We don’t get redos, but we do get new opportunities. People’s Pottery Project, a Los Angeles-based artist-driven initiative, offers those opportunities to formerly incarcerated women, trans, and non-binary individuals by way of clay and ceramic art. Full-time artists at the studio benefit from skill-building, paid job training, gainful employment, and a judgment-free haven.
Sculptor and mixed-medium artist Molly Larkey co-founded People’s Pottery Project in 2019 in response to a need. An active member of Californians United for a Responsible Budget and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), and an ally to the Black Lives Matter, Indigenous Sovereignty, and Occupy Wall Street movements, Larkey saw an opening for a self-sustaining, artistic, and collaborative space that staves off recidivism and calls attention to the urgent need for sentencing reform.
“A few years ago, I became a member of CCWP, which focused on providing support to women, trans, and gender-nonconforming formerly incarcerated within the Californian prison system, and I became familiar with their challenges and trauma,” Larkey told Gay City News during a Zoom interview. “I learned how central it is to formerly incarcerated people that they have a creative outlet, an opportunity. Though I’m a more traditional fine artist, I started to incorporate ceramics, which I’ve always loved. I ended up buying a kiln and a slab roller, and I had a warehouse studio space.”
She added, “Then, I began providing free classes to formerly incarcerated women, trans, and non-binary people, initially with ceramicist Alex Miller’s help. At the same time, I charged others in the community on a sliding scale. The organization began to take shape.”
People’s Pottery Project took inspiration from other mutual aid organizations, such as Homeboy, a rehabilitation and re-entry program providing training and support to formerly incarcerated and gang-involved individuals. Since 1988, Global Homeboy Network has become the blueprint for over 250 organizations and has impacted lives as far as New Zealand and South Africa. Still very new in its journey, People’s Pottery Project already has a survivalists-focused framework, bolstered by its art-centered community that’s pro-people and anti-systems of oppression.
In addition to full-time and part-time employees, People’s Pottery Project invited formerly incarcerated persons to assist with production on an as-needed basis, and they were paid a living wage for their efforts. The studio debuted their signature item, the People’s Bowl, a deep, wide-surfaced bowl wearing a two-tone blue and brown glaze. The one-of-a-kind bowls and the People’s Plate are sold on the organization’s website, which helps fund the employment of the artists and the operation.
“I create art that I love and adore,” said co-founder Domonique Perkins, who also assists with social media, product design, and operations. “It’s an accomplishment for me. I feel that I’ve done my good deed, that I’m a good person, and I feel strong. In addition to using the pottery wheel, I reach out to others, I mentor, and I motivate. I work with the CCWP and help people adjust to society.”
While there are more men than women in prison, the number of imprisoned women has increased at twice the rate of men since 1980. According to the Sentencing Project, the female incarcerated population is more than seven times higher than in 1980. When it comes to race, the figures are far more damning. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2019, the imprisonment rate for African-American women (83 per 100,000) was over 1.7 times the rate of imprisonment for white women (48 per 100,000). And this unevenness begins at an early age. The placement rate for Black (94 per 100,000) and Native girls (123 per 100,000) between the ages of 10 and 17 are higher than for Asian girls (3 per 100,000), white girls (29 per 100,000), and Hispanic girls (31 per 100,000).
The American Journal of Public Health published findings showing that sexual minorities, particularly lesbians, and bisexual women, are disproportionately incarcerated in the U.S.; in fact, they’re three times more likely to be incarcerated than their heterosexual counterparts. Overrepresentation is far more pronounced for women, as sexual minority women represent nearly half (42.1 percent) of individuals incarcerated in female prisons. Lara Stemple, one of the study’s authors, attributed this to the fact that the societal perceptions of masculine people of color also apply to women, resulting in over-policing.
Each year, there are 1.9 million women released from prisons and jails. Thankfully, within the last few decades, there has been a growth in the number of organizations invested in meeting the needs of women, trans, and non-binary individuals. Without proper pathways to the right kind of support, the likelihood of escaping poverty, meeting the needs of family, and avoiding potential misdeeds from the past becomes a more significant challenge. This is why organizations such as People’s Pottery Project are so essential.
Ilka Perkins, a co-founder of People’s Pottery Project who formally experienced incarceration, said, “After I got out, I didn’t always feel welcome. I would be looked at differently. I have a community of people who’ve experienced what I’ve experienced, who support me.”
Though People’s Pottery Project has experienced some lag in production and classes due to the pandemic, the studio’s employees continue to construct beautifully elegant handmade ceramic bowls and plates from stoneware clay.
“The emotional response to this has been everything,” said Larkey. “I can’t believe what I do. It’s a safe space. Some of our participants have struggled with homelessness, but here, now, they’re able to resource share.” Larkey also remarked readers must understand the implications of sentencing laws and how necessary it is to hold a public dialogue about race and sentencing differences for women of color.
Sentencing reform advocates have urged officials to pivot tough-on-crime policies to justice-focused alternatives in an effort to foster rehabilitation. Advocates drill the point that the root of crime, such as poverty, trauma, and mental health, is the most serviceable way to diminish crime. Likewise, they believe that doing away with jail time mandates and cash bail, as well as broadening the ability to offer citations for certain offenses instead of arresting offenders, can yield fairer results. There’s also something to be said about a need for gender-responsive policies and programs, which underscore the distinct needs of women, trans and non-binary inmates, which differ from men’s needs.
“We’re shedding light on carceral systems, and we’re providing an uplifting story,” Larkey said. “I can’t believe how lucky I am to do the work that I do. I’m grounded in work that isn’t about me; we’re providing a safe space. In the past, some employees have struggled with homelessness, but here, now, they’re able to find resources, gain a second chance.”
Lauren Fuller, a full-time employee of People’s Pottery Project, echoed the sentiments of others belonging to the collective, telling Gay City News, “This has been one of the best experiences and opportunities of my life.”
Those interested in donating or offering support to People’s Potter Project in any way can visit the organization’s website.
Note: Published research and studies only identified “men” and “women” and did not have any distinguishing language that spoke to non-gender conformity or trans identities.
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