"Form follows function” — this design mantra for architects around the world guides more creative outlets than many realize. For Mel Keedle, the founder of Still Life Ceramics, it defines her love of pottery and functional art.
“I always had a craving for a creative outlet, but I wasn’t sure what it could be,” said Keedle on her intro to and love of ceramics.
“I think it was being able to create something that was functional and a piece of art. Things I could use every day that were completely unique. It’s a lot of trial and error. In the beginning you make lots of things that look very cool, but you realize it doesn’t really work that well. You have to decide what you’re going for.”
Moving to Los Angeles from Melbourne six years ago, Keedle found herself floundering after a failed relationship and uncertainty about her career. She worked as a social worker in Australia, but she was always drawn to creative endeavors, even though she couldn’t find the right platform for her artistic inclinations. But after spending some time in LA, she started consistently taking ceramics classes at a small studio. While there, a few chance interactions changed her life.
“That’s where I met Ana (Henton), who’s my business partner and co-founder,” Keedle said on their chance meeting in the class. “We’re both so in love with making ceramics and working with local restaurants and local collectors. And it all kind of snowballed from there.”
The pair found themselves working well together but realized they were “outgrowing the community studio (they) were in.” With Keedle living in Silverlake and Henton in Downtown, they explored the possibility of opening their own studio. Finding their own space wasn’t easy, but the pair’s love of teaching and the craft itself led them to start at ROW DTLA, where they’ve since brought pottery to the local community.
“We wanted it to be a community hub and attractive to anyone,” Keedle said. “We make functional art, so we wanted the studio to also be a kind of functional art space.”
Opened in 2018, Still Life Ceramics became more than just a platform for Keedle and Henton’s personal work. It grew into a community staple — offering popular classes for anyone interested in learning about pottery. From beginners to experts, the studio became a great outlet for Keedle to continue her social work-indebted teaching efforts. She had taught for a year and a half prior and “knew that would be a part of” the newly founded studio.
“My background in (social work) helped me to be a good teacher,” Keedle said. “With the pandemic, I don’t know, it’s given me an understanding of the level of stress that people are going through.”
Naturally, COVID-19 complicated Still Life Ceramics’ steadily growing success, especially as a business so reliant on in-person classes. But Keedle and the rest of the staff adapted effectively to the changing times.
“We pivoted really fast, as fast we could as soon as we had to close down. We put together kits, rented out wheels. It was a huge team effort,” Keedle said of the studio’s early shifts.
Things have stayed up in the air as LA continues to go in and out of lockdowns as case numbers surge, but for a time Still Life Ceramics coordinated outdoor classes where people could gather at a distance and get hands-on experience with clay under teacher supervision. Instructors couldn’t be as involved in the process as normal — where they would ideally guide students’ hands and outline tactile techniques — but they could facilitate an environment where beginners got quality experience and a small taste of community engagement.
“It’s been really nice to be able to still have classes. We put out wheels, put out some umbrellas,” said Keedle about their outdoor classes. “It’s a little more complicated to do it outside a studio, but it’s a great outlet for people who are feeling the Zoom fatigue and missing community.”
Still, Keedle helped create a more prominent online presence for Still Life Ceramics as the pandemic made everyone dependent on the internet. It forced their team to learn new ways of teaching and increase their ecommerce outlets, and it gave the studio significantly broader reach — attracting students from as far away as New Zealand.
“It took a lot of reframing to get the classes online. You have to be a lot more nuanced with the teaching. You have to anticipate what the difficulties are going to be without being able to show someone on the piece they’re making,” Keedle said. “I think some things will continue. Even if we’re able to open, it’s been great for people who can’t get to Downtown or are from out of town.”
But as the team makes on-the-fly adjustments, Keedle looks forward to the day when the in-person experiences she fell in love with will be available to the public again. As she follows the function that defines her artistic endeavors, she plans to continue spearheading efforts that will provide outlets for anyone hoping to jump into the pottery world.
“My favorite part is watching people love ceramics,” Keedle said about her favorite part of running her own studio.
“I have to say it’s something I really miss because I haven’t been at the studio much this year. Watching the members starting off as beginners a year or two ago now making beautiful work fills me up. It’s also such a meditation. It gives me a few moments of stillness. There are very few moments of stillness in my life with a toddler and a small business during COVID. It feels great to be able to create.”