Small Business Spotlight: Wichita Pottery offers space for artisans, students

The Secret Gallery isn’t so secret anymore.

Jill Houtz abandoned that name for her pottery school, studio and gallery a couple of years ago after the facility became a well-known home for Wichita’s established and aspiring potters.

“When we started, we weren’t going to be ‘out there,’ ” Houtz said. “But more and more people were interested.”

Today, her place at Second and Meridian is known as Wichita Pottery. Passers-by have probably noticed improvements to the exterior, from water-blasted brick walls to a whimsical “shard yard – where all our sorry pots go to rest in pieces,” Houtz said.

There have been changes inside as well. Houtz and her husband, Ronn, bought the property next door to provide more parking and a space for outdoor kilns, bringing the entire space used by Wichita Pottery to about 3,500 square feet.

More recently, they bought a used, 3,800-pound gas kiln from a university in Montana. It should be up and running in a few weeks.

Houtz, a former assistant administrator at Boys Town in Omaha, moved here when Ronn took a job as capital projects manager for Cargill in 2000. The couple left behind a family support system that had helped care for Kent, their special-needs adult son, so Houtz wasn’t looking for a job outside the home.

Instead, she opened the Secret Gallery in 2003, only a few years after starting pottery classes herself at City Arts. The family lives upstairs in a building that was a grocery store from the 1930s to the 1970s and then housed several other businesses. Kent, decked out in University of Kansas gear, is a familiar face at the studio.

Initially, the gallery was just going to be a place for Houtz and other potters to make and sell their work. They still do that, but Houtz added classes after sensing a demand in the community.

Today, Houtz and six other instructors offer courses in basic hand building, in which participants fashion coffee mugs and other useable objects; sculpture classes, which use more advanced techniques to create artwork; and throwing classes, in which students learn to use a potter’s wheel. There are children’s classes on weekends, special workshops and occasional sales of student work.

Houtz said her instructors take more of a coaching style than the more common demonstration style of teaching pottery.

“We try to coach at the level of a person’s ability,” she said.

For skilled potters, memberships are available, allowing them unlimited studio and kiln time within regular business hours.

Jennie Lane, a member who was using a potter’s wheel Tuesday, said she started classes at Wichita Pottery two years ago “on a whim – a desire to make things.”

“Best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time,” said Lane, who was making commemorative bowls and plaques for another of her interests, the Wichita Rowing Association. “It’s an exceptional studio, probably one of the best in the country.”

A few minutes later, another member popped in to glaze a piece of pottery during his lunch hour.

Classes are $50 a month for four two-hour sessions. Memberships are $60 a month, a price potters are willing to pay because of the “equipment intensive” nature of the hobby, Houtz said.

Wichita Pottery has three electric kilns. Members who had been encouraging Houtz to acquire a gas kiln found one advertised online. It cost more to ship it from Montana to Wichita than the actual price of the kiln.

“It can do some things that an electric kiln can’t,” Houtz said. “It pulls different metals out of the clay as it bakes and creates a different look in the glaze. It’s kind of technical.”

Ronn Houtz oversaw the building of an addition to house the kiln, with the last wall going in after forklifts placed the kiln inside.

The basement is used to mix chemicals utilized in glazes. A lot of space is devoted to shelves to store the work of students and members, including a Shelf of Fame for particularly good work.

There’s a patio equipped with a barbecue grill, too.

“That’s for parties,” Jill Houtz said. “We’ve never tried to barbecue a pot yet.”