With ceramics, Long Beach potter Gopi Shah found her center • the Hi-lo

The process is hypnotic: Gopi Shah firmly throws a cylindrical piece of clay onto a stationary potter’s wheel, making an indentation and starting the wheel after centering it. Using a dipped sponge, she presses down in the center, shaping the outside with her hand. As if by magic, a cup shape rises from the wheel.

Shah goes into a meditative rhythm while creating in his garage workshop, crafting dozens of mugs, tumblers, plates, planters and other functional items a day. Each item is almost identical to the others as a whole, but unique at the same time since it does not use molds.

She’s quick too: Shah has the creation of cups up to 12 minutes each for tossing, cutting and glazing, though the entire drying and firing process can take up to two weeks. Some days she can reach up to throwing 60 cups. During the holidays, she works non-stop – she can handcraft up to a thousand items for a season.

The 34-year-old started pottery nearly 20 years ago in high school where her teacher mentored her and helped her grow in the art. The lessons she learned still stay with her today.

“A lot of the drawings I do, I think it’s because my high school teacher always said, ‘Anyone can make a pot, but it’s really what you do off the wheel that counts and what defines you. And it still accompanies me now,” Shah said. “And so it’s like, yeah, anybody can make a mug. But to make it my own unique mug, I like to decorate it in different ways.

Her favorite part of pottery is throwing. Getting the centering right is a crucial part of the process – it took her nearly three months to master the skill when she started.

She eventually stopped at college, but she missed it: the peace and quiet that comes with working with clay were missing from her life.

“I mean, if you talk to someone who’s taken a pottery class, they fall in love with it,” Shah said. “It’s very hard not to love him. Especially now in today’s world, everyone is on their computer a lot, we don’t really have access, I think, to something as ubiquitous and earthly as clay.

“And, there’s just something, I think there’s a connection with humans and working with their hands. And I think people miss that. And so they really appreciate it when they get it. .

After graduating, she got a job at a nonprofit in Santa Monica and went to Santa Monica College for its ceramics program. Her partner encouraged her to start a business and when they moved to Austin, Texas, she thought it was the best time to start one. She opened an Etsy shop and worked there with a mentor to develop her skills. By the time she and her partner returned to Long Beach, her business was up and running.

Representation of women, and especially women of color, is low in the pottery world. The hobby can be prohibitively expensive: the equipment and space alone cost thousands of dollars. Fortunately, more and more studios are popping up to let people in, Shah said. Before building his own garage, his workspace was the Icehouse Arts Complex in Long Beach.

Gopi Shah stands in the middle of a shotgun garage that is her workspace where she makes her ceramics and handcrafted pottery in Long Beach on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

For Shah’s parents who immigrated to the United States from India, it was difficult for them to accept pottery as his career. Her parents worked hard to give her and her sister a good education, hoping they would both follow a more traditional path that included jobs with steady paychecks. She felt her mother was ashamed when she started her business because work is considered inferior in India.

“Even when we went back to India, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m a potter.’ And my mom was like, ‘Well, she used to be an engineer, but now she’s a potter’, which is hilarious because I don’t have an engineering degree,” Shah said with a laugh. “.. . I studied public health and the history of architecture.”

Her family’s perception has changed since then, starting with watching a documentary about a famous pottery studio in San Francisco. When they attended an art show of their daughter, they were pleasantly surprised when people wanted to buy her work.

Overcoming the hurdle of his parents’ initial reaction was difficult for Shah, but his journey and seeing others with similar journeys inspires him to keep going.

“I never thought I would go this far and I’m very grateful that I did,” Shah said. “I still remember my first order from someone I didn’t know: it was on Etsy, it was someone in Michigan. She just found me and I said, ‘OK, she wants a knitting bowl.’ And it was such an incredible feeling: someone wanted your job.

Now Shah is in stores across the United States. She places bulk orders and presents her work in shows. She recently moved her workspace into her own gleaming garage studio where she works for hours every day alongside her dog, Hanz, who is usually on guard for visitors or chews on a toy.

Follow Gopi Shah on Instagram or visit her website for more information on her products.

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