.Hands-on Art: Terra Linda Ceramics Artists

Award-winning ceramics, local artists and studios—oh my! 

If you are on the lookout for a Marin-based arts studio where you can practice your artistic expression with a hands-on approach, surrounded by equally passionate and downright talented individuals, then Terra Linda Ceramics Artists is the place for you. 

This studio was first founded in 1993 by Susan Hontalas, who taught for many years before passing the torch to the current director, Nadia Tarzi-Saccardi, in 2017. For the past three years, this art studio and its instructor have received local recognition for the amazing and diverse art they produce.

“It’s nice to know there’s a place in Marin for ceramics aficionados to display their creations,” said Tarzi-Saccardi. “Every year, the advanced students participate in the Marin Fair fine arts exhibit. A lot of people in the studio program take home awards for their work. Also, many of our solo-exhibitor artists have their work in collections and galleries across the Bay Area.”

Tarzi-Saccardi is an autodidact award-winning ceramic artist, originally from Europe, who first touched clay when she was just three years old. Though she grew up in a family that did not consider the arts an appropriate career path, she could not escape the draw ceramics held over her. As a young adult, she was admitted to art school in France, but she found the instructors to be sexist and rude, which pushed her to leave the environment. Throughout her life, though it led in many different directions, clay was a constant companion. Only when Tarzi-Saccardi joined Terra Linda Ceramics and met Susan Hontalas, who she affectionately calls “Art Momma,” was she  pushed to stick to her passion, to exhibit and, eventually, to teach.

“As a teacher, I try to tell my students that they’re entering a different space and time with ceramics,” explained Tarzi-Saccardi. “You can’t rush clay, and you discover a lot about yourself as a person when you come into connection with a material. You realize you need patience—when you work with clay, you start becoming grounded and aware that things move at a different speed. There’s no instant gratification. We are part of a lineage, continuing this vast story that began with the first person who pinched their first pot 29,000 years ago. We keep developing further, and now there’s even 3D printing of clay! I see this as a privilege and an amazing opportunity to connect with someone very ancestral.”

As well as being an award-winning artist, Tarzi-Saccardi has a deep historical connection to her work. Her father, a renowned Afghani archeologist with a specialization in the Buddhist period in Afghanistan, inspired her in her focus on the history of ceramics, which led her to further study and publish on the archaeology of Central Asia, with an emphasis on Buddhist studies. 

For the last 15 years, she has taught ceramics to adults and children in studios across the Bay Area, including Terra Linda Ceramics, the Mill Valley Potter’s Studio and the Walnut Creek Arts Center.

“One of the things I find really exciting thinking about clay is the origin of the material,” explained Tarzi-Saccardi. “I always get extremely excited thinking that we’re working with a million-year-old decomposed stardust. All these elements in the clay and glaze come from the universe, and some people say it all comes from the explosion of a supernova. There is an interconnection—it’s a little esoteric, granted, but I find it fascinating. To think we have the privilege to work with materials that have been deep down in the sea and then traveled up to a mountaintop through the movement of tectonic plates, then eroded down those mountains again. We end up with this sediment that has gone through intense transformation that, through our recipes, we use for ceramics.”

Tarzi-Saccardi credits artists who are greatly influencing the new generations of ceramic artists, including Marin resident Richard Shaw, a master of trompe l’oeil ceramic art; Jeff Downing, chair of the ceramic department at San Francisco State University; John Toki, a living legend and ceramics encyclopedia, as well as a maker of monumental ceramics; Claudia Tarantino; Michelle Gregor; Lynne Meade; and Bill Abright.

“It’s not a matter of talent—whatever you want to do, the clay will follow along because you’re forming it,” said Tarzi-Saccardi. “You can make functional work, primitive work, very sophisticated sculptures and so on. There’s something for everyone, and it’s important to find sanctuary, a place where touching this material becomes meditative, and you’re in community with yourself. You’re not alone, but you’re with a lot of people in their zone, doing their thing, and you learn from them in this beautiful community.”

California boasts a rich history of ceramics, starting in 1848, when ceramic products were in high demand for functional building needs such as tiles and sewer pipes. Around 1910, a sweeping movement of tile-making took place, the history of which can still be viewed in older architectural pieces to this day. 

In the mid-century, between 1875 and 1931, the “Big 5” historically significant ceramics companies were established: Bauer, Gladding-McBean, Metlox, Pacific and Vernon. These companies produced vases, tiles, pitchers and plates and, with the exception of Vernon, are still in business. 

In Fairfax, from 1911 to 1918, Arequipa Pottery was founded by Dr. Philip Brown as a rehabilitative therapy program for women with tuberculosis. And, in 1948, Heath Ceramics in Sausalito was established by Edith and Brian Heath, where British-born Marin resident Daphne Ahlenius was hired by Heath to develop their signature glazes in the ’60s.

The California Clay Movement in the ’50s, also known as the American Clay Revolution, shook up the local clay culture and opened the doors for more artistic ceramic expression, moving the medium from functionality to sculpture. Peter Voulkos led the revolution by making free-form ceramic art, breaking away from the conventional movement. He was followed by other emerging artists at the time, including Ken Price, Viola Frey and Stan Bitters.

“If someone feels like they’ve learned everything, I don’t want to bluntly say they’re wrong, but there’s always more to be discovered,” said Tarzi-Saccardi. “I call the chemistry of glazes wizardry. The need for testing things is always important because you can create something new and wonderful or something terrible.”

Tarzi-Saccardi considers herself a strict teacher who prioritizes practice and working on small example pieces before diving headfirst into huge projects. She encourages ample use of “testing tiles” and miniature versions of projects to provide examples and studies for the effects of firing methods and glazes on larger, final projects.

“As a teacher, you’re facilitating discoveries and providing support so people can grow, and that’s one of the things I absolutely adore about my work,” said Tarzi-Saccardi. “If I have a class of 20 make a box, I get 20 different boxes. The same goes for the children’s classes; if I have them each make a penguin, I get 20 different penguins! It shows how unique we all are!”

The Terra Linda Ceramic Artists’ program offers adult classes; teen and youth classes; specialty firings such as luster, decal and pit firing; a variety of workshops; and statewide exhibiting opportunities to students enrolled in the program. According to Tarzi-Saccardi, names to watch out for in the Marin ceramics community are Nicolas Vasquez, Brianna Woodward, Jo Clarke, Emeigh Poindexter, Geraldine GaNun, Melissa Woodburn, Erin Quin, Cathie Blackstone, Antonia Lawson and her mentor, Susan Hontalas.

“My dream and my vision for the Terra Linda Ceramics Artists is to make a full-on ceramics community,” concluded Tarzi-Saccardi. “I want to find a way to give everybody a chance to experience the full range of ceramics experiences. It has been a great honor and a lot of joy for all of us to be awarded three years in a row the Best of Marin for best studio and instructor, and this year for me to be awarded best artist.”

Registration for fall classes at Terra Linda Ceramics Artists studio is open to the public and filling up fast. The studio is located in San Rafael at the Terra Linda Community Center, Room #1, 670 Del Ganado Rd. 

For more information or to get in contact with Terra Linda Ceramic Artists, visit the website at terralindaceramicartists.com or send an email to [email protected].

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