Pots have been legal in Carbondale for almost two decades: Artists at the Carbondale Clay Center have been creating imaginative, utilitarian vessels and ceramic art since 1997.
Executive director Jill Oberman, who arrived on the scene last September from Missoula, Mont., has a passion for ceramics. She holds an MFA from the Rochester Institute of Technology School for American Crafts, has been a resident artist at numerous art institutions around the country, and was the studio manager of the ceramics program at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass from 1999 to 2005. “I fell in love with the material, and I fell in love with the ceramic community,” she said. “It always feels like a small family.”
On a recent tour of the three-building compound at 135 Main St., Oberman pointed out bins of clay powder along the north wall of the glaze lab in the main building. She compares the room to a kitchen. “The clay and glass are our flour and sugar,” she said.
The center’s ovens are electric kilns and an outdoor, gas-fired soda kiln made from used bricks. The arched kiln, tucked into a nook behind the main building, stands 4 feet high, 2 feet wide, and 2 feet deep. It’s currently undergoing repairs but lends an ancient artisan feel to the place.
There is no door on the kiln. Once it is full, the opening is closed brick by brick. Then, it’s fired up and fills with flame. Oberman said the flame turns different colors as the temperature inside the kiln reaches more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Soda ash is mixed with water and sprayed into the kiln when it gets hot. This forms a glaze on the objects inside the kiln. “It travels in the flame,” explained Oberman.
Fire is the ceramist’s partner. The flame licks each object in a different way, adding its own signature. But the partnership is completely unpredictable. “[Fire is] a variable you can’t control,” said Oberman.
Not all artists are seduced by the flame, she said, but working with earth, water, air and fire can be a spiritual experience. “It’s like you have to let go to something that’s bigger than yourself,” she mused.
Staci DeBolt, one of four resident ceramists at the Clay Center, said she likes working with her hands in a three-dimensional way. Her favorite tool is the potter’s wheel. “There’s something soothing about seeing a form rise up as you’re pushing in the clay,” she explained.
DeBolt came to Carbondale from Indianapolis last year specifically to study at the Clay Center. She works with porcelain, using the Mishima technique of cutting designs into soft clay. Her jars, bowls and cups are delicate but durable. She uses an electric kiln to bring out soft, silky turquoise and beige colors contrasted with black line drawings. She said pottery is fragile, and porcelain is prone to cracking. “You have to watch it like it’s your child,” she explained.
Most residencies last one year, but DeBolt is staying on until the summer of 2014. She said one reason she likes the Clay Center is because she has been able to develop her own glazes. “I love the access to the glaze studio and to seeing other peoples’ work,” she said. “People here are really doing innovative things.”
All resident artists pay a monthly stipend except for the studio technician, who helps with firing, mops the floors and monitors the inventory, among other tasks. “This person is sort of a Jack of All Trades,” said Oberman, who is seeking grant or private support for residents so they don’t have to work other jobs.
Resident studios are open to the public, and the wares are for sale. The Carbondale Clay Center also offers classes for all levels and ages. Oberman said activities, such as the upcoming Father’s Day event, are popular because kids can create something unique in a fun atmosphere.
DeBolt believes the Clay Center is good for children. “It’s unintimidating,” she said. “Children get to use their imagination and are not inhibited by school or discipline.”
The Carbondale Clay Center’s gallery is open on First Fridays and will feature a juried, invitational exhibition of national ceramists on June 2.