When Sarah Kersten decided the academic life wasn’t for her, she promised herself she would pursue something equally educational. What she didn’t expect was that inspiration and guidance would come in the form of a fermentation jar. Well, the idea of one. She had yet to create it: the jar became her manifesto.
Since childhood, Kersten has enjoyed having her hands in clay. She had a knack for it, but it was never a core focus in her life. After leaving college and moving to the San Juan islands to work on a lavender farm, she struck up the practice again, finding a renewed satisfaction in the cups she would spin in her free time. Then her friends challenged her to make a fermentation jar — a culinary venture they were all becoming quite fascinated with — and she decided this complex undertaking could be an opportunity for her to make a living.
“I saw that if I could figure out how to make one I would have a lot more skills at the end than I would at the beginning,” Kersten says as we lounge in her spacious West Berkeley studio. It feels a bit like a sanctuary — dried flowers collected on recent hikes dangle from the walls, and leafy indoor plants happily sip up the diffused light that eases lazily into the space. It’s a warm June day and we can hear the kids across the street singing and hollering on the playground.
“I think the most important thing is to keep on going and get through the ‘not great’ phase to reach the end. And you definitely don’t know what that’s going to be when you’re at the beginning. Otherwise you would just start there, right?”
The next six years steered Kersten to the East Bay where she mastered the perfect fermentation jar and made a thriving business from it. These days, Sarah Kersten Studio sells these two- and four-quart jars online, along with covered bowl sets, as well as at Atomic Garden and Preserved in Oakland. (Pay close attention in Michael Pollan’s television show Cooked, and you’ll see a jar in his kitchen).
If you catch Kersten at a craft fair or a studio event you may luck upon her other gems, like berry bowls, or even get a preemptive peek at her upcoming dinnerware line. These events are announced through her newsletter that you can sign up for on her website.
Kersten’s dinnerware is also bought by local restaurants. Her first such client was Berkeley’s Tigerlily for whom she designed a custom line, according to Joel DiGiorgio of Farm League Design and Management Group, who opened the Gourmet Ghetto spot in 2015. “Sarah also designed custom ‘terracotta pot glasses’ that we use for our new featured house cocktail,” he said recently. “We love her ceramics and craftsmanship. Her work is amazing.” Kersten’s pieces can also be found at Octavia in San Francisco.
Berkeleyside first visited Kersten’s studio in 2014 when she was raising funds through a Kickstarter campaign to boost her business. Since then, the potter has shifted to making the jars and covered bowls from molds, but still glazes them by hand with the help of an assistant. This transition is a positive one, allowing her work to be a more accessible joy for many while still staying thoughtful and focused on the local economy. Her body thanks her for this change too, and now she has a bit more freedom to play with clay and think up new work.
Kersten’s pieces have an understated beauty that quietly command respect. Part of this is because she allows the materials to inform the process. This, paired with her love for the muted colors of the California coast, has shaped her aesthetic. She uses a high fire reduction method which also means her glazes have a subdued tone. Once a week, Kersten fires up the kiln and it burns hot for the next 13 hours, the last six of which must be given careful attention.
“The thing is, you don’t know what to expect from ceramics. You just don’t know what it’s gonna look like until you unload the kiln,” she says with the hint of a smile, like it’s a thrill to discover what the kiln will decide to offer her that day.
“I made a decision a long time ago to focus on the form of my work and do less with exciting glazes. I really like the forms themselves to stand on their own and I want to keep the glazes simple. That’s a design philosophy that I adopted.”
I watch her turn a grey lump of clay into a bowl and I’m captivated by the careful way she moves.
“The way a ceramic piece comes into being is a really nice arc,” she says, first ‘wedging’ the clay to rid it of any air pockets. “That it’s shaped and goes through fire is a beautiful story. And I think people also love how when the story is finished they can hold and use these things. The story is part of them. It gives an extra level of meaning to everyday life.”
Perhaps that is why, these days, more people are finding themselves at the pottery wheel. It’s no longer just grandma’s retirement pastime — it’s a craft that is swiftly growing in popularity across all age groups. Maybe this is because creating a tangible object with one’s hands brings a satisfaction that can’t be found when staring at a screen, as many of us find ourselves doing a little too much of.
“The dishes you use, you might touch them two or three times a day. So when you’re constantly handling something, it has a story. And if you love it — sure, it’s a luxury — but it’s a really nice quality of life improvement,” says Kersten. She takes a step back to admire her bowl. It sits on the wheel patiently, waiting for its glaze. “I think this one came out nice.”
Visit Sarah Kersten’s website for more information on her work.
This is the seventh article in our series on expert craftspeople in Berkeley, written and photographed by Melati Citrawireja, a 2016 UC Berkeley graduate. Don’t miss her stories on textile designer Amy Keefer; St. Hieronymus Press, the workspace of David Lance Goines; Klaus-Ullrich Rötzscher and the Pettingell Book Bindery; coppersmith Audel Davis; ethnobotanist and natural fabric dyer Deepa Natarajan; and master perfumer Mandy Aftel.
More of Citrawireja’s work can be found online at Melati Photography.
This story was updated with information about restaurant clients after publication.
Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.