The wheels are turning for pottery artist Shandra Bjyrd

Her fascination with clay started at an early age, and her love for the medium has only grown over time.

Shandra Bjyrd’s fascination with clay started at an early age, and her love for the medium has only grown over time.

In kindergarten at Madison’s Glendale Elementary School — recently renamed Dr. Virginia Henderson Elementary School — a seed was planted in Shandra Bjyrd’s mind, thanks to her art teacher.

Bjyrd’s teacher was a potter who kept a wheel and a kiln in his office. Even though she didn’t fully understand what these tools were, she was interested in knowing more. “That seed kind of stayed there until I could take classes in high school,” she says.

After she graduated from high school in 2004, that fascination with pottery stuck — even though, she says, “I was horrible. I couldn’t understand how the wheel worked.”

Eleven years ago, Bjyrd started taking classes through Madison College and has continued to advance her craft ever since. “I joke with my students that there was crying and frustration [when I started], but there literally was,” she says. “I just really wanted to have that skill, and from that point forward, I just really fell in love with it and felt like I was home with pottery.”

Now Bjyrd works with clay throughout the week at Midwest Clay Project & Studios, a 4,800-square-foot, east-side business that offers memberships, studio space and classes. Because clay is fragile, the studio provides a space for members to make and fire pieces in one place, which can eliminate damage that may arise during transport.

Bjyrd has been involved with Midwest Clay Project for about eight years. She made it her home studio for her professional practice after attending Madison College. She ended up becoming an instructor herself and became the studio manager about a year-and-a-half ago.

Bjyrd says she is one of the few people she knows in the professional pottery space who doesn’t have a degree in art. “I took the road less traveled by falling in love with ceramics and leaving academia, and there is some stigma,” she says. “There’s definitely space in the art world for people who didn’t go the academic route, who instead got their hands dirty working from the base level with their craft. I like to be an example of that.”

Pottery is a lifetime journey in continuing education, Bjyrd says. With all the shapes, styles, tools and processes, there are so many things left for Bjyrd to discover and learn. She especially loves feeling surprised while she’s on the wheel. Whenever that happens and she discovers something really pleasing or unexpected, she’ll keep creating that object over and over.

In her current practice, she specializes in making pottery with implied functions — meaning items that are useful as well as aesthetically pleasing, such as mugs, lidded projects and flowerpots.

“Making work that I feel like somebody is going to use regularly makes me feel better about making things and putting them out into the world,” Bjyrd says.

At first, she found it challenging to be responsible for pieces and even felt emotionally attached, so imagining her work being used made it easier to part with her sold pieces. Even with some of her sculptures, she included elements like ashtrays or incense burners to give them a further purpose beyond art for art’s sake.

When going from an idea to physical creation, Bjyrd typically starts with a sketch and estimates the weight of the clay needed to re-create a certain shape. Then she’ll work at the wheel to create the desired object. To finish, clay goes through two rounds of kiln-firing — the first, called a bisque fire, solidifies the piece, and then it’s glazed before a final firing. While it sounds like a streamlined process, it can take about three to four weeks from start to finish, especially since Midwest Clay Project has more than 100 members and class participants who use the kilns.

“I love taking something from concept to reality,” Bjyrd says. “It’s a very unique feeling to draw something out and then go and make that. It takes it from that 2D imaginary realm into the … physical space.”

Recently, Bjyrd has been working on her web presence, and she’s also been entering juried craft shows and other maker fairs. She sold her wares at this year’s Art Fair on the Square and has also made custom mugs for True Coffee Roasters in Monona.

Bjyrd has long dreamed of working full time in clay — something she says isn’t too common, as many members of Midwest Clay Project tend to consider pottery a side interest or hobby. But by working as the studio manager, she feels it’s possible. She hopes to one day focus solely on her personal practice and business, but she mainly wants to keep perfecting her pottery.

“I’d say somewhere before I became a member of Midwest Clay Project … [I was] floating around without something that made me feel like it was my purpose,” Bjyrd says. “Being in that state and then coming into pottery and finding that feeling and that purpose — that’s where that dream started. Early on I hoped; later I was in the position ofaugust  making it a reality.”

Find Bjyrd Ceramics:, IG: @bjyrdceramics

Maija Inveiss is a former associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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