After 41 years in the same space, the Kenai Potters Guild is homeless.
The guild shared a space with the Peninsula Art Guild at the Kenai Fine Arts Center in Old Town. However, the art guild board voted unanimously to remove the potters guild at a May 30 meeting after questions arose over the building’s insurance coverage and whether the potters guild was, or could be, included in that coverage.
Potters guild members were evicted with the notice that the art guild’s insurance did not and would not cover the potters guild and that lack of coverage could cause the City of Kenai to terminate the building lease, according to a resolution from the Peninsula Art Guild board.
In a letter to the potters guild dated June 6, Peninsula Art Guild secretary Joe Kashi listed several conditions accompanying the eviction including that the kilns used for making pottery could not be fired, members of the public were barred from entering the potters guild space and that the arts guild would file legal action to evict potters guild members if the terms of the lease termination were not met.
“Their activities put our own insurance at risk,” Kashi said. “It is unfortunate it had to happen this way. We are surprised and sorry to see them go.”
Laura Feo, president of the potters guild, said the art guild never made an attempt to inform them of their decision ahead of time.
“(Kashi) handed us an eviction letter and ordered the kilns to be shut down,” she said. “We have complied with everything thrown at us and we still haven’t been given a straight answer.”
The issue of insurance coverage for the potters guild went unnoticed for many years until the art center looked into prospective liability insurance at the request of the potters guild, a separate entity of the arts center, Kashi said.
It is unclear when communication between the art guild and its insurance company resulted in a revelation that the potters guild would not be covered.
Kashi said he was told via emails that potters guild would not be covered, however neither Kashi nor the insurance company would provide the emails said to contain that assessment.
When asked to provide emails verifying that the art guild’s insurance company would not cover the potters guild, Kashi said he was going through his emails from the insurance broker and that “they equivocate a little bit,” and that the insurance company told him that they would decide whether the potters guild would be covered after a claim had occurred, “which is no good for anybody,” he said.
Kashi provided fully redacted copies of emails exchanged between himself, a State Farm Insurance agent and an agent at Walters & Associates and Peninsula Art Guild board president Shauna Thornton. However, the content of those emails is unreadable.
Kashi said board members for the Kenai Fine Arts Center were shown the emails before they voted unanimously to evict the potters guild from the shared building.
The potters guild has since received five insurance quotes for its operations, said potters guild treasurer Karen Momell. While she declined to name the companies because the group members had yet to review them, she said they were all A rated and should satisfy the city requirements.
At issue are two kilns, one gas-fired, the other electric, that are used to heat and dry pottery after it is shaped.
According to Kashi’s letter to the potters guild, when insurance was obtained for the building, the usage was listed as an art gallery, a low risk operation. However, the pottery-making aspect, according to Kashi’s letter, was “very high risk industrial, generally uninsurable, type of operation by insurance companies,” and was not listed on the insurance agreement.
“As a result, we have been informed by the insurance companies that there is NO insurance coverage at this time for any fire or other building damage nor for injury that might occur as a result of the pottery operation. In the event of any fire or loss, there would be No coverage,” according to Kashi’s letter.
“There is a general consensus by both the insurance people and the engineers that the existing kiln, particularly the gas-fired kiln, is a serious fire hazard, not to mention a potentially serious carbon monoxide hazard for the entire building,” according to Kashi’s letter. “The art center/art guild is particularly concerned about the gas-fired kiln because of a recent fire-brick failure, the lack of adequate venting, the recent break/welding repair of the metail (sic) part of the gas kiln, and the ability to actually see flames through gaps in the fire brick wall when firing.”
Kenai Fire Marshall Eric Wilcox said he last inspected the Kenai Fine Arts Center in 2011, and Feo said he had inspected the building again after the potters guild was given notice of eviction.
Wilcox said he never deemed the kilns a fire hazard, but did make recommendations that were corrected by the potters guild.
“Kilns are not flammable,” Wilcox said. “The biggest thing is heat and newer kilns don’t get hot on the outside. As for the gas-fired kiln, carbon monoxide can get in the air in a close area but it is standard when operating to open a door and have a fan running for ventilation. They are safe and not anything to be afraid of.”
