By Angela Guglielmino
In 1993, when Ilka Perkins was 17, she woke up in a state prison lying on a cold slab of metal facing 15 years to life in prison. She was released 26 years later, in 2019, at age 43.
Since then, Ilka and her wife, Domonique Perkins, whom she met in prison, and Molly Larkey, a prison reform activist, have founded and operated the People’s Pottery Project (PPP), a nonprofit ceramics business in Glassell Park. The mission of PPP is to provide meaningful employment, paid training and a community for formerly incarcerated women and transgender and non-binary individuals. PPP clients include West Elm and customers who buy the pottery through the PPP website or by making an appointment to visit the studio via Facebook or Instagram.
“People’s Pottery Project has offered me a safe space to build my confidence, become creative and do things that I love while also making an income,” Ilka said. PPP, she said, is both a “permanent job with benefits and a platform where I could speak my truths.”
A person must make an individual decision to rehabilitate themselves in prison, said Ilka, adding that the ‘punishing and cruel” conditions inside prison make rehabilitation difficult and are badly in need of reform.
It was at PPP, she said, that she found acceptance that allowed her to become a different person.
“[Prisons] are constantly reminding you about what a bad person you are, or what you can’t do,” Ilka said. “[Acceptance from the art community] allowed me to change my thoughts, so instead of making something from hands that were once violent, I can make something beautiful that people accept, love and want in their house.”
Domonique, who spent 13 years in prison, said she rehabilitated herself through self-help and discovery of her triggers – and that all her stressors melt away when she touches the clay.
Domonique has uniquely talented hands, said Tony Marsh, a volunteer at PPP who taught ceramics at California State University, Long Beach for 35 years. “They’re making pottery that reflects their story,” he said. “There’s this beautiful, simple and direct humility in their work. The essence of the maker becomes encoded in the art frequently because clay is so good at recording.”
Marsh said he loves being with Ilka and Domonique.
“I love their approach to life,” Marsh said. “I love what they’ve survived. They have so much wisdom in them.”
Marsh said PPP is a nurturing home for non-binary, transgender and gay individuals and especially people of color. This is significant, he said, because formerly incarcerated people face major obstacles to meaningful employment, among them, a corporate culture and a corporate mentality are not favorable to people who have spent time behind bars. “American culture throws away too many people,” said Marsh. “It just doesn’t care.”
Domonique said it was hard to be away from her sister’s kids while in prison and she appreciates that she gets to teach pottery lessons for the public, including children.
“Children are innocent and they always bring joy,” Domonique said. “One girl came in and she just put her hand in the clay and that was it. She thought that piece of clay was a masterpiece of Picasso. I didn’t tell her anything.”
When PPP got started in 2019, Larkey was the driving force behind providing space, making the products, bringing in Ilka and committing financially, while ceramicist Alex Miller was a teacher to Ilka and Domonique.
Miller said working at PPP makes him feel deeply connected with those around him.
“The thing about ceramics is that we’re all sitting around working and we talk and we would cry,” he said. “We’re all just hearing each other’s stories. It increased my empathy about how much we are failing in our correction, rehabilitation and judicial systems.”
Domonique embodies and explains the contrast between life behind bars and life at the pottery wheel. She said that after her release from prison, she focused on creating goals and working towards them. Now, she said, she is rising through the difficulties in her life by sharing her time and energy with others.
“I’m here correcting my wrongs,” she said. “Instead of being a threat to my community or society, I’m actually an asset to my community. Because I’m not only giving back, but I’m also changing the way people think. I’m motivating them to become something better.”
Angela Guglielmino, a junior at Occidental College, and Grace Meadows, a freshman at Occidental, are participants in the NELA Neighborhood Reporting Partnership, a collaboration between the Boulevard Sentinel and The Occidental campus newspaper.
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