Beloved Community Ceramicist Shines in Documentary

First published in the Dec. 23 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.

For some, throwing clay is a recreational pastime, but for local ceramics legend Helen Jean Taylor, it’s more than an art form — it’s a way of being.
The 95-year-old skilled artisan, known by many as simply “Jean,” became the subject of a documentary titled, “Life Centered: The Helen Jean Taylor Story,” which recently aired on KCET and PBS SoCal as part of its Emmy Award-winning Artbound series.
The nearly 60-minute film, made in association with the Community Center of La Cañada Flintridge, is an insightful look at Taylor’s life as a teacher, artist and mentor, who founded CCLCF’s ceramics studio in 1966 and taught there for more than 50 years.
The idea for the film was originally dreamed up by Laura Hull and Georgie Kajer, who worked on a book together that showcased Taylor’s work, “An Ever-Widening Circle: The Ceramic Artistry of Helen Jean Taylor.”
What initially started as a 10-minute video made in celebration of the beloved teacher’s retirement in 2016 ended up sparking the pair’s interest in producing a 25-minute short film that would eventually expand by about 30 additional minutes when the opportunity arose for it to be aired on PBS through Director Don Hahn’s connections with the network.
“We’re all thankful that PBS and Artbound found the film worthy of their program,” Hull said. “One of the main themes of the film is community, so having it available on public broadcasting is the perfect outlet. It was important to both Georgie and I to get the film in front of as many people as possible, to share Jean’s philosophy of art and her amazing example of living a fully creative life.”
The result of their four-year labor of love features Taylor’s own words and life history, presenting a story about overcoming adversity and the healing force of art. “Life Centered” also delves into her contributions in building community, a testament to Taylor’s vision to nourish a volunteer-propelled ceramics education at CCLCF.

Photo courtesy CCLCF
Helen Jean Taylor in the process of glazing.

Despite limited resources, Taylor transformed CCLCF’s three-student program into the thriving multi-level ceramics studio it is today — with 22 weekly classes, all of which she accomplished while raising two children as a single parent and pursuing her own artistic endeavors as a potter.
“Jean is an inspiration,” Hull said. “She is a woman who made a life for herself in the arts and managed to raise a family as a single mother while creating a community within the CCLCF Ceramics Department. Her philosophy towards teaching, working as an artist and life in general is incredibly inspiring, and this is a story we felt needed to be told.”
At 95 years old, Taylor has molded more than just clay in her lifetime, she has also shaped her students and their interrelationship between their experiences and throwing clay. With an intimate approach to teaching, her classroom bonds often formed like much of her own art did — with connection to feeling as its driving force.
“Jean had the ability to take time with each person and learn about who they were and then figure out how ceramics fit into their life and help to enrich them in some kind of way,” said Executive Director Ethan Stern of CCLCF.
Kajer, who is a former student of Taylor, said her way of teaching was refreshing as she always offered words of wisdom as well as an open ear.
“Jean’s emphasis was on conversation, which was a different kind of creative inquiry for me,” Kajer said. “Jean was always supportive of personal exploration, and the classes were informal and nonacademic, which I found appealing. Being a student with Jean was an entry into a creative community that I didn’t know existed.”
Taylor encouraged those in her class to embrace the artful experience of creating pottery as healing medicine.
“There’s so much involved in working with clay and so many levels, I find it totally fascinating,” Taylor said in the film. “When you’re throwing and you’re really into it, you can lose yourself completely, but it also centers you intellectually and emotionally so that you’re totally one with the clay.”
Stern was first introduced to Taylor when joining the center in 2019 as the ceramics director, the same position held by Taylor from 1966 to 2006. Their initial meeting prompted a tradition of sharing a pot of tea at her home, where he absorbed the stories and knowledge she imparted during their visits, while sipping out of cups and eating off of plates she crafted by hand.
“She’s a really good storyteller and she’s a really generous person so when you talk to her, she’s really forthcoming with stories and finds ways to connect with people through her own experiences,” Stern said.
Cultivating a strong sense of community and collaboration in the studio is not always embraced in the art world, but for Taylor, working and learning together with an artists-teaching-artists philosophy was crucial to the environment she helped build from the ground up 55 years ago.

Photo courtesy CCLCF
A young Helen Jean Taylor sits with kilns at the La Cañada Youth House, which is now CCLCF.

“She certainly created a humble culture at the community center,” Stern said. “A lot of places, especially in L.A., you’ll go into a studio and there’s a feeling of competitiveness there, or an attitude of ‘I won’t share my secret recipe with you,’ but Jean really tried to break down those kind of barriers between artists and was so generous with information.”
Her legacy is embedded in CCLCF, and the spirit of her kindhearted, unsparing teaching continues to live within the center and those that know her as a mentor and a friend.
The film is directed by Hahn, a retired Walt Disney animation producer, who partnered with Hull and Kajer. Hahn is local to La Cañada Flintridge and has produced some of the most celebrated animation films in history including “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Through his independent film company, Stone Circle Pictures, in Pasadena, Hahn seeks to tell stories and make films about people who have influenced the arts and culture unique to Southern California through the series.
“Jean’s story represents a type of artistic heroism that I’m attracted to as a filmmaker and is important to spotlight in contemporary culture, which often overlooks the quiet wisdom of mature master artisans,” Hahn said. “Jean is a role model for those of us seeking to live life in the arts. I hope this film will be a way to share her wisdom as it applies not only to her craft of ceramics but to all the arts, and all of life, for that matter.”
The film also features an original score by award-winning composer, singer-songwriter and pianist Emily Bear, who is currently composing the much anticipated “Bridgerton, the Musical” with Abigail Barlow.
The film is currently available on the PBS SoCal website, PBS Passport app, KCET website, Link TV and Youtube. To watch the documentary, visit pbsocal.org/shows/atbound/episodes/life-centered-the-helen-jean-taylor-story.