On Clay and Community Building: A Conversation with MudFire
In the era of self-care, side hustles and 24-hour digital communication, it’s easy to feel guilty about taking time for yourself, or burnt out when you’re pushing too hard. But that’s where the importance of creative hobbies comes in. Combining mind, body and soul, a creative outlet is often a safe space, a reminder that when shit happens, sometimes it’s okay to let go and take time for yourself.
Deanna Ranlett and Daphne Dail, the owners of MudFire, Atlanta’s only open-access ceramics studio, have placed this ethos at the center of everything they do, combining clay with community.
“There’s an intersection of feminism, craft, and community building that wouldn’t have been possible in any other medium, in my opinion,” Dail says.
MudFire was founded in 2002 by Luba Sharapan and her husband Erik Haagensen. The couple took a ceramics class at an art center and immediately fell in love with the medium. As C-level executives, Sharapan and Haagensen started the studio as a way to be involved with something outside of work. Mudfire has since evolved into an inclusive, community safe space, which offers a capacity for DIY exploration through kids’ camps, residency programs, and maker spaces.
“Ceramics teaches you that, at any part of the process, something can fail,” says Ranlett. “It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done something, there’s always an element of chaos or chance, which helps to keep perfectionism in check.”
Aligning with the Dream Warriors Foundation mission to connect, uplift and strengthen Atlanta’s collaborative, innovative community, MudFire has teamed up with DWF for our dinner and fundraiser.
On Saturday, September 14 Dreamies will enjoy dinner, drinks, and dessert prepared by local chefs at MudFire Studio and Gallery. Tickets also include a full place set by MudFire Studio to take home, and attendees will have the opportunity to bid on auction items made by MudFire artists.
In advance of the event, DWF Mag spoke with MudFire co-owner Daphne Dail about working with clay and building community.
Dream Warriors Foundation Mag: Why did MudFire see the Dream Warriors Foundation as the right partner for this event?
Daphne Dail: We attended the launch party last year, and we took a group of young womxn to one of their first No Man’s Land panel discussions. I know from working with young womxn that one of the things they need most is to see themselves represented in positions of power. I think the Dream Warriors Foundation is working towards the same goals, which is to be a hand up, a way out from under the kyriarchy that womxn, gender non-confiming folx, trans folx, queer folx and BIPOC face.
Our missions are very much aligned, and so, after that panel discussion, I reached out. We met with Haley and Allie and said, ‘we believe in this; how can we help?’ We’ve been cooking this for about a year now, and I’m excited to see it actually come to life.
DWF Mag: How do ceramics, specifically at MudFire, work within the local community?
Dail: I believe it’s a practical, and very physical, introduction to art making; it’s an easy way for people to engage in the art of practice that’s not allowed in our day-to-day, perfectionist-driven culture. Clay is extremely tactile and physical—you feel your body when you’re working with clay.
In my opinion, it’s every bit as helpful as a yoga practice, or any other physical practice, but there’s far less focus on what you look like while doing it. People want to touch into that creative vein. It’s a release, it’s personal, it creates space in your brain, just like meditating. I tell anyone who says they’ve always wanted to meditate, but just can’t seem to do it, that ceramics is for them.
Our studio is the only open access studio in Atlanta, because we understand that people are busy. And if your practice is tied to a schedule—as in, taking a class at a center every Wednesday at 2 p.m.—it’s often going to get pushed aside when life happens. We’re open 60+ hours a week. Anyone can make time inside that to get in here and make.
DWF Mag: How has the Atlanta arts community influenced your artistic perspective?
Dail: There’s not much crossover from what’s considered craft, and what’s considered “art,” in Atlanta. This city is still very much stuck in andro-centric ideas of “fine art.” That filters down into how we value handmade items, and how much we see artists that are DIYing craft, instead of learning craft under the umbrella of institutions like Mudfire. There really isn’t any conversation of what makes craft “good,” as well as what kind of opportunities are available to young womxn in craft.
DWF Mag: What does MudFire’s “clay meeting community” mission look like, on a day-to-day basis?
Dail: For us, it’s our way of being responsible for the direction of the medium—for the future of who’s included, whose voice is lifted, for acknowledging the ways in which racism, classism, misogyny, homophobia, and ableism have suppressed people in this medium, specifically.
For Deanna and I, it means being able to make conscious decisions around re-centering the narrative and access for folx who have traditionally been excluded from this craft—such as sliding scale fees, and active signage and responses for members regarding diversity and feminism. Visibility is important, and a homogenous, white, heterosexual space is not welcoming to people who are regularly ‘othered.’ It’s important that they see our team, and us, as people participating in this craft.
It also means we’re here for tough discussions around privilege and experience. There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not having a discussion with the young womxn here about the oppression they face, and also perpetuate themselves. For me, a craft practice is every bit as important as any other form of self-care. We can’t take care of others, if we don’t care for ourselves first, right? I feel like it’s important for people to figure out what their particular practice needs to look like. Ceramics can be a part of that regimen, and I feel like more people need access to the possibility.
DWF Mag: How do MudFire’s rangers and residency programs fit into its larger mission?
Dail: The ranger and residency programs are my favorite part of MudFire. So, the ranger program is a work exchange, and the rangers are a major part of the secret sauce of MudFire. They get 24/7 studio access, in exchange for eight hours a week doing tasks around the studio.
Ceramics is an expensive medium; it’s absolutely cost prohibitive to graduate and just start your own studio. On top of increasing studio rents in the Metro area, you’ve got costs associated with kilns, wheels, materials for clays and glazes, plus there’s so much more loss than there is in something like painting or photography.
Add to that those old hegemonies that keep “craft” prices significantly lower than “art” prices. It’s an impossible equation, unless you have the privilege of owning a home with a garage/studio area, and expendable income to set yourself up. I know when I graduated, the only way to continue working in ceramics was to try to find an assistantship or internship somewhere. I didn’t find anything tolerable in the Metro area, and I wasn’t ready to move from Atlanta, so I stopped making work for about five years. That’s why the ranger program is so important to us.
We took a step forward even from that program, when we created the residency program here. It’s like the ranger program, but more intense. We created semi-private spaces for three artists to spend one or two years in a deep dive of everything you need to run a successful handmade-goods business. We work very closely with our resident artists to guide them through the development of a product line, the creation of a business plan and a marketing strategy. We focus on both the aesthetic as well as the business acumen necessary to run a small business.
DWF Mag: What’s next for MudFire?
Dail: Expansion. We’re at capacity in our current location, so we’re looking to create more space for more community. Obviously, people are responding positively to our ethos, and we do want to continue to provide the space that allows for diversity in this craft.
We want to expand in as feminist a way as possible, so that means finding creative solutions to get more people involved in a craft practice. It means creating more space that doesn’t reflect traditional white and male supremacy, that isn’t cost prohibitive — one that’s inclusive and enables people to see a path forward as a maker.
Atlanta is growing, and interest in this craft is growing. Interest in craft as a practice is growing. We also think lateral team building is important, across organizations, like this fundraiser. We believe this kind of community building is important.