Arts + Culture,  Community,  Lifestyle

The Clay Room

On a brisk Saturday afternoon, with the intention of trying something new, my friend and I entered a muted green shop at 279 Danforth Ave. The air was heavy with chalky dust and paint fumes, and buzzed with all sorts of lowered, concentrated voices. Its sage walls were lined with shelves of white, blank ceramics, in various shapes and sizes. Despite its four tables being nearly full, we were immediately greeted by a staff member with a warm smile. She patiently and plainly described how the business works: you choose a ceramic from the wall—each of which have their own price and studio fee, pick out your paint colours, give your ceramic a quick sponge-wash so as not to paint over any lingering dust, and then you work your magic.

Ceramics painting and making has been on the rise in the past two-to-three years as what I would fondly call a cozy hobby. I am embarrassed to admit the number of hours I’ve spent scouring TikTok and Instagram, mesmerized by all of the wonderful artists creating ceramic content. There’s something comforting about watching these artists gently shape and manipulate soft clay into intricate, functional objects—spinning their wheels with wet, clay-clad hands, and then studying how they are carefully and intricately painted once they’ve hardened into formed bodies. For me, this process is evocative of Cottage Core—a simple, homey, pleasant life. I’ve lovingly dubbed the aesthetic: Clay Core.

Front of the Clay Room
Photo by Daphne Guima

The Clay Room has been around for almost 30 years, said one of the employees. By how smoothly and tactical the business is run for painters, you can definitely tell. I just had the sense that I was in very good hands, tailored to by staff who genuinely love what they do. Instructions could not have been clearer, and the girls who were working could not have been more approachable—despite how busy it got. Patrons varied from girl’s outings like mine, to dates, to larger group celebrations, and even a children’s party with at least 10 kids and their parents in the basement of the establishment. It’s a small space, but they certainly make it work.

The unfinished ceramic is peculiar to touch; its rough, gritty texture felt odd in my hands at first. I was incredibly afraid of knocking a shelf with my hip or bag, causing an avalanche of pre-made ceramics to come crashing and smashing to the floor. Feeling like a bull in a China shop, I carefully navigated my way between the other bodies perched on stools, hunched over their precious projects like Gollum would with the ring as we were shown to our workspace—a spot at the end of a long, oval table in the middle of the room. My friend, Ashley, and I, both decided we’d get the most use out of a mug given our coffee and tea obsessions. In preparation of our new adventure, I’d scoured the pages of Pinterest to stimulate some inspiration for my little masterpiece. Settling on a pastel pink checkerboard for the outside, and yellow smiley-faces on the inside, I began to trace a careful outline of the patterns to make things a little easier for myself, as suggested by the employee who’d walked us through the process.

Collage created with a variety of elements from the Clay Room, such as trees, mugs and porcelain teapots, and jars with brushes
Photo and collage by Niki Lai Kei Hoi

“I carefully navigated my way between the other bodies perched on stools, hunched over their precious projects like Gollum would with the ring”

Having paid for parking for only an hour and a half, Ashley and I quickly discovered that we had underestimated painting these mugs. We were both shocked when we remembered to check the time—nearly an hour and a half had passed, and we hadn’t even finished the first coat of our designs yet. Hastily adding another hour and a half to my Green P app, I dove back into the time-warped realm of painting this small ceramic mug. We’d been instructed to do about three layers of paint if we wanted our colours to be more opaque, using one of the various blow dryers plugged around the space to speed up the drying process. I messed up on my second layer, to my perfectionist, obsessive dismay—a smudge of pink will forever mar what was supposed to be a perfectly white square on the checkerboard. Roughly two hours in, we also discovered that we had drastically overestimated our artistic capabilities, finding that we’d been overly ambitious in our intent to paint the inside of the mugs with a design as well. I’d only painted a few, very wonky-looking yellow circles on the inside of the mug before I messed it up. Having wetted my brush too much, a smiley face began to melt and drip towards the bottom. Rather than throwing it across the room in frustration or bursting into tears, I instead just rationally decided to paint the whole interior yellow. 

“we had underestimated painting these mugs.”

The afternoon grew late, and many more people began to fill the room, looking to try their hand at painting ceramics. I, myself, began to feel quite Gollum-esque as I progressed on my mug, hyperaware of the bodies crowded who might nudge me and ruin my precious. A near three-and-a-half hours later, without any further smudges, we finally finished our creations.  The last part of the process is leaving your mug with the courteous staff to be glazed and kiln fired into a final product and picked up one week later. All in all, the experience cost about $28. You may be thinking this is a lot of money to be spending on a mug, but I disagree. The price is not only for the expertly crafted ceramic base you work with, but the paint and supplies you are provided with, along with the glazing and kiln finishing. This price also includes the space and resources you are provided with to exercise your creativity seamlessly, and create something thoughtful and personal for yourself, or for someone else. An item that you will look on with fondness over the years, and remember the special day you and your friend decided to paint clay as a new adventure together.

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