Pottery is one of the oldest human inventions in the entire world, with vessels dating as far back as 30,000 years. Although these first pots were molded by hand and exclusively utilitarian in nature, the invention of the potter’s wheel (between 6,000 and 4,000 BC) allowed clay makers to explore creative uses for pottery, such as sculpture and figurines.
“Throwing” pottery, as we may recall from the movie Ghost, involves throwing wet clay onto the base of a spinning wheel and centering it, forcing it by hand to “spin true”. Potters use their thumbs to make the floor inside the bottom of the vessel, then pull it up to create a cylinder.
Once the desired shape is achieved, the object is dried and fired in a kiln to remove all moisture and create a lasting, durable product. Temperatures range from 1,000 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on whether the clay object is to become earthenware, stoneware or porcelain. All three types can be glazed or left unglazed, depending on their purpose.
Working with one’s hands to shape earthen materials such as clay, stone, wood — and even kneading bread dough — is a universal desire and profoundly satisfying. Here in the New River Valley, many aspiring artisans have discovered pottery to connect to the earth and create something soul-soothing and enduring.
The Pottery Studio at the YMCA at Virginia Tech is a great place for locals to try their hand at pottery, offering monthly memberships for $55. All clay must be purchased in-house, and each bag of clay includes the cost of studio materials, glazes and firing fees.
Aside from access to all the tools, shelf space, hand building tables and glazes, members also enjoy the opportunity to gain inspiration and mentorship from one another. “The YMCA at Virginia Tech is proud to continue providing this resource to the community. Our pottery studio provides a place for emerging potters, hobbyists and artisans to fully engage in the joy of creating with clay,” says Ryan Martin, executive director.
Another place to be inspired by beautiful pottery and works of art is Matrix Gallery Fine Crafts in downtown Blacksburg. Gallery owner Lana Juarez has a degree in Fine Arts from Virginia Tech, and sold her own creations at juried craft shows throughout the region when she was first starting out in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“I met so many talented people,” she explains, “that I was motivated to open a crafts gallery of my own.” Lana and two partners opened Matrix Gallery Fine Crafts in 1987, and she eventually bought them out and is the sole owner.
“As the gallery has grown in reputation, I have been fortunate to have skilled artisans bring their work to me, though I continue to meet fantastic local and regional artists on the craft show circuit,” she relates. “I travel to wholesale craft shows to round out a great selection, especially when my local artists can’t get work to me due to busy craft show schedules … which is understandably a priority for many of them.”
David Crane, a recently retired ceramics professor in the art department at Virginia Tech, is a highly talented local potter whose work is often featured at Matrix Gallery. David brings a modern and geometric style to his creations, which are fired in a high temperature salt kiln. Many of the nationally known artists who participate in the 16 Hands Studio Tour in Floyd are also frequently featured. The website, www.16hands.com, presents a gorgeous showcase of their unique works.
Offered twice yearly, the 16 Hands Studio Tour invites curious visitors into the studios of craftsmen who make their homes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Much like a living museum, the studios are places of awe, where treasures are made and friendships are forged.
Sarah McCarthy is a member of 16 Hands and in addition to being a potter, she is a Zen student, tea afficionado and cyclist. If you look under the bottom of her vessels, you will often see an inspirational quote from the Buddhist teachings. The natural patina of the clay comes through in her pottery, and the childlike paintings that adorn them add a colorful sense of whimsy, with a nod to the art and culture of Latin America.
The sky (or perhaps the earth?) is the limit when it comes to pottery. From applying laser decals, to using glow-in-the-dark glaze — the future is dazzling. Artists have also begun making impossibly fragile forms out of “paperclay” – which is made from blending toilet paper (!) and warm water with a clay slurry, which makes the art object stronger and more uniform during the drying process, thus less likely to break or crack before making it to the kiln.
And alas, though the technology is far from perfect, 3-D printed clay is on the horizon.
Text by Emily K. Alberts
Photos courtesy of Sarah McCarthy Pottery
Freelance writer Emily Alberts only personally experiences clay in watching the Claymation Christmas movies every year.