Throwing pottery on a wheel can be a love-hate relationship. Becki Chernoff knows all about it.
“Many people fall in love with clay when they take their first class,” Chernoff says as she sits at the potter’s wheel in her Pasadena studio. “But others become frustrated because it’s too hard and decide it’s not for them. It’s usually one or the other.”
For the 46-year-old L.A. ceramist, pottery has been an enduring love affair since her first potter’s wheel lesson with teacher John Smolenski at Skaneateles High School in New York.
“I’m so fortunate that my art teacher taught me how to throw because, in all the years since then, I’ve never wanted to stop,” she says.
In what sounds like a surprising choice for an artist, Chernoff attended the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she received a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering. She jokes that her left brain-right brain agility is courtesy of her father, Chuck, an environmental engineer who now paints pet portraits in retirement.
While at RIT, she took an elective in automotive engineering — a class Chernoff describes as “a physics lesson in how the rubber meets the road” — and realized that she loved cars and wanted to work in the automotive industry. “After four years of mechanical engineering, I had finally found something I was interested in,” she says.
At the end of college, Chernoff moved to Detroit, where she worked on the software help desk at Ford during the day and took ceramics classes at night at community colleges. She also started selling her work in local shops and worked as a car hunter for a Mercedes-Benz reseller in L.A. who had a restoration shop.
When she was laid off in 2012, Chernoff moved to Los Angeles and worked as a car hunter, but through it all, she continued to do ceramics on the side.
A membership at Xiem Clay Center (now Green & Bisque Clayhouse) in Pasadena made her realize that she could work long hours at the studio and produce a large quantity of work to sell. In a testament to her enthusiasm for throwing, she was asked if she would like to teach as soon as she became a member. “I taught advanced beginner wheel throwing,” she says. “That was so much fun.”
So when her car-hunting gig began to diminish, Chernoff decided to do pottery full-time and launch bX Ceramics (pronounced bex ceramics). “It just happened,” she says. “I started being a full-time potter without it even being a big decision or a jump.”
Automotive engineering, however, continued to play a role in the aesthetics of her work as she produced clean-lined plates, bowls and vessels in the spirit of her favorite car, the 1965 Plymouth Barracuda Fastback. “It’s like a spaceship,” she says.
Chernoff branched out to dinnerware when her friend, Elf Cafe co-owner Astara Calas, asked her to make plates for the vegan restaurant in Echo Park. Chernoff admits now that she didn’t want to do it. “I didn’t have a good method at that time,” she says. Still, she made the plates, which led to pasta bowls. “That got me into making repetitive sets of things,” she says. “That was when it all changed, and I started making sets, which I’m very grateful for now. “
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Chernoff couldn’t go to the studio, a friend offered to loan her their pottery wheel so she could continue to work at home. Despite the generous offer, Chernoff had reservations because she didn’t have room for the wheel in her apartment and was worried about toxic clay dust.
Two weeks after the studio closed, she changed her mind. “I can’t not work,” she says. She borrowed her friend’s wheel, threw clay out of her living room for 10 months and met clients on the sidewalk for orders.
Despite the economic fallout that was so prevalent during the pandemic, quarantine was a boon for bX Ceramics.
“My clientele was not out of work but working from home,” Chernoff says. “People were focused on their homes because they were home all the time, and apparently, they all hated their dinnerware.”
Chernoff makes anywhere from eight to 45 pieces a day depending on the size and level of difficulty. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
People loved Chernoff’s minimal stoneware dinner plates, salad plates, cups and bowls and purchased large orders without knowing she was working out of her living room.
“I can’t believe the amount of work I made out of my home,” she says. “I had a tarp, wiped everything down and was as careful as possible. I did it so that I could keep working.”
While many potters generally do not like repetitive work, Chernoff believes her work as an engineer gave her an aptitude for repetitive tasks without “going out of my mind.”
“It took years to get to a place where everything looks similar,” she says. “It doesn’t look machine-made. Many people have told me they looked at Heath and East Fork but wanted to go with someone local. It is such a compliment. Their stuff looks perfect, but people would rather have handmade dinnerware. Making pieces that match has become what I like to do. I love seeing the cohesiveness of a finished set stacked perfectly.”
Chernoff’s friend, designer Adi Goodrich, admires the ceramist’s drive. “Becki rededicated her life to ceramics fully in the past few years; I’ve never seen someone so determined to make it work. Becki is an incredible maker who works tirelessly to create the most beautiful, simple, elegant dinnerware and glassware. Each day I drink from Becki’s mugs, put flowers in a Becki vase and eat all my meals from her low bowls.”
In 2021, Chernoff’s career took another positive turn when one of her students told her about a small studio available for rent in Pasadena.
“I could get out of my living room,” she says. “It was my first wheel, my first everything. But I had been doing it for so long that turning it into a studio was straightforward. I only needed a water source and a place to dry and display my work. The studio changed everything because I could have studio sales and meet clients.”
Buoyed by her mechanical abilities and hard work ethic — “I’m a Leo,” she says with a shrug — Chernoff likes that her income is under her control. “Whatever I make, I sell,” she says. “My motivation is that I’m a hustler and a super hard worker.”
Enamored of the process, Chernoff works nearly every day and makes anywhere from eight to 45 pieces, depending on the size and level of difficulty, which range from $10 to $250 in price. She does everything herself, including shipping and correspondence, but does not make her own glazes, and her work is fired at Green & Bisque Clayhouse and Junzo Mori Pottery in Monrovia.
The repetitive throwing has also taught her to take care of her body. After a debilitating year of sciatica, she now hikes in Griffith Park four to five times a week and is pain-free.
“As long as my body can do this, I want what you hold in your hand to be fully made by me,” she says. “It’s my name: bX Ceramics. I made it. Not a company of people. I love throwing. That’s why I do it.”
Looking back, Chernoff gets emotional talking about Smolenski’s influence on her career. “It’s crazy that I’m doing this because he was willing to teach me how to throw,” she says. “He changed my life. I started full-time about six years ago and never looked back; I never questioned it. It feels like this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Says Smolenski, who is now in his 80s and teaches at Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn, N.Y., “She is one of the first students I had here at Skaneateles. She’s determined and she stuck to it. And she deserves success because she’s worked for it. And in order to get somewhere in ceramics, you really have to have that drive, and I know she feels it.”
Like the efforts of many teachers, Smolenski’s lessons have reverberated for a lifetime.
bX Ceramics holiday sale
Becki Chernoff will offer slight discounts on cups, vases, plates, bowls, serving bowls, spoon rests, and ring dishes at a holiday sale at her Pasadena studio.
10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 9 and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 10.
The address will be posted on Instagram the day before the sale.