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From a little piece of clay

Inspiration is a two-way street at the ceramics department of the Roger Barkley Community Center in La Cañada Flintridge.

Watching her students grow is great motivation, said instructor/director Helen Jean Taylor. And students say Taylor has the knack for instilling the confidence they can’t seem to muster themselves.

Taylor has had plenty of experience. She started at the center in 1966.

She will be honored for her 40 years of dedication during the opening reception for the center’s ceramics sale on Friday night.


“The fact I have been able to indulge myself, as it were, in doing something I love, doing ceramics and teaching ceramics, it gives me enormous pleasure to see other people create beautiful things, and it’s my pleasure to watch that growth,” she said.

Born in England, the 79-year-old left her home country in 1956 and settled in Canada for three years. That’s when she started taking ceramics classes as a hobby. She moved to South Africa in 1959 and continued to take ceramics classes. Three years later, she came to Los Angeles.

When Taylor started at the center ? then called the La Cañada Youth House ? the ceramics department was practically nonexistent, she said.

“I started out with two classes with six people each,” she said. “It took about a year until I had about 100 students a week, both adults and children. The children’s classes grew faster than the adults’, largely because there was a great need in the community.”


One of Taylor’s students, Maureen Siegel, who is also a member of the center’s board of directors, said Taylor has more confidence in the students abilities than they do.

When Siegel came to the center more than a decade ago she hadn’t taken a pottery class in 30 years. Taylor encouraged her to enter some of her first pieces in the center’s twice-annual arts sale. Siegel put more than a dozen items in the sale and decided to come to the first day just before it opened. She was dismayed to find all her items missing.

“I came in and all of the things weren’t on display,” she said. “I thought they didn’t meet the standards.”

While wondering how she would ever get over the rejection and return to class, she went over to the woman organizing the sale and started to apologize for her work.

“But the woman told me everything had already sold before the sale began,” she said. “Jane has more faith and confidence in her students then we do in ourselves.”

Taylor’s fellow employees, like ceramics instructor Jenny Donnell, said Taylor is someone to look up to.

“She individualizes the instruction as much as possible so students can take their art to whatever they want to,” she said.

Donnell, who is in her 20s, said she is inspired by Taylor’s ability to have created such a fine ceramics department when she must have only been in her 40s.


“The program is stronger than ever,” Donnell said. “It has opened my eyes that there is hope for so many possibilities for artists in the future.”

The facilities have changed quite a lot since Taylor came to the center.

“We only had six wheels [when I started] and they were very ancient and we have gotten rid of them,” she said.

To help pay for new equipment, Taylor started the ceramics sales soon after she started at the center, Taylor said.

“We have ceramics sales twice a year and with the proceeds we are able to buy our kilns, pottery wheels and kiln shelves,” she said. “It’s very expensive to run a ceramics program.”

The sales are in December and June and there are usually 50 artists who participate, she said. Items sold include bowls, mugs, plates, some sculpture, jewelry, coffee pots and tea pots. Every piece is unique.

“Ceramics is an enormously diverse art form,” she said. “There are always new and different things happening so it’s impossible to be bored with it. It’s a hugely creative process.”

Taylor still teaches two classes a week and continues to make functional items like casserole dishes she actually cooks in, she said.


At her age, she said, it’s physically challenging to do her craft.

“One has to be fairly robust to be a potter,” she said. “To fill a kiln takes quite a bit of body and I’m not a big person. I’m only 5-foot-1.”


WHAT: Roger Barkley Community Center’s Spring 2006 Ceramics Sale

WHEN: Artists’ reception from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, the sale continues 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Roger Barkley Community Center, 4469 Chevy Chase Drive, La Cañada Flintridge