Dreams Taking Shape, or How One Lady Built a Campus out of Passion and Clay

For decades, my parents used the butter compartment of their refrigerator to house a clay stegosaurus I’d made in kindergarten. Preserved like some woolly mammoth frozen in glacial ice, it lived there, snuggled up next to a chocolate mouse (a treasure of my brother’s). I was in my 30s before it was whisked away by a curveball in time.

There are, naturally, many such clay creatures tucked into nooks of homes everywhere. To be a parent is to carve out such shelters of sentiment. In Nashville, this phenomenon can likely be traced to potter Danielle McDaniel, also known as The Clay Lady.

McDaniel has taught pottery to thousands of Middle Tennessee children since 1982 through the “in-house field trips” she offered to schools. During these, she taught up to 800 students a week to create clay artworks. She also developed The Clay Lady Way®, a teaching modality for art educators that trims clay firing into one step instead of two, cutting down on the time and costs needed to create pottery.

Nan Jacobsohn leading a Campus workshop. Photograph by Tammy Gentuso

Nan Jacobsohn leading a Campus workshop. Photograph by Tammy Gentuso

McDaniel says she has always told her students: “To be an artist I take what I think, I take what I feel, I mix it all up and make something real.”

McDaniel’s entry into pottery was somewhat stereotypical: she was a frustrated college student. “I thought, what did I do in school that I loved the most? And I remembered in ninth grade I won first place for a clay baby shoe. So I thought, I’ll just take a clay class. And I fell in love with it.”

While mostly self-taught, McDaniel initially studied pottery under Lena Lucas, who taught with Metro Parks Centennial Art Center for 37 years. It clicked. After a time, McDaniel discovered that she could not only create art from clay, she could teach it.

But after 28 years of traveling to schools, McDaniel put down roots with her popular pottery operation called The Clay Lady’s Campus. Located at 1416 Lebanon Pike, this 30,000-square-foot campus is home to The Clay Lady’s Studio, Artist Co-op and Galleries, and Mid-South Ceramic, a pottery supply company operated by McDaniel’s business associate, Tami Archer.

McDaniel still teaches plenty of children, as well as students of all ages. Each week, around 125 to 150 students arrive at the The Clay Lady’s Campus to take pottery classes, and 100 to 200 children and adults visit for field trips and tours. Additionally, the campus provides ten weekend workshops each year. There are two studios for classes and workshops. “What a thriving community we are,” McDaniel says.

Through its Artist Co-op of 65 members, the campus also acts as an incubator for those who want to grow in the art of pottery. McDaniel does not jury in artists. She wants an environment in which budding potters can be mentored by more seasoned artists. The focus is not on competition. “We call it co-opetition,” McDaniel says.

Then there are the studios, which nurture artists’ studies. One building provides 25 private studios, and another, Studio B, houses 20. McDaniel says, “Studio B is an elevation; it’s more for artists who operate like a small business.”

Caroline Cercone creating Husk cups. Photograph by Tamara Reynolds

Caroline Cercone creating Husk cups. Photograph by Tamara Reynolds

McDaniel now has her eyes set on yet another goal. She wants to use the synergy of The Clay Lady’s Campus to help grow a larger organism, that of City Side, an enclave that recently became a designated neighborhood, such as East Nashville or Germantown. Its tagline, “Industrial Past, Innovative Future,” is an apt description. Its supporters dream it will ultimately become an artists’ hub that features affordable housing.

“I don’t want to just be a pottery studio,” McDaniel says. “I want to have an impact on the city—not only by helping artists have a full-time career in art, but also by giving the community an opportunity to come see it made, come see it sold, come make it, be a part of it. And to see it as a business instead of a hobby or something fun.”

McDaniel dreams of building dormitory-style housing on the roof of Studio B to create live-work spaces. She has also spoken to an array of urban housing experts for advice on how to bring affordable housing to the area. Her ideas are percolating.

Meanwhile, visitors descend upon McDaniel’s campus each week to see the magic first hand. It’s then that she takes the opportunity to publicize City Side’s potential.

“Right now, anytime someone comes to visit me I tell them I’m building a sandcastle and I’ve got one cup of sand,” she says. “Come bring your cups of sand so we can build a sandcastle. Because it takes more than one. I’m here singing my song and doing my dance and creating the energy, the vortex, to bring people in.”

For more information about The Clay Lady’s Campus, please visit www.theclaylady.com.


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