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Current members of Yellow Springs Pottery, which is celebrating 50 years as a cooperative. From left, back row: Kate Lally, Janet Murie, Jerry Davis, Marcia Cochran, David Hergesheimer, and Michele Dutcher. Front row: Jane Hockensmith-Reich, Evelyn LaMers, and Brad Husk. (Submitted photo)

50 years of cooperative pottery

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Whether uniting together for a common goal, dream or economic need, cooperative businesses, or co-ops, have been part of the Yellow Springs landscape for decades.

One of the oldest established co-ops in town is Yellow Springs Pottery.

Emerging as a collective of potters in 1973, the cooperative, currently numbering around nine members, was founded by a group of four women coming together through a mutual love of pottery.

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This year, the store celebrates 50 years of making pottery that has been purchased by customers from all over the United States.

Five members of Yellow Springs Pottery, Evelyn La Mers, Jane Hockensmith-Reich, Janet Murie, Brad Husk, and David Hergesheimer recently met with the News to discuss the co-op’s evolution as a business that supports local artists, who create and sell their work.

The following are excerpts from that interview in which they gave historical context to the co-op’s growth over the years.

Evelyn La Mers: “Well, I can give you a little bit of ancient history. … Of the four people that started the shop back in ’73, three of them were young mothers working part-time, kind of as hobbyists down at the Yellow Springs Arts Council. And they were making beautiful work, but on a very small scale.

“Going to art fairs [a main vehicle for selling pottery] when you have little kids is just not a very easy thing to do — the spark for the co-op was lit when one of the founders, a ceramics major and graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology, moved to Yellow Springs from New York, and came up with the idea to start a co-op.”

Several members of the co-op began their work with John Bryan Community Pottery before moving to the store. Once a part of the Yellow Springs Arts Council, John Bryan Community Pottery became a separate nonprofit in 2015.

La Mers: “There were two organizations in Yellow Springs that really facilitated the start of the store. One was the Yellow Springs Arts Council, or YSAC, and the other was [a group of Yellow Springs investors called] the Upland Corporation. And they both served an incubator function. … This building, [located in Kings Yard for 50 years], used to be the Antioch Bookplate Company.”

The Antioch Bookplate Company — formed in 1926 by then-Antioch College students Ernest Morgan and Walter Kahoe — renamed Antioch Publishing Company in the 1980s, and reformed as Creative Memories in the 1990s, was a major Yellow Springs employer, operating for several decades at its Dayton Street plant before shuttering in 2012.

La Mers: “In 1970, Ernest Morgan … passed the reins to his son, Lee Morgan. And Lee being young, just started to grow the company hand over fist overnight. They had outgrown this space and needed to build a new building in a new location. … A group of local people, older people who had some money, combined their finances, formed the Upland Corporation, and bought this factory building. That gave the bookplate company the money to build their new building at the edge of town.

“This was local, older Yellow Springs people paying forward — in other words, investing in the future. This was the early ’70s, and the idea of pedestrian malls in downtown was the new urban dream. We had a cutting-edge idea to turn this old factory … close it off to street traffic and make it a pedestrian walkway. The bookplate had vacated this building and there were spaces here available for pretty cheap, because it was an old factory building and it wasn’t fixed up at all. And cheap is always helpful when you’re starting out.”

Janet Murie: “I think what’s absolutely central to this business is the co-op aspect of it.  It’s just so totally different from working a [regular] job. You know, if you’re in retail, the schedule may change from week to week. You can’t trade a day without going through your supervisor, or your manager. The last time I remember, not too many months ago, I got a text from Jane at 10:30 in the morning. We open at noon. She said, ‘I have the most awful headache. Can you store-sit for me today?’ And I texted back, ‘of course’. You know, it’s that reciprocating. I know if I need something, someone will step in for me. I don’t think the store has ever closed its doors because someone was on their way to the hospital or something.”

La Mers: “This store sells what we make. So, we all have to have time to make it. It’s not like a store that buys things. So, the co-op model is critical in a way. If we each work here one day a week, we are spending one day a week, or 20 percent of our time selling, four days a week or 80 percent of our time in the studio. No one could work in a store five days a week and have any time left for studio time.

