When Reuben King was growing up on the Caribbean island of Dominica, his family owned a farm that didn’t have electricity. Instead, they would keep water cool by storing it in a clay vessel. He didn’t pay much attention to the making of the vessel because it was something he saw every day. It wasn’t until he was 17 and attended the Marigot Arts and Crafts Institute in Dominica that he fell in love with the art of pottery making.
“What piqued my interest was the malleability of the material. It really fascinated me. [Throughout my life] we always had clay around, but I had never really seen it be used in that manner,” King, who originally thought he would become a painter, says. “Once I saw how clay was used, it amazed me so much that I decided to start working and studying the material. I was fascinated by the fact that I could make my own vessels, cups, plates and of course, water-cooling vessels.”
King’s interest in the art form led to a career in ceramics. At 20 years old, he continued his education at Jamaica School of Art, the Caribbean’s only formal arts institution. He then won a scholarship to study at the State Institute of Art in Naples and Florence, Italy. His two years there allowed him to visit museums and art centers where he learned and studied about people who were masters of the craft.
“In Italy I learned new techniques. I learned how to carve through different surfaces and layer colors. Some of these techniques still reflect on my work today,” he says. “My study experience brought new ideas and techniques that I still use. I improved in some ways and added new ideas, but the influence still affects my work. It was really great.”
By 1985, he made his way to the United States, with the goal of opening his own pottery studio.
“I was a little concerned that if I went back to Dominica, I would lose some of the information that I had learned. I was also concerned about the availability of materials. I had the plan to stay in the U.S. for five to 10 years, expand on the knowledge I had learned in Italy, and then go back to Dominica,” King says. “But the thing is, I got a little distracted and new things came into my life. I had a family and I am still here.”
When King arrived in the U.S. in 1985 he began working for a ceramic supply company. Within the first six months of his arrival, he bought a potter’s wheel, which he kept in the basement of his Queens apartment. King also launched his own brand, Kubuli House Designs/RTK Ceramic Arts in 1989. King took on a series of jobs as a potter’s assistant and pottery instructor before ultimately becoming manager of a ceramics store. These jobs allowed him to save money and eventually rent his first studio in Williamsburg in 1995. He later moved his personal studio to Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1996, which would soon become Brooklyn Clay Industries (BCi).
In 2014, he founded Brooklyn Clay Industries, a teaching studio where people of all ages and skill levels can learn about ceramics.
“Things unfolded nicely,” King says. “I don’t think of ceramics as work, I am just going to have fun. That was one of my motivations for opening my own studio because I didn’t want to work for anyone. I consider myself a creator and I want to spend time creating works of art.”
The BCi studio is a cozy space, away from chaotic city noises. It overlooks the Manhattan skyline, the perfect way to stay away from the city but still enjoy its beauty. Some of King’s artwork is also available for purchase, you can find some on display at the studio. Customers can also make their own via its many classes. There are one-time classes that are great for date nights or people who want to try a new activity, as well as a schedule of multiple classes where people can delve deeper into the art of ceramics.
During a recent Thursday night class, three students work on their clay projects, each at a different stage of the process. One beams with pride while she coats a flower pot — her first — in lavender paint. Another student is bent over the potter’s wheel, her hands full of wet clay. She cups them to give her bowl form but is unsuccessful; she cleans the wheel to start again. Another student is softening clay across the room, banging it against the table again and again.
Tiffany Duncan, 25, felt proud after taking her first pottery class at BCi. She’s a plant lover and decided to make a flower pot.
“I was looking on Tik Tok for fun activities to do in the city and this popped up. I had never done pottery before and this sounded like a fun idea,” she says. “It was something that had been on my bucket list for a long time. I felt accomplished after finally doing it, but it’s definitely harder than it looks.”
Hillary Delhagen, 35, first came across BCi after attending a date-night event with her boyfriend. She loved ceramics in college and was thrilled to work with clay again.
“It clears my mind, it centers me. It was a stressful week, so this is a really great way for me to end my week and escape,” Delhagen says. “I can’t access my phone and I lose track of time when I am here. I get in the flow and I love it.”
BCi is the kind of place where students become family. Out of all the projects Delhagen has worked on, her father’s urn has been the most special — one that King helped her make.
BCi has also become a spot where remote workers come to meet other people and get off their phones and laptops. Ali Pinel, 33, was tired of being cooped up at home during the fall of 2020. She works remotely full-time but wants to continue meeting people and get creative.
“Pottery is an activity where I can get my hands dirty and not access my phone. It’s very meditative,” she says. “The hardest and most interesting thing I’ve learned is that pottery can break. You can spend all this time making this artwork and then it breaks, but you can use that same thing to build something new. It’s a lot of lessons around not being too precious about anything.
King is grateful to be able to share his love of the craft with many curious New Yorkers. While he teaches his students everything there is to know about pottery making in New York, he hopes to one day take them to Dominica, where they can learn how to make clay from dirt. In the meantime, he encourages people to book a class and try something new.
“We try to keep our prices reasonable and not extremely high so that people don’t find pottery-making prohibitive,” King says. “We want this space to be used by the community.”