Design Changemakers 2022: People’s Pottery Project Is Helping the Formerly Incarcerated, One Handmade Bowl at a Time
Apartment Therapy’s Changemakers Class of 2022 is made up of 15 of the most talented and dynamic people (or duos or trios) working in the design world. This year’s honorees are all about connecting, collaborating, and disrupting the industry to steer the collective design conversation towards innovation and a better future. See the rest of the list here.
Who: Molly Larkey, Domonique Perkins, and Ilka Perkins, founders of People’s Pottery Project
Where to follow them: Instagram at @peoplespotteryproject
Molly Larkey, Ilka Perkins, and Domonique Perkins have figured out a new charitable business model that makes beautiful homewares while supporting a community in need. After years of being involved with the anti-carceral movement, Larkey, who is an artist, had an idea to organize a creative outlet specifically for formerly incarcerated individuals. “I just wanted to share the art-making and design that I was really lucky to have as a big part of my life,” Larkey explains. Hosting weekly ceramics classes from her Los Angeles studio for a group of previously incarcerated community members proved so positive that, in 2019, it evolved into its own nonprofit: People’s Pottery Project, which Larkey co-founded with Perkins and her partner, Domonique.
Today, the collective provides job opportunities and community for formerly imprisoned women, trans, and nonbinary individuals, including People’s Pottery Project’s co-founders Perkins and Domonique. Within the first three months, the women have accumulated enough ceramics sales to officially expand. The organization now employs (and empowers) between six to 10 previously incarcerated team members, who craft the products in a safe, healing space.
People’s Pottery Project is a success: West Elm and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) carry selections of People’s Pottery Project’s signature, hand-hewn pale blue- and brown-hued stoneware bowls, plates, and mugs. But more importantly, Larkey and the Perkinses are helping break the dehumanizing societal stigmas of incarceration by having participants share their own stories and experiences. The pottery-making parallels are not lost on them: Ilka details the imperfect, but still undeniably beautiful, nature of their ceramic offerings — a message that also speaks volumes on behalf of the artists making each piece. “That is one of the changes I hope we really can make,” adds Larkey. “To show who this community is and what everyone has to offer.”
People’s Pottery Project’s unique model is catching on, too. The co-founders note that cities outside of the Southern California area have voiced interest in replicating the art-inspired nonprofit. There’s promising potential to expand upon what Ilka has deemed “a platform to follow our dreams and our passions.” We talked to the three founders about how homewares can be a force for good:
Apartment Therapy: Who do you look up to?
Molly Larkey: I look up to artists who have done activism or who really change the way we see how art can be viewed — like Audre Lorde, the poet and writer. I also get really get inspired by the activists who taught me about the need for this work and all the things I wasn’t aware of as a person with a lot of privilege. And Ilka and Domonique inspire me.
Ilka Perkins: After my recent visit to Georgia, Martin Luther King. He was a person who, despite all the discrimination and barriers, fought tooth and nail all the way to his death. And then his story still lives. You have the legacy of committing to change, committing to bettering the world. Love, not hate. Not seeing colors. Anybody who wholeheartedly sets society before themselves just to put a little change.
Domonique Perkins: For me, of course, my higher power. And anyone who wants to change for better, that inspires me. I always look up to Molly, especially when I’m at the studio. I look up to everyone there because, yeah, we have flaws and everything, but everybody’s here on a positive mission, and we’re all trying to help others on our journey. Anything that’s positive inspires me. Any good deed, any person.
AT: What do you think you’re doing to change up the field you’re in?
DP: We’re infusing people who are formerly incarcerated with regular people and creating an environment where we can both work together as one. What I see happening here is people are going to notice us and want to help us or want to try to extend a little bit of kindness toward people who are formerly incarcerated. Because yes, we were incarcerated and made a mistake in our lives, but that doesn’t define us. I just hope that we can spread the news to help others in need, because there are people who were formerly incarcerated that are homeless, especially a lot of women. That’s what I hope to change.
ML: Another thing, one of the critiques of art and design is that they can feel elite. Our wares are very affordable, but they’re handmade, beautiful, one-of-a-kind objects. It’s not just for wealthy people to make or consume. It’s to really bring that sense of tactility that clay has to every single person who engages with our work.
AT: What’s your favorite project you worked on in 2021 so far? (and why?)
IP: My most favorite project — it’s my only favorite project, if I really think about it — is just hiring the formerly incarcerated, being able to work with them, and help them navigate through re-entry.
DP: My favorite project would be collaborating with Would Works. That was a fun experience to be able to create and work with other formerly incarcerated individuals.
AT: What three words would you use to describe People’s Pottery Project’s work or style?
IP: Beautiful, unique, and empowering. Every product that we push out, we try to ground it to something that’s going on with us, or something that we want to change the narrative for ourselves. When you first get taken into prison or jail, you’re known by your fingerprints, so one day Domonique decided that she wanted to make something different and she put her fingerprints on a bowl. For her to have the thought to change the narrative for something that — in our minds— is bad, it was amazing. Some of the things we do or that people like Domonique come up with, there’s meaning behind it. It’s important to show that through healing, through rehabilitation, through change, we can come to a happy medium to where we can understand, learn from each other, and maybe have more of an open mind and an open heart.
DP: My words were empowering, inspirational, and phenomenal. Because this one lady came in and said, “Wow, these pieces are phenomenal — how do you get the glaze so smooth!?”
AT: Is there a specific piece or design of yours that you think is particularly indicative of who you are or what you’re trying to do?
IP: Definitely the fingerprint. But also our aesthetic as far as our colors, brown and blue. For us coming out, we always just want to find a place in society where we can lay roots or have some kind of foundation — so in our brown, that’s what it is. It’s earthy. Then when I think of blue, I always think of the ocean or the sky. It’s so beautiful, it’s so vast, but at times even the sky can be violent. We have thunder, or it rains or hails really hard. But after damage, it’s a rainbow that pops up in the sky. And that’s just what we hope to share with everybody, regardless of whatever they think of us: Outside of this shell, which everybody describes us as “violent,” there’s beauty inside. We have not had somebody believe in us or give us that platform to shine and show that we can be beautiful people.
AT: What makes you feel at home in your own spaces?
DP: What makes me feel at home is when we can all work together peacefully and love each other!
ML: In my own home, but even in the studio, having handmade things. I love having things that connect me to other people.
IP: The chaos! I’ve been incarcerated for so long, and at times it can get so chaotic here. I guess I feel at home getting pulled in five different directions because that’s what my living arrangement was for so long. I feel bored if I don’t have that!
AT: How do you define success in the design world? What makes you feel successful?
DP: For me, success in the art world is creating something people think is beautiful or accepting it, even though we’re formerly incarcerated and they still love it. That’s a success to me — still being able to continue with People’s Pottery Project and show more people what we do and them accept it.
AT: What legacy do you hope to leave?
ML: We’ve achieved a lot in a short time, but I really think that we could leave a legacy of a platform to talk about incarceration in the design world and about personal stories and approaches to life. I would love to leave a legacy of thinking about ways the art world can collaborate with activism, and people working together toward really big life-changing, culture-changing goals.
AT: Any big plans for 2022 or beyond you can share with us?
IP: We’re gonna have our own space and be offering more community classes. We will be hiring more formerly incarcerated, and we hope to definitely expand somewhere. There’s a lot of other cities asking for the same kind or program, and they’d like to model us. If we can have the opportunity to go to these cities and show them what we do — offering people more jobs and stability and places where they feel like they’re accepted — that would be amazing.
Interview has been edited and condensed.