“I mean, even in this store we all make different amounts of money. Some people make twice as much as others. They just produce more and sell. But that doesn’t affect the social relationship or the decision making. I mean, we all have one vote, and we all have the same amount of display space, even though we make vastly different amounts of money. And that’s amazing. In other words, we each have the same opportunity to take advantage of this sales space, this sales opportunity. And we each have home lives and expense levels that demand more or less studio production. Some people want more income, and they work more.”

Brad Husk: “I know that a big part of why this works so well — at least from my point of view — we’re very careful about who we’ve picked to come into the store [as members].”

La Mers: “We look for steady, reasonable people. When we’re interviewing someone, they have to have both feet firmly planted on the ground and be realistic, reliable people, because that’s how we operate.”

According to its members, the business model of Yellow Springs Pottery, developed during the first 15 years of the co-op’s evolution, has held steady and been successful, despite tough economic times and the COVID-19 pandemic. Other factors that have helped — increased foot traffic downtown and the affordability of the work they produce.

Murie: “I think one of the things that probably every business in Yellow Springs noticed — we must be talking six years ago — was when Mills Park Hotel opened. It seemed like downtown suddenly became really crowded, particularly on weekends during the nice months of the year.”

La Mers: “I don’t know if there’s a connection, but certainly about that time, the density of tourists on weekends seemed to increase.

“You know, we’re dealing in a lower priced medium. I mean, paintings sell for a heck of a lot more than a coffee mug. What we’re selling, there’s not so much of a price barrier the way there would be for two-dimensional art. You know, a younger person can’t afford a $1000 painting, but they might be able to afford a $150 print.”

David Hergesheimer: “A great amount of our work goes for gifts to people. No matter what the circumstances, what society goes through, people still — you know, at birthdays, weddings, Christmas — you still want to give a gift. I think it’s kind of the glue that holds society together, giving gifts. …

“I’m thinking of other media. We have artwork hanging in our house, and I’m ashamed to say after six months or a year you start to not even see it. It’s just part of the wallpaper. Whereas a vase that you are using on a weekly basis, every week you’re picking it up, you’re handling it, you’re touching it, you’re trying different foods or flowers in it. So it becomes a more integral part of your daily life, and you don’t ignore it. You get to love the textures, the color, the weight of it. It becomes part of who you are.”

Many members have been around for most of the years since the co-op’s inception. As people age, conversations and action plans related to the store’s generational shift have given rise to new programs to address the inevitable passing of the torch.

Hergesheimer: “Well, this has been on our minds a lot. We started this program of visiting artists seven years ago, to sort of get a feel for what younger potters are out there, that we might, you know, recruit for the store in the future. And in fact, it has worked spectacularly well.”

Murie: “This is where Dave and I disagree. He and I are on a three-person committee that goes through the applications and decides who’s coming in. … He sees it as a recruitment for new members. I have always seen it as anything made of clay that’s new and different — I want to see it on those shelves.”

La Mers: “I would say that the work today compared to 50 years ago is more colorful. I think we were more working in browns at that time because that  was the beginning of the wheat germ, natural foods, maple butcher block countertop era. It was a reaction against Formica and Fiesta ware from the fifties and the butterfly chairs. … People love color, and we’re all aware of color as being as important as anything else in terms of shape and design. Color is a big thing. … I mean, at Antioch we were all doing brown, brown, brown.”

The store’s prominent location downtown is considered a critical factor in the co-op’s continued success by its members.

La Mers: “Location is everything. I mean, if we weren’t in Yellow Springs, if it wasn’t for John Bryan Community Center, if it hadn’t been for Upland Corporation, if  there wasn’t a downtown Yellow Springs that has remained viable for 50 years, because a lot of small towns have died. And it’s taken the work of the Chamber[of commerce], of all the little businesses, of the villagers who live here, and who shop in our town.”

An upcoming News article will feature some of the artists who are members of the co-op.

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