"I made $150 on the street last week," said Renee Altman. "But the week before that I only made $30." For Altman, 30, "the street" is the sidewalk in front of the century-old Eastern Market at 7th and C Streets SE. On Saturday mornings, a few feet from the fresh eggs and cabbages Altman and four other professional potters offer their lasagna dishes, hanging planters and beer mugs.
Three years ago, Altman chucked her 9-to-5 job as a researcher for the Smithsonian to become a full-time potter. Now, with a 60-hour,seven-day week at about half her former salary, she says she doesn't regret the move.
"It's a more pleasing way of life," she said, citing "the physicialness of pottery as opposed to all that intellectual stuff."
"Financially, things are improving, and my cleaning bills have gone way down," she added, pointing to her studio garb of clay-spattered jeans and an old shirt covered by a smock. Altman and the other potters who work full-time at Eastern Market Pottery are washing their jeans, straightening up their studio and inviting the public in for an open house, show and sale Saturday (10 to 6) and Sunday (10 to 5).
The studio, a large room where the sun streams down through a huge skylight, is on the second floor of the old market, in what was once a tearoom. You enter through an alley at the rear. "Just follow your nose," said Altman - the entrance adjoins the Southern Maryland Seafood Co. Big, dusty sacks of clay are piled high beside the winding, lighthouse-type staircase to the studio.
"Don't get too close," warned Altman, as flames darted out between the bricks of one of the giant kilns in what used to be the tearoom kitchen. The potters take turns using the kilns, and Ellen Jaffe was firing her wares.
While her pitchers and vasess "cooked," Jaffe wedged clay on a table in the studio. "It's the opposite of kneading," she explained. "The object is to get the air bubbles out, not in. It's a Japanese technique called the chrysanthemum method," she said, pointing out flower-like folds in clay. "While what's outside is going inside, what's inside is going outside."
Like Altman, Jaffe, 31, turned to pottery from a more conventional occupation. She has worked for the District, certifying people for food stamps, and taught art at an alternative school. When the school folded last year, Jaffe decided to try to make a living at pottery.
All the potters do chores to pay for the space and materials the studio provides. Altman mixes clay, jaffe mixes glazes. Caitrine Curley, 26, cleans the studio. "I'm sorry," Jaffe apologized, "I got clay on your floor."
Grimacing good-naturedly, Curley explained that she had recently quit a job as a twice-a-week cleaning lady. A 1973 college graduate, Curley had used the domestic work to support her pottery habit but is now trying to make pottery pay its own way. Curley is more interested in form and simplicity than in decoration. "My work is quiet," she said. It's also humorous: Curley tends to put funny faces in odd places - on the lids of cannisters, for example, or the rims of soap dishes.
Susan Jacobs, 33, turned her potter's wheel slowly and painted a red rim around a plate as she explained how she turned to pottery after stints as a social worker in New York and as sales supervisor for the National gallery here. While working aat Eastern Market Pottery. Later she signed on as an apprentice, mixing clay, making tools, firing, cleaning and monitoring classes. One reason she likes pottery, Jacobs explained, is that it sets its own rhythm. "There are no set hours, but if you throw a pot then you have to trim it, then glaze and fire it."
Chuck Brome, who owns Eastern Market Pottery and assigns the chores, turned to the craft after serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador and a Navy officer in Vietnam. Brome, 35, used the money he had saved in the Navy to buy the pottery business in 1971.
"I'm just barely making it," said Brome as he trailed a blue glaze over a brown beer mug. "I talk about getting out, but if I did I'd get into another craft - like photography or furniture design. Pottery is hard work. It's hard on your wrist, your lungs and your back."
The fruits of the potters' labor will be displayed from 10 to 6 Saturday and noon to 6 Sunday. A kiln will be unloaded for visitors, and refreshments, including hot cider, will be served. Items will be priced from $2, for an ashtray, to $60 for a set of four cannisters. There will also be a giant lasagna dish decorated with bold blue strokes ($30), a dark brown colander with "trailed" streaks ($16), teapots glazed blue and decorated with delicate brown brushwork ($14 to $18), a vase adorned with pussy willows and bugs ($12), and a soap dish shaped like a bathtub, with a drain in the bottom and arms, legs and a head flung over the rim ($12).