Friday, December 12, 2014

St. Petersburg native, now San Antonio ceramicist, ponders ‘intergalactic scavenger hunt’ in clay

Over his forty years as a potter, Jack Boyle, owner 
of San Antonio Pottery, says he has produced 
hundreds of thousands of mugs, goblets, trays, and 
other functional pieces. (Image courtesy of Jack 
Boyle/San Antonio Pottery)
Fifth in a series by Anne W. Anderson (the other half of "we") who visited with the studio owners hosting this year’s Tampa Bay Tour de Clay, a series of self-guided tour stops stretching from Palm Harbor to San Antonio

It was visits to his Uncle Al that started San Antonio potter Jack Boyle on the path to clay.

“I was maybe 5 or 7, but he’d let us play with the clay,” Boyle said. “Then he’d fire what we had made and send it to us.”

What Boyle didn’t appreciate at the time was that Uncle Al owned Jugtown Pottery in Seagrove, North Carolina, a pottery community with roots going back at least 200 years. Then Uncle Al sold the shop and the visits stopped.

A decade or so later, Boyle, born in St. Petersburg and a graduate of Lakewood High School, enrolled in the University of South Florida as an art major.

Jack Boyle records information from a 
kiln firing in one of hundreds of note-
books he has kept over the years. “I’m 
looking for the thread of consistency 
that will help me get similar results each 
time,” said Boyle. But the weather, the 
way the kiln is loaded, and other factors 
all affect those results. 

(Photo by Anne W. Anderson)
“I walked into the studio at USF, and the smell of the clay and the atmosphere in the studio brought those visits back,” Boyle said. Boyle graduated in 1977 with a degree in art and a concentration in ceramics.

He thought he would head south to the Ellenton area. But a friend of his knew someone selling a wheel and kiln and other equipment. He also had space to lease at a price Boyle couldn’t refuse.

There was one small problem. San Antonio, in a rural part of Pasco County—Boyle’s shop looks out on a hay field across the road—isn’t exactly teeming with potential customers. Boyle had to find ways to connect with a larger customer base.

“I did everything I could think of and never turned down an opportunity,” Boyle said.

“Everything” meant a grueling schedule of art and craft festivals, pitching his work to galleries across the country, selling work in his own shop, and teaching classes. More recently, he has begun producing videos featuring artists around the country. Boyle and his wife, Deborah Gillars, a recently retired high school art teacher, raised three children and put them through college. They built a home and kept adding to their shop.

Shelves filled with glazed mugs, bowls, and 
other functional pieces of service ware are 
ready to be rolled into the gas-fired kiln at 
San Antonio Pottery. (Image courtesy of Jack 
Boyle / San Antonio Pottery)
Boyle has created hundreds of thousands of mugs, bowls, and other functional stoneware pieces in his almost forty-year career. 

His work is rustic and earthy. What appears to be a small tree branch forms a pouring handle curved above a footed teapot glazed in river-blue and loam-brown. Bowls glazed in shades of dark coffee, cobalt and cream feature designs carved into the rims, dark lines evoking rolling foothills or the waves of a wind-rippled field of grass. Browns and blues and greens flow over vases’ carved bellies like streams over stones, inviting the hand as well as the eye to explore the surfaces.

But Boyle’s work isn’t just that of an artist. And some of his most important tools aren’t his wheel or kiln.

Boyle begins most pieces with a tape measure, a calculator, and calipers. His customers expect pieces of specific dimensions, so he measures the height, the width at the belly, and other spots of a finished model piece, using the metric side of his tape “because the system makes more sense,” Boyle explained.

“Then I add a percentage to the measurements to allow for shrinkage in the kiln,” Boyle said, tapping the keys of the calculator.

As he forms the new piece on the wheel, Boyle takes periodic measurements to be sure he is staying true to the model.

Other important tools are the gauges controlling the flow of propane into his gas-fired kiln and the pyrometer that tells him how hot the temperature is inside the kiln.

