This article is part of our series on small companies with a big mission in five areas: women, kids, community, planet, and hope. Click here for more articles in the series.
After a two-decade career in creative design and art direction – including work with iconic names in the fashion industry like Cindy Crawford and Louis Vuitton – Dorrie Papademetriou was ready to focus her talents elsewhere.
“Elsewhere” eventually led to Atlantic City, where Dorrie stepped into a curator role at the Noyes Museum of Art of Stockton University in 2006. “Finding Home,” cited as her most memorable exhibit, featured the work of homeless residents of Atlantic City – and led to the passion that she’s still following more than a decade later.
Today Dorrie is founder, director, and designer at MudGirls Studios, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged and at-risk women find pathways to self-sufficiency through art and entrepreneurship.
MudGirls offers sophisticated, contemporary ceramics with organic shapes, subtle patterns, and rich glazes, like something out of a high-end gallery. But in the beginning, things were much humbler.
Taking the Wheel
MudGirls started out as “clay day” in January 2016 – initially, a weekly event where women could come together and make ceramics at an Atlantic City homeless shelter.
“When we began, several of the women were really interested,” Dorrie says. “It was certainly the bright spot of their day in terms of sharing, working, and learning something new.”
Dorrie was hopeful that weekly time at the pottery wheel might spin off into an artisan workforce with a dedicated studio, giving women at the shelter an opportunity to create and sell ceramics as a source of long-term supplemental income.
But the success of that idea hinged on the women “embracing the clay,” in Dorrie’s words, and she had several reasons to feel optimistic.
“I knew that clay was a medium that most people enjoy and gravitate toward,” Dorrie says. “You can do so many different things. That’s why I chose that medium. It’s pretty accommodating. It can be therapeutic in terms of using hands and muscles. It’s certainly physical – pushing, pulling, carrying, lifting.”
Hope in the “Making”
Dorrie’s optimism proved justified as a dedicated contingent of women kept showing up.
“The thrill of seeing the piece that they made – being so gratified when something came back from the kiln and they could say they made it – it was something that none of them had ever experienced before,” Dorrie says.
“And it was something tangible they could take with them. When you’re poor or living on the street, when you can make gifts, it’s really valuable.”
With a core group of five consistent and dedicated participants, MudGirls Studios was born within several months of the first clay days. The Parish of St. Monica’s offered up the rectory at a local Catholic church as an interim space for a full-time, functional studio, followed by a permanent home on the second floor of the church next door.
Consumer sales helped to support the venture from the start. Dorrie oversaw the artisans’ production of pieces that were initially sold at local coffee shops, craft fairs, and fair trade festivals – mostly kitchenware like bowls and platters, to start, as well as some decorative items.
Dorrie says the work was being received well in the community, and demand continued to grow – and then things took an unexpected turn.
The studio’s growing profile in Atlantic City coincided with a need for some architectural tilework as part of a large public redevelopment project that included a new campus for Stockton University and a headquarters building for South Jersey Gas.
Tiles had never been a part of the MudGirls product line, but that didn’t stop Dorrie from volunteering to get involved.
“Design is always a part of what we do. But did I think we’d be doing tile work? Not from the beginning,” Dorrie says. “Knowing that these buildings in Atlantic City would need wall finishes, we just sort of jumped in and said we wanted to do it. They were really willing to include us.”
Eventually Dorrie and the team created nearly 4,000 custom wall tiles for the sprawling Atlantic City Gateway Project, leading to a whole new division known as MudGirls Tileworks.
Making products for the home helped establish an intentional connection between artisans and customers remains special and rewarding in its own right. But contributing to a large-scale public project was meaningful in a whole different way.
“Giving us the opportunity and confidence to do a large-scale installation like that – that was a big deal,” Dorrie says. “When you’re called out at a dedication ceremony and they thank you for being part of a state-of-the-art building – to be honored in that way, and to be included in a community where our women are outcasts in many ways, to be included in this rebirth of the city…maybe that’s a metaphor for us. Rebirth.”
Growth & Transformation
The metaphor is apt in many ways. MudGirls is constantly introducing new designs, often with imagery that evokes the concept of growth and transformation – whether as an expression of hope or a daily labor.
It’s why olive branches and peace doves are common across MudGirls designs, as well as dragonflies as a symbol of resilience. Another image that shows up on three MudGirls designs – the willow tree – is a reference to Aesop’s Fables. Dorrie thinks that one’s especially emblematic of their artisans.
“The willow can withstand the storm because it can bend and flow with the wind. That’s so telling of our women – getting through all kinds of struggles and tragedies,” Dorrie says.
“We don’t want to be trivial. If we do something that has meaning, I think that makes a difference.”
Between the therapeutic act of working with clay, the gratification of seeing a piece come back from the kiln, and the empowerment that comes with long-term supplemental income, each item created and sold makes a great difference for at-risk women – all while supporting them with community and equipping them with skills for self-sufficiency.
Spend for good: Visit the MudGirls online store to shop a variety of household wares, including more than a dozen new designs added this fall. If you’re a New Jersey or New York resident, you can find MudGirls tile installations at Stockton University in Atlantic City, at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center in New Brunswick, and, very soon, at Hudson Yards in Manhattan!
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