Clay It Forward

The wheel deal: Nathan Spalding leads monthly pottery classes.

Writer: Mathany Ahmed
Photos: Jami Milne

When Nathan Spalding shapes clay, he imagines his customers’ everyday moments. One holds a hefty beige mug Spalding designed to evoke the comfort of a weighted blanket during that first sip of morning coffee. Another customer cradles a ceramic mixing bowl while whisking together ingredients of a beloved family recipe. Someone else uses a bespoke ramen bowl for just the right portions of noodles and broth.

“I like softer shapes that let you ease into the pottery without being afraid to break it,” Spalding said. He laughs. “It’s a common thing! People are so afraid to break a new ceramic mug that they just never use it.”

Mug shot: Nathan Spalding’s pottery classes often overflow with joy and creativity.

Spalding loves pottery that is both beautiful and functional. But many of the things he makes are functional in surprising ways: They’ve helped him work through his struggles with mental health. More recently, they’ve helped him share joy with the LGBTQ+ community.

Spalding took his first ceramics class in 2013 to fulfill an art requirement at the University of Iowa. At the time, he had recently come to terms with his depression, which had troubled him since he was very young. He discovered that creating something tangible profoundly affected him. “From the start, I had a knack for it,” he said. “We naturally gravitate toward those things, especially when, for so much of life, we feel like we’re kind of just floundering.”

Nearly 10 years later, in 2022, he founded his own studio and named it SadBoy Ceramics to embrace his depression rather than hide it. He left his full-time position as a director for a food justice initiative, but he soon learned that he, like many artists, needed to teach classes or lessons to make ends meet. In January 2023, he hosted his first Queer Clay Night, a monthly ceramics class for LGBTQ+ people.

Queer Clay Nights also serve a practical function, like the mugs and bowls they produce. They make the creative process more accessible, since startup costs for a ceramics studio can be prohibitive, and it takes some practice to successfully complete a project from the spinning wheel to the kiln. There’s a sliding fee for the classes, so more people can afford to jump in and get their hands dirty.

“I wanted to make sure that finances were not an obstacle whatsoever,” Spalding said, especially since “there’s a higher rate of poverty amongst queer people than cis-het people.”

For each class, he creates eight to 10 bare-bones mugs for his students beforehand and then helps each student personalize them during the two-hour class.

The bonus: The classes also create a casual, safe space where LGBTQ+ people can get together and be themselves. “I’ve had people at workshops say they spent the week lobbying at the Capitol,” Spalding said, “and now they’re joining a class to unwind and de-stress.” More than 100 visitors attended a Queer Clay Night during the program’s first year. That’s a big point of pride for Spalding, who’s made a lot of friends along the way.

He wants every student to leave class with his or her own mug and at least a little bit of inspiration to find their own ways to build up the LGBQT+ community, whether it’s through a hike, a potluck or something else. “I’m an expert in pottery, so that’s how I foster queer joy,” he said. Then he asks his students: “What would you like to invite people to do?”

“Everyone deserves to have an abundance of joy, an abundance of resources,” he said. “Bit by bit, we can each play a part in weaving together a stronger sense of community.”

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