The Yourist Studio Gallery is out of the way. Tucked into a small space on Broadway Street, on the way to an alienated North Campus, everything about the location suggests seclusion. The liquor store next door. A small parking lot littered with a few SUVs. A cracked sidewalk, veined in weeds. And a layer of dust, wafting from the nearby construction work, covering everything else. Until one walks through the front doors, nothing about the facility suggests it could be thriving creative workspace in the middle of a liberal college town.
But the studio-gallery has been surviving for close to 40 years — founded in the late 1970s by owner and resident artist Kay Yourist, the facility was originally established as a place where Yourist could continue developing her work. As years passed, the small studio grew with Yourist’s brand, eventually hosting classes for developing professional and student artists. Though one fact remained constant: Ever since its inception, the studio has been solely dedicated to ceramics. Every piece displayed in the gallery, situated toward the front of the facility, is clay-based and every one of the classes Yourist or her employees offer, from beginner to advanced, is dedicated to perfecting clayworking.
“I’ve just always been drawn to clay,” Yourist said. “There’s something really special about being able to hold a piece in your hands after having molded it from start to finish.”
On her website, Yourist further describes that molding process.
“I begin my artistic process by throwing the clay into classic vessels that are as recognizable today as a thousand years ago,” Yourist wrote. “I then alter their form by pushing and pulling and stretching the walls of the pot. When the clay dries to a leather hard consistency, I carve into the walls to give the piece surface relief detail and texture. The last step involves coating the completed forms with copper and iron rich glazes, chosen to emphasize the organic and timeless nature of clay.”
The entire methodology culminates in a final product that attempts to bridge a time gap between past and present — classic, traditional pottery-making furnished with her own uniquely contemporary style, glazed in highly metallic format. The art that Yourist produces is often sold at the Ann Arbor Art Fair but is also showcased in her own gallery, where she displays pieces made by the other artists working in her studio.
“I’ve been really fortunate in having had the opportunity to develop this passion for ceramics,” Yourist said. “But I think what’s even more rewarding is that I was able to learn how to run a business.”
That business now allows Yourist to host community artists in her studio space, where, for a fee, they can take advantage of her equipment to produce their own pieces. Usually, the community artists working with Yourist are people who have taken classes with her in the past, and in many cases, for years or even decades.
Marilyn Edington, one of the community artists who regularly works at the Yourist Studio, first became interested in pursuing ceramics as a side career after enrolling in a beginner class under Yourist’s tutelage. After years working as a statistician at the University of Michigan Health System, Edington decided she needed to flex her creativity after retiring. She described how, in her first beginner class, she was immediately given that chance to use her hands as she continued working with clay.
“Kay suggested I continue taking classes because it was clear I was getting a lot out of them,” Edington said. “So I kept coming back and I fell in love with clay.”
“There are just so many nuances with this medium,” she said. “It’s more than just the technical aspects, which with Kay’s help, I’ve spent the last 17 years honing. Using my hands to make art helped me find my voice and understand what it is I wanted to say, which I think is the real reward.”
The work Edington produces at the studio regularly sells out and has even inspired her to branch out and write about clay.
Edington eyed the clay in her hand, toying with the putty-like grooves. She motioned toward Yourist before silently mouthing “You should be talking to her!”
Walking through the front doors of the Yourist Studio can best be described as entering what one considers an art studio is supposed to look like. The front of the facility, just beyond the doors, is cordoned off and lined with display shelves. Original pieces, pots and teacups crowd every corner, leading to larger compositions placed near the entry to an open studio space. The only thing lacking are frenetic Art & Design students. Instead, the floor is occupied by soft-spoken adults, part of what’s obviously an extremely tight-knit community of artists.
Yourist struggled to pinpoint a specific piece of art she’s made in the studio that she finds the most meaningful.
“The whole journey of getting this place together has been more meaningful than anything else, I think,” she said. “I’ve been able to grow this business from the start, and going through that has been truly amazing.”
A scruffy black dog meanders around. Wet morsels of clay dry on large tables, becoming brittle plates. Two children run through the commotion, playing with handmade clay toys. Darcy Bowden, another community artist at the studio, runs through the basic steps to create a piece of ceramic art.
Bowden worked as an art teacher in the Ann Arbor area before retiring and deciding to take classes with Yourist. As someone who had been teaching hands-on art for a large part of her life, she understood the value of continuing that art education herself. She cites the work she has done with ceramics as having helped her find a new niche as an artist.
“I’ve learned a lot working with clay,” she said, holding a large clay boat in her hands — a piece she recently finished, now displayed near the front of the gallery. “Being able to experiment with glazes and all of these other techniques that you don’t usually find in a lot of art forms really helped me discover more about the possibilities of art.”
Yourist herself became interested in the artistic process at an early age.
“I was always encouraged to pursue art,” Bowden said. “And I guess I always just gravitated toward expressing myself creatively. I studied art in college and after moving to Ann Arbor, I decided to create a space for myself pretty soon.”
Over the decades, the Yourist Studio Gallery has oscillated between periods of profit and success, but has flourished in the last few years. Yourist hopes to use the developing business in order to launch an online version of the gallery that can reach new customers.
In addition, she has been trying to reach out to college students who she feels can benefit from the freedom claywork offers.
“I’ve had students, engineering majors come in who absolutely blew me away with the type of work they were able to produce,” she said. “I think a lot of college-age kids don’t realize the ways in which this art can help you calm your nerves and be at peace.”
Through another recently launched program, she rents out her studio space to small parties who, under supervision, can work with ceramics while celebrating a special occasion. Which means, yes, alcohol-infused nights around a pottery wheel.
“We haven’t had anything inappropriate happen,” she said, laughing. “We’re just hoping to find a place for ceramics in the future. Because it really is something that we all should experience at least once in our lives.”