Art From the Earth
May – June 2015
Pottery makers draw inspiration from Nevada’s environment, culture.
BY JOHN SEELMEYER
When she was a schoolgirl, Las Vegas pottery maker Donna Potter persisted in choosing a purple crayon to color mountains despite the urging of adults who tried to convince her that mountains are brown. A native Nevadan, Donna knew better. The ever-changing purple of Nevada’s mountains, the spare desert environment, and the dramatic colors of the state’s sunrises and sunsets profoundly influence the work of pottery-makers like Donna across the state. Other potters draw equally powerful inspiration from Nevada’s human environment—its role as a crossroads of the world’s cultures as well as the bright lights of its casinos and slot machines.
Vibrant communities of potters across Nevada—and not just in its big cities—are pushing one another to reach new heights, teach- ing one another the often-difficult craft of working with clay, and supporting one another as they open new markets for the sale of their work. The flowering of a community of potters in Nevada is deep-rooted. Many trace its development to the arrival of David Parks, a teacher at Knox College in Illinois who was inspired in the mid- 1960s to launch the Tuscarora Pottery School in a near-ghost town 52 miles north of Elko.
Hundreds of potters from around the world have attended two- week sessions at the school, which currently is overseen by second-generation potter Ben Parks. Early-day students at the school were sent off into the nearby hills to dig their own clay, and the mountainsides of northeastern Nevada continue to be reflected in the pottery produced by Ben Parks.
“My personal aesthetic is influenced by the colors and the geography of the landscape,” he says. The soda-kiln technique used by Ben to fire his work creates an earthy, natural finish reminiscent of the colors and patterns of lichen on Nevada’s rock. The purple of Nevada’s mountains and the gold of its deserts, meanwhile, play out in the work of Donna Potter.
“I have always been taken by the colors of our sunrises and sunsets,” says the Las Vegas ceramics artist.
Man Duong, a Las Vegas potter known for her “om vases,” says the low, simple round vases reflect the spare environment and subtle earth tones of Nevada’s deserts. Even the traditional porcelain created by Henderson potter Amy Kline draws inspiration from the Nevada landscape. “My sculptural work in porcelain is leaning more toward capturing the intense light and shadow I’ve experienced since moving to the state of Nevada in my 20s,” Amy says. She learned the craft of porcelain from Tom Coleman, an internationally known ceramic artist who works with his wife Elaine in a Henderson studio.
ART IMITATES LIFE
The culture of Nevada provides another strong set of influences on the state’s ceramic artists. Joan Arrizabalaga, a native Nevadan who worked for years as wardrobe mistress at Harrah’s Reno, is known for the ceramic slot machines she has been creating since the 1960s.
Michelle Houk, a potter and clay sculptor who moved to Las Vegas seven years ago, has been wowed by the cultural diversity. It plays out, for example, in work inspired by the Mexican observance of Dia de Muertos.
“I’m just really inspired by Day of the Dead,” Michelle says.
Joe Winter, a Reno-area potter, finds a growing business meeting the needs of a new element of Nevada’s culture. He creates ceramic whiskey jugs for Sparks-based 7 Troughs Distillery and distinctive growlers for craft brewers through the West. As those pieces are fired, the glazes and the chemistry of Joe’s salt-fired kiln combine to evoke the Nevada landscape.
The Nevada Clay Guild, which had its start in Las Vegas 25 years ago, today numbers close to 100 members. They include hobbyists who work at day jobs ranging from engineering to gaming management as well as potters who are making something close to a fulltime living from their art. “It’s important to nurture a sense of community among the pot- ters who are living here,” says Rita Lambros, president of the guild. Members of the group share tips about creative inspiration, mar- keting and the fundamentals of a craft that can be maddeningly difficult even for experienced potters.
“Potters,” Rita says, “need to cope with failure.”
The community of potters now encompasses galleries; teachers in high school, community college, and university ceramics pro- grams; and many newcomers. Many, many newcomers. Classes in beginning pottery at The Wedge—a four-year-old studio in Reno—are full every month, says Samantha Stremmel, who launched the studio with her husband, Sutter.
The membership-based studio struggled to survive for a couple of years, Samantha says, but it’s bursting at the seams these days as potters seek a convivial place to work. The development of a distinctive, strong community of potters in Nevada is beginning to draw more attention from buyers. Some of the growth in sales reflects the economic rebound and the simple fact that folks have more money to spend on art for their homes, says Man.
But Donna notes, too, that consumers in Nevada and elsewhere have a growing appreciation of the value of handcrafted ceramics in their homes, whether it’s a functional piece such as a bowl or sculpted piece of ceramic art.
More doors are opened every year when the Nevada Clay Guild partners with Las Vegas Catholic Worker in the Empty Bowl fund- raiser to aid the poor and hungry. About 2,500 handcrafted bowls are sold during the event, many of them to buyers who are new to ceramic arts. They’re among a growing number who see something special beginning to develop in Nevada’s artistic community.
“The art scene here is starting to bloom,” says Michelle. “The work coming out of Nevada these days is really good.”
WHERE TO SEE IT, WHERE TO BUY IT
The Artists Coop Gallery 627 Mill St.
Reno, NV 89502
121 California Ave.
Reno, NV 89509
By appointment at the artist’s studio:
16620 Fetlock Drive
Reno, NV 89508
Amy Kline klineporcelaingallery.com 702-685-7573
The Wedge Ceramics Studio 2095 Dickerson Road
Reno, NV 89503
Oats Park Arts Center 151 E. Park Street Fallon, NV 89406 joanarrizabalaga.com
Gaia Flowers Gifts Art 6 E. Charleston Blvd. Las Vegas, NV 89104 gaiaflowers.com
Jana’s Red Room Gallery
107 E. Charleston Blvd., Suite 135 Las Vegas, NV 80104 janasredroom.com
MORE NEVADA POTTERY
Carson City Pottery 248 E. Winnie Lane Carson City, NV 89701 carsoncitypottery.com 775-313-8628
Planet X Pottery
8100 Hwy 447
Gerlach, NV 89412 planetxpottery.net 775-442-1919
Clay Arts Vegas
1511 S. Main St.
Las Vegas, NV 89014 clayartsvegas.com 702-375-4147