On a rainy Wednesday in the rectory of St. Michael’s Church in Atlantic City, the “MudGirls” are hard at work, rolling out clay and carefully cutting it.
In the kitchen, a fresh pot of coffee is dwindling along with a tray of cheese, crackers and baked goods.
This isn’t a group of 20- or 30-something women who steal away for a few hours to make ceramics but rather a brainchild of Dorrie Papademetriou that’s helping economically disadvantaged and homeless women in Atlantic City get back on their feet.
The coffee and treats are just a sweet bonus.
“It’s a really nice, safe, warm environment; we share and we work,” said Papademetriou, a former curator at the Noyes Museum. “We learn a lot. I don’t think anyone really did clay before, but it’s the way we approach forms in such that, anyone can really do it. I’ve always enjoyed clay and found so much joy out of working the clay and using your hands to create something functional and beautiful.”
In January, Papademetriou formed MudGirls Studio, a 501(c)(3) organization, and brought along some of the women who had shown interest. The Rev. John Thomas at St. Michael’s offered them the space to use as a studio, for which Papademetriou is grateful.
A few times a week, the women and Papademetriou gather in the rectory, which doubles as their studio, to create pottery that the women can sell for additional income.
Many of the core MudGirls who show up in the studio have been homeless but have recently either moved into apartments or boarding houses, Papademetriou said. Some, she said, are on assistance or disability.
“The ultimate goal is to create a cottage industry here in Atlantic City that, through selling the work, people can earn a supplemental income,” she said.
Cheese plates, bowls, ornaments and vases are just a few of their specialties.
A radio plays softly in the background. The women are focused on their work, quiet mostly, and occasionally dust off their hands to take a sip of coffee.
Atlantic City resident Donna, who did not want to give her last name, is originally from Philadelphia but has spent time homeless and on the streets of Washington, D.C. Donna said she loves the few hours she has in the morning with her fellow MudGirls in the studio.
“It’s very therapeutic,” Donna said. “(You have) to be in a place where you’re homeless to understand being out on the street ... walking all night, going to sleep at the bus station or train station or behind the trash cans to get some rest, that this is a very therapeutic setting for us.”
Many of the women Papademetriou met through her time teaching clay and ceramics at Adelaide’s Place, a day shelter for homeless women in Atlantic City.
The program, Papademetriou said, is like an oasis for the women who participate.
“There’s something about creating something with your hands that’s tangible to look at and say, ‘I did this.’ It’s sort of a way to affirm your existence; if that’s there, then I’m somebody. I make, therefore I am.”
Some of the women, she said, are tired from wandering the streets and only catching a few hours of sleep. “Otherwise, (more) of them would be participating. But they have other, obvious priorities. These guys are kind of getting on their feet. Which is the transitions we want to have happen. If we can do that with more people, that would be great. It’s a commitment thing. They have to be committed to be here doing the work.”
For the women in the studio, Papademetriou’s nonprofit is doing more than just helping them earn some extra cash.
“(Dorrie) gives us a chance to motivate our minds, lift our spirits up,” Donna said.
Around the table, Atlantic City resident and MudGirl Alana Lawless said each one gravitates toward their strengths. Lawless enjoys detail work, while others such as Mary Anne, who didn’t provide a last name, are good at making vases and finishing details.
“I like doing detail work. These guys, they do the vases where you have to bring the clay together and seam it. I’ve watched it at least 30 times but I’ve yet to get my feet wet and do it. I’m a chicken,” said Lawless, who splits her time between the studio and helping out at Adelaide’s.
“I like cleaning up stuff to give it continuity,” said Lawless. “I always liked drawing when I was young, but I never worked with clay.”
Mary Anne, who doesn’t have a background in art, said she likes learning how to create pottery, rolling out the clay and being around the other MudGirls.
“I was flattered when Dorrie asked me to be apart of MudGirls,” Mary Anne said.
No two pieces are the same. Not a single created piece doesn’t touch the hands of each MudGirl.
At a recent fair-trade gift show at Stockton University, Donna recalled walking in and seeing their work laid out by Papademetriou, like it was “Gimbles.” The sight brought Donna to tears.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’ and I started crying because the way she set it up — it was beautiful,” she said.
Lawless was taken aback by the response their work received at the show.
“Out of the whole place, people told us we were one of the best booths,” she said. “It was unbelievable.”
Papademetriou said the goal is to expand MudGirls and move into a larger space with a kiln on site. Lawless jokes another one with a kitchen would be ideal.
“The mission is validating these people and giving them a purpose, while making beautiful pieces,” Papademetriou said.”I love this.”