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New pottery studio building community through ceramics

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Ashleah Elias and Heather Hodapp opened the Bozeman Community Kiln as a space for members of the community to gather and create art. PHOTO BY MIRA BRODY

By Mira Brody ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR

BOZEMAN – Heather Hodapp noticed the father-daughter duo at an evening clay class right away; the daughter was excessively apologetic, a trait Hodapp recognized as a common symptom of autism, a habit her son struggles with as well. She explained to them that a pottery studio is a place where mistakes are expected and celebrated—a place for learning.

By the end of the night, the apologizing had ceased as the pair was immersed in their collaborative art project.

The Bozeman Community Kiln is the first studio space of its kind in the Gallatin Valley and has drawn budding artists from all over the region—including Big Sky. It offers open studio time, classes for all ages and levels of experience, private and semi-private studio space for professional artists and a gathering place for group pottery-centric events. The studio opened in December and is owned and operated by Hodapp and her business partner Ashleah Elias.

Hodapp and Elias met on the Twentynine Palms Military Base in Southern California in 2009 when Elias, a registered LPN, was assigned as a home help nurse to Hodapp while she cared for her son who struggled with respiratory issues. Both are military spouses whose husbands were discharged due to traumatic head injuries in 2011. The duo quickly formed a bond over the shared struggles of supporting a veteran in recovery. After Elias and her family landed in Bozeman while her husband participated in Warriors and Quiet Waters, they fell in love with the area and Hodapp followed suit shortly after.

“I learned the hard way that you have to have a community. It’s a support structure that you don’t realize you need until you don’t have it,” said Hodapp. “It’s amazingly important to just have people you can surround yourself with, that you can be comfortable around.”

Elias is perusing her bachelor’s in fine arts with the goal of becoming an art therapist. Hodapp has a background in business management and retail, which she has put to work managing the studio’s administrative duties and has enjoyed learning ceramics along the way. Both are driven by their inspiration to build a space where people can use art as a part of their healing process—whatever they may be going through.

“Ceramics is absolutely amazing in helping people retrain their brain and hand-eye coordination after they’ve had a traumatic brain injury,” Elias said. “A lot of times when someone has been through trauma, just getting their hands into clay helps their mind process what has happened to them. Then, when you’re done, you’ve created something functional.”

Like many art projects, the early days of Bozeman Community Kiln were ones of trial and error. They acquired their studio space off of Jackrabbit Lane from the previous occupant: a vehicle repair shop. An accident involving a semi colliding into the side of their building stripped it of electricity, the water pump was out of service and there was motor oil splattered about the walls.

The women, in their dark garage one evening, decided that it was going to work. Elias would come in early between finals to clean the walls and make the space habitable. Local ceramist Keith Gilyard helped them build a functional sink and Garage Clay, a local pottery supply store, partnered with them to ensure their tool inventory was fully stocked in time for their December opening.

Elias contrasts her studio space to that of the healthcare system she’s worked in for so long, where patients are often scared, sick or frustrated. In an art studio, you are allowed to let those stresses fall away and work through whatever is on your mind while at the same time creating something of use.

“We want a space for people to continue, whatever that may mean to them,” said Elias. “The world is chaos. Everybody’s going through something, nobody ever has time. But you come in, sit down, and maybe you’ll make a pinch pot. It makes you feel like you’ve controlled something.”

Although their grand opening, originally slated for May 22 and 23, has been postponed due to concerns surrounding COVID-19, Elias and Hodapp are hard at work building on what they’ve started at the Bozeman Community Kiln, fostering an art-driven, positive environment for people to come back to when we can once again gather as a community.

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