By Steven Uhles | Photos provided by Steven Uhles
There is a sense of effortlessness when ceramic artist and Tire City Potters owner Shishir Chokshi lays his hands on a spinning mass of unformed clay. He doesn’t force it into shape, willing the cup, plate or vase into existence. Instead, he seems to be uncovering each vessel, helping the clay find its true self. Sitting back from the wheel, watching as a recently completed vase spins down to stillness, he cocks his head a little and smiles.
“A perfect recording.”
Chokshi says that while his work, much of which goes in the small gallery space adjoining the Tire City Potters workshop, ends up being similar in size or shape — he is, after all, not attempting to reinvent the mug — each represents the snapshot of a particular moment. Each becomes a relic-to-be that in 10,000 years from now will still carry the effects of not only the man who made it but the place the clay came from, the temperature and humidity of the day and a hundred other seen and unseen variables. “It’s the greatest recorder in the world,” he says.
Chokshi opened Tire City Potters in 2001 but feels its roots as a business, studio, workshop and creative hub go back much further. It was less a decision made and modeled than it was a reality he was driven toward from an early age.
“Why does anyone do anything,” he surveys. “They do it because they have a propensity. I liked tinkering and messing around with things. I liked making things.” Lifting his clay-caked hand, he laughs. “Making things and digging in the dirt.” Still, it would take time before Chokshi connected with pottery in a significant way.
As a child, he enjoyed art — primarily painting and drawing — but he never felt the draw of serious study. “It was that thing where I was never the best, but I always liked it.”
Years ago, Chokshi entered the pharmacy program at what was then Augusta State University, taking a pottery class as an elective. Pharmacy, he remembered, was not a match. “I liked the chemistry of it, but I didn’t like the classes.”
Other majors, including Computer Science, had similar results. He wasn’t looking to be told something, he says. He was looking to be shown how something could be done. It was a model that he continued to follow post-graduation. That model eventually led to Tire City Potters.
Chokshi and a band of like-minded artists started selling and exhibiting their work nomadically, working out of the back of Chokshi’s car. Later they began organizing pop-up events in and around Augusta, setting up on street corners and in abandoned storefronts, providing a catalyst for what would eventually become the city’s monthly art event, First Friday.
Then, Chokshi found what had once been a tire store a block off Broad Street. It was barely a shell of a building. Taking up residence he discovered that his relationship with Augusta had changed.
“There was a time when all I could think about was leaving,” he recalls. “Then all I wanted to do was stay. I wanted what I was doing to mean something.”
Today, more than 20 years after opening its doors, Tire City Potters bears the marks of its evolution. Artifacts litter surfaces. Smears of clay and glaze tattoo the walls. It’s a very different place than its ragged original incarnation, but it has hardly bowed to formality. While the business of doing business has, for the sake of survival, become an important component, Chokshi notes that it is still not unusual to find artists throwing to a Slayer soundtrack.
“This place has changed,” he says. “It has always changed. It will change again. If we had done it only for the money it would become stiff and, I think, fail.” More than merely a place to produce and sell pottery, part of Tire City’s success, Chokshi says, is the foundational belief that it is people, not pottery, that best represent the Tire City spirit.
On a cold January afternoon, Chokshi steps away from the wheel to greet Lucy Lammer and Megan Hollenbeck. They have arrived for a private glazing workshop with Chokshi, to turn blank mugs into personalized pieces of art. Chokshi explains the pros and cons of color combinations, various techniques and design elements. It’s a lesson he has taught many times, but he is careful to engage with each novice potter. He understands that the first time is important, it’s formative.
“That’s what we do here,” he says. “We are not in the business of making pottery. We make potters.”
Appears in the April 2022 issue of Augusta Magazine.