Tapping into flow state at Petaluma ceramics studio
Some of this creativity comes from one man: Founder Andrew Kontrabecki, who leverages the facility as a production outlet for ceramics that he sells to local chefs and restaurants. The rest comes from a variety of other local artists — all of whom rely on Kickwheel Sonoma for classes, workshopping and more.
The result, of course, is magical spot where dreams become reality every single day.
The studio opened right around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and has managed to survive on a mix of quick thinking, creativity, passion and perseverance. This staying power has paid huge dividends, as the facility just completed a major expansion that has resulted in twice the amount of classroom space for 2023.
“It’s amazing to me that this facility can exist,” said Kontrabecki. “In San Francisco, it’d be so hard to get into this. Here in Sonoma County, it’s available and we’ve got space for new students right away.”
Journey west, then north
The Kickwheel Sonoma story began way back in the 1990s with Kontrabecki himself.
The native of Niagara Falls, New York, graduated from Buffalo State College with a major in ceramic design and a minor in art therapy, and he moved west in 2003.
He ended up in San Francisco to teach ceramics, where he spent roughly 15 years working in studios such as Clay by the Bay and SF Clay Works to create his own wares. During that time, Kontrabecki created ceramics for well-known restaurant brands and Sonoma County coffee shops like Retrograde Coffee. The San Francisco spots that he has made ceramics for are the Commissary, Ichi Sushi and Trouble Coffee. His creations are also owned by Bravo Top Chef Winner Chef Melissa King and private chefs Renee and Sean Baker. He also helmed the ceramics program at the Randall Museum in San Francisco’s Corona Heights neighborhood.
Finally, in the early days of the pandemic, Kontrabecki came to Sonoma County and moved to Sebastopol. He opened the studio in Petaluma shortly thereafter and named it after a type of potter’s wheel operated by a foot pedal.
Originally, his idea for Kickwheel Sonoma was rooted in a practice he knew well: art therapy. This approach resonated with Kontrabecki because he liked the way the studio could become a safe space for people to come and think through their problems or talk about what they were going through with other students.
“A lot of times people get going with the art and maybe with talking and they don’t want to leave because they’re in such a flow state,” he said. “The approach taps into a quiet space of being by yourself with clay.”
Kontrabecki started offering six-week classes for up to four students in early 2021. The classes took off. He is now offering six-person classes and will have more capacity once the new space is operational.
Connection goes beyond ceramics
Today one of the standout characteristics of Kickwheel Sonoma is the vibe. Kontrabecki works hard to create a safe and comfortable environment and regularly achieves that goal.
Prayer flags hang above the space. Jazz music plays on a speaker. Kontrabecki’s dogs — a Cattledog Yorkie named Rahsaan and a dingo named Chaka Kahn — roam the space freely, greeting visitors with a friendly sniff and nudge.
In addition to welcoming everyone with kindness and patience, Kontrabecki regularly engages students in stories and laughter. He said students often think of their time in the studio as a get-together with good friends or a book club, only with clay. He joked that his Thursday evening classes play out more like group therapy than ceramics, with people creating and talking into the night.
“Class ends and the students will just sit around for an hour, talking about what’s going on in their lives,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing to see people come together like this — the clay brings them together and they take things from there.”
Kickwheel Sonoma engenders entrepreneurialism, too — several students have gone on to create their own lines of ceramics for local businesses.
Fellow ceramicists applaud this approach. Nikki Ballere Callnan, one half of the duo behind NBC Pottery in Angwin, said she respects ceramics programs that empower and embolden artists to ply their craft, then sell it to other local businesses.