When we are kids it is fun to play in the mud—and some of us never outgrow it. Those who still enjoy feeling the slickness of clay beneath their fingers, the process of molding and shaping it sometimes achieve levels of excellence that defy credulity, crafting items that range from whimsical to elegant.
Visitors will have a chance this weekend, October 16th and 17th, to see such items during the annual Clay Way Open Studio Tour that includes 18 artisans demonstrating their art in nine studios. The tour is open 10 AM-5 PM both days and a map of the self-guided tour can be found at www.clayway.net.
Visitors can view several of the artisans at some locations where studio owners are hosting guest potters while other sites are devoted to a single artisan.
The artisans produce a wide variety works ranging from functional dinnerware to cheerful figurines, serving dishes, vases, teapots and jewelry. Some items are wheel-thrown, others hand-built. They are painted, glazed, flashed and fired using an electric kiln, traditional wood kiln and soda fired. Their finishes are variously brightly colored or earth-toned, shiny or matte.
The artists are as varied as their works. Christine Owen of Warren, for instance, makes pottery and sculpture informed by historic tin ware and Japanese functional pottery while her studio guest, Jessica Dubin, also of Warren, says her work reflects an obsession with natural history. “Whether making a piece of functional pottery or sculpture, there is a deep-rooted fascination with mark making,” she says, adding, “Attention to surface is constant.”
Kathleen Heidemann of Pawling NY is also absorbed by the surface of her works. She hand-builds her pieces and then turns her attention to surface decoration. The decoration, informed by her background in painting, drawing and printmaking, is achieved through painting with slip or underglaze, mishima or handmade stamps. Perky birds might perch on cups or a twining vine separate the colors on a bowl. Sometimes geometric figures define a vase or serving dish.
Joy Brown in South Kent learned her art through an extensive apprenticeship in Japan but over the years her work has evolved from vessels and animal shapes to human-like forms and abstract wall reliefs. She achieves some of her most memorable surfaces by firing her works in an anagama (wood firing tunnel kiln) at her studio.
“The changes have come out of my relationship to the materials and process—the clay, kiln, firing and my changing intentions,” she says.
While Brown draws on centuries-old traditions to create her thoroughly modern sculptures so too does Ann Heywood of Wingdale NY. A former conservator of archaeological art and artifacts, she says her previous career shaped her aesthetic choices as well as having provided her with a good understanding of materials and technologies.
“I am drawn to weathered and imperfect surfaces,” she writes. “I enjoy experimenting endlessly with different clay bodies, glazes and firing techniques. I am especially enamored with the interaction of light glazes with a dark clay body.”
Jane Herold of West Cornwall welcomes Steve Johnson of West Cornwall as her studio guest. Johnson favors a gritty stoneware clay that fires nicely in a wood kiln. “I gather rocks and clays from local road cuts and creek beds and process them into simple slips and glazes,” he explains. “These materials connect the pot to its maker, its user and its place of origin.”
His host also believes that the effort of making an item imbues it special qualities not found in mass-manufactured items. “The pots I make are useful: pots, dishes, things to serve and hold food,” she explains. “But holding food is not what makes them useful. The most important task of a useful pot is to generate caring. … we can’t live good lives at all if we are callous and uncaring. … We must either find ways of living that encourage awareness or face a loss of sensibility that is likely to seep into all areas of our lives.”
Deb Lecce of South Kent would agree. She is currently creating animal sculptures, beginning each work with the belly of the animal. “From there, I add coils and continue to paddle and stretch the clay into form,” she said. The “slow and contemplative” work continues as she finds the expressions and gestures of the animals. “This is an intimate time and I feel challenged and excited by the process of transformation,” she says.
She loves joining with Brown to fire her pieces in the anagama, imbuing them with depth and beauty. “The pieces have been fired for seven days with wood and a team of people; the patina is a kiss of fire and ash,” she enthused.
Also sharing Brown’s kiln is her studio guest, Naoko Ojio of South Kent. Ojio grew up in the suburbs of Nagoya in Japan, a community with a long history in ceramics but didn’t study ceramics until moving to the US in 2003. From leaf-shaped dishes to delicately proportioned vases, her work reflects an Asian aesthetic.
Todd Piker of Cornwall Bridge Pottery also uses a 35-foot-long woodfired tube kiln based on a design dating back to 10th-century China. Occasionally, he says, a pot is “blessed by the kiln gods” and earns a place as an exhibition piece. “Exhibition pots are always one of a kind by virtue of their serendipitous journey,” he says.
His studio guests for the tour dates are Kelly Potter and Sanah Petersen. The appropriately named Potter has a studio in Holyoke MA and assists with wood firings both in Cornwall Bridge and Goshen MA. She is one of those kids who never got over playing in the mud since she discovered clay in the backyard stream of her West Stockbridge childhood home. Both a ceramicist and sculptor, her works include depictions of animals and amphibians.
Sanah Petersen, who also works in the Cornwall Bridge Pottery, spent a nomadic childhood in Africa and Asia that exposed her to many different worlds and ways of living. She credits an “unending interest” in her surroundings to this upbringing.
“My focus is mostly on functional ware, from mugs and teapots to dinner ware, but I am known to dabble in sculpture here and there. My work is a result of constant experimentation,” she said.
In Washington, Will Talbot works to create pieces of art that are useful on a daily basis. “The idea is that if you are pouring tea out of a handmade teapot into a thought-out mug, you will be able to taste and feel the difference of your tea,” he said. But cups and tea pots are not his only focus: he makes everything from bowls to plates and uses soda and wood firings to creates unique surfaces.
Alison Palmer in South Kent will be joined by two guests, painter/potter Kathy Wismar and maker of small sculptures Missy Stevens. Palmer, herself, says she strives for a lighthearted meld of human forms and animals with her vessels. The anthropomorphic figures are developed by hand-building or throwing the clay. All are either wood or soda fired. “The atmosphere of the soda, fire and ash contribute to the spontaneous and unpredictable finish that gives the pieces a primitive, elemental look,” she says.
Stevens, on the other hand, likes surface decoration that tells a story, celebrations of the magical elements of the natural world while Wismar says she loves color and texture that reflect moods. “My clay work is functional,” she said. “Use it on the dinner table. Display it as an accent. Place a bouquet of your garden flowers in a vase that adds color and panache to your home.”
Back in Wingdale NY Drew Montgomery has resumed an interest in pottery developed in his teen years in Brooklyn when he took pottery classes at Greenwich House Pottery. Returning to the Pottery many years later, he was quickly hooked and spent five years developing his throwing techniques. Moving to Pawling in 2013, Drew re-opened the pottery studio at Webatuck Craft Village and has introduced classes there. He makes a variety of items such as horsehair pottery (unglazed pottery the surface of which has burnish with an application of Terra Sigilatta), bowls of different designs and tankards.