(photo by Heather Rasmussen)

LOS ANGELES — When Ilka Perkins sought parole from a 15-to-life sentence at the California Institution for Women, she was expected to have obtained not one, but three job offers; goals plans for one, three, and five years; and detailed letters of support from community and family members. Gathering these materials would be daunting for anyone. Perkins, who is now 45, was expected to do it from inside the prison system, which she entered when she was 17 years old. One of her critical job offers was from Los Angeles artist Molly Larkey and the People’s Pottery Project (PPP), the ceramics studio where Perkins works today — not only as a full-time employee, but as a co-founder.  

“Once I got released, [Molly] hired me on the spot and I’ve been working for People’s Pottery Project since,” Perkins said during a recent Zoom call. She sat with fellow co-founder and partner Domonique Perkins and Lauren Fuller, who joined the organization full-time in late November. All three are formerly incarcerated. 

Molly Larkey (left) and Tania Brown (right) (photo courtesy People’s Pottery Project)

Operating from Larkey’s warehouse studio space on Eagle Rock Blvd., People’s Pottery Project launched in June 2019, defining itself as “an artist-driven initiative whose mission is to empower formerly incarcerated women, trans, and nonbinary individuals and their communities through the arts.” As a nonprofit, PPP is a multi-pronged effort with the overarching goal to become a self-sustaining ceramics studio that offers a line of signature designs as well as community classes led by staff members.

In the studio’s early days, PPP members worked with ceramicist Alex Miller to learn the basics, and now they mentor each other to pass on skills. Prior to the onset of COVID-19, classes were being offered on a weekly basis at a suggested $25 donation and at no cost to formerly incarcerated people. In addition to regular staff members, formerly incarcerated people are invited to help with production on a drop-in basis and be paid a living wage for their work. As PPP member Taylor Lytle summarized in a pre-coronavirus studio visit, “It’s healing, it’s creative, it’s art, and it is a way to make money.” 

Rojas on the wheel (photo courtesy People’s Pottery Project)

PPP’s origins stem from Larkey’s activism with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an abolitionist mutual aid group she joined in 2017. Working with both incarcerated and recently released women and trans people, Larkey saw first-hand “what you’re up against when you’re trying to build a life coming out of incarceration.” Seeking to help build structures of support and noting the “popularity and growth of ceramics as an affordable art form,” Larkey viewed PPP as “a way to connect all these things [I cared about]: art, healing, empowerment abolitionist principles, and mutual aid.” She likens the organization to Homeboy Industries, the nonprofit founded in 1988 by Father Greg Boyle to support former gang members in East Los Angeles.

“I never figured I’d get paid for creating something,” said Domonique over Zoom. “[Molly] made me real eager to come in for more. The fact that she loved my work and thought what I created was a masterpiece … [it] made me feel good and made me feel valued.”

From left to right: Domonique Perkins, Lariyha Gaines, Ilka Perkins (photo courtesy People’s Pottery Project)

The studio first offered their debut item, the People’s Bowl, last August, through its website. The bowl is made from stoneware clay pressed into thin slabs, molded with a broad, easy slope and a flat bottom, and finished with a variegating glaze of earthy brown and a robin’s egg blue. The design is charming and utilitarian, each bowl handmade and one of a kind. A recent Instagram post shows Perkins and Domonique preparing shipments of dozens of these bowls for the holidays. Due to COVID-19, PPP currently only sells through its website and the occasional craft fair or pop-up, but seeks to grow its list of vendors with time. Currently, the group is at work developing several new offerings including a brown People’s Bowl — “We’re fine-tuning the glaze,” Perkins explained — the People’s Plate, and a generously sized salad/punch bowl. 

“At first I didn’t even know how to wedge,” said Tania Brown during a pre-coronavirus interview at the studio. Incarcerated from ages 14 to 29, Tania recalled making eight cents an hour working in the kitchen at the Central California Women’s Facility. “I feel like where I’ve been, most people probably couldn’t stand on their own two feet,” she said. “Now that I’m better, I don’t ever want to go back.” 

Ilka Perkins (foreground) and Susan Bustamante (background) glazing bowls (photo courtesy People’s Pottery Project)

A key component of PPP is not just economic, but social. “There’s something about clay that lends itself to communal activity,” Larkey observed. Perkins noted that her favorite part of the job is the camaraderie. “Not only do you have fun,” she said, “you have your own community of support, which is very important upon release.” It’s been significant, she continued, to be part of a network that includes other formerly incarcerated people: “Because of my background, I still have that shame a little bit where I’m not as comfortable around people who haven’t been in that situation.” 

(photo courtesy People’s Pottery Project)

As it grows, PPP aims to share information about specific abolitionist advocacy issues and campaigns, including DROP LWOP, or Drop Life Without the Possibility of Parole. Sometimes referred to as “death by incarceration,” the Life Without Parole sentence was being served by Susan Bustamante, a part-time PPP member and leader in the prison abolitionist movement. “I have been free for two years and being a part of the People’s Pottery Project has given me independence and confidence going forward in my life,” Bustamante has said, “I am extremely grateful for the job I have and friends I work with.” Just weeks into her new, full-time job, Lauren Fuller echoed Bustamante’s sentiments: “It’s a wonderful experience. I’m excited to be part of it and be a productive citizen in society.” 

Rachel Elizabeth Jones is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. She co-edits tele- art magazine and runs an art space called Flower Head from her garage. She has contributed to The New Inquiry, The...