A handmade tale at Chilmark Pottery

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For Chilmark Pottery, this September proved better than high-season July. Owner Geoffrey Borr attributes the fact to climate change, finding that weather is the one constant in sales. “It becomes a chore to shop when it’s over 80°,” he suggests.

This signature pottery studio has been located in West Tisbury for more than 30 years, despite the name. Borr explains that he started his business in Chilmark when he moved to the Island in 1982, then settled in West Tisbury but kept the Chilmark name. Passersby will notice a nearly perpetual sale sign at the intersection of State Road and Field View Lane, where the studio is located because, Borr says, it brings in customers, and there is always work for sale. One unusual item is Bitten Coins, which serve as gift certificates. A pun on bitcoins, they’re made of clay with real bite marks, sometimes as big as coasters.

“I can remember the first time I saw a pottery display at Old Sturbridge Village,” Borr recalls. He was 4 years old, and it made an impression. Later a friend became a ceramics major in college, and that got him seriously interested. Borr took a six-week pottery class, then another, followed by a few workshops. He was living in Cambridge, teaching yoga, when he began to work with clay in 1972.

Borr works predominantly on a pottery wheel, doing some hand building and slip casting as well. Slip casting is when clay is poured into a plaster mold to create an object. He uses a gas kiln and four electric ones to fire his pots. Borr works with two types of clay: high-fire stoneware and porcelain. The stoneware has grit, known as grog, with fine-mesh particles. “Porcelain is a most luscious-feeling clay, smooth and creamy,” he says; he just bought 1,000 pounds of porcelain clay.

Although Borr has taught classes in the past, he didn’t this year, preferring to trade wheel time for labor at the shop, helping people when they needed it or asked for it. “I’m more interested in internships,” he says, “because I get to work with people over a larger expanse of time and have the opportunity to see more significant progress.” Next year he is considering holding a daily class from 9 to 10:30 am.

“I learn through making mistakes,” Borr says.

His pottery is not tied to any one style. “Our customers guide us,” he says. He finds that people are most interested in the glaze used. The color created by a glaze is what they see first, before form. “We like to make new glazes,” he says. “A lot of my best ideas come from my customers.” He also draws ideas from nature, books, and online sources. “Ideas come from different directions. Chance favors the prepared,” he says, using one of the aphorisms that pepper his conversation.

In 2009 Borr suffered from a form of nerve entrapment in his arm and neck that kept him from throwing pots. He had always wanted to travel to Asia, so he Googled “pottery-producing areas in Southeast Asia,” and eventually visited all of them, including China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. He went to Jingdezhen, China, three or four times, because it served as the imperial center for ceramics for more than 1,000 years. Pottery from China and Vietnam is for sale at the studio.

In addition to working as a potter, Borr describes himself as having a lot of “useless skills.” They include juggling, competitive table tennis, and tournament chess. And he plays Scrabble with his 88-year-old neighbor. “When I’m doing pottery, I’m doing yoga,” he adds. He also calls making pottery a form of meditation.

One of his summer employees is Yolanda Jackson from Mobile, Ala. Trained as a graphic designer, for three summers she has carved patterns into pots, as well as performing many other tasks for the shop. Borr describes her as a very versatile decorator. Juan Corts has been on the staff for 16 years, making glazes, loading kilns and repairing them, and his son Gonzalo helps out in the summer. “I’m the decider,” Borr says to describe his relationship with them.

On Oct. 31, Borr will close Chilmark Pottery for the season and head to Southeast Asia and the Philippines. Chilmark Pottery will reopen in April.