The clay cabal: A look at UBC’s notoriously in-demand pottery club

The shadowy margins of history are lined with the faint traces of groups whose true deeds can only be guessed at by the likes of you and me: The Freemasons. Skull and Bones. The Bilderberg Group. In secret halls behind twice-locked doors, whispered words live and die far from the prying ears of press and public.

There is one thing, though, that they all share: They’re easier to get into than UBC’s Pottery Club.

All jokes aside, the difficulty that prospective potters face in gaining access to that little studio in the Life Building basement has become something of a running gag among club members and public alike. With a hard capacity of 150 members, securing a spot among the ranks of the pottery club can be very difficult. I reached out to the club's inner circle (executives, if you want to be boring about it) to pierce the veil and gain some insight into the club’s workings: their facilities, daily routine and, of course, member recruitment.

“I’d say we pride ourselves on … being a really flexible team,” said co-president Varoon Supratya when I spoke with him and two other execs, Co-President Andy An and Vice President Alex Birkenshaw in the club’s studio. Around us stood the implements of a full pottery studio — six wheels and two electric kilns take up most of the space, and the walls are lined with shelves stocked with beautiful sculptures, vases and mugs. They gave me a thorough tour before we all sat down to talk, each with our own lump of clay to occupy idle hands.

“[The club] is definitely going better than it has in the past,” remarked Supratya. His clay sat untouched in front of him, his focus fully on the workings of the club. “During COVID… we lost a lot of institutional knowledge with lots of people leaving.”

But there exists a silver lining around every cloud of viral aerosols: COVID-19 led the club to adopt a sign-up based timetable for members to reserve wheels. This system, along with a lowered membership capacity, started as a social distancing measure, but Birkenshaw said that most members wanted to keep the timetable even after the club's capacity returned to normal.

“It ‘s important to us that our immuno-compromised members or elderly members feel safe,” said Birkenshaw. “We do, where we can, try to keep some protocols in place.” Masks are still required in the club’s studio.

The pottery club differs from many others in that there’s not much of an agenda. Instead, members are free to use their studio time however they see fit.

“[Many members make] wedding gifts, Mother’s and Father’s Day gifts, lots of those,” said An as he carved out thin triangles of clay to serve as the ears for his newly-moulded devil-dog mug. “We really pride ourselves on [trying] to accommodate our members, especially when they have a deadline.”

Novice potters need not fear being left to flounder in the deep end, though. The club explicitly welcomes members of all skill levels and offers free workshops led by executives and experienced members. These range from fundamental techniques like hand building and throwing to slip trailing, underglazing and countless other advanced manoeuvres that lie outside the realm of this undextrous writer’s comprehension.

Before long, our conversation turned to the club’s competitive recruitment. Here’s how it works. Each January, April and September, the 150 existing members are given the choice to renew or discontinue their membership. Open spots become available to new recruits through a tiered lottery system. Once signup opens, people who enter the lottery within the first five minutes are entered into a separate lottery in addition to the general one that holds everyone else, effectively giving early birds two shots at winning a place.

Supratya emphasised that “with so many people wanting to join, we do want to reward people who are keen… to be part of the club. It always breaks our heart a little to turn someone away.”

Despite multiple efforts on the part of the executives to secure more space, there’s no way for the club to expand beyond its current capacity — a point which the comfortably-cluttered studio clearly shows.

As a result, the only real recourse left to the persistent potter wanting to join the club is patience. The next onboarding period takes place in mid-April. I would recommend trying to get into that second lottery by signing up within the first five minutes.

In the meantime, the pottery club is holding their Valentine’s Day Sale on February 9 and 10 if you’d like to shoot envious looks at the carefree grins of those fortunate enough to already be in, or simply buy one of their handcrafted pieces.

Back in the studio, I thanked the execs for speaking with me and looked down at the little man I had idly moulded during our conversation. He was lumpy and short, with a lopsided little smile, his head somewhat precariously attached to the rest of him. I had the distinct sense of having created something, if not beautiful, then at least a little unique. I sat with him for a while.

Then I balled him up and kneaded him back in with the rest of my clay. If you do manage to secure a spot in the pottery club this April, maybe you’ll meet him. Maybe you’ll make him into something new.