Above: Center, Jeanne Walsh prepares to throw a pot at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. Bottom left, a beautifully finished vase done by Walsh. Left, Ingrid Hogan finds pottery reflective of life. Top left, one of Hogan’s works of art. Right, Janet & Clarke Weeks have different and distinctive styles in their ceramics work. Top right, a sample of Janet’s work; bottom right, one of Clarke’s creations. Photos by Isadora Pennington
Clarke & Janet Weeks
“Whatever you can think of, you can do,” ceramist Clarke Weeks said about the seemingly endless choices and variety of working with clay. “You’re only limited by your imagination.”
Ceramists work with clay—either as handbuilders, who assemble slabs of clay, or potters, who throws clay vessels on potters’ wheels. There are many different types of clay bodies, a variety of glazes, finishes and paints, and several different firing methods to choose from. Some artisans create functional pieces, such as vases and dinnerware, while others make pieces that are artistic, abstract or fantastical.
Clarke, a handbuilder, and his wife Janet take art classes at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, a DeKalb mansion-turned-art-center. Janet found out about the courses in 2003 and started taking watercolor, photography and pottery classes. “And I haven’t stopped since then,” Janet said. She convinced Clarke to join in three years later.
Her watercolor style is botanical illustration, usually based on insects, plants and animals in the garden or front yard of her Candler Park home. “I taught English for 32 years, and I love working with my hands,” she continued. “I crochet, I knit, I do watercolor, but working with your hands with clay is fabulous. It’s so relaxing.”
Janet’s creations are often anthropomorphized animals, including one series of nontraditional family-inspired figures that depict animals carrying babies of other species. Inspired by the adoption of their children, Janet incorporated the concepts she faced in her life into cute animal forms.
“With handbuilding, you almost never make the same thing twice. I made those two rabbits,” she said, indicating two blue porcelain rabbits. “I couldn’t replicate the first one exactly. I got close.”
Indeed, many things can — and often do — go wrong in the process, so artists must be ready to adapt.
“It’s an incredible medium,” said Clarke. “There’s a real physical pleasure in it, and it doesn’t always work. It’s not as easy as you think, and yet it’s something that anybody can conquer if you work at it.”
In stark comparison to the playful animals and figures made by his wife, Clarke’s style is distinctly architectural. In his day job, he works as a real estate broker and remodels houses, and his affinity for creating spaces translates into his artistic work as well.
Tiny clusters of castles connected by twisting stairwells reminiscent of Dr. Seuss illustrations, miniature mockups of buildings and houses, along with a handful of practical cups and vases are an example of Clarke’s handiwork.
“He’s constantly thinking about building things,” added Janet.
Some older adults use ceramics as a form of therapy as well as artistic expression.
“I have the art side and I have the analytical side,” mused fellow Callanwolde student Jeanne Walsh. “Sometimes I wonder about myself. This has been my therapy, my relaxation and an outlet.”
Walsh has taken classes in handbuilding and wheel throwing at Callanwolde since 1982. It was an escape from her high stress, problem-solving work as a Management and Program Analyst at the Center for Disease Control. Though she had always wanted to be an artist, as a young woman she pursued another interest as a political science major, and devoted herself to working in the government.
Her collection of pieces includes a number of uniquely decorated practical items — bowls, plates, mugs, lidded jars, pitchers, sponge holders, chip and dip bowls, piggy banks and more.
Walsh’s advice to newcomers is to simply give it a try by taking classes, and to be prepared for frustration.
“Sometimes the pottery gods are not with us, and we’re gonna flop a pot,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s going to be daunting, challenging, and — once the light bulb goes on — exhilarating. It’s something you can get lost in, and when something comes out of the glaze kiln and you have this beautiful piece of pottery, you get tremendous satisfaction.”
Allowing the pieces to evolve in your hands isn’t always easy, but seems to be uniquely freeing.
“It’s kind of a reflection of life,” said Callanwolde ceramics student Ingrid Hogan. “Life is not predictable, you have really limited control over life.” Hogan, now retired, was a German professor at Agnes Scott College where she first found a love for clay in classes at the school. Born and raised in Vienna, Austria, she relocated to the U.S. and immediately began teaching German.
What brought her to the U.S.? Her answer is simple: “Curiosity.” She wanted to see for herself what America was all about.
