Sonoma Stories: Sebastopol arts center has Robert Brent pottery wheels, and Brent himself
Ceramics studios and schools and art centers around the world own and make splendid use of the Brent clay-spinning wheel.
But only the Sebastopol Center for the Arts has Robert Brent.
He’s an inventor and entrepreneur who moved quite intentionally from Southern California to Sonoma County in 1971 and for a time manufactured, in Healdsburg, what he perceived and many agreed to be the world’s most operator-friendly electric potter’s wheel.
“I was one of the largest employers in Healdsburg at the time,” said Brent, who lives west of Sebastopol with his wife, Paula, and at 72 is robust and still creating. By the late 1970s, 50 people worked at his production complex on Healdsburg’s Center Street, turning out and shipping Brent Wheels.
Though he’s never claimed to be a fine ceramics artist, Brent has completed three pieces for “The Bowl,” a Jan. 20 ceramics-studio benefit at the Sebastopol arts center that invites guests to choose a unique, made-on-location bowl and fill it with the traditional Mexican soup, pozole. In addition to dinner there will be mariachi music and an optional wine reception and performance by Danza Azteca Xantotl de Santa Rosa.
Brent has far more than a casual interest in the center on North High Street, which bustles within what was historically known as the Sebastopol Veterans Building. The community gathering place remains a treasure to vets, but thanks in large part to Brent it’s been transformed also into a vibrant, regional arts center.
Brent joined the arts organization’s board of directors in 2009, when it still operated out of a space on Depot Street. As board president, he and former executive director Linda Galletta lead the ambitious effort that produced the center’s 2012 move into the vets’ building, on which the arts group has a 30-year lease with the county.
For making that happen, the Sebastopol Area Chamber of Commerce named Brent and Galletta, who retired just last year and is succeeded by Anjana Utarid, formerly chief of the Children’s Village home for foster children, as the town’s 2013 Citizens of the Year.
Brent grew up in Santa Monica and liked the area, but decided as a young entrepreneur that he wanted to grow his business somewhere that he would love.
At 21 he’d taken a pottery class at Santa Monica College. A year later, in 1967, he opened a small pottery school in West Los Angeles.
“I didn’t have enough money to buy wheels,” he recalls, “so I started building them.”
He gives much credit for the invention of the Brent Wheel to an uncle who was an engineer. The machine’s major advancement was electronic variable speed control.
Brent said, “It was seven years before anyone who competed with me bothered copying me, and by then I owned the market.”
He founded the company in Southern California in 1969 and two years later relocated to Sonoma County. He grew the manufacturing enterprise in Healdsburg until 1978, when he accepted an offer to sell it to AMACO, the American Art and Clay Co. of Indianapolis. The firm became AMACO Brent.
As he spoke in the art center’s ceramics workshop, Cheryl Costantini finished throwing a pot and stepped up to say something about his invention.
“Finally, we had a wheel that worked for us,” she said.
After selling the manufacturing company, Brent toyed with developing and producing a sports car, but concluded he “wasn’t suited to the car business.”
In 1990, he co-founded DriWater Inc., a Santa Rosa firm that for 22 years produced gel packs that slow-released water for trees and other plants.
Brent also worked for a record company, resold computers and, most recently, ran a custom calendar business. He retired 10 years ago and since then has focused much of his energy on the Sebastopol arts center and on Sonoma Land Trust, which he serves as a board member.
By now, Brent has amassed many special moments at the veterans’ building that he helped to remake into a community arts space.
One occurred the first time he stepped into the ceramics workshop and beheld several pottery wheels that bear his name. Soon, he was a major benefactor and advocate of the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.
Brent said mischievously, “I don’t know what I’ve had done if they had another brand!”
Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211.