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Deaf, blind potter plans ceramic-making marathon to raise money for pottery school

Kelvin Crosby, 33, of Old Town San Diego works in his ceramic studio in Clairemont on Friday.
Kelvin Crosby, 33, of Old Town San Diego creates a vase in his ceramic studio in Clairemont on Friday, June 4. Crosby is hard of hearing and is legally blind, so he markets his pottery under the new brand and TikTok channel DeafBlindPotter.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A year ago this month, Kelvin Crosby was at his lowest ebb, when the tiny bit of clear vision he had left disappeared. Then things got worse. Last fall, the development funding for his startup company ran out, leaving him with no income.

But with the help of hand-thrown pottery — a craft he learned in high school and took up again last December — Crosby, 33, is now back on top, both emotionally and on TikTok, where he has amassed more than 258,000 followers and 4.1` million likes for his 6-month-old TikTok channel DeafBlindPotter.

Up to 1.4 million people a day tune in to watch videos of the Old Town resident turning out mugs and vases on a pottery wheel at his parents’ house in Clairemont. Using only his fingers, instincts and memory as his guide, he spends 12 to 14 hours a day making up to 20 ceramic items that he periodically sells on his new website deafblindpotter.com.

Crosby said pottery has been his saving grace several times in his 20-year battle with Usher Syndrome Type II. He was born with severe hearing loss, and at the age of 13 began losing his sight. Today, hearing aids help him hear and speak to people, but his vision is now reduced to what people would see if they looked at the world through a sheet of wax paper.

On June 27, which is Helen Keller’s birthday, Crosby is planning a benefit auction, where he’ll sell 100 of his latest ceramic pieces and host a potting marathon, when he’ll attempt to throw 50 mugs in seven hours. He plans to use proceeds from the event to raise money for his next big idea, the DeafBlindPotter training school for people with intellectual disabilities.

Crosby said he feels it’s his mission to teach others about the healing properties of the art form.

“Through pottery, I realized I’ve got so much to live for. And I realized if I can help others live beyond their challenges, I will find joy in my life, too,” he said.

Kelvin Crosby trims the bottom of a coffee mug in his ceramic studio in Clairemont on Friday, June 4.
Kelvin Crosby trims the bottom of a coffee mug in his ceramic studio in Clairemont on Friday, June 4. Crosby is hard of hearing and is legally blind, so he markets his pottery under the new brand and TikTok channel DeafBlindPotter.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Crosby’s mom, Cherri Crosby, said her son was an active boy who played sports and never let his hearing disability slow him down. But when Crosby was 13, the overhead stadium lights went out during an evening soccer game and he suddenly realized he had no night vision. A few months later he was diagnosed with Usher syndrome and told that he would gradually lose all of his vision. Crosby said he ignored the doctors and carried on.

“It’s been a journey for me. I didn’t accept it when I was young. I just lived my life, got my driver’s license and tried to forget about it,” he said.

But at age 19, he lost his peripheral vision and had to give up his license. He went to a bible school in the Central California mountains and tried to hide his vision loss from others until he tripped over a lawnmower and fell into the blades, then later ran into a chair in the cafeteria and suffered another bad fall.

“I started crying. It was an emotional moment. That’s when I had to realize I really was deaf and blind,” he said.

To adjust to his new life, he attended classes at the Helen Keller National Center, where teachers asked Crosby if he had any hobbies. He remembered how much he enjoyed throwing pottery on a wheel in art class at University City High School, so center teachers taught him techniques for making pottery without vision. Later, he took classes at Mesa College and then learned glazing techniques at San Diego State University. He said it took a long time to accept the vision-related imperfections in his work.

“Once I got over the need to be perfect, I started healing. Healing has been the most important part of the ceramic process for me,” he said.

In his mid-20s, Crosby developed his artistic signature, which is three engraved horizontal rings on each piece that he makes. They represent joy, perseverance and character, while the piece itself represents hope.

A selection if Kelvin Crosby's coffee mugs with prices starting at $55.
A selection if Kelvin Crosby’s coffee mugs with prices starting at $55. All of the ceramic pieces made by Crosby, who is hard of hearing and legally blind, are engraved with three horizontal rings that represent joy, perseverance and character.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

At age 28, Crosby lost all of the clarity in one of his eyes, which led him to set aside pottery and focus on developing a new invention, Smart Guider, a lighted cane for people with low vision. That product was in the final development stages last year when funding dried up.

About the same time, a family friend named Michaela Harding asked Crosby if he’d teach her how to make pottery. He offered to pull his equipment out of storage and give her lessons if she’d let him take a few spins on the wheel to see what he could do without any vision clarity. The experience was a revelation.

“When I touched the clay, the healing started all over again. The next thing I knew, I was making 10 pieces a day,” he said.

Michaela’s older sister, Natalie Harding — a recent SDSU business school graduate — saw the work Crosby was doing and together they came up with the idea to develop a new pottery brand, DeafBlindPotter. Crosby built his own website and Harding began filming and posting videos on TikTok. The first video on Dec. 1 got 100,000 views overnight and now stands at more than 800,000. The third video has 1.4 million views.

Crosby’s videos, which he now films and posts himself, are a mix of pottery tutorial and upbeat motivational speaking. He starts with a mound of clay that he sponges with water and then spins. He can’t see if the clay is centered on the wheel, but can feel it if the vessel wobbles in his hands. If the top is crooked, he cuts it off. If it collapses, he shares that too, because everyone makes mistakes. He mixes tubs of ceramic glaze with his fingers so he can feel the consistency required, and he dips the vessels in glaze with his bare hands so he can measure the depth of the color bands with his fingers. The process from mud to finished vessel takes about three weeks.

Crosby’s “office” is a backyard shed at the home of his parents, Jerry and Cherri. Crosby’s wife of 10 years, Abigail, drops him off six mornings a week on her way to work. He calls Abigail his “rock” because she keeps him grounded whenever his entrepreneurial dreams get too carried away. But Cherri Crosby said she believes her son will be able to succeed in making his pottery school, or any other dream, a reality.

“If anyone can do it, he can,” Cherri said. “He’s an inspirational story for sure. He feels very blessed and feels like he sees better now that his eyes aren’t working right.”

In the weeks leading up to his June 27 auction, Crosby will be selling mugs, bowls and vases on the DeafBlindPotter page of a new e-commerce and interactive social media app called Auxxit. He will be livestreaming his potting marathon and the auction on on Auxxit. It will also stream on tiktok.com/@deafblindpotter and his YouTube channel (youtube.com, search “DeafBlind Potter”). His website is deafblindpotter.com.

Kelvin Crosby works in his ceramic studio on Friday, June 4.
Kelvin Crosby works in his ceramic studio on Friday, June 4. Crosby starts between 12-20 pieces a day and then continues the work on 50-150 other pieces that are in various stages of the process.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)


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