• Sep 06, 2015
  • by David Koral

To cut stress, they reinvent the wheel

by Leslie Gornstein - Special to The Times -April 22, 2004

Stepping into the new Bitter Root pottery studio feels a bit like stepping across 1,000 miles and 100 years. If not for the earthy smell of wet clay and the alt-rock doodling from a CD player in the back of the room, you might think you'd just entered a village meetinghouse.

Inside the wide-open brick-and-concrete space, there are no clocks or televisions -- a deliberate attempt by co-founder Lorna Barbrie to shut out the exasperation of modern city life.

"I wanted a place where people can go to relax," Barbrie says. "This is where I relax, and I want other people to feel that way too." Once you've stowed your watch and jewelry, the only way to gauge the time is by the ebb and flow of traffic outside on Beverly Boulevard. Pigeons roost in the rafters, their low burbles echoing off the concrete floor. Rapping a broom handle on the ceiling usually sends them fluttering out the open back entrance. Neighbors amble in to say hello, their dogs often sitting at their feet.

But in its first months, the laid-back studio has nonetheless attracted dozens of go-go city types. It's not unusual to find yourself pushing wet clay alongside doctors, chefs and newscasters. To date, more than 50 patrons have signed on as regular students, drifting in at all hours of the day and night. They come to learn how to knead ceramic clay, spin a pottery wheel, shape bowls, vases or mugs and decorate them in whatever "glaze of the month" the co-owners have on hand.

The appeal of the place may rest in that same cozy, structure-free environment that at first blush seems out of place in an ambitious town.

The no-nonsense professionals who frequent Bitter Root say they find the freewheeling atmosphere therapeutic. They admit to getting hypnotized by the spinning machinery between their knees, seduced by the range of emotion that only clay can bring -- from frustration whenever a piece explodes in the kiln to soaring pride when a delicate vase rises from the wheel in seconds.

The founders, Barbrie and ceramics instructor Jay Ward, say they have another edge too: a speedy teaching technique. They insist that they can show a beginner how to treat clay, use a wheel and throw two serviceable ceramic pieces in less than three hours.

"Most studios take three months to do what we do in a three-hour class," Ward says.

Barbrie established Bitter Root after a classic bout of Hollywood burnout. After five years in TV development -- she says she spent most of her time ordering a dozen interns around at once -- she grew to hate her career. "Things were so political all the time," Barbrie says. "I was on a plane every two weeks going somewhere else."

Just as she was falling out of love with show business, Barbrie was discovering the soothing world of ceramics. The feeling of clay under her hands grounded her, she says. But teachers were often aloof, stressing basic techniques rather than letting students express themselves as artists.

It was at one particularly frustrating class in the Valley that Barbrie met Ward. She was having trouble shaping her pot, she says, and her teacher didn't seem to want to take Barbrie any further than showing her how to center a lump on the throwing wheel. Ward, a former professional water polo player who studied with a master ceramist in Hawaii, gave Barbrie a few pointers on the spot.

The two put their heads together and decided to open their own shop. Ward would mix the clay on site -- another rarity in the business -- and teach classes. Barbrie could lend her business savvy and escape the Hollywood rat race. Out with the skirts and pumps; in with the sneakers and jeans.

With enough savings from her TV career plus a windfall in her personal life, Barbrie was able to quit her job and plunk down the $75,000 it took to beget Bitter Root. She is frank about the setup of her business: "If we lose money it's OK, because I set this up as a tax write-off," she says. "It's different for us. We're not here to rake it in. We are here to provide a service and have a good time."

 It took the partners only three months to find a space -- a red-brick corner studio on Beverly Boulevard, where the penthouse was once owned by Liberace. Barbrie and Ward knocked down a dividing wall inside and refitted the space for a kiln that could be rolled out into the parking lot during firing, or inside when the shop was closed.

Ward says he picked the name Bitter Root after a colorful flower that grew outside the studio where his teacher first learned to throw pots. The teacher spoke often of the flowers, and the image of them stuck in Ward's head.

The Bitter Root studio space is prime territory for a fancy antique shop or a restaurant -- there are dozens of those on that strip between Fairfax and La Brea avenues -- but instead of being out of place, the happily grubby denizens were quickly welcomed by stressed-out neighbors eager for an escape.

The place technically closes at 10 p.m., but the lights are often on much later. Barbrie has even made copies of the studio keys for a few chefs who don't get off work until after midnight, allowing them to open the shop and throw pottery into the wee hours of the morning.

Others who frequent the pottery wheels say they like the communal atmosphere too. George Gonzalez is a chiropractor and already a regular at Bitter Root.

"This takes my mind off of everything," he says, his hands hovering over a new clay creation spinning beneath him. "All of my stress just disappears when I do this."

Where: Bitter Root, 7451 Beverly Blvd., L.A.
When: Ceramics classes every two hours for children and adults, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Price: First lesson free. Classes, $50. Unlimited studio space and supplies for $160 per month.
Info: (323) 938-5511