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From Fair Trade partnerships that boost emerging economies to buy-one-give-one models that prioritize donations, many home brands are stepping up to the plate when it comes to giving back. California-based People’s Pottery Project takes that thinking to the next level, and for the first time, their pretty pottery is available at West Elm.
The brainchild of artist Molly Larkey, People’s Pottery Project seeks to employ and empower formerly incarcerated women, trans people, and non-binary people through paid job training and employment in their non-profit ceramic business. Prior to co-founding People’s Pottery, Larkey had spent years volunteering in the anti-carceral movement where she saw first-hand the struggles that formerly incarcerated people face when rejoining society.
Working in fine arts, Larkey wondered if ceramics could create a gateway to employment for formerly incarcerated people in her Southern California community — particularly for women and trans individuals struggling to find a foothold in the workplace. She got a ceramicist friend to offer classes to several people she met through her activist work. The experience turned out to be healing for the participants.
“Something special happens when people who are re-entering spend time together making things,” says Larkey. “It feels really supportive.” Larkey planned a full schedule of classes, but it wasn’t until a friend pointed out that Larkey could actually sell the pottery the students were making to raise funds for the group that the People’s Pottery Project’s current structure started to come into focus.
Through her activism, Larkey was also connected to Ilka Perkins, who had learned welding while incarcerated. Upon hearing of her skill set, Larkey offered Perkins work in her art studio upon parole. Once Larkey began working with Perkins and met Perkins’s wife, Domonique, Larkey says all the pieces began to come together. “With them on board, I know we could build out this business,” she says.
The first product People’s Pottery sold was their People’s Bowl. A slab-style vessel simple enough for a beginner to craft, Larkey was also drawn to the organic texture the process creates. “I’ve always loved the aesthetic of artwork from slabs,” she says. “The clay holds the texture of the fabric.” Experimenting with glazes, they created People’s Pottery’s signature pearlescent, sky-blue finish, which, when fired onto both sand- and chocolate-colored clay, takes on two distinct looks — with the sky blue more visible on the lighter clay.
The products quickly caught the eye of buyers and tastemakers. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) started carrying the People’s Pottery last summer, and grocery store Erewhon also sells pieces like their bud vases (shown above) in their Silver Lake location. Most of People’s Pottery Project’s sales are made through the organization’s website, where pieces start at $25, but Larkey says they’re eager to forge more wholesale relationships and create custom dinnerware for restaurants. Now, even West Elm stocks the Blue stoneware side plates and bowls, as pictured below!
Since its start two years ago, the operation has grown to five full-time employees, including co-founders Domonique and Ilka Perkins (Larkey is also still deeply involved with the organization as a volunteer). The collection itself has expanded to include plates and mugs, some of which are wheel-thrown by the more advanced ceramicists.
People’s Pottery Project has continued their community building, too, with classes for people in re-entry programs and part-time paid work for other formerly incarcerated individuals. It’s a win-win proposition: The students gain skills, a sense of accomplishment, and a feeling of community, and People’s Pottery gets help fulfilling orders. It’s also a rosy proposition for customers, who are getting one-of-a-kind, contemporary ceramics that support a good cause in a deep, meaningful way.
Larkey dreams of People’s Pottery growing to become a leader in the ceramics world that employs hundreds of formerly incarcerated people all over the country, but she also dreams of inspiring others. Larkey says, “I am really interested in being a model for other people who want to build similar organizations or create activism-based craft.”