by Charles McGuigan
There’s something about clay, and the art of the potter.
For one thing, it’s an ancient form of utility and expression, maybe the earliest of all the plastic arts. The Venus of Dolní Věstonice, a statuette of a nude female figure discovered in the Czech Republic, was molded and fired more than 30,000 years ago. And in a cave in Jiangxi, China, archaeologists unearthed the oldest piece of pottery ever shaped by human hands—a piece of cookware made in China (as all things are, right?) more than 20,000 years ago.
Then there’s the clay itself, a unique substance, a blending of earth and its inhabitants. It’s created where ancient waters once flowed. Waters which pulverized into powder minerals from the crust of the planet along with the remains of plants and animals, mixing it all together, and under time and pressure, forming a thick, thoroughly coalesced pudding.
And when potters scrape away this malleable fusion of the once living and the forever dead, and shape it with their hands, stretching it to its limits with water, and then fire it with oxygen—bringing together the four essential elements—they infuse this clump of mud with a new life, like mortal goddesses and gods. No wonder so many creation myths have the Deity sculpting human beings out of clay. From the Sumerian Enki to the Greek Prometheus, from China’s Nuwa to the Incan Viacocha. And, of course, the god of the Jews, Elohim, who “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
Early next month (June 3 and 4) during the second annual RVAClay Studio Tour, you can meet Richmond’s gods and goddesses, and the clay vessels they create.
More than one hundred clay artists will show their wares in twenty-one different locations. Though the vast majority of the studios on the tour are located in Richmond and its contiguous counties, several are out in New Kent, Hanover and beyond. “We call them the outliers,” says Leslie Messersmith, a potter herself, who does a lot of the public relations for the Studio Tour.
The works that will be shown at the studios represent every conceivable kind of pottery and every level of expertise. “That includes instructors and their students,” says Leslie. “These are students who are taking pottery classes and are proficient enough to show their work. We probably have about seventy professional artists. It’s amazing, and the variety of work is incredible.” This year’s Studio Tour is sponsored by The Visual Arts Center of Richmond, 43rd Street Gallery, Rosewood Pottery, Crossroads Art Center, Clayworks Supplies, Inc.
Among those showing their work will be stalwarts of the craft like Robin Cage, Lee Hazelgrove, Scott Meredith, and, of course, Leslie Messersmith. “It’s very exciting, and one of the things that it’s done for us as potters is it’s kind of brought us together,” Leslie says. “Potters are very supportive of one another.”
She recommends that people interested in attending the Studio Tour visit the website, and check out the map. “It’s interactive,” she says. “And when you go there and select a number, it will tell you the name of the studio, and you can see who’s showing there.”
Woodland Heights Studio is on that map, and on a cool and rainy Sunday in late April as night falls, I visit this studio, and the showroom, which is located in the adjacent house, and get a chance to listen to three clay artists—Kay Franz, Nga Nguyen-Weaver, and Carren Clarke-McAdoo.
Nga and Carren, sisters of the art, work out of Woodland Heights Studio.
“Nga and I have known one another for about twenty years,” says Carren.
As a matter, it was Nga who taught Carren the rudiments of clay art.
Two decades ago, Carren happened to be watching Virginia Currents, then hosted by May Lily Lee. One of her guests that night was Nga, who, at the time, owned Richmond Pottery. Carren was instantly drawn in, and signed up for a class.
Carren, who is also a culinary artist with a degree from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, had an inspiration about bowls as she watched Nga throw clay.
“I’m going to make all of these bowls to correspond with food,” Carren thought. “Because people eat with their eyes.”
But to get the clay to rise out of a formless mass into a bowl or other vessel was much more daunting than Carren imagined.
“I cried a couple of times the first year,” Carren remembers. Try as she would, the bowls, in their moist state, would simply collapse in upon themselves, or fold outward.
And then one day, a year into it, Carren had a Eureka! moment. “All of a sudden it clicked,” she says. “You have a ball of clay, and you put it on a wheel, and you’re spinning it around. But all of that clay is not going in the same direction. It’s all over the place until you start pushing and pulling, until it all starts going in the same direction.”
Once that happens a potter can lead the clay like a pied piper.
