“From the first time I tried it, it spoke to me; it just spoke to my soul and made me look at everything differently.” Debbie Hale was a business manager, a self-described left-brained person. The “it” she refers to isn’t the orderliness of financial spreadsheets; quite the opposite. The “it” that spoke to her was pottery — wet blobs of clay thrown on a wheel, shaped, glazed, fired, and turned into art. Hale’s second act was discovering her messy, muddy, right-brained other self.
Like many a Vineyarder, Hale ended up on the Island because her partner and husband, Phil, wanted to “come home” after college. Passionate about boats, he dreamed of running his family’s business, the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard. Hale, raised in Cincinnati, had no such nautical passion, but was willing to give it a try. Island life was lonely at first, a population of 7,000 that looked at young couples as kids making a stopover on their way somewhere else. Hale found a job at the Martha’s Vineyard Bank, in the old stone bank building in Vineyard Haven; she and Phil had two children; Phil bought the family business, and Martha’s Vineyard was home.
Later Hale became the financial manager of the law firm Reynolds, Rappaport, Kaplan, and Hackney. She loved working there — for 30 years. Still, she was looking for something to fulfill herself outside of work. “One winter a friend of mine said she always wanted to learn how to do pottery. Would I like to take a class with her at Featherstone? I never knew Featherstone existed, but it was February, and that’s how the Vineyard comes into it. We look for new, creative things to engage us.” Hale’s friend got sick, couldn’t make it to the first class, and actually never went. But Hale went, and fell in love: “I got hooked in the first class, and took lessons there for three years.”
Hale says there’s just something supportive about the Island, especially when you’re exploring your interests. “I don’t know if I should tell this story — they might not do this today — but when I first started at Featherstone, 15 years ago, it was smaller; there weren’t as many people involved. And I was addicted. So Francine Kelly, who ran Featherstone, gave me a key to the pottery studio. I’d pay every time I went, but they would let me just go when I had free time, because I was working.”
Because of pottery, Hale thinks about things differently, sees things differently, in ways she never would have. “Like taking the time to really look at the design of things. Do you want the bowl to be big? Or wide? Or tall? Do you want it to have texture? I had never even looked at a bowl before,” Hale said.
Eventually, Hale took the step of selling her work — cautiously at first: “At Christmas I’d do a pop-up show. And it was my friends who came, and they all supported me. Now I want to go and take every piece back from them and throw them away and give them something better.”
Today Hale has a fully equipped studio — in her basement, converted by her husband — with a wheel and two kilns, one indoors and one outdoors. She still sells at pop-ups, but also at the Beach House shop in Vineyard Haven, and the Chilmark Flea Market. In 2017, Hale retired from the law firm and now devotes herself full-time to pottery. She has a website, debbiehalepottery.com, and even does commissions.
“I have a friend who’s an interior decorator. And I said to her one day, Do you have any clients that are looking for something on commission? And she said, “Actually I do have somebody that might be interested. Why don’t we arrange to meet at their home?” When I went in there, I was very nervous, because selling is not my strong suit. I’m looking around their home, and I noticed that they had actually bought a piece from me without knowing that it was me. That was really exciting. And she ended up becoming a very dear friend, and now does pottery with me every week.”
Debbie Hale’s work has come a long way from that first class at Featherstone. She even teaches there herself: “My work is mostly functional. But I love to explore color, bright color. I’m always looking for new glazes or things to embellish the piece. I love the throwing — I used to spend most of my time on throwing — but now it’s the reverse. Now I spend more time figuring out what I’m going to do with the piece once I’ve thrown it. Am I going to carve into it? Am I going to do a design with an underglaze? What am I going to do with the pot I’ve thrown?”
Today, that “it” that spoke to Hale has turned into “an actual little business. I’m not making a ton of money. But it definitely supports my habit, and it’s also introduced me to people that I never would’ve met, and I have loved every minute,” she said. Business meets art — the best of Hale’s right and left brains.