by Gene Marrano
The Annual Blue Ridge Potters Guild show held last weekend may need to look for yet another venue with more space; additional vendors want in and lines out the door on opening night at Patrick Henry High School attest to the event’s growing popularity. Some of the potters exhibiting and selling their wares “throw clay” and create bowls, plates, vases, etc. as a way to unwind from jobs or other busy facets of life. Some make a living in part by selling the pottery they create.
The Blue Ridge Potters Guild, (blueridgepotters.com), a group of potters in the Roanoke and New River Valleys, manned more than 70 booths and gave demonstrations on the art of pottery at the 12th annual show, which relocated from Cave Spring High School several years ago. Jennifer Mulligan, who had thrown clay at Potters Guild shows for visitors in the past, taught law at Virginia Western and found pottery a great way to relax. She now teaches at a private studio in Salem.
“It’s great – it allows all the life lessons. It teaches you patience, and how to be calm and centered. As a teacher it’s really neat, because you provide an environment for someone else to achieve all that.” Mulligan teaches both younger students and adults. “Many of them have gone on to become professional potters. I’ll bet there are 7-8 potters here who took lessons from me.”
Some come to her proclaiming that they have no artistic talent, that they cannot even draw a straight line. “That’s okay,” said Mulligan; “we have no straight lines in pottery. People might come in feeling a little intimidated, but very quickly they realize they can succeed, even on a small level.” She’s back in school as well, trying to hone her artistic side. Mulligan earned an associates degree in art from Virginia Western last year.
Mulligan said the Blue Ridge Potters Guild show started with about ten potters, with maybe 1000 attending. “Now we have tens of thousands that show up. It allows exposure for the artistic community. Roanoke has become a center for pottery sales.” She also likes the diversity – some turned their pottery into statues or other creative forms of expression, often with an assortment of colors and different “firing” techniques.
Many pieces are functional; Mulligan points out a colorful bowl or serving dish that “they can use every day,” or display. How and at what temperature a piece of pottery is cured in a kiln can make a difference in the way it turns out. “There is a huge diversity.”
Becky Carr, co-organizer of this year’s Blue Ridge Potters Guild Show, said what started out small is now “the largest [all pottery] show in Virginia. We keep outgrowing our venue, wondering where we’ll be going next.” Twelve new potters appeared at this year’s show. Proceeds from sales of the pottery go in part to the Guild, which is a non-profit. Many Guild potters will donate works for the Souper Bowl, a January event where attendees sample soups from local eateries; proceeds from ticket sales support the Rescue Mission.
Carr collected pottery for years but did not try it herself before moving here about four years ago. A class she took at the Brambleton Center (a Roanoke County Parks & Recreation program) that got her started. “I now consider myself a potter,” said Carr, noting that many of the potters at the show started by taking classes there. “It’s an outstanding program – they have excellent teachers [with] wonderful workshops.” Students can go in at other times and throw clay at the Brambleton Center, if the wheels and kilns are not in use.
Anne Piedmont, a freelance writer and website developer who has written for the Roanoke Star-Sentinel, had always wanted to try her hand at pottery but never got around to it. A New Year’s resolution in the 90s finally spurred her to take a class. Piedmont thought the first things she turned out look like something from a summer camp. “On the last lesson I ‘got it,’ and have been throwing ever since.”
After pounding on a keyboard all day, Piedmont enjoys the change of pace that creating pottery provides. “It keeps me centered and gets my hands dirty. It uses whatever part of the brain that is. And I love the people that I throw pottery with [in classes].” Piedmont is a big fan of the annual Guild show; “it really showcases the talent in the area.”
Jennifer Mulligan observed that thirty years ago it was hard to convince people that pottery was art. “They’re now recognizing that evolution.”