July 2017 was a dark time for Deborah Bedwell. The nationally renowned Baltimore Clayworks, the community arts nonprofit she helped start in 1980, had closed under acrimonious circumstances, with board members, staff and community members bickering back and forth and levying accusations of bad faith, withheld financial statements and financial mismanagement. Bedwell was called a “f–king liar” in the pages of the JT by the former executive director, Devon Powell. It seemed as if the Mount Washington mainstay that had provided education, opportunity and joy to so many who had sought to enter the world of ceramics would be gone for good.
“It was horrible,” Bedwell said. “There was a sense of shock and unknowing but the community was so strong … that I felt certain very quickly that there was strength enough to rescue the organization. I just didn’t see how at first.”
Matthew Hyleck, an artist and teacher at Clayworks since 2000, said, “The abrupt closure of Baltimore Clayworks was devastating to me on a personal level.”
But on Oct. 10, the newly invigorated Clayworks will celebrate the one-year anniversary of its reopening. A reception will be held on what is, luckily enough, this year’s Global Day of Clay. Additionally, Clayworks’ block of Smith Avenue will be renamed Clayworks Way, and Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and other local leaders and donors will be honored for their support of the campaign to reestablish Clayworks. The celebration will be called “On the Map.”
“We just kept battling,” said Marsha Smelkinson, one of the key organizers of the campaign to restore Clayworks to its previous prominence.
And it was indeed a battle. In Feb. 2017, Powell announced that Clayworks would need to take drastic measures to continue operating; solutions pursued by Powell and the board included selling off several Clayworks buildings, filing for bankruptcy and even moving locations entirely. There was even a deal in place to sell Clayworks’ facilities for $3.7 million to Itineris, a Baltimore nonprofit that provides job training for adults with autism.
Bitter fights between the board and those opposed to their strategies ensued, as a group of vocal activists, led by Smelkinson, accused the board of mismanagement. As the JT previously reported, the group held town hall-like meetings at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC, posted yellow-and-black “Save Baltimore Clayworks” lawn signs around the city and started a website, Facebook group and online petition that eventually garnered more than 1,200 signatures. Eventually, the entire board agreed to resign, making way for a new group — comprised of those who had fought the sale — to take charge.
Reopening Clayworks was a monumental task, as a million-dollar debt had piled up and the facilities had fallen into disarray. It took a Herculean effort, led by Bedwell, Smelkinson, Rima Semaan, Susan Patz, Ronni Aronin and Pat Halle, to begin to chip away at the debt, and to clean up Clayworks. New trustees were identified and fundraising campaigns were undertaken. The kilns needed to be re-fired, walls had to be painted, trash had to be emptied. Bedwell credits artists and students, led by artist John Gazurian, with much of the cleanup effort. Clayworks officially reopened for classes in Oct. 2017.
One year later, the organization seems to be on its way back to stability, and for those who fought to keep it open, it’s been vindicating.
“It is difficult to put in to words fully how rewarding it has been to work for Baltimore Clayworks over the past year as we navigate the reopening of our doors,” Hyleck said.
More importantly, it reestablished its place in the community. Students who had paid for classes that ended up being canceled because of the closure were given options of either a refund, their money being put towards a new class or being used as a donation. Many of them chose the latter two options. “In my estimation,” Smelkinson said, “it was more proof that this wasn’t a battle about money. [People] wanted to save Clayworks.”