Since that day, Carren’s affair with the medium has become deeper and deeper. “I’m in love with clay,” she says. “Nga started to look at how I was crafting my work, and how to fine tune it.”
And Nga kept pushing her. “Once I learned how to make a bowl, or a cup with a handle, she said, ‘Go bigger and bigger, stretch yourself,’” Carren recalls.
Which is what Carren did. She took classes from Alpha Sow in Senegal, and Masani in Ghana, both renowned potters from Africa. “Regardless what country you’re in, clay still speaks the same language, but it speaks differently,” says Carren.
When she returned from Senegal seven years ago, Carren began incorporating faces in some of her work, and her work began taking on a more sculptural quality. “I have the best of both worlds,” she says. “I’m coming from a background of throwing, and now I have the opportunity to slab and create faces, and intertwine function with sculpture. So I always play around with the words function with flair.”
The woman who enticed Carren into the clay arts is sitting next to her at this dining next to her at this dining room table.
From the time she was a little girl, Nga possessed that creative spark which set her apart from others. “Throughout my education it was recognized that I had talent in the arts, from elementary school all the way through,” she says.
Nga tried a practical route in the arts, with the notion of becoming an architect. She attended Mary Washington College for two years, studying liberal arts, and then transferred to VCU where she studied interior design, a sort of stepping stone to architecture. “But the immediate creativity satisfaction for me was not there,” she says. “So I switched over to ceramics. VCU at the time was very art-oriented; but I like functional, practical pieces. Pieces to eat from, to use every day.”
Nga is an expert at throwing pottery, and her glazes are incomparable, including one which is like the ocean surrounding Bora Bora. That particular glaze adorns her carved wave mugs, one of her signature pieces.
“I think that people eat with their eyes,” Carren says, again. “You connect with it, and it’s all about connection.”
“That’s why I do the functional aspect of clay,” Nga says, nodding. “Because I like using it.”
Shortly after graduating from VCU, Nga did a summer-long apprenticeship with a potter up in Maine to learn production
work. After spending a couple more years working with another production potter in New Hampshire, Nga returned to Richmond, purchased Richmond Pottery, and began establishing herself as a potter. After marrying and starting a family, Nga sold Richmond Pottery.
Carren’s listening closely to Nga’s narrative. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my God what am I going to do?’” Carren says. For six months after Nga sold the pottery, the pair, who had worked together side by side for years, were silent. Then Nga said to Carren, “Why don’t you just build a studio in the backyard and we can do work there?”
“So I built the studio from the ground up,” says Carren. “We built it, got all the equipment in, and the first three years were rough. But then we developed an audience and a following.” That was the birth of Woodland Heights Studio.
“I’ve learned so much from her,” Carren says of Nga. “And I love how we balance each another. You need that outside person that knows you.
I turn to Kay Franz, the third in this trio of clay artists. She grew up down in what was once tobacco country, right on the North Carolina border, in Halifax. She studied ceramics in college, and spent much of her professional career at the Martin Agency.
“I went to school with the intent of going into commercial art so I could be practical, and never took a class in commercial art the whole time I was there,” says Kay. “My first sculpture class was bronze casting, and I did not respond to it. The part I liked was working in the clay, and then I took a pottery course. Once I started hand building I didn’t want to get on the wheel.”
Since that time, Kay has been creating sculptural clay works. “To me it’s a very meditative process,” she says, then recalls the very first piece she make of coiled clay. “It was not the prettiest piece in the world,” she says. “But, I remember looking at it, and thinking, ‘God, I see myself in this piece.’ I could see my energy in the piece. No other art process had responded to my touch the way clay did.”
Kay steered clear of throwing pottery, and instead focused on sculpting clay. “It’s wheel work in slow motion,” she says of her craft. “It’s the pace, that slow deliberate pace. Wheel work felt too fast.” Of her work, she says, “It’s kind of a cross between sculpture and potter. Even though I don’t do functional work, I consider my work bowing and nodding to the functional process.”
And then Kay Franz says this of her chosen medium: “I like to think of it as mud and water, as earth and water. It is tactile and pliable, and responsive to your touch. It is alive, it feels alive. It is the elements in all of us.”