Mon September 11, 2023
By David A. F. Sweet
Tucked away on Old Mill Road sits Stirling Hall, far removed from the stir of downtown Lake Forest.
While the History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff, Gorton Center and other cultural institutions hug busy streets, a sign on the road to the art center reads No Outlet. But for those passionate about making pottery, sculptures and more – from beginners to professionals – the refined brick building adorned with wood paneling is the place to be. With more than a dozen potter’s wheels, six studios, a professional-grade high-fire kiln and a shed outside for soda firings, Stirling Hall is an artist’s delight.
“There are other art centers in the area, but this is the cream of the crop,” says Debbie Lerman, who has worked at Stirling Hall since it opened in 2001. “Each of our five types of firing produces a different result, which sets us apart. We have an open studio six days a week, so you can come anytime to work on your piece for class. No one else does that.
“We’re in such a beautiful environment, but not everyone in Lake Forest knows about us.” Lerman teaches three youth programs each week – two clay classes and one that combines drawing, painting and mixed media. She emphasizes to her students (some as young as five years old) that, unlike math, there is no right and wrong in art.
“I can see when a child is stressed out,” she explained. “Once I let them know this all comes from your soul, I see their shoulders relax. They learn it can look different than what the person next to them is doing – and it’s OK. That validation is immeasurable.”
Especially for adults who arrive at Stirling – many from outside the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff area – it is more than simply learning a new hobby. “People come here for friendships,” Lerman said. “This is a safe environment – I don’t think you can be creative if you don’t feel safe. “Everyone has an artistic ability – Monet and Picasso are very different. They both speak to people. There isn’t one correct way to do art. You can’t do it wrong.”
Constructed in 1929 by architect Edwin Clark, Stirling Hall – named after Lake Forest’s Stirling family – needed a complete restoration by the turn of the 21st century. Formerly part of the 26-acre Grove School campus for developmentally disabled children, the City of Lake Forest purchased the site for about $3.5 million in 1997. Aside from moving the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Senior Center into an unoccupied building, planners decided to develop an art center in Stirling Hall – run today by Lake Forest Parks and Recreation.
“It was a very exciting time,” Lerman recalled. “It was thrilling to see them put in the kilns and set up the classrooms and offer art to the community.” One room features 800 different combinations of glazes, which are all weighed to the milligram. Lerman noted Art Director Karen Avery mixes the glazes for students to apply. Students learn how to work the spray machine in the glaze room and receive their own shelf for supplies and pottery, along with a 25-pound bag of clay.
Stirling Hall places an emphasis on ceramics, which Lerman has loved since she was a child. “My goal was to be an art teacher, and I am blessed to have this opportunity. That’s why I haven’t left,” she said. “The people here are warm and inspiring, yet they’re all different. It’s art therapy for a lot of people.”
Said Lake Forest’s Kass O’Brien, who owns her own well-regarded ceramics shop, “Stirling Hall is a gold mine.”
Classes are usually 10 weeks long. Adult classes last 2-3 hours, while most youth classes (such as Young Potters) run for 90 minutes. Artists can sell their wares during the annual Stirling Hall Holiday Art Sale, the first weekend of December.
Along with Lerman and Avery, Stirling Hall features several part-time professional instructors who have a background in ceramic surfaces and figure sculpture, as well as hand building and wheel throwing. Unique among North Shore art centers Stirling has a soda kiln while also offering the primitive method of pit firing in metal barrels and raku firing, where clay pieces are removed with metal tongs at 1,800 degrees.
Said Lerman, “We like to call this a boutique art center – everything is top-notch.”
For more information or to register for upcoming classes, please visit lfparksandrec.com/stirling-hall-art-center.