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Chicago’s Creative Spaces: GnarWare Workshop

Written by on December 19, 2022

GnarWare Workshop has been providing the Chicago community with a space to play with clay, connect with artists and get weird for the past five years. Now, they’re using their pottery skills to help fight hunger in their community.

Pilsen ceramics studio GnarWare Workshop was born in 2017 out of founder Liz McCarthy’s dissatisfaction around traditional American pottery standards and a yearning to foster a creative community. 

“I get really frustrated with American pottery being about this ‘vernacular’ of the pot,” McCarthy explained. “I think there’s a lot of problematics wrapped up into that way of doing ceramics, so it was important to me to create a space that allowed for experimentation.”

“[I] realized I could make pottery weird in a way that was freeing.”

On the surface, GnarWare is your typical ceramics studio: classes in wheel throwing and handbuilding, studio space for ceramicists, shelves lined with student pieces ranging from leather-hard to bone-dry. GnarWare is much more than this, though — it’s an avant garde community gathering space.

Vast shelves inside GnarWare Studios hold a sea of pottery and clay tools.
Photo by Makenzie Creden, Vocalo Radio / Chicago Public Media

With “developing skills and deskilling developments” listed as part of their mission, it’s no surprise McCarthy and studio manager Francisca “Frenchy” Villagrana encourage creative experimentation and deconstruction of pottery norms. It’s what sets their space apart.

While GnarWare has been providing the Chicago community with a creative space free from tradition yet rooted in knowledge and community for the past five years, in 2020 they began to help their community in an additional way.

This is the third year GnarWare has given back to the Pilsen and Chinatown communities through the “Empty Bowls” project: a grassroots pottery initiative to fight food insecurity by selling bowls to raise money for local mutual aid groups. This year they raised over $5000 in partnership with UIC’s Gallery 400 and distributed the funds to Pilsen Food Pantry, Community Kitchen Chicago, The Love Fridge, McKinley Park Mutual Aid and UIC’s Food Pantry.

Learn more about their story and get a glimpse of GnarWare Workshop in our video feature on YouTube.

Follow GnarWare Workshop on Instagram and learn more on their website.

Video production, photography and written introduction by Makenzie Creden

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