How POT Founder Mandy Kolahi is Democratizing the Ceramic Space

An adult beginners-oriented space run by, and intended for, people of color, the queer community and anybody who has ever felt they weren't welcome

This weekend, on 20 March, POT will release founder Mandy Kolahi’s collection of ceramics celebrating Persian New Year—a selection of blue-glazed pieces that perfectly represent the LA studio. Featuring delightfully snide Farsi phrases often uttered in Kolahi’s family (and in the wider Iranian community), this is the type of pottery that traditionally didn’t “belong” in the institution of art, made by an individual who felt out of place within the ceramics space. Kolahi (who found her love of pottery during high school) wanted to make the type of pottery she wanted, in spaces that were welcoming, comfortable and playful, so she created POT: a safe, beginners-oriented space run by, and intended for, people of color, the queer community and those who has ever felt they weren’t welcome in the oftentimes vanilla studios that abound.

What put her off those traditional spaces was, “Honestly, how white they all were/are,” she tells us. “Our industry has a huge diversity and gatekeeping problem which creates an accessibility roadblock for lots of Brown and Black folks. I was often the only non-white person in the room.” That kind of gatekeeping (which exists in most realms within the art scene) not only excludes people of color, but also those who haven’t grown up with access to art, didn’t attend certain schools and who don’t have a ton of experience. “The POT ethos is quite the contrary,” Kolahi says. “Anyone can be a ceramicist if you just dig your hands in. And anyone can sell their work if they want to, at any point in their career.”

Providing drop-in classes and longer-term workshops, the studio was set up to cater to adult beginners. “Many of us grow up in cultures and communities where the arts are not encouraged or accessible, or where we spend our lives focused on surviving. I can relate to this. Then we enter creative spaces in our adulthood and find ourselves feeling out of place, working next to folks who have been making art their whole lives,” Kolahi explains. “I wanted to make a space for adults like us, to remind everyone that it’s never too late to learn something new.”

Most of the staff were also adult beginners and POT members, which immediately creates a sense of camaraderie, and all classes (some of which are offered in Spanish) are accessible for rookies. The physical space also exudes an atmosphere that’s decidedly different from other ceramic studios, from the works lining the walls to the soundtrack creating a more playful, laidback vibe. “The art in our studio is really adult-themed,” Kolahi tells us. “From handmade dildos to bongs on the shelves, to radical art on the walls. Combined with good music, at least to us, this makes adults know they’re in a space for them.”

Rebuffing the stuffy, exclusive institution of art has only benefitted POT and, while Kolahi sometimes speaks at museums and universities, she always “lets them know our strong anti-institution stance as part of the lecture.” She is quick to note, however, “I love youth and transitional aged folks, so I don’t discredit how awesome college students and art school students can be— they aren’t the problem, it’s the institutions.”

The advantages of POT’s more DIY approach are countless. “It’s benefited us infinitely,” Kolahi says. “Everyone here is down-to-earth; we don’t have to deal with competing artist egos, folks share their work with each other to help boost each other’s skills. The community here has grown organically because of it, and we all actually have become friends—not just work friends, but real friends who take care of each other during hard times.”

Speaking of hard times, in early 2020 POT had to shut down almost entirely, but recently re-opened their on-site classes—at reduced numbers and safely distanced. They also kept their community engaged and connected via online classes and social media. “During the pandemic we were able to continuously pivot and shift—and thus survive—because everyone here is able to think outside the box and figure things out,” she says. “Being outsiders usually means you’re survivors, and that has helped keep us afloat.”

Pottery also brings together all four elements—earth, air, fire and water—and I always thought there was something special about that

While POT is centered on accessibility, it’s also rooted in creativity, self-expression and the joy that comes with that. “I’ve always loved pottery because it just feels really bomb to do. Over time I realized that feelings it evoked really helped with my mental health. On top of that, it’s a creative hobby, which is great for distracting from the madness of the world, and it’s a trade that takes you out of the outside world, off your phone, and back into your body and hands. I love the way hobbies can make you zone out and into something, and if you combine that with cannabis, well, then you have a really nice time,” she laughs. “I also love how limitless the possibilities are in regard to what you can make. Pottery also brings together all four elements—earth, air, fire and water—and I always thought there was something special about that.”

The Persian New Year Collection consists of several gorgeous, blue-hued vessels. Some of the phrases include zahreh mar, meaning snake venom (“It’s how you tell someone to stfu or that they’re full of shit,” Kolahi says); kei adam mishi, which asks when are you going to become a person (“Basically asks when you plan to grow up. I always found this funny cause the implication is that you’re an animal. I still hear this one,” she says) and others. With this collection, as well as existing handmade ceramic pieces—and some apparel, accessories and stickers—the POT store is full of treasures. They also accept donations, all of which go to their community programming.

Images courtesy of POT