“Dr. Kilgore at Cayuga Ridge saved my life, twice. One day he said to me, ‘Eddie, I have no idea why you’re still alive.”
Eddie Rooney pushes back the round stool he’s sitting on, looking up from the potter’s wheel. His back is bent from long years of labor sitting just like this, hands slick with clay, feet astride a spinning potter’s wheel as he guides the grey stuff from a formless lump into a cup, a bowl, a teapot. “I had a staph infection- I went up to 250 lbs. My stomach was like this-” he gestures, describing himself at nearly twice his normal size. “It turned out that I had cracked vertebrae...” Looking down at his t-shirt, he smiles, “I’ve got the T-shirt on.”
It reads, “Strong Memorial Hospital.” He spent six months there, then more time in Cayuga Medical Center. After nearly four years of being bedridden he was able to start using a wheelchair. Finally, he was able to move to assisted living at Longview. Now, he parks his walker in the studio and makes his way on his own to his potter’s stool.
Julia Dean runs the Clay School at the South Hill Business campus, just down the hill from Longview. It’s both a teaching center and a production shop, where Dean has merged her dream of having her own pot shop with recreating the “third space” the old Cornell Ceramic Studio used to be. When the Cornell pot shop closed in 2011, people from the community tried to revive it as a non-profit. Dean, who taught there when she first came to Ithaca, said she waited to see how that went. Unfortunately, the nonprofit effort petered out. “Basically, these community studios are how I learned all I know, so they’re close to my heart.”
In the end, she decided to go into business, merging her own successful home studio with a place for classes and multiple potters. “It made sense to have multiple revenue streams,” she said.
And then, when she found the space at South Hill, everything clicked. There’s a loading dock right outside the Clay School door. The space is ample, and the building manager and head of maintenance “have made everything easy,” she said. “The parking lot is lighted—they keep it plowed- you can’t beat it. They’ve been so accommodating. I just felt like, ‘These are my people.’”
The Clay School holds classes in one large room, where shelves with clay and potters’ projects line three walls and two rows of stools and potters’ wheels line up. In another room, packing, shipping, and managing the orders for products take place. “We’re in like 70 stores across the country. Most of our sales are online and wholesale,” said Dean. She employs four part time assistants, which means that the studio is open 10 a.m. - 9 p.m. through the week, and all day Saturday. Students and potters renting shelf space can come in and work as much as they want, almost any day of the week. “The more you come, the better,” said Dean. “If you’re taking a class, the more you can practice that skill, the better you’re going to be at it. It’s great because we’re here for help and reference, and when we leave at night, we have attendants who take charge, and they can help you.”
“I got a call from Eddie one morning,” she said, her eyes twinkling. Rooney, who ran his own ceramic production studio in New Mexico for twenty years, was on the mend at Longview and looking for something to do. “To see what we are about. Then he came by and the first thing I heard was him saying, ‘This is beautiful!’”
“And, he hasn’t left since.” She laughed.
Rooney had his own production studio in New Mexico for twenty years, before coming back East to help out his parents during a rough time. “I did a lot of workshops for different universities,” he explained. “I did work on PBS for a local station; I worked with St. Joseph’s Children’s hospital, doing stuff with kids.”
He also manufactured and built kilns. “I started studying raku (a traditional Japanese form of firing) when I was eighteen. I built raku kilns; I worked with Paul Soldner (known for his “American raku” technique) back in the 80s. I spent some time with Michael Cardew- he’s a famous potter that did a lot of work in West Africa... he built these neat beehive kilns. He loved to put handles on pots. It’s funny, because at the time I didn’t like to put handles on pots. It’s so time consuming. Now that I’m at Longview, I know how Michael Cardew feels.”
“I visited a lot of big manufactories and studied the kilns they have... I have some great plans for little kilns. Kiln building is one of my favorites,” he said. “I’d love to work with some of the potters around here to do that.”
“I definitely have more time,” said Eddie. Dean started moving pots and apologized to him: “I’ve been standing here talking, while you’ve been working,” but he shrugged, laughed, and got up to carry some of the pots for her.
“My philosophy is, every breath is precious,” he said. He sat back down and started another lump of clay, quickly rounding it and drawing it into a tower shape, then dipping his hand inside. A cylinder formed around his hand as the wheel spun, then he drew his hand out and began shaping the cup from the side. “Basically, when I’m here, it really helps celebrate every breath I take.” §