In the 40 years that followed, Hogan raised her children and cultivated a garden at her Stone Mountain lakeside home. Since her children have grown into adults, she has built a large collection of ceramic works.
In her ceramics, Hogan incorporates elements from her garden along with techniques or art forms that she finds inspirational, such as printmaking and Japanese brushwork.
“I love texture and I love to experiment, so some things work out and some things don’t,” she said. “You can find just about every weed that grows in my garden in my pots, and that’s because I love printmaking.”
Across town, students at MudFire Pottery Studio in Decatur churn out new ceramics works.
“Life-changing would be the best description of my time at MudFire,” said artist Thomas Fink. “I’ve been a member for many years, but several years ago I became an investor, which gave me 24/7 access to the studio. A month later, I got laid off from my corporate job and I’ve been a full-time potter ever since.”
Fink began working with clay when he took courses at a local university in 1973. At the time, he was teaching primary school at Media Friends School. He thought it was important for him, as a teacher of young children, to learn a new skill.
“As adults, even young adults, we forget how difficult it is to learn a new skill,” he said. “By learning something new, I could better relate to my students.”
While Fink may not have initially imagined himself working as an artist, it’s clear that the medium has become a central part of his life. “Creativity always adds value to one’s life,” he explained. “Making a vase, bowl, mug or et cetera, and starting with just a lump of clay is very satisfying.”
Fink’s advises new ceramists to “make pots, make more pots, then make even more pots.” By experimenting and sticking with it, he believes anyone can improve their ceramic skills.
The camaraderie and opportunities to learn at MudFire is important to him. “It’s an amazing community of ceramic artists of all ages and experience levels,” Fink said.
Another artisan who calls MudFire home is Adrina Richard, a renowned artist who has participated in many shows. One of her pieces, a basket, was purchased by the Georgia Council of the Arts and given to local writer Janisse Ray by Gov. Nathan Deal during the 2017 Arts and Humanities Award Ceremony.
Richard’s love for ceramics was sparked in 2004 when MudFire was located in Brookhaven.
“I think art is very important to everyone at every age, but I’d like to encourage seniors to explore new horizons,” she explained. “I didn’t have any art background and didn’t think I could ‘do’ art, but I’m now showing in the American Craft Council shows and other juried shows throughout the southeast, and I’m in some galleries as well. We’re never too old to learn, enjoy and appreciate art.”
Richard’s pieces are handbuilt and stamped, and she prefers to utilize stains rather than glazes to bring out the nuances in her designs. She artfully merges function with form, tradition with modernism, and minimalism with ornate patterns. Her designs are a mix of functional and aesthetic pieces.
She incorporates patterns from lace pieces that have been passed down to her by her family. A first-generation Armenian-American, Richard says that it’s through her ceramic pieces that she continues the legacy of her heritage.
“Pottery links the shaper, users and admirers together, forming a community that’s intrinsically human,” said Richard.
Ginger Birdsey, a fellow handbuilder, has focused on developing her work at MudFire for the past seven years. Prior to retiring, Birdsey was an educator at Callanwolde for 10 years and an art teacher at the Paideia School for 23 years before that. All told, she has been working with ceramics for the last 30 years or so.
During her teaching, she felt that clay was the most fun material to use with her students. It sparked an interest in her that has grown in the years since.
For me there are no challenges, per se,” Birdsey said of her creative process. “I channel the young kids I taught and work totally spontaneously. I have more ideas than time.”
While Birdsey has been getting her hands dirty with clay for several decades, she invites anyone who wants to try ceramics to do so. “Just do it,” she suggested.
Where to Build & Throw
980 Briarcliff Rd., Atlanta 30306, 678-701-6114
(click on’ Classes,’ then ‘School of Visual Arts,’ and then ‘Pottery and Ceramics’)
175 Laredo Dr., Decatur 30030, 404-377-8033
There are several other community centers and art school throughout north metro Atlanta that offer ceramics classes. Here are a few.
2050 Kennesaw Due West Rd., Kennesaw 30152, 770-514-5933
6400 Sugarloaf Pkwy., Bldg. 300, Duluth 30097, 770-623-6002
30 Atlanta St., Marietta 30060, 770-528-1444
5339 Chamblee Dunwoody Rd., Atlanta 30338, 770-394-3447
2534-D Royal Pl., Tucker 30084, 770-534-5436