Within minutes of student June Mabarak spotting the visitor touring the education studio, she engages her in conversation and eagerly offers one of her handmade gnomes. The visitor from Washington state carefully selects a ceramic talisman and gushes graciously, announcing how she will tell friends back home how nice everyone in Detroit is.
Mabarak, an unofficial ambassador of sorts for Pewabic, turns 75 today and is one of the students and staff members featured in the upcoming Maker/Mentor exhibition opening with the 27th Pewabic House & Garden Show June 8. Her piece also is one of a handful selected to receive an award from the exhibition juried by Kaitlyn and Ryan Lawless from Detroit porcelain studio Corbé Company.
No doubt about it: Mabarak appreciates near-celebrity status at Pewabic for the good vibes and positive mojo that comes through her interactions and ceramic creations, which take shape in statuettes, bowls and necklaces, among other designs.
The former Detroit Public Schools early childhood teacher began taking classes decades ago to find a release from her hectic schedule.
“I had a lot going on and I wanted some sort of outlet,” she says. “After my first or second class I thought, ‘Gee, I really like this. I’m never going to quit here.’”
That was in 1979 and she hasn’t yet.
“I think I’m the longest consecutive student. I must be,” says the Grosse Pointe Farms resident, adding that she enjoys Pewabic’s atmosphere of freedom, peace and creativity.
When she started, Mabarak says she “hid in the corner,” worried that she wasn’t good enough for the class. She made little bowls, eventually giving one to a restaurant owner she knew, who designated it a penny bowl for guests to leave or take a penny. Soon “June’s penny bowls” began to appear throughout the Grosse Pointes and Detroit.
“I keep giving them away. What am I going to do with it all? So, I said I’m just going to give it away. I give it to my family. I give it to people who help me. I keep it in my car for when people help me.”
Right now, Mabarak is probably best known for what people warmly refer to as her “June gnomes”.
“I started making them and giving them away to people. I can’t make enough of them. Everyone wants one,” she says.
Mabarak sends her gnomes, animals, bowls and jewelry out into the world with remarkable frequency, almost as currency or mood lifters. She keeps a box in her car to thank people who help her get around, including on her visits to Pewabic’s education studio where you can find her two-to-three times a week.
“I try to come here as much as I can. I have a lot going on,” she says, pausing to say hello to teachers and other students who greet her a little like a rock star. “I just look forward to coming all the time. When I can’t come, I miss it.”