The potters’ field: Ceramic artists have an earthy take on building community outside the gallery culture

Fine lines

“Pottery has a negative connotation in a lot of worlds,” Randy Bill, the founder of City Clay, said. “But as far as I know, clay is just a material; it’s what you do with it.”

Because UVA doesn’t teach pottery as a fine art, serious practitioners of the skill have been drawn to the area organically. Bill founded City Clay in 2011 as a place that would allow beginners to discover the art form but also give more advanced artists access to some of the expensive equipment they need. Charlottesville potters look to City Clay with the hope that the more people learn about clay, the more they will appreciate its value.

“There is no differentiation. I rail against the notion that craft is not art. It truly is one in the same,” Janice Arone, potter and co-owner of The Barnswallow said.

However, the perception can affect what customers are willing to pay for a piece of pottery.

“Most of the people are asking for the same price as a Walmart price,” said Nagakui.

Suzanne Crane put it a little more diplomatically: “There has been a lack of opportunity for Charlottesville citizens to see and understand high end, really well-made craft, and therefore to understand the prices,” she said. “So City Clay is fantastic. The more people who take classes in clay, the more people understand clay.”

As Clarkson made clear, it’s never easy for ceramic artists to make a living, but there is a sense that people are starting to evolve their expectations about what handmade pottery should cost.

“It’s our fault. I don’t know necessarily how to make people appreciate what I do because as soon as I start talking about my process, it’s so technical, you glaze people over,” Ilsin said, no pun intended. “With the development of City Clay, hopefully the appreciation is rising.”

Not only is the appreciation rising due to spaces like City Clay and the program at PVCC, but participation is as well.

PVCC art professor Tom Clarkson, whose work is often inspired by materials and textures he sees in nature, has mentored many of the area’s best potters, including Alp Ilsin of Budala Pottery in Belmont and Suzanne Crane of Mud Dauber Pottery in Earlysville. Photo: Elli Williams.

“I think people get their hands dirty and see what a wonderful material clay is. The more people who can get involved the better it is,” Clarkson said.

Whether it is novelty or finding one’s voice, these makers are undeniably creative. They use plants and tree bark, local red clay, car mats, crystals, spit, and beer bottle openers to create their art. Each maker’s work is as unique as the hands that created it.

While the potters themselves are constantly innovating and evolving, so is the Charlottesville pottery community as a whole.

“Charlottesville was a hard town to sell pots in,” Crowe said of his past 40-some years in the area. “It’s great with 2-D, film, literature, poetry, theater, but it didn’t have much of a nurturing support base for ceramics when I got here. And that’s changed somewhat.”

As a young face in the ceramics community, Ilsin sees a bright future clouded with new types of challenges. How do you sell your pottery in a crowded online market? What new technologies can augment the handmade forms? But he’s hopeful that a resurgence in the appreciation of the concrete manifestations of the creative processes some people call craft will help the ceramic artists. He even has a sense of humor about it.

“I think that more than surviving it will grow. We might actually be starting a new wave now. There’s a new generation of people who value handmade work,” Ilsin said. “And perhaps that in the end will give way to 3D printing.”

Kevin Crowe may have arrived a rash young man with a singular dream, but the scene that has grown up around him has made him a wise old hand. For Crowe, the timeless value of his art form lies in its utter practicality, the fact that his pottery winds up in the hands of the friends and family that make up his community, providing the opportunity for moments to share food, to share a drink, to relate to each other, and to replenish.

“It was a slow shift, so I wasn’t aware of it year to year, but now when I look back I see that’s it’s been profound,” Crowe said. “I think those quiet subtle differences that sort of change our compass, the way we relate to each other, that we relate to culture, are the ones that really have a lasting effect, that take a real strong hold. They’re not subject to change in aesthetics or fads or fashion or quick cultural shifts. I think that they’re deep and they’re profound and they’re the ones we tend to chew on.”

Learn more about local pottery

Alp Ilsin, Budala Porcelain

Kevin Crowe, Tye River Pottery 

Ken Nagakui, Karematsu 

Suzanne Crane, Mud Dauber Pottery 

Janice Arone, The Barn Swallow 

Nan Rothwell

Randy Bill, City Clay

Posted In:     Arts


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