Indian pottery finds a U.S. market thanks to Silverdale link

A 40-foot container, filled with nearly 6,000 pieces of clay pottery, is loaded aboard a ship bound for port in Tacoma. It started its journey in India and will arrive in the Pacific Northwest at the beginning of next month.

The pots, of all shapes, sizes and functions, were created in Kumbaran-Ellington’s Pottery, a family-run business in a small Indian village, six hours from the south Indian city of Bangalore.

Joy and Jeremy Ellington founded their pottery factory in Sulthan’s Battery in Kerala, one of India’s southernmost states. Because there is no real market for pottery locally, the family has periodically sent shipments to the United States.

“This money goes back into the factory or to the workers,” Jeremy said. “We don’t touch any of the money that comes from this kind of sale. We reinvest it into the factory and into the people’s lives.”

The pottery now en route to Tacoma will be distributed to a number of area churches and organizations that will in turn sell the pots on behalf of Kumbaran-Ellington’s Pottery.

Joy and Jeremy take no income from the business, they are instead supported by family, friends, U.S. churches and generous individuals, said Jeremy’s father Bill Ellington, of Suquamish.

“It’s truly a faith venture,” Bill said.

Jeremy’s story

In the 1960s, Bill was the pastor of Silverdale United Methodist Church. Jeremy was born in 1966 and grew up in Silverdale but later attended Everett High School. After graduation, when he was 19, Jeremy traveled to India for the first time with his oldest sister, her husband and friends.

“He, in his late teens, showed an interest in pottery,” Bill said about his son. “They were out in a very removed part of India and watched these potters spin (their wheels). He became very interested in them because with plastic and aluminum they’d been displaced.”

Jeremy too remembers his first encounter with the Kumbaran, a caste of people in India who work with mud or clay.

“The demand for pots had fallen down because of the technology of plastic, aluminum,” he said. “They were destitute, hopeless. At that time you could see and feel (their) disappointment.”

Jeremy fell in love with India and when he returned to Washington, he attended Whitworth College in Spokane where he took pottery classes, along with his other studies. Two years later, he returned to India and this time, went to Sulthan’s Battery to live with a potter’s family and learn about spinning clay from the Indian artisans.

The goal also was to learn about India, but Jeremy was surprised to find out that living with the Kumbaran he could only learn about that subculture, thanks to India’s caste system.

At the end of his second stay in India, Jeremy filled a 20-foot shipping container with pottery to sell in the United States and his parents, Judy and Bill Ellington, paid for the shipment.

Joy’s story

Joy was born and raised in a Hindu family in Calcutta, northeastern India. Before she turned 3, Joy was stricken with polio and was paralyzed and couldn’t speak.

“Because my parents were Hindus, for them adding one more god was not a big deal,” Joy explained.

Her mother, thus, took her to the Assembly of God Church in Calcutta when Joy was 6, in the hopes that Jesus would heal her.

“I got very angry,” Joy recalls. “I wanted to know who this Jesus was and why he was not healing me.”

She started crying and eventually fell asleep.

When she woke up, a Canadian missionary was leaning over her. Joy had never seen a white person and mistook him for Jesus.

“The way he hugged me, definitely I thought he was Jesus,” she said with a smile.

Soon after the visit to the Christian church, Joy began to recover and gradually started walking again. Against her parents’ wishes, she secretly returned to the Assembly of God Church when she was 12.

“From that day they never stopped me from going to church,” she said.

A garden in Bangalore

During Jeremy’s first trip to India, his group spent a night at a guesthouse in Bangalore. There, in the garden, he met Joy who was in the city for a friends’ wedding.

The two spent just a few hours together, but became pen pals for seven years until 1992 when Joy and Jeremy were married.

The couple made their first home in Pasadena, Calif. where two of their three children were born.

In 1994 the Ellingtons returned to India and two years later they found themselves in Sulthan’s Battery with the goal of helping the local Kumbaran.

“My heart moved because being an Indian, I thought they have such artistic ability,” Joy said. “In L.A. it’s considered an art, but in India it’s a caste.”

The Ellingtons gradually developed their pottery business to employ at least 15 Kumbaran and other Indians in the factory. Now at least four of them are single mothers and many are disabled, some are blind.

“We like to bring identity to them that they’re not blind, that they have an ability to touch and feel,” Joy said.

Some of the blind workers have impressed the Ellingtons with the effort they put in to come to work. Some take two buses and walk through mud and dirt to get to the factory where they polish the hand-made clay pots.

“Our business is not categorized just as charity-giving,” Joy explained. “We’re giving them confidence to grow in that area.”

The Ellingtons also aim to make the factory an inclusive work place, breaking the culturally-ingrained caste system. Most of their employees are Hindu, but they invite people of Muslim and other faiths to contribute and they bring artists from other castes to paint some of the pottery after it has been wood fired.

New pottery shipment

In 2003 and 2004, the state and national governments recognized Joy and Jeremy’s efforts with several entrepreneurship awards. Family members help out with the business at the 5,000-square-foot factory where much of the space is taken up by drying pots.

In the decade since establishing Kumbaran-Ellington’s Pottery, Joy and Jeremy have shipped several containers of pots to the United States. The one traveling to Tacoma right now is their fourth and largest shipment.

They also travel to the United States annually speaking at churches and gatherings in Washington and California.

“Their story resonates really well into the Christian community,” said Steve Lee, a Silverdale United Methodist Church congregation member.

Lee is helping coordinate the pottery shipment and the sale of the 6,000 pots, dishes, bowls and children’s piggy banks.

“We hope this container won’t be the last one,” Joy said.

But Lee said the project is so time-consuming the Silverdale UMC will not be able to undertake it on a regular basis and is looking for a trade organization to take over.

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