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Finding Flow

Alumnae give shape to Bay Shore’s Earth’n Vessel

There’s a term coined by Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow” which describes the state of mind reached when agreeing levels of skill and challenge meet. To achieve flow, that in-the-zone level of consciousness, you’ve got to participate in an intrinsically rewarding and motivating activity. Finding flow can be difficult, but when you do find your niche, you devote yourself to revisiting that heightened consciousness.

For Jane Becker ’88 (left) and Jean M. O’Connell ’91, the organic experience of pottery is what ushers them into the moment. The two St. Joseph’s College alumnae’s devotion to the technique led to the opening of the Earth’n Vessel Pottery Studio in Bay Shore in 1997, and their continued love of the art drives them to share it with others.

“Jane and I, and another friend, Theresa Egbert, started taking [pottery] classes at Stony Brook University, and we fell in love with it,” Ms. O’Connell explains.

“However, there were such big gaps between sessions that we had withdrawals. So we kept talking about, ‘We should start our own studio.’ And so one day we sat down, and this is what happened.”

Neither Jane nor Jean had any experience in pottery before their initial flirtations with the craft. Jean graduated with a psychology degree from SJC and went on to work in sales before her placement at St. Mary’s Outreach in East Islip. Jane finished her years at St. Joe’s with a social sciences degree before heading to Stony Brook for a Ph.D. in sociology. She even returned to SJC as an adjunct.

But this was all before their hands had touched clay.

“When Jane dragged me to the first class, and she actually had to drag me, I had no interest in pottery,” Ms. O’Connell says. “I didn’t even own a piece of pottery.”

“I always wanted to do it,” Ms. Becker says. “When I was in high school, there was a pottery class before our art class. And we weren’t allowed to touch the wheel. But I used to get there early and I’d watch them. For years I carried around that interest.”

If you’re heading in to Bay Shore, try to find Earth’n Vessel at 67 West Main Street without passing it. The storefront isn’t gaudy or ostentatious, though you’d appreciate a neon sign if it’s your first time and you overshoot it by two boutiques and a sushi place. Immediately inside sits a small room crowded with for-sale pottery: glazed urns, vases and bowls, commissioned goblets with intricate chisel work. Between the ornamented pieces and the register is an unassuming door; walk through it, and you’ll find the real treasure.

“We decided that what we really wanted to do was create a community of artists,” Ms. Becker says while standing amongst a rear workshop that includes 14 pottery wheels, shelves of completed and in-production work, glaze mixes, a kiln and much more.

Now a lively co-op that hosts seasonal classes (five a week all year except summer, when they pare back to four), Earth’n Vessel is one of the only studios of its kind, teaching to all skill levels in the same classes, not separating beginners from experienced practitioners.

“That was our motivation from the get-go,” Ms. Becker continues. “Never to make a lot of money, but to create an atmosphere that was fun to be in.”

During the first year of Earth’n Vessel’s opening, Jane and Jean were tentative to take out a spot in the Pennysaver advertising their new pottery classes. While Long Island offered plenty of paint-your-own-ceramic places, the abundance of pottery studios was, and still is, diminutive.

If you’ve ever seen a potter throwing on a wheel, you’d share Jane and Jean’s concern: seated on a stool and carefully crafting with slow, methodic motions, the potter’s process can seem inclusive and almost sanctimonious. Would folks really be interested in joining a community of potters? (Also, ceramic places had those cute little pre-made dolphin sculptures you could paint blue, or even yellow, if you wanted.)

Unknown to them, Jane and Jean’s initial Pennysaver ad would tap into a vibrant community of artists on the Island. Too many artists, as a matter of fact. “Over 80 students responded to that first ad,” Ms. O’Connell says.

“We had a few of those moments: ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’” Ms. Becker says. With an overabundance of fledgling potters eager to learn, the first year at Earth’n Vessel was an exciting one, as were the 15 after that.

This year, registration forms continue to pile up well before deadline, and waiting lists continue to be a reality, because Jane, Jean and the other co-op members refuse to expand the neat little niche they’ve built, and because the mass appeal of pottery is in the addicting nature of the process itself. Quite simply, it’s a direct line to “flow.”

“There’s nothing around like it,” Ms. O’Connell says. “It’s a very meditative experience, it just teaches so much about being centered.”

If you’re interested in finding flow through the art of pottery, visit Jane and Jean in their Bay Shore store and register for classes. If all the spots are booked through the season, just say you went to St. Joseph’s. This won’t get you a place, but these two alumnae will appreciate it.

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