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News and Media

Oberlin Pottery Co-op fundraiser brings hope to people in need

Dec. 09, 2011

Amanda Nagy

Roest Pottery
Michael Roest '06 forms clay on a wheel in the Oberlin Pottery Co-op.
Menglin Gao

In an unassuming house nestled between the Service Building and Cedar Street, a small but committed group of local potters—including students, faculty and staff, and community members—have been working steadily since October to produce 400 one-of-a-kind mugs. Those mugs will be offered for $10 each as part of the Empty Mugs Holiday Brass & Organ Spectacular.

Now in its third year, the concert and mug sale benefits Oberlin Community Services, an agency that provides food and assistance with rent and mortgage payments, transportation, and prescriptions to income-eligible residents. The agency also runs a math-tutoring program in Oberlin Public Schools.

The drive is led by Michael Roest ’06, ensemble librarian and manager for the Conservatory of Music. A brass musician, Roest graduated from Oberlin with a degree in tuba performance. He went on to earn his master’s degree at Juilliard in 2008. It wasn’t until he returned to Oberlin as a staff member four years ago that he became involved in the pottery co-op.  

The pottery co-op has traditionally held a fundraiser each spring called “Empty Bowls,” based on the same concept of partnering with local eateries. “It got me thinking about winter and the holidays,” Roest says. “I thought, why don’t we make mugs, then businesses can pitch in more easily with coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. That’s when I put together the concert.”

The concert will be performed by conservatory brass and organ students at 8 p.m. Friday, December 16, in First Church of Oberlin.

All proceeds from the mugs go directly to Oberlin Community Services. Last year, the event raised more than $2,600; this year, the pottery co-op is aiming for $4,000. Oberlin Community Services receives more than two-thirds of its individual contributions around the holidays, which the agency uses year-round to support all of its work.

“Right now, we are working hard to keep our food pantry stocked, as the use keeps rising—at last count it had risen 60 percent in the past three-month period,” says Executive Director Linda Arbogast. “The benefit, apart from raising crucial funds, is to raise awareness in our community. I wonder if most people know that one in four families in Oberlin lives below the poverty line? Our agency offers an opportunity for the larger community to support those in need directly. The support offers people hope in dire economic times.”

In addition to its regular monthly food distribution, the agency gives out groceries for a holiday meal, and it runs a program called Holiday Helping Hands, in which sponsors purchase holiday gifts for more than 350 local kids.

Roest says he is thrilled with the level of community and business support for the concert and fundraiser. “Each year I’m more surprised at how willing and eager everyone is to pitch in, and that’s a great feeling,” he says. “This is one way to give back to the college, to say thank you for supporting the pottery co-op.”

Still, to make 400 mugs is no small task. The pottery co-op is one of Oberlin’s many hidden gems.

Samantha Williams, a senior Latin American Studies major from Washington, D.C., joined the pottery co-op during her first year. “When I visited colleges, I had already been doing pottery for about six years, so I wanted to find a school that actually had ceramics classes or at least provided the possibility for me to keep doing pottery,” says Williams. “It is a great environment to learn in, because so many people are beginners, and there is no judgment about your skills.”

The college recently funded a new gas-fired kiln, which was designed and built by Chris Breuer ’77, a professional potter who owns a studio in Oberlin, and one of the founding members of the pottery co-op when he was a student. A number of students and residents contributed to the manual labor of building the kiln. Among them is Oberlin resident Jack Flotte, a professional artist and conservator who has worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. He retired in 2005 and came to Oberlin to concentrate on his own art.

Creating the “Empty Mugs” involves both individual and group effort, Flotte explains. From start to finish, it takes several weeks to create a ceramic mug. The potters knead the clay, shape the vessel form on the potter's wheel, trim excess clay from it, add a handle, and after it has been bisque fired, glaze it, all according to their own personal aesthetic preferences. As a group, the potters mix the clay, fire the kilns, mix the glazes, and contribute to the general maintenance of the studio.  

“The pottery co-op is a unique resource for the college and community,” Flotte says. “It lets people of different skill levels and approaches work together while finding their own means of expression. Although we do require that everyone contribute a set number of work hours to the functioning of the studio, there are few better options in Oberlin for learning about clay and glazes. We also make an effort, through volunteering for events such as Empty Mugs, to give back to the wider community.”

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