Kew Gardens potter teaches timesless art

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When Susan Sendek of Kew Gardens started taking classes at the Potter’s Wheel ceramics studio 16 years ago, she thought she would never get the hang of sculpting the clay into elegant forms.

“I had no art background whatsoever and I went with a neighbor of mine,” she said. “I was a total and utter disaster.”

With some practice and guidance, Sendek not only caught on, but she started teaching at the Kew Gardens studio as well. Now she owns and manages the studio at 120-33 83rd Ave.

“People don’t realize that pottery can be very hard,” Sendek said. “I was so upset, but I had some great teachers. By the end of the class I was able to make a lot more stuff.”

The Potter’s Wheel has been a fixture in Kew Gardens for 15 years, offering all level of classes on ceramics and pottery and selling some of the works created there, said Sendek, who bought the studio about four years ago.

Students can take a variety of classes under the direction of the 10 teachers at the Potter’s Wheel. Beginners can choose one of three weekly sessions to attend over the 10-week semester to learn the basics of throwing clay on the wheel. Students start making simple forms, such as cylinders and bowls, and learning the glazing process to add color to their finished pieces, Sendek said.

Sendek’s own rocky start gave her good experience to draw from in working with the beginners, she said.

“If you come to the workshops and practice, you will get it. And once you get it, you get it.”

The studio gets about 70 to 80 people per semester for the classes, which also include intermediate and advanced levels and a hand- building seminar, which focuses on shaping the clay with the hands without the aid of a wheel to move the clay, Sendek said.

“The classes are so in demand,” she said. “We’re really more of an art studio than a retail store. We make our living off the classes.”

Children can get their hands dirty, too, in the Kids Clay! class. The students learn hand-building techniques, and many have made unique art forms, Sendek said.

“I love all the creative things their little minds come up with,” she said.

The Potter’s Wheel also has open workshop time all day Fridays and Sundays as well as open hours Mondays and Wednesdays, she said.

The studio also sells some of the pieces made by the teachers and the in-house potters who no longer take classes, Sendek said. The colorful pieces that fill the entrance of the storefront range from $10 to $200, she said.

Sendek bought the studio about four years ago from Peggy Simmons, a Kew Gardens resident who still teaches at the Potter’s Wheel. Sendek was a home health care aide for 30 years and was looking to do something different when Simmons was preparing to sell the studio, she said.

“I decided to try to make a change in my life,” Sendek said. “It’s a real dream come true.”

Sendek inherited a studio with a healthy following and a good reputation, she said.

“It’s amazing because she developed not only her teaching skills, but an entire repertoire of operating the studio,” Sendek said of Simmons, who was also a self-taught ceramics master. “She was able to maintain everything here. She really developed it into the studio it is today.”

But Sendek still has her work cut out for her, she said. Aside from promoting the studio and ensuring that students learn how to work the wheels and use the kiln ovens safely, she still has to keep up with new forms and glazing techniques so that she has new ways to pique her students’ interests, she said.

“There’s really nothing new under the sun with pottery. It’s all about putting your own touches on it.”

And while a wide variety of people take up pottery for a hobby, the art is particularly good for people who want to get away from their 21st century jobs and lives, she said.

“People who are in a high-tech life really love to come here to get back to the hands-on feel of clay,” Sendek said. “It’s so healthy and natural for us.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

Updated 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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