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Opinion: Members of our pottery studio are fired up following art class suspensions

Earlier this week, all adult art classes were suspended at community centres and rec spaces in North Vancouver
Pottery class
Members of the Delbrook Pottery Studio are fired up after North Vancouver Recreation and Culture announced art classes for adults were being suspended this week.

Ceramic artists at the Delbrook Pottery Studio are spinning their wheels trying to understand why facility doors were suddenly locked on Wednesday, after operating under extreme safety protocols and with zero COVID-19 cases for nine months.

Despite the exhausting and seemingly hopeless trajectory of this pandemic, those of us who practice ceramics and other arts on the North Shore have been lucky to have a space outside of the home to continue our work. For some, it is a hobby, but for most of the current users of the Delbrook Pottery Studio, it is a lifeline. For me, it is a passion I dedicated almost all my spare time to in pre-pandemic days that has turned into a small business. We are a hodge-podge of mostly women from diverse backgrounds – some are immigrants, life-long North Shore residents, young, old, single, or parents of small children. We’ve managed within the strict health protocols to get back some semblance of what a community like this offers, making this week’s decision by the North Vancouver Recreation Commission (NVRC) to temporarily cancel all indoor art programs another frustrating blow.

The way the pottery studio operated prior to this week’s unexpected shut down took patience and persistence. Each one of us, totaling about 30 people to my estimate, had to book three-hour sessions a week in advance every Monday at 9 a.m. By 9:02 a.m., the six sessions available to us were full – slow internet or important work meeting be damned.

We were lucky to get one, maybe two, sessions each week (despite paying the same membership fee that allowed us almost unlimited access to the studio prior to the pandemic, but I won’t digress).

By 9:03 a.m., our group chat – we call it Claydies and Gentlemen – would typically blow up to recap the registration process. Usually, sad or angry emojis littered the screen. But if asked, we would all repeat how grateful we were to just get to spend three hours of our week doing what we love most. Anyone who has tried to continue their passion throughout the pandemic – whether it be booking time to ski, going to the gym, or playing a round of golf – knows the struggle.

For the last nine months, six people plus a paid supervisor were allowed in the large studio at a time. We share a space big enough for 12 wheels, four kilns, a large work table, and heaps of storage. We have diligently worn masks and kept our requisite six-foot distance from each other. All our safety protocols have worked – there hasn’t been a single reported COVID-19 case amongst us. We are increasingly thankful for that. Several of us suffer with depression and all of us have experienced loneliness and isolation this year. One member I spoke with months ago said the pottery studio is all she has; it has lifted her out of suicidal thoughts.

Several others say the studio is the only place they’ve been outside their home and the grocery store. A few more of us, including myself, have lost our jobs and make a little extra side money selling our pieces and taking custom orders to help pay the bills. One of us had a parent pass away from COVID, and they credited the studio for keeping their head above water.

When an email came to us on Wednesday morning, advising that North Vancouver Recreation Commission (NVRC) had made the decision to temporarily shut down all indoor arts programming, we gave them the benefit of the doubt and speculated that there may have been an outbreak, because nowhere in our public health orders does it recommend closing art spaces. Safety first, right? The next day the North Shore News reported that the closure was decided after “input from Vancouver Coastal Health” and that it was a “good idea”, not due to any COVID transmission.

The language from NVRC suggested it was somewhat voluntary. And yet, while visual arts and music programs were singled out, the fitness centres, swimming pools, and racquet courts remain open – even allowing visitors to run on treadmills without donning a mask up until a few weeks ago. While our kilns stay cold, the members of our pottery studio are getting fired up.

“I don’t understand why NVRC is keeping the gym and pool open for physical and mental health reasons but art programs are not being treated the same for adults,” Laura Mattiello, one of our members, told me. “Having the studio open has been such a welcome dose of ‘normal’ and an escape from dealing with the realities of living in a COVID world. It’s going to be hard to lose that again.”

I can speak for us all when I say we respect the need for restrictions and lament those who flout the rules. Logical precautions need to be made to stop the spread of COVID-19, but I ask the NVRC and Vancouver Coastal Health, why make it harder than it needs to be? Why halt a proven-to-be-safe activity, one of the very few that remain accessible on the North Shore, when people need it most?

And if there truly is a substantial safety concern, why cancel these programs now after we’ve reversed the curve, and not one month ago when the “circuit breaker” was introduced and cases were climbing? I have reached out to Vancouver Coastal Health to ask these questions.

This decision erodes our confidence in the powers that be and takes away yet another fragment of joy keeping us from going catatonic during month 14 of this pandemic. I have felt a heavy weight these last two days knowing that my hands won’t touch clay for at least a month. And like others, I’m down to my last thread of patience that our key decision makers will act with reason and responsibility. Without my pottery side hustle, my mental health will dwindle as my chance to see faces outside my household runs dry. How will I get through this challenging time? Maybe I’ll hit the gym – they say it’s safe.

Jill Slattery is a North Vancouver writer and communications strategist. She is also a North Shore ceramic artist who belongs to the Delbrook Pottery Studio.