Ledesma gallery plans clay workshops

Lions decorate a teapot by Washington Ledesma. — Photo courtesy of Alida O'Loughlin

The Three Potters, an internationally diverse trio of artisans, will offer a Clay Intensive series of workshops at the Washington Ledesma Gallery in Oak Bluffs.

On Wednesday, August 1, Mr. Ledesma, an Uruguayan who teaches pottery at Featherstone Center for the Arts, offers The Joy of Clay. On Thursday, August 2, Irishman Bill O’Callaghan will lead Build your own Castle in the morning, and in the afternoon Japanese-born Hiroshi Nakayama will present The Art of Japanese Pottery.

The three master potters will follow up their workshops with a show at the Ledesma Gallery opening on Friday, August 3. This is the third year the long-time friends will display their work together.

Born and raised in Montevideo, Uruguay, Mr. Ledesma has provided the inspiration for this unique event. During the years when he traveled across the U.S. to display his work on the craft fair circuit, he met Mr. Nakayama, who grew up in Japan but learned how to throw pots in Argentina. The two artists developed a friendship that has lasted 25 years. Once Mr. Ledesma moved to Martha’s Vineyard, he met Mr. O’Callaghan, who is an Irish native now living on the Island, and they quickly became friends, too.

Each of the three produces pottery in a distinctly different style that will inform their workshops. Mr. Ledesma has built a reputation for his colorful, folk-art inspired work. Best described as minimalist, Mr. Nakayama, who lives in Worthington, has his own clay formula. He takes a quieter approach that suggests a Japanese influence, although his glazes and technique are his own. Mr. O’Callaghan’s signature work consists of whimsical castles that have a touch of the magic and humor found in Irish storytelling. He likes to take advantage of the natural color of the clay he uses. His new studio opened recently at 696 Main Street in Vineyard Haven.

Last week Mr. Ledesma, who studied at the Montevideo School of Fine Art, shared some of his considerable knowledge about the complex and exacting work of making art out of clay. “When a person touches the clay it is very therapeutic,” he says. “As the Japanese say, the clay comes alive.” Some potters use forms, but he prefers working with his hands, building clay by hand or working on the potter’s wheel. He remembers when one of his students told him working with clay was like baking bread. Her work ended up filled with bubbles, good for bread but not pottery.

“You have to get all the bubbles out, or it will explode,” Mr. Ledesma, who speaks with a South American accent, warned with a smile. While talking about the proper use of potter’s tools, the potter said he once saw something white in a mass of clay he was about to use. It turned out to be a chamois cloth used to smooth a work.

Those are blatant examples of mishaps likely to happen in an art form that demands perfection. A potter never knows if a piece of work that has taken hours to design will crack or explode during the firing process because of air bubbles or from some other imperfection in glazing or painting.

Every surface in the workshop area of Mr. Ledesma’s studio is covered with works in different states of progress, since he usually has many projects going at the same time. Some take the pure, greenware form of unfired clay. Others look mottled with colors that make up his special underglazing. Others are waiting for sgrafitto, the etching technique that creates patterns on the surface of an object.

Mr. Ledesma’s work goes into one of his four kilns for firing only once. Many potters fire their work twice, once to harden the clay and a second time after application of the glazing, painting and other decorative elements. Finishing the piece before a single firing as Mr. Ledesma does suggests the level of his expertise.

While Mr. Ledesma’s kilns are electric –– each is a different size –– potters can also use gas-fired and wood-fired kilns. One of his kilns was partially loaded with work, which has to be carefully stacked and arranged so that, in effect, it floats during the firing process.

In addition to the large sculptures that are his favorites, Mr. Ledesma makes teapots, soap dishes, jewelry, and healing stones. In addition to showing work at his studio and on the Featherstone campus, he exhibits at Night Heron, Vineyard Haven’s cooperative gallery, and on Thursdays at the Artisans Festival.

“I need to exercise my hands,” Mr. Ledesma says. Like pianists and violinists, potters must safeguard the critical instruments of their profession. Yet they must also perform many other tasks in addition to working the clay; these include underpainting, overpainting, burnishing with an agate stone or smoothing surfaces with a chamois cloth and doing sgraffiti. “I need to have the humor to do this,” he says.

The potter regrets that no one on the Island is making architectural ceramics, by which he means ceramic walls, door decorations, handmade tiles or other architectural elements. He calls it an American –– in particular, New England –– bias against the practice. “We need to break through that prejudice,” he says.

Clay Intensive workshops at Washington Ledesma Gallery, 5 Murrant Ave., Oak Bluffs. Wednesday, August 1, 1–4 pm, The Joy of Clay with Washington Ledesma; Thursday, August 2, 9 am–12 noon, Build Your Own Castle with Bill O’Callaghan; Thursday, August 2, 1–4 pm, The Art of Japanese Pottery with Hiroshi Nakayama. Workshops limited to 8 people each. To register or for information, call 508-560-2648.

The Three Potters, opening Friday, August 3, 5–8 pm; Saturday, August 4, 10 am–5 pm; Sunday, August 5, 10 am–5 pm.