Kashi also contacted a retired North Slope safety engineer from Homer, David Green, to have a safety report completed. Green said Kashi sent him several photos of the kilns and surrounding areas and described the building operations.
“I know a little bit about the operations of kilns and kilns have certain problems and have to be built a certain way,” Green said.
From the photographs, Green said he identified a few potential hazards, specifically that certain particulates could escape from the kilns during the firing process and could cause breathing problems for those exposed. Ultimately, Green said, he suggested that the art guild do a detailed investigation to make sure that the kiln operations were safe, but he said the issues he pointed out were meant to be considered potential problems, not problems specific to the kilns located at the Kenai Fine Arts Center.
The potters guild has used the space on a month-to-month sublease since 1973 and never had an incident, said Bill Holloway, husband of Becky Holloway, who has been a potters guild member for 17 years.
Anyone who fired the kilns went through training first and the doors were left open to allow proper ventilation when operating the gas kiln, Bill Holloway said.
“I trust experience over (Kashi’s) claim,” Bill Holloway said. “A lot of people are upset over the way it was done. It is a shame this had to happen the way it did.”
According to the resolution from the art guild, members of the potters guild have until the end of September to remove everything from the building. Anything left will be disposed.
Becky Holloway wasted no time in removing her items from the gallery. Her ceramic art was supposed to be on display in the main gallery through the month of June. In the pottery building, shelves of ceramic art have already been removed.
She said she removed her art “as more of a reaction, and to make a statement.”
“I would like to see this resolved in a positive manner so others can take advantage of having a place to learn pottery,” she said.
The potters guild held classes in wheel throwing and hand forming in their studio space. Currently it is the only group on the Kenai Peninsula that teaches pottery. While membership for the potters guild is about 10 people, Bill Holloway said, the space was never underutilized.
Feo runs a small business and said she uses the kilns to make pottery she sells at farmers markets.
“I have basically been put out of business,” she said. “This is my livelihood. (The art guild) claims to support local artists but here they are putting us out of work.”
Nelson, founder of the art guild, said the pottery guild is a special place for ceramic artists and part of several members’ livelihood.
“This is a valuable community resource,” Nelson said.
According to the letter from Kashi to the potters guild, if members fire between now and September, the City of Kenai is willing to direct ENSTAR Natural Gas Company to cut off the gas and the art center would disable electricity to the electric kilns.
Kenai City Manager Rick Koch said if someone fired the kilns after he or she was ordered not to, he wasn’t sure what he would do.
The city has a contractual relationship with the art guild and expects the insurance requirements contained in the lease agreement to be upheld, he said.
Koch said he was unaware of the art guild’s subleasing agreement with the potters guild. The Kenai Fine Art Center leases its space from the city for $1 per year. Bill Holloway said the potters guild paid $150 per month for rent, not including utilities.
Kashi also said after extensive discussions, the City of Kenai told the art guild about several grants that might be available to make the pottery space available for workshops for other art groups.
Becky Holloway said she is unsure what the next step for the potters guild will be. The group recently met to discuss the search for a new space and insurance options.
Clayton Hillhouse, art guild board member, attended the potters guild meeting. He said people asked him questions about the insurance coverage and he handed out information on prospective insurance.
“When I first walked in, I was looked at as the enemy,” Hillhouse said. “I answered their questions, put things in perspective and they were very courteous. I got a lot of hugs afterwards.”
Feo said in her mind the potters guild has done what they can to rectify the issue and some of the board members have been helpful and reasonable. While the potters guild has previously talked about moving into a larger space prior to this situation, she said four months is not enough time for them to find a new space.
Kashi said the potters are a small group of the overall art community, but will be missed. The art guild and city plan to help find a new place for the group to continue operations, hopefully in a larger and less crowded space, he said.
“These things are always difficult,” Kashi said. “People tend to see their own concerns. I am trying to make things straightforward so there are no misunderstandings … There are many other groups currently without access to studio space. We will repurpose the space.”
Reach Dan Balmer at firstname.lastname@example.org and Rashah McChesney at email@example.com.