All Fired Up: How Ceramics Brought a Former Photog’s Life Into Focus

A photographer turned ceramicist credits the fine art and handcraft of pottery for sculpting her life back into focus.

Lisa Marie Hart Arts & Entertainment

Elizabeth Eisenstein is the mind behind ZZIEE Ceramics in Yucca Valley. 

If you need to retool your outlook, get behind the wheel. If you want to learn a new language, ease your agitation, or create something lasting, get behind the wheel. Seeking a more like-minded inner circle? The wheel. 

Joshua Tree–based ceramicist Elizabeth Eisenstein has discovered that the unhurried art form cultivates mindfulness. At her studio, ZZIEE Ceramics in Yucca Valley, she teaches others to slow down and drive their current frame of mind to a more thoughtful place by throwing inhibition, and clay, to the wind.

Classes, open to anyone age 16 and older, delve into hand building and wheel throwing. For those who attend, the byproduct of these sessions — a more intentional approach to life — is often unintentional. 

Students mold the soft, wet clay between their fingers and palms or pull and guide it as the clay spins on the wheel, eventually fashioning their very own sculpture or vessel. Throughout the multiweek process, they pick up jargon that has them speaking in code. They slow their breathing and tune into their body, because what comes through their hands first takes shape within their being. When the kiln surrenders its load, they hold a showpiece that is wholly their own. 

Some are refined: a smooth cylinder with a flared rim or one that folds over like origami. Others are awkward, even ugly. Enlightened makers usually choose to push beyond any initial disappointment, acknowledging a lopsided shape or an inconsistent glaze for the practice it provided.  

“I was not a natural when I started,” Eisenstein shares. “But I clocked in the hours, and that’s really what it takes.” She encourages her students to try a new technique atop an aesthetic fail to fashion a vehicle for learning.

Pottery allowed Eisenstein to transition to a more deliberate way of living.

EISENSTEIN ATTENDED AN arts high school before leaving Southern California to pursue fine art at New York University. Her passion for photography prevailed after dabbling in ceramics. “Then, at 25, I was in that classic, quarter-life crisis. Photography was losing some of its meaning. Making flat images to put on the internet didn’t take up any space. I was very interdisciplinary and all over the place. I wanted to focus, but I didn’t know what I wanted to focus on,” she says. 

While considering grad school, she enrolled in ceramics at Pasadena City College. “Something just clicked. I knew then, this is all I want to do.”

Eisenstein and her husband moved to the High Desert in 2017, and she sourced a used wheel and a small kiln for her garage. She developed her style — graceful, textural pieces in desert colors with a light vivacity. But she missed the buzz of creative energy inherent in a shared studio environment. “I made some of my best work at PCC, so I thought, ‘Why not try to make that here?’ ”

Two years ago, she opened ZZIEE on the main drag through Yucca Valley, borrowing a play on her nickname, “Lizzie.” The retail showroom displays work by fellow local artists alongside her own wide-based mugs, concentric-ring incense holders, and beaded-glaze planter pots. Wheels and worktables in the back join a shipping zone, a glazing area, and the kilns outside.

“The scariest part was the day I put the sign above the door,” she says. “For years, I was hiding in my garage, which feels a little more comfortable.” At least, it used to. Between the tonal and textural muse of the desert landscape and a new surge of artists and appreciators, she says, “I feel very lucky to be here right now. It’s an exciting time.”

Recently, Eisenstein has been fascinated by textiles and folk art, image-transfer methods, and throwing unruly amounts of clay. She revels in adding skills to her toolkit. Even so, she didn’t wait until she mastered her calling to start teaching others. She believes in learning together. Pupils have included her young niece and nephew and hardy potters in their seventh decade. At any age, the physical fortitude and steely patience required by the wheel incites a rite of passage. Maybe in a single session, maybe over the course of several months, one often experiences a shift from merely living to living deliberately.

The colors and textures of the desert landscape inspire Eisenstein’s pieces, available for purchase in store and online.

“PART OF WHY I LOVE ceramics is that it’s an infinite world of techniques and styles to learn,” Eisenstein shares. “When there’s a bunch of people in here working, and they’re all in the zone, I realize, I made this space. That’s honestly the best feeling.” 

At 33, Eisenstein bundles online, in-store, and stockist sales with teaching group and private lessons. Paid memberships allow access to the workspace and equipment. The studio supports her artistic inclinations. After all, she was the 6-year-old who made business cards for her lemonade stand. She opened her first Etsy shop during high school and, in 2021, was one of nine Etsy artists invited to collaborate with Nicole Ritchie on a limited-edition line for Ritchie’s brand House of Harlow 1960. Eisenstein designed a subtly striped and gilded black mug and a vase with a delicately rippled neck. “They sold like hotcakes,” she says. “But I was at my breaking point in production at times because one of the items was very detailed, so making lots of them was really challenging.”

The sense of fun her pieces convey as they teeter between pottery and sculpture is pure Eisenstein. She sells stickers with the phrase, “Support Your Local Pot Dealer,” hinting at her
 sense of humor, while her Etsy shop peddles “Functional and Dysfunctional Ceramics.” 

Two days a week, when she closes the studio, she has moments akin to her early journey in the garage, hand-shaping pieces from within, void of notions about what might sell or what might inspire her students. That’s when she recalibrates, a skill she seeks to teach.

“If someone is moving too frenetically, or at a fast pace mentally, I focus them on slowing down,” Eisenstein says. “I want them to take a breath between each move and become a little more centered and present. That is so critical. If you just keep practicing, you will get it. We can all do it, if you want to put in the time.”