All the elements

Chilmark Pottery explores the magic of clay.


Next year Geoffrey Borr will celebrate 40 years of making mugs, bowls, vases, lamps, and dozens of other items at Chilmark Pottery — 50, if you add his initial 10 years in Cambridge. Although based in West Tisbury, Chilmark Pottery has retained that name from when Geoffrey arrived on-Island in 1982 and started his business up-Island.

“The past two years I’ve made more pottery than ever,” this modest, 72-year-old artisan says. “I’ve been extremely productive.”

That may be partly because, as he explains in a conversation with one friendly customer, he’s cut out carbs — he says carbohydrates convert to sugar and sugar is a source of inflammation — and has one meal a day. Plus he’s developed an exercise regimen including squats with weights. “It feels like I’m aging backwards,” he says. “I have a lot more energy.” But, he adds, “a lot of people are retired by now. I don’t have an answer to the question of how long I’ll last.”

A lot of timing is involved in making pots. Humidity is also an issue, Geoffrey explains: “If the clay is too wet, it distorts. If it’s too dry, attachments will pop off.” He primarily uses a potter’s wheel, which he demonstrates, nimbly turning a lump of clay into a pot as the wheel rotates. He also does hand-building but not so much with items for sale. A third type is slip casting, which happens when you pour liquid clay into a plaster cast. “A bowl is easy to make; a teapot is more of a challenge,” he explains. With inflation, he’s had to increase prices, but “no one is complaining about my prices,” he says.

Geoffrey works with earthenware, which he defines as clay being fired at 1,800°; stoneware, which is fired at up to 2,350°; and porcelain, which is fired at 2,400° and higher. He says the clay is the same, although clay may come with elements of manganese, titanium, and iron. These three metals influence what Geoffrey calls the maturing of the clay. Porcelain also contains feldspar, flint, and kaolin, which can give it the capacity to become translucent. “It’s a question of what it picks up along the way,” he says.

He points to an illustration of Chinese Jun pottery in a recent issue of Arts of Asia magazine: “My work is so similar. I had no idea, and I’ve been working a long time. My pottery has been influenced by Jun ware without realizing it.” Geoffrey has visited China and other Asian countries, although not in the past two years, because of COVID. He gets his clay locally from Sheffield Pottery in Sheffield.

He explains the effects of glazes, which is a way to add color to a piece of pottery and is what most customers respond to first. The metal in the glaze is the most influential. “We tend to use multiple glazes to create more interesting effects,” he says.

One busy afternoon, Geoffrey points out to customers his bittencoins — a pun on bitcoins, the digital currency, but with real bite marks: “I call them ‘paleocrypto.’” Some customers have used them as gift certificates, he explains.

Customer Margaret Rietano, who summers on the Island, is a fan of Borr, as are most of his customers. She’s buying cups for use in the bathroom, one for toothbrushes and another for sipping. Carol Ann Smallwood, a houseguest of Rietano, is visiting the studio for the first time and plans to use the small cups she’s buying for makeup pencils, jewelry, and earrings. She also picks out mugs with no handles. “I love these mugs for coffee or tea,” she says. “I like to hold them in the winter,” which she demonstrates by cupping the mug with her hands.

Although Geoffrey has offered workshops in the past, he prefers internships or apprenticeships. “To teach four to six classes is not that satisfying,” he says. “It’s more satisfying to teach people who will be around for a while, so I can see some progress.” Asked if he advertises, his answer is, “Zero. People know how to find me.”

As customer after customer brings him the items they plan to purchase, they describe how much they like what they’re buying. Many don’t say goodbye. Instead, they say, “I’ll see you again next year.”

Chilmark Pottery, 145 Field View Lane, West Tisbury; 508-693-6476,