Ceramic artist Isabel Halley occupies a sunny corner of New Clay Studios in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, which retains the soulful details of its turn-of-the-20th-century beginnings as an apple distribution plant. Thirteen years ago, ceramicist Amanda Moffat took over the space and transformed it from a pile of bricks into a beautiful and safe clay studio. Runoff grates on the sides of the room allow for areas to be hosed down at the end of each day, and everything is on wheels for the easy relocation of both heavy and fragile items. “Clay dust is a ceramicist’s biggest enemy,” Isabel shares. “Being able to easily clean one’s space is paramount to keeping your lungs healthy.” For a positive mood, seven skylights provide enough of the sun’s rays that bulbs aren’t even often necessary.
Having everything she needs at eye level is Isabel’s key to staying organized. When she has to go looking for miscellaneous items stored in milk crates found Upstate, she gets easily distracted by the rediscovered treasures she finds. Her chairs, rulers, sieves, buckets, measuring cups, and desk all come from hunting tag sales in that New York region. She also keeps her tile tests right in front of her for inspiration. “You can’t tell what any colors in clays or glazes are going to be until they are fired,” Isabel explains. “That means that every time I make a new clay or color, I have to send it through two kiln firings to find out what it really looks like. It makes things very exciting or very disappointing!”
This labor of love is steeped in complicated processes. For example, large pieces such as her Seder Plate and 1000 Pinch Bowl need lots of time in which to dry. They must first be wrapped in plastic, then draped in plastic, draped in cotton, then covered with newspaper — and only then are they usually dry. But even once the pieces make it all the way through these steps they can still cause heartbreak. “You have to be very careful that the kiln does not heat up too quickly or cool down too slowly because this can cause the pieces to crack,” Isabel says.
Isabel has been obsessed with clay, Silly Putty, kneaded erasers, and squishy textures since she was a little kid. Having grown up in Tribeca in the 1980s, Isabel found herself surrounded by a community of artists — a lucky circumstance that inspired her future vocation. The tips of her fingers are still very soothed by soft things, and the textures of all of her pieces are created by their pinching. “Being an artist can often be super solitary,” Isabel conveys. “I can get lost in podcasts and clay.” While going to the sink, Isabel is glad to check out the other talented people working around her, providing her very own grown-up community of likeminded makers. —Annie