Even on a Monday afternoon, the creative energy at Burnish Clay Studio is palpable. Wire racks are stacked with ceramics of all shapes and sizes: oversized mugs, hand-engraved vases and even cat sculptures, each in various stages of firing and glazing. College students throw clay alongside retirees, and folks aren’t afraid to share skills or ask for advice.
Burnish might be a newer addition to the Bellingham ceramics scene, but after just five years, the studio has cemented itself as a community hub. This is thanks to the efforts of owner Heather Hitt; she and her elderly dog, Dylan, have been near-constant presences since day one.
“We had our opening party on Feb. 2. , so we are having our fifth-anniversary party on Feb. 2 as well,” Hitt said. “It’s just going to be hanging out and eating food and playing with clay.”
A hobby potter since college, Hitt understands the importance of keeping a creative practice. Working with clay requires patience and dedication — but for many potters, that challenge is part of the appeal. Especially after COVID-19 shutdowns, Hitt noticed an influx of members looking to expand their lives beyond their nine-to-fives.
“There’s this thing that happens in our brains when we’re doing something tactile, and I think a lot of us are missing that,” Hitt said. “You get to see tangible results of that effort and learning and progression. That can be incredibly fulfilling.”
Hitt left a decades-long career in project management to open Burnish in 2019. After getting “kicked in the pants by [her] corporate job,” she realized she could apply her skills to something she felt passionate about, while also filling an important community need. Before Burnish, there was nowhere to purchase clay and tools locally. Bellingham also lacked a space where potters could work without taking a class.
“I’ve always joked with friends of mine about the dual nature of my inner dirty hippie versus my inner corporate shark, and trying to find a way that I can utilize both sides of that brain to provide services here,” Hitt said. “But the main focus is the community. Clay is the vehicle, but community is actually the goal.”
Thus, Hitt works hard to foster an inclusive studio environment. Burnish has a zero-tolerance policy for negativity, and every instructor promotes an atmosphere of encouragement and celebration. Hitt also combats barriers to entry by offering sliding-scale studio grants.
“There’s two big circles of how art is inaccessible to a lot of people. Some of that is financial, but some of that is also just institutional,” Hitt said. “We use the studio grant in two ways … It’s both to provide financial assistance for people that are coming from marginalized communities, as well as to give a tangible thing to show them that we really do want to welcome them.”
As a result, Burnish’s clientele ranges from students to professors, restaurant owners, service industry workers, stay-at-home moms, engineers, retirees and everyone in between. Carol Yoon, 61, is a retired writer and a member of Burnish since 2021. She said that, while some ceramics studios can feel exclusive, Burnish is a true community space.
“The thing I value the most is that there are all different kinds, different ages of people,” Yoon said. “I’ve met more people of color in the studio than anywhere else in Bellingham, and I’ve lived here for 26 years … It’s very welcoming.”
Some of Burnish’s members have been making pottery longer than Hitt has been alive, while other instructors are in their early 20s, yet teaching students decades their senior. In the studio, age doesn’t translate to knowledge or experience, and this common ground can result in unlikely intergenerational friendships.
“Once you get out of school, people’s bubbles tend to be really small,” Hitt continued. “But in the pottery studio, those bubbles break down a little bit, and so you get exposure to different things.”
Want to try ceramics yourself? Burnish Clay Studio offers classes, services and supplies for potters of all levels. You’re guaranteed to learn a thing or two about throwing clay — but you also might make a few unexpected connections. After all, Hitt believes one of the best things about a community pottery studio is “you never know who you’re going to be sitting next to at any given time.”
Cocoa Laney is CDN’s lifestyle editor; reach her at email@example.com; 360-922-3090 ext. 128.