By GRACE KOOK-ANDERSON
Brown bag lunches at Ash Street Project define the mid-break in the day of working in the studio, of coming to the common table, sharing food and conversation. It is a setting where I first met the founders, Thomas Orr and Joanna Bloom. Both long-time ceramicists, they opened up their private studio to become a community space for clay-based artists.
The open, 5,000 square foot space is marked with workstations, kilns, and shelves for drying clay works. At the front of the studio is the kitchen to the right and a large communal table front-center, where we gathered for lunch. The space also houses a window-front gallery of two rooms. Nestled in the industrial part of the Central Eastside District, the surrounding area is burgeoning with creative services in metal, wood, film, design, and architecture.
Focused on the activities around ceramics, Ash Street Project is a communal space where various figures in the arts drop by to visit and chat or work through a project that might require some room; where artists can seek expertise from fellow colleagues; and conversations pick up from where they might have been left off the previous day, giving time for ideas to percolate and perhaps even form into a public talk.
During the lunch hour, Brett Binford and Chris Lyon, both owners of Mudshark Studios (a mold making company) and Eutectic Gallery, jump into their stations to continue their own creative work. Up until recently, Matthew Causey, a visiting artist turned resident artist alum, could be found at the back station creating animated jugs (his brand of Emojugs). And Ted Vogel, artist and studio head of ceramics at Lewis & Clark College, casually walks into the studio and immerses himself into the activities of the day. As the visiting artists settle into their workspace, a hum of creative ease and rhythm of productivity fills the entire space.
Orr and Bloom bought the building in 2005 with the intention to turn it into a studio space for the both of them. Despite working together in many ways, their own work and processes are quite different. Orr describes his forms as minimal and secondary to the surfaces he creates. It is a painterly process with multiple glazes and firings. Orr’s palette is often a bright play of colors that appear freshly painted with symbolic forms. Bloom creates smaller works she calls “little sketches in clay.” Her sculptures collectively appear to be a gathering of flora—blossoms and pods—each vessel containing details in etching and relief, with a contrast of matte and shiny glazes.
When the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) came to Portland in 2006, Orr was the organization’s co-liaison (along with Vogel) and the studio hosted an exhibition. The following years, the space was not utilized as completely as the couple had hoped. Orr was still the department head of Ceramics at Oregon College of Art and Craft, and they both maintained busy schedules.
After Orr’s retirement in spring 2013—after nearly 20 years of teaching—momentum really began to build for Ash Street Project in a way the couple had brainstormed about for years. The space had always seemed too big for just the two of them, so the idea was to open up the studio. They brought on past year’s students and continued Orr’s deep dedication to a mentorship practice. With his retirement, Orr states, “I was ready to leave teaching, but not ready to stop sharing.” And this is perhaps at the core of Ash Street Project. It is a studio space built around sharing and growing a community.
During his time at OCAC, Orr became disheartened at how students were going into debt as they were figuring out not only their craft but also the pursuit of a healthy career. In many ways, the mentee program fills in the gap between educational degrees and careers. It provides the supportive and structural push for young artists. Orr also emphasizes, “we want people that are really valuing community.” As much as this requirement is one of continuing generosity, it is also a matter of practicality in an area like ceramics where a mentor/mentee relationship is necessary to share and pass along the expertise and experimentation of the craft.
As a result of Ash Street Project’s organic community outreach, news of the space has been spreading by simply word-of-mouth, to colleagues, and students looking to further enrich their practice. Ash Street Project is an active site of programs that inform each other with visiting artists, summer sessions, a mentee program, monthly talks, gallery shows, and even the brown bag lunch gatherings.
This summer, Ash Street Project kicked off the first Summer Session with six artists for a two-week period. The artists included: Dylan Beck, Victoria Christen, Brian R. Jones, Dennis Meiners, Lisa Orr (no relation to Thomas Orr), and Judy Teufel. This was an invitation to work in the open as part of the community, to experiment, and share ideas. Naturally, collaborations formed too as artists engaged with each other and shared in their processes.
With a brief break for the summer, Ash Street Project began the Emerging Artist Mentorship Program at the beginning of this month. In developing the program, Orr realized early on that Ash Street Project was not a space for someone to come in just to work. The individual artists are required to have a goal to work toward—such as developing a new body of work, building a portfolio for graduate school admission, or learning how to create a professional studio.
This year, as the program gains national attention, the new mentees to join the program for an eleven-month intensive include: Ivan Carmona, Jordan Pieper, Ben Skiba, and Aleka Tomlinson. As the young artists with diverse practices access all the resources of a professional ceramic studio, they additionally meet with Orr on a weekly basis to work through particular challenges or goals. They also meet collectively as a group; develop opportunities to find work and network; and are responsible for the studio’s housekeeping chores, gaining an understanding of the function, care, and respect for the studio space.
The four mentees will have the opportunity to present their work in two exhibitions. The first is in November, serving as an entrance exhibition profiling the work they are currently making. They will then have an exit exhibit in June, showing the work of the past eleven months of their time at Ash Street Project.
With the flurry of programming that Orr and Bloom have created, organized, and led, the primary emphasis is still placed on the fact that first and foremost, this is their studio. It is where they work. Instilled in their practice is also the need to share, offering an invitation to the public to share in it—to stop by and visit over a brown bag lunch, meet the artists at work, and support the work being made. For anyone involved the arts, it is an organization that must be visited and experienced. Through their generous practice, Orr and Bloom have created a community through sharing, collaborating, conversing, and by breaking bread.