The arts of Oak Park: ViaClay

Preface:

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the stark divisions it has created across the globe, many of us have searched for something new to dabble in – some sort of escape for us to find. My family watched all nine seasons of The Office while attempting to walk 100 miles in the first month of quarantine. But in such a large and diverse community as Oak Park, there are opportunities for us to try something new in ways we never thought were possible. This series concept “The Arts of Oak Park” focuses on the variety of art studios available to the Oak Park and River Forest community. Through featuring these different studios and what they have to offer, I hope to encourage all who are looking for an escape from reality to step outside of their comfort zone and try something new. 

 

On late winter afternoons, a western light gleams through a wall of windows along Marion Street in South Oak Park. Clay mugs, pots, and vases are among a plethora of artwork lining shelves that wrap around evenly spaced-out pottery wheels. Below the public studio is an unfinished basement filled wall-to-wall with pottery wheels, gas kilns, unfinished clay projects, plywood, and dust. It is the private studio of OPRF alum and longtime wheel throwing club member Gabe Tetrev. 

ViaClay, opened by Tetrev in June 2020, is a pottery studio for current and former OPRF students, as well as community members. Tetrev teaches classes with the help of current OPRF wheel throwing teachers and former members of the wheel throwing club. 

“I wanted to support the teachers and potters I knew in the community,” Tetrev said. 

Tetrev took his first pottery class when he was 10, inspiring him to continue taking lessons throughout middle school and later to sign up for art foundations the summer before his freshman year so he could join wheel throwing first semester. 

Before starting ViaClay, Tetrev dropped out of college to open his own pottery shop, GP Tetrev Pottery, on Oak Park Avenue in 2018, which lasted for three years. “I was making a good chunk of change, but not enough to start my own life,” he said. Rather than crafting and selling his own work, Tetrev thought that starting a studio to teach public classes would be a better way to make a living. 

In January 2020, Tetrev signed a lease for the space that would soon become ViaClay. New to the craft of owning a larger pottery studio rather than a small shop, there were several questions that came with that lease. 

“How can you best execute a studio of this size?” Tetrev recalled thinking. “How can you pay people fairly, how can you make people feel like they’re part of a team, feel like they’re doing something that means something?”

Most teachers at ViaClay are OPRF teachers and alums of the wheel throwing club who graduated as recently as last year. “At ViaClay, we teach functional pottery … how to make cups, bowls, things you would use,” said ViaClay teacher and current wheel throwing club sponsor Bridget Doherty. “There’s a gratifying feeling making something with your hands that you can use later on.”

ViaClay has had over 1,000 students of all ages pass through its doors since it was founded two years ago. “Numbers are definitely on the rise, and classes have been selling out consistently since last summer,” Tetrev said. 

Oak Park resident Jessica Bograd joined ViaClay in October 2020. After taking a few pottery classes in high school, she took some classes in downtown Chicago to stay active. 

“When ViaClay opened in the neighborhood, it was too good to be true,” Bograd said. She enjoyed the studio’s convenient location and its resources that were at her fingertips. After her first one-day class, Bograd signed up for a six-week adult class before becoming a full-time member. Full-time member status at ViaClay costs $250 monthly and allows for access to the studio anytime between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. ViaClay offers after-school fall classes for middle and high school students; beginner adult evening and weekend classes; intermediate adult evening classes; and one-time experience classes for complete beginners. 

Bograd emphasized how warmly the people at ViaClay welcomed her to her first class. “Everyone is so open to helping each other out,” she said. “If you have a question about how to create a certain texture, shape, or glaze, everyone is excited to share their knowledge.” 

In spite of the division and isolation the pandemic has created, Tetrev views a studio where people with common interests can work together. Tetrev was aware of the isolation working alone at his shop brought him, but he said that “to get good at anything, you have to put in the hours, and working at the wheel is a solo practice.”

“There’s always someone coming up to me saying this is their favorite place to be,” Tetrev said of his new studio. “I think any studio dedicated to making and learning a craft brings together like-minded creative people … the idea behind ViaClay was to build a community and work alongside other people who love clay in the same ways that I do.”

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