All Fired Up owner Liz Winchell says pottery can be a wonderful outlet for people who are struggling. “It’s art therapy,” she says. Photo by Liz Lynch.
When she was in college, Liz Winchell wanted to be a special education teacher. But she has dyslexia, a learning disability that impairs her capacity to read and write, and her professors at New England College in New Hampshire were brutally candid.
“It didn’t work out,” she says. “I did my student teaching and my kids in the fourth grade had a better reading level than I did. So I failed my student teaching. They said, ‘You’re not going to be a teacher.’ ”
They were wrong.
Today, at 42, Winchell runs All Fired Up, a studio on Elm Street in the center of Bethesda where folks can walk through the door, paint a piece of pottery, and go home later with a work of art. The disability that plagued her in college now gives her a keen insight into how to reach customers on their own terms.
“Everybody learns differently so you have to tap into how they learn best,” she says. “I see it all the time in the store here. When kids come in, sometimes I can explain it to them verbally and they get it. Sometimes I see questions in their minds. They don’t really understand what I’m saying. So I say, ‘Let’s walk through this.’ You go step-by-step, and allow them to comprehend, so they have the tools to do it right.”
Winchell had a happy childhood, living on Chevy Chase Boulevard off Wisconsin Avenue and climbing trees in Norwood Park. But in second grade at Somerset Elementary her dyslexia began to show up.
“When it came to story time in class, everyone had to get up and read a story,” Liz remembers. “I just looked at the pictures and told the story, without reading it. I did a lot of things to cover up the fact that I wasn’t reading.”
Her disability had emotional as well as practical effects. As we talk at a work table in the back of her studio, she says, “There were lots of times when I felt stupid, when I didn’t feel worthy.”
Her parents—her father ran a direct-mail business, her mother had a master’s degree in child development—removed her from Somerset and enrolled her in a special program at The Center School in Chevy Chase, which is now closed. There, teachers understood that while most students can remember a word after a few repetitions, dyslexics take far longer.
One gym exercise was devoted to learning the words a lot, Liz recalls: “As we did jumping jacks, we would spell and say out loud, ‘A LOT.’ We would repeat this over and over 20 times. At the end of the week, we had five new words added to our memory banks.”
Winchell’s father thought she could never finish high school—a fear he only revealed years later. For ninth grade, she was sent to Landmark School in Beverly, Massachusetts, a pioneer in teaching learning disabled students. She no longer felt stupid or unworthy since all the other students “were on the same page and on the same level.”
“It doesn’t become an ugly thing,” she says of her dyslexia, “it becomes who you are and you embrace that.”
After college, she moved to Seattle. Art had always been her refuge, a way to express her feelings when words failed, so one day, when she saw a paint-your-own pottery place, she stopped in.
“I made a mug and I loved it, it was the coolest thing,” Liz says.
When she returned home, she got a job at a ceramics studio called Made By You. Within six months she was managing the place, and when the owner decided to sell, recalls Winchell,
“I said, ‘This is for me, it’s exactly what I should be doing.’ ”
That was 11 years ago. Today her renamed enterprise has two locations—the other is in Cleveland Park—and she’s selling much more than ceramics. Parents bring kids who are struggling in school or dealing with divorce. Adults come who are battling depression or loneliness.
“It’s a place of healing in a way,” says Winchell. “That sounds weird, but it is. It’s art therapy. Everyone who comes in has a story and you have to figure out how to help them.”
One boy visits every year and makes his father a birthday present—a plate with his handprint on it. After 9/11, a man painted three tiles with planes crashing into buildings. An older fellow came with a group of senior citizens and painted a nude woman on a platter.
“The people from the retirement community called and told me not to bring the platter back,” laughs Liz. “His wife was really upset.”
The most powerful stories come from wounded veterans. For six years, Winchell taught classes at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where many patients were learning to use a prosthetic device after losing a limb. The classes were so successful that the medical staff started requiring the veterans to attend them.
“It was more beneficial than the occupational therapy they were doing,” Winchell says. “You’re painting an object, you’re thinking about your wife who can’t be with you, you’re doing something for someone, and that has a lot more impact than just doing the exercises with your hands and legs. There’s sort of a mission.”
She ordered special ceramics for the classes—Apache helicopters, Humvees—and some soldiers would gravitate directly to those models. “They’d say, ‘Oh, I’m putting my unit on there, I know exactly how I’m going to paint this,’ ” says Winchell. “Other guys would come in and say, ‘I don’t want to look at those, I never want to see an Apache helicopter again in my life.’ ”
The classes ended last year, a victim of enhanced security that makes it increasingly difficult for outsiders to visit military hospitals, but Liz’s voice still breaks when she talks about the soldiers. “Sorry,” she whispers, “I’m very emotional, I’m pregnant.”
So it’s not just the customers at All Fired Up who have a story to tell. The owner does too. A story about a girl who never gave up on herself, and became a teacher after all. n
Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.