From a professor’s wives club to a high-class studio, that’s what Wesleyan Potters in Middletown has grown into.
The 501(c)(3) arts education organization, founded in 1948, originally began as a place for women who lived on the Wesleyan campus to spend their time.
“Wesleyan did not approve of women being professors, so the wives of professors decided to take up pottery,” Mary Ruth Shields, gallery manager said. A university professor agreed to teach them what he knew about the art form and from there it evolved.
Known as the “Monday Club” the group originally met in the basement of a building on campus, but it quickly grew in popularity and size, attracting people from outside the university. A larger space was needed so they moved into another house on campus. After learning that house was to be demolished they found an old dry cleaning store on the north end of town and moved the club there. Finally, in 1972, they moved once again to their current 9,000 square foot location.
Wesleyan Potters, located on 350 South Main Street has 97 active members and ten “key members” ranging in ages from 35 to 91, one of whom joined in 1955. The oldest member of the organization, Myra, now 91, has been making pottery there since 1978 and still comes on a regular basis. Fellow potter, Marty, joined at the age of 77. She is now 89 and is there almost daily.
Today Wesleyan Potters offers classes in pottery, weaving, jewelry, basketry, and art classes for children, attracting over 900 students from 55 Connecticut towns. Eighty percent of the adult classes have waiting lists. They also attract approximately 10,000 visitors to the gallery’s annual exhibit and sale, and offer internships to college graduates in ceramics. Interns work for 10 to 15 hours a week and receive a small stipend. The organization also awards scholarships every year totaling close to 4,000.
Wesleyan Potters employs two handicapped adults, one of which has worked there for more than 20 years.
The gallery exhibits a wide range of different artwork. Most of what is on display represent members' work, but there are pieces from craftspeople around the country.
“We only take U.S artists, primarily those from the Northeast,” Mary Ruth said.
“We are very particular as to whose work we show and all pieces on display are juried. The work has to be of the highest quality to be included. I think we probably have the most varied selection in the Hartford area,” she added.
Some of what is on display in the gallery is for sale, in addition to what is available in the store. Exhibit items in the lobby rotate regularly, except for one collection that is permanent. Items for sale include jewelry, sculptures, hand-woven articles, ceramics, pottery, glassworks and abstract pieces. New pieces are constantly coming in, so offerings in the store change constantly.
Exhibit items rotate every four to six weeks. Overall the store sells more than $350,000 worth of crafts each year, according to published reports.
In addition to the store, there is the annual exhibit and sale, which helps fund the running of the school. Ninety-nine percent of their budget comes from tuition, craft sales, and key member dues. Wesleyan Potter’s teachers have earned an exception reputation, all of whom are producing artists.
Classes take place year-round, six days a week, with nine-week semesters and most of the materials are available for purchase on site, especially clay. They have a minimal amount of yarn and metal, but generally order it for students, she said.
“We try to make classes as affordable as possible. On average it works out to be less than $10 an hour.”
Sessions are available year-round on a lottery basis. Well-qualified instructors design classes to accommodate all levels of experience and skill, from beginner to advanced. Additionally, they offer jewelry, ceramics, weaving and basketry workshops which feature demonstrations and hands-on experiences with nationally known craftspeople.
For more information, a list of exhibits and, hours and days they are open visit their website at wesleyanpotters.com. You can also reach them by phone at (860) 347-5925 for the office or at (860 )344-0039 for the gallery.