With the People’s Pottery Project, formerly incarcerated people tell their stories with clay

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Ilka Perkins using a pottery wheel. Courtesy of People’s Pottery Project.

Content warning: This article contains discussion of suicide.

When Ilka Perkins was 17, she woke up in a state prison lying on a cold slab of metal facing 15 years to life in prison. After 26 years of incarceration, she said she was released in 2019 and eventually co-founded the People’s Pottery Project (PPP) along with her wife Domonique Perkins, whom she met in prison, and Molly Larkey.

PPP is a non-profit ceramics business whose mission is to provide meaningful employment, paid training and a community for formerly incarcerated women and transgender and non-binary individuals. Their ceramics studio is on Eagle Rock Boulevard.

Shelves of work made by employees and students. Most are ready to be fired in the kiln at People’s Pottery Project on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 29, 2021. Grace Meadows/The Occidental

“People’s Pottery Project has offered me a safe space to build my confidence, become creative and do things that I love while also making an income,” Ilka said. “They offered me a permanent job with benefits and a platform where I could speak my truths.”

According to Ilka, a person must make an individual decision to rehabilitate themselves in prison.

“[Prisons] are constantly reminding you about what a bad person you are, or what you can’t do,” Ilka said. “We’re just a number to them. People lose their lives and go through suicidal thoughts because prisons are punishing and cruel. They need to really look at prison reform.”

Ilka said acceptance from the art community allowed her to become a different person.

“[Acceptance] allowed me to change my thoughts,” Ilka said. “So instead of making something from hands that were once violent, I can make something beautiful that people accept, love and want in their house.”

Domonique, who spent 13 years in prison, said she rehabilitated herself through self-help and discovery of her triggers; all her stressors melt away when she touches the clay. Domonique has uniquely talented hands, according to Tony Marsh, who volunteers at PPP and taught ceramics at California State University, Long Beach for 35 years.

“They’re making pottery that reflects their story. There’s this beautiful, simple and direct humility in their work,” Marsh said. “The essence of the maker becomes encoded in the art frequently because clay is so good at recording.”

A few pieces of pottery made by Domonique Perkins in front of shelves full of other work at People’s Pottery Project on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 29, 2021. Grace Meadows/The Occidental

Marsh said he loves being with Ilka and Domonique.

“I love their approach to life. I love what they’ve survived,” Marsh said. “They have so much wisdom in them.”

Marsh said PPP is a nurturing home for non-binary, transgender and gay individuals and especially people of color. According to Marsh, this is significant because formerly incarcerated people face major obstacles to gain meaningful employment.

“They will probably have to engage in corporate culture on a baseline level, and only entry-level jobs and fast food chains. And it’s this kind of corporate mentality there that I don’t think is favorable to people who have spent 15 or 20 years in prison,” Marsh said. “American culture throws away too many people. It just doesn’t care.”

Domonique said it was hard to be away from her sister’s kids while in prison, and she appreciates that she gets to teach pottery lessons for the public, including children.

“Children are innocent, and they always bring joy,” Domonique said. “One girl came in, and she just put her hand in the clay, and that was it. She thought that piece of clay was a masterpiece of Picasso. I didn’t tell her anything.”

Domonique Perkins at the pottery wheel working with a student. Courtesy of People’s Pottery Project.

Ceramicist Alex Miller said he was a teacher when PPP started, and Larkey was the driving force behind providing space, making the products, bringing in Ilka and committing financially. Miller said his goal was to make himself irrelevant, so the people he taught had the tools to teach others.

“One of the craziest things to me is that when you get out of prison, they hand you the things you had in there, and then they’re like, ‘Peace,’” Miller said. “We understand that a lot of them do not have the support networks that other people have.”

Miller said working at PPP makes him feel deeply connected with those around him.

“The thing about ceramics is that we’re all sitting around working, and we talk and we would cry. We’re all just hearing each other’s stories,” Miller said. “It increased my empathy about how much we are failing in our correction, rehabilitation and judicial systems.”

Cups, bowls, plates and more pieces done by residents and students at People’s Pottery Project on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. Oct. 29, 2021. Grace Meadows/The Occidental

According to her bio on the PPP website, Domonique is a survivor of abuse and family dysfunction. After her release from prison, she focused on creating goals and working towards them. She said she is rising through the difficulties in her life by sharing her time and energy with others.

“I’m here correcting my wrongs,” Domonique said. “Instead of being a threat to my community or society, I’m actually an asset to my community. Because I’m not only giving back, but I’m also changing the way people think. I’m motivating them to become something better.”

 

This article was revised Nov. 3 at 12:12 p.m. to reflect the correct spelling of Domonique Perkins’ name.