Pottery is a very visceral art form, and Featherstone Center for the Arts offers a wealth of opportunities this winter to get your hands on and in that clay with three experienced teachers — Debbie Hale, Mark Bateman, and Frank Creney.
Hale will be teaching a beginner wheel-throwing class where students learn the basics of navigating a pottery studio, different techniques done on the wheel, glazing, and firing to make cups, bowls, vessels, and so forth. In her intermediate class, students will be able to further hone their skills.
Hale began at Featherstone as a novice student, convinced by a friend to take a class together. “The first class, my friend got sick, and I went by myself. I didn’t know anything about ceramics or even where Featherstone was,” she explains. “I just got completely hooked and my friend never took the class because she decided I’d be too far ahead of her.” Hale continued studying and became addicted. When she retired from her day job a few years ago, she decided to teach.
Although Hale’s hands-on approach includes demos, she gets people on the wheel quickly because, according to her, you don’t really learn until you’re on one. “I try very hard to encourage people to realize that even when things don’t turn out the way you envision them, to see if you can find something else wonderful in it,” Hale says. “I love watching the creative process begin and people trying to get it. I think it’s a very all-absorbing and peaceful pastime. I call my business the Centered Potter because it speaks to how I feel about it … it centers my life and teaches me a lot of things.”
Mark Bateman will be teaching both an introduction to wheel throwing and a hand-building class. His road to teaching also began by chance. A writer by trade, Bateman was having a serious writer’s block in 2010 or 2011, so his partner paid for him to attend a pottery class as his Christmas gift, and it evolved into a passion. Eventually the studio of which he was a member asked him to start teaching, and then he began teaching at Featherstone last summer.
Bateman’s approach to teaching wheel throwing begins with learning how to center the clay, how to shape something in order for it to get the height, and then how to manipulate it into the shape you want.
There are three techniques: slab rolling, where you make a “pie crust” that you can use to build a form like wrapping it around to make a mug, using a cookie cutter to make shapes like an ornament, or forming larger slabs into something like a gingerbread or bird house. Coiling, which involves building snake-like pieces of clay up from the bottom to build a form, works well for a vase, for instance. Finally, Bateman says that pinch potting is where you can use tools to get rather complicated shapes.
“Wheel throwing is the sexy technique that everyone wants to do, but it takes a long time to make something you are really proud of that you want to use,” Bateman explains. “There are so many variables — learning the right wheel speed, how to center your clay, get the height you need, and then trimming and glazing.” In comparison, Bateman adds, “With something hand built, your very first project can be something you made on a mold using a slab technique that you treasure forever.”
Frank Creney, who started taking pottery in high school, is offering an advanced level pot-throwing class this winter for those who already know how to work on the wheel but want to learn new shapes and understand how to make larger pieces. Each week students will be shown one or two shapes and will be able to choose what they will be working on — bottles, platters, large vases, large bowls, and so forth. “I never thought I would have liked the teaching part of it, but it’s just made me a better potter because I have to break everything down for everyone else, which I just don’t do myself after 40 years. So, it reminds me of all the steps it takes to do certain things,” Creney says.
Creney, who was on the building committee for the new pottery studio built at Featherstone in 2017, is a huge fan of Featherstone’s facilities. He emphasized how wonderful it is to “have the studio be open to the community and just hook people in because once somebody gets hooked, they tend to be around all the time after that.”
In addition to the courses, Featherstone offers non-instructional time in the studio, when the community can come in and fire pieces they’ve made at home, which Creney says “has been quite a cool experience to have a space like that because it so cost prohibitive for people to have their own studio.”
“I think of pottery as just a succession of steps that once you learn that something doesn’t work, you just don’t do that anymore. The clay tells you what you can and can’t do.” So, now is the time to see what it’s like to get your own hands-on experience and have the opportunity to get hooked for yourself.
For classes see featherstoneart.org/ceramics. For more information about the artists see Mark Bateman at @dogearpottery, Debbie Hale at debbiehalepottery.com, and Frank Creney at vineyardartisans.com/artisan-pages/frank-creney.