Rae Dunn: A Berkeley potter, a dog, and a way with words

Portrait of Rae Dunn

Rae Dunn in her Berkeley studio with Wilma. Photo: Laura Flippin

Take one very photogenic dog who poses for the camera, the creative eye of an accomplished potter whose life has been shaped by a series of serendipitous events, and you have the newly published book “Wilma’s World: Good Advice From a Good Dog” by Rae Dunn, a ceramist with a studio in West Berkeley.

Just as she didn’t plan to publish a book, Dunn didn’t set out to make clay the foundation of her career. A graphic designer for many years, she was riding the merry-go-round in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park one day when she happened upon the Sharon Art Studio on Bowling Green Drive. Loving the space, she decided she would take a class there and flipped a coin as to whether to learn how to make stained glass or how to throw clay.

Wilma on table

Wilma on the table in Rae Dunn’s West Berkeley studio. A painting by Dunn hangs on the far wall. Photo: courtesy Rae Dunn

Then in her 30s, she fell in love with ceramics and working with clay began to consume her every waking hour. One day Dunn said to her friend, “I haven’t got time for anything else. I think it’s taking over my life.” “Why not let it become your life?” suggested the friend.

“I have always been open to change,” Dunn said last week, sitting in her airy, whitewashed studio sipping spiced licorice tea and surrounded by open shelves of her work. “There’s so much out there — why pick one thing to do with life?”

Dunn had been making handmade baby blankets for San Francisco store Nest when, in 1995, they saw her plates — her work is characterized by its mainly creamy white palette, with the occasional addition of a few choice handwritten words. The home design shop put an order in immediately.

More orders followed, until creating all the bowls, cups, plates and vases out of her kitchen became untenable for the ceramist. Dunn’s first studio was the result of one of those fortuitous happenings her life seems to be full of — when her landlord on Hyde Street moved some of her storage boxes into the building’s basement, she discovered the perfect workspace. For five years she would throw her pots and plates there and drive to Richmond regularly to have them fired.

wilma and her book

The newly published book, “Wilma’s World: Good Advice From a Good Dog,” written and photographed by Rae Dunn

“It was a lot of work,” she said, but she was unwilling to bring on anyone to help. “I’ve always liked working alone. If it has my name on it, then I make it.”

That changed in 2005 when a manufacturer, Magenta, asked Dunn if they could license and make her ceramics. She agreed, and now focuses on making one-of-a-kind pieces and her handmade line.

Now that Dunn is not producing her ceramics in great quantities, and has also added painting to her repertoire — a large gray-and-white canvas depicting one of her bowls adorns one wall of her studio — she said she sees herself as an artist.

Add author to her resumé: a chance encounter with a book editor friend led to Dunn’s first book (published this week by Chronicle Books). She had acquired Wilma by then — a black-and-white Jack Russell terrier she had not planned on getting, but now couldn’t live without.

Rae Dunn bowls

Bowls, some of them inscribed with words, created by Rae Dunn. Photo: courtesy Rae Dunn

Wilma was always astonishingly cooperative when Dunn took out her camera, and so she started a blog documenting life with her four-legged companion.

“I thought I’d write a children’s book illustrated by photos of Wilma,” she said. However, once she had added the pithy text that accompanies each photo, the publisher determined it was a book aimed as much at adults as kids.

Thus, a picture of Wilma next to a suitcase sitting on a train track is captioned “Be spontaneous:” “Stand out in the crowd” reads the text next to a photo of Wilma among a brood of chickens; and, next to Wilma with a bagel propped on her head: “Start each day with a well balanced breakfast.”

“I’m hoping people will see that it’s not just a cute book,” Dunn said. “I’ve always loved words and I think these messages can help everyone.”

Wilma on shelves

Wilma makes herself comfortable on a shelf in the ceramist’s studio. Photo: courtesy Rae Dunn

Rae Dunn vessels

Vessels created by Berkeley ceramist Rae Dunn. Photo: courtesy Rae Dunn

Rae Dunn’s studio is at 927 Parker Street, West Berkeley. Her work can be bought online through her website.

Meet her at one of the readings she will be giving of “Wilma’s World: Good Advice From a Good Dog”:

March 19, 6-8 p.m.: Brushstrokes Studio, 745 Page St., Berkeley
March 28, 4-6 p.m.: George Pet Shop, 2512 Sacramento St., San Francisco
April 4, 4-6 p.m.: George Pet Shop, 1824 Fourth St., Berkeley
April 11, at 12:30 p.m.: Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco

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