25 years at the wheel

Geoffrey Borr
Geoffrey Borr is focused on his wheel work at Chilmark Pottery. Photo by Brian Jolley

By Tamar Russell - August 23, 2007

The gallery at Chilmark Pottery, past a lovely field beside a little dirt road off of State Road in West Tisbury, is filled with colors. The porch from the outside is an overwhelming array of blues where an ongoing red dot sale takes place. The gallery itself draws customers of all sorts and for this reason an audience with owner Geoffrey Borr is difficult to obtain. So I settled for an off-sight interview one Tuesday morning in August.

Early every morning in Vineyard Haven, various Island characters can be found on Main Street. Some walking around, others lingering at the early morning coffee mecca, Mocha Mott's, and still others coming and going from the gym at the Mansion House. Geoffrey Borr is one of those people. So over coffee at 6:30 am last Tuesday we discussed the theory and practice behind Chilmark Pottery.

Mr. Borr, originally from Newton, has been on the Island since the beginning of the 80s. After summering here with friends in Aquinnah in 1980, he purchased a house here in 1982 in Chilmark and started Chilmark Pottery. "Pottery provided me with an opportunity to make a living," he said. And so it has.

Chilmark Pottery
The porch in front of Chilmark Pottery holds vessels of all sorts for country living, all part of a continuous red tag sale.

The connection to pottery has a long-time history in Mr. Borr's life. "I remember when I was 4 or 5 years old watching a potter working at a wheel in Sturbridge Village," he recalled. He then started his own pottery work in the 70s. One of the places to get him going was Mudflat Pottery in Cambridge, which at the time had 20 potters wheels and plenty of opportunities to learn. He reminisced that the first time he tried he was able to create a centric pot.

By 1972 he had purchased his own wheel, began teaching high school kids, and selling his wares. "Initially you need to have the technical skills but with time a person hones his personal skills and taste," Mr. Borr commented further adding that over time one develops a "vocabulary for the medium."

In addition to pottery, he also practiced and taught yoga during this time. This has added to his ability to throw all these years, as working the potter's wheel is quite athletic, according to Mr. Borr. He went on to explain the physical toll that working a potter's wheel takes - the body is tilted forward with great pressure on the neck and back and the elbows take the strain.

But his interest in pottery has never diminished. "I still have a passion for it," he stated, adding that when the summer hits and interested visitors arrive, he is encouraged and stimulated by their curiosity and questions. This drive to create pottery has continued until now - the 25th year anniversary of Chilmark Pottery. After a few physical issues this year, he has taken it easier with the production work in the studio. "After over 10 years in the business, how does one approach it? Maybe more from a designer's standpoint and not so much as a producer," he mused. But for all those 25 years, he never thought he would do anything else.

The business and production of pottery has many layers. Not only is there throwing, there are also multiple layers after that - cutting, adding handles, firing, glaze work, not to mention ordering, paperwork, selling, etc. The business itself is an expensive process to continue. Mr. Borr says in the past he has had many helpers, sales people, and interns. This year he only has two interns. "In the past I used to be very busy. Sometimes as many as 30 people a summer would ask for work, without me having to advertise anywhere for help," he recalled.

At the end of our conversation, we moved onto the topic of value; what determines the value of a piece. As our chat moved in this direction, Mr. Borr brought up trading on the stock market and how to read charts. He has been doing this recently in addition to his pottery. Much like the contours, acceleration and deceleration, the tension and relaxation in creating pottery, trading has similar flows, he reported. It has kept Mr. Borr busy in the past months when he was not as able to throw ceramics.

"It is not a clear question how to put value on something. The more you think about cost, the more it devalues it," Mr. Borr stated. He says he tries to keep his prices reasonable, but unlike cars, the value of what he makes does not depreciate. This care for the customer and relaxed manner, in addition to Mr. Borr's awareness of his medium and its value, are fine reasons to visit Chilmark Pottery. As the summer winds down to a close, certainly Mr. Borr's readiness to discuss his art does not.

Chilmark Pottery is located across the road from Nip n' Tuck Farm in West Tisbury off of Field View Lane. Hours are 9:30 to 5 pm daily, Sundays 11 to 5 pm. For more information call 508-693-6476.