when you first reopened?
Almost everyone has been super conscientious and grateful for the way that we're handling the check-ins and communication. We've had a few people sign up for a class and then just not feel comfortable when they get there. That's why we made the video, so people could literally see what the class was going to look like. But sometimes you just have to get there in order to understand, I guess.
"The thing that makes ceramics so poignant right now is that it's literally earth."
Do you think the stress of this year has made people more eager to experiment with ceramics?
I do, actually. Aside from the pressure of the last year, there’s an overwhelming amount of digital overload; everything is screen-based. The thing that makes ceramics so poignant right now is that it's literally earth, and it’s grounding for that reason. When you're working at a wheel, you do a thing called “centering” the clay, and it might be cheesy, but those words, grounding and centering, are what happens to people therapeutically while they're making work. And you cannot be engaging with your phone while you're working: your hands are muddy and it'll gunk up your screen. So you're really just focusing in this meditative way, and that break from everything else is what people need. It’s a way to quiet down.
Will you continue offering digital classes for the foreseeable future?
I'm not sure. It'll depend on what people are interested in. [Right now,] the digital classes work because there are still people who are really unsure, or not vaccinated. Or maybe they like that they don't have to go anywhere, they can just do it in their house and still have a bit of group involvement.
How are you doing financially?
We're not back at our numbers prior to the pandemic, but we're doing better. All sorts of new costs have come in, like we had to hire more people to do door check-ins, but we're doing well enough. We're going to survive, we're trying to push through to the next phase. I do feel a difference in terms of our wait list for membership — it’s a big list, maybe three or four months out. So I think we're coming back.
How to help:
- Sign up for a one-time class at the studio
- Try handbuilding at home
- Purchase ceramics made by the BKLYN CLAY team
- Follow on IG
Until next time,