The Wheel Mobile studio made a stop at Workshop PGH in Wilkinsburg in June. Photo courtesy of the Union Project.

Since 2002, the Union Project’s historic 1903 Gothic Revival building in Highland Park has welcomed ceramists as well as those who have never modeled much more than Play-Doh into its North Negley Avenue studio.

As interest has grown, the nonprofit has expanded to meet the need with more equipment, an atrium studio and even an outdoor kiln.

Despite all of the added space in the former Union Baptist Church, there was still a demand for more. 

“The clay frenzy is real,” says Michelle Clesse, deputy director of the Union Project.

The frenzy is so real that the Union Project has packed up a Raku kiln, propane tank, potter’s wheel, and lots of clay into its new Wheel Mobile traveling ceramics studio — bringing its instructors to the road.

The Union Project’s new Wheel Mobile studio brings ceramics education on the road. Photo courtesy of the Union Project.

Clesse says that since the pandemic, the Union Project has seen an increase in interest in its programs (including ceramics classes, workshops and camps for all skill levels), open studio sessions, as well as artist memberships. 

The Union Project operates an indoor studio with four electric kilns, a Bailey slab roller and hand extruder, 12 electric throwing wheels, one accessible throwing wheel, and a Soldner clay mixer. The facility recently opened a new atrium studio on the main level, complete with exhibit lighting and throwing wheels.

Mac McCusker is the ceramics studio manager at the Union Project and oversees programming and teaching artists. His clay work has been published in Ceramics Monthly and Studio Potter.

“I fire all the kilns, mix all the glazes, make all the clay, all that fun stuff,” he says. 

The Union Project recently constructed an outdoor kiln shelter featuring a Bailey gas kiln, Laguna Raku kiln and a Soda kiln. The outdoor kiln shelter was constructed on-site by master kiln builder Ted Neal

Vanessa Kettering, a teaching artist, demonstrates the throwing wheel at Workshop PGH’s studio in Wilkinsburg in June. The Wheel Mobile traveled to the shop’s Sunday DIY brunch. Photo courtesy of the Union Project.

Now the Union Project doesn’t have to rely on people visiting Highland Park to explore ceramics. The decked-out mobile ceramics van is designed to be highly visible at festivals and other events.

“It even says Wheel Mobile on the roof,” Clesse says.

The Union Project brings instructors to local schools, like the Environmental Charter School and Winchester Thurston. Until the Wheel Mobile, instructors were limited to clay and tools — whatever they could fit in their vehicles — for hand-building offsite. 

“This gives us a chance to bring out our heavy equipment,” Clesse says. 

A Raku kiln is one of the quickest load kilns, only requiring about 45-60 minutes to reach a temperature of about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. All in all, the whole process only takes about an hour and a half. 

“It’s instant gratification,” McCusker says. “You get it in and out on the same day. It’s a rare thing to bring a Raku kiln to the public. It’s a thousands-of-years-old process that came from Japan.”

Michelle Clesse, deputy director of the Union Project, shows her finished products during a Wheel Mobile demonstration at Handmade Arcade. Photo by Kitoko Chargois.

The Wheel Mobile provides an opportunity for the Union Project to improve access to the arts. 

“Art in general can be kind of exclusive,” McCuster says. “It’s often expensive and hard to get to. The idea that we can bring it to neighborhoods that might not have that opportunity is awesome.”

A 2019 Allegheny Regional Asset District Radical Impact grant helped the Union Project purchase the van, which made an appearance last December at the Handmade Arcade Holiday Market, attended by more than 10,000 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. 

“Having the Union Project’s skilled ceramicists share their creative practice at our holiday and spring markets is an honor,” says Handmade Arcade Executive Director Tricia Brancolini-Foley. “Handmade Arcade believes in the power of making things by hand. We welcome the chance to collaborate and provide a platform for the city’s talented ceramic and clay artists like those supported by the Union Project.”

A wheel demonstration, Clesse says, can last anywhere from one to eight hours.

“When people watch us throw, it’s mesmerizing, methodic and soothing,” she says.

The Union Project’s new Wheel Mobile studio will be at Aspinwall’s Allegheny RiverTrail Park in August. Photo courtesy of the Union Project.

Alison Babusci is the Union Project’s arts education consultant and manages the Wheel Mobile studio.

“Everyone of all ages responds to that almost therapeutic feeling of having clay in your hands,” she says. “And when they create something — that pride and joy that comes from making is so rewarding — to see and to feel. The Wheel Mobile allows us to get to folks wherever they may be and give them that experience.”

In August, the Wheel Mobile will stop next at Allegheny RiverTrail Park in Aspinwall. To bring the Wheel Mobile to a community center, school or festival near you, contact the Union Project.

A Pittsburgh native, Ethan is a freelance journalist interested in telling the stories of people doing great things to build community and sustainability. Ethan served as Editor-in-Chief of Allegheny College's newspaper, The Campus.