Names of scientists throughout history, along with the 
years of their births and deaths, cover Jack Boyle’s 
“Space Saucer,” a tribute to curiosity and discovery. 

(Photo courtesy of Jack Boyle / San Antonio Pottery)
“I always fire my pieces to at least 2300 degrees,” Boyle said, adding that doesn’t use lead or other toxins in his glazes.

Boyle’s gas kiln sits on his back porch and is so big the racks are built on a trolley that slides in and out of the kiln on metal tracks. Each time he checks the temperature in the kiln, Boyle records the information in a notebook. Later he reads through his notebooks.

“I have hundreds of these,” he said. “I’m looking for the thread of consistency that will help me understand how to get similar results each time. A change in the barometric pressure or the way I stack the pieces in the kiln can change the way the glazes work.”

Boyle estimates he has produced hundreds of thousands of mugs, trays, bowls, vases, and other functional art over the almost forty years he has worked as a potter. Recently, however, he has begun producing a more conceptual line of work.

The prose on Jack Boyle’s “Rocket Ship” begins 
with Neil Armstrong’s “That’s one small step…” 
quote from the 1969 moon landing but ends…
well, that would spoil it, wouldn’t it? Boyle, 
owner of San Antonio Pottery, says he is inspired 
by his voracious science fiction reading habit which 

fuels his thinking during15-mile morning bike rides. 
(Photo courtesy of Jack Boyle / San Antonio Pottery)
Many of the pieces in the series are shaped like rockets or saucers and feature Boyle’s musings about the universe, gleaned from his “voracious” reading habit and often surfacing during his 15-mile bike rides each morning on the back roads near San Antonio. One saucer-shaped piece features the names of various scientists through history, along with the years each lived on earth.

Boyle is fascinated by the ancient geoglyphs—massive images carved into the surface of the earth and visible only from the air—found around the world. One of those images, a 150-foot long spider that is part of the Peruvian Nazca line glyphs, appears in miniature form on one of Boyle’s rocket ships along with carved prose and the latitude and longitude of the glyph.

“Don’t you just wonder if those geoglyphs aren’t part of some sort of intergalactic scavenger hunt?” Boyle asked, his eyes twinkling at the idea.

Tour-goers following the south-to-north route will find Jack Boyle’s San Antonio Pottery studio listed as the last stop. Guest artists Michele Ginouves, Hil-Dee Bates, Maggie Clark, Barbara Ott, and Joel Ott will display their work throughout the shop, and Jack will open his large kiln out back around 5 p.m. Join the party, too—there will be music, an antique Coke cooler with beverages, and lots of festivity. 

Wellman and Welsch Pottery in Lutz a labor of love

Lutz ceramic artists, Kim Wellman-Welsch and 
Harry Welsch, along with daughter, Adrienne 
Wellman-Welsch, take a photo break from their 
work producing thousands of functional and 
decorative pieces each year, which they sell at 
juried art shows and festivals across the
 Midwestern and Southeastern United States. 
(Photo by Anne W. Anderson)
Fourth in a series by Anne W. Anderson (the other half of we), who visited with each of the studio owners hosting the 2014 Tampa Bay Tour de Clay, a self-directed series of stops stretching from Palm Harbor to San Antonio. 

It’s the middle of September and Kim Wellman-Welsch and Harry Welsch, owners of Wellman and Welsch Pottery in Lutz, have just returned from working at their summer studio in Michigan and from making the rounds of juried art shows and festivals in more northern states.

Daughter Adrienne Wellman-Welsch, who keeps the Florida studio running when they are gone, and Phoebe, the dark gray studio cat, are helping them settle back in.

Not for long, however. In two weeks, they’ll head to Louisville, Kentucky, for the St. James Court Art Show, then appear in Winter Park the following weekend and in Ocala two weekends after that. In between, they produce the thousands of pieces of work they sell in a year. This, along with Welsch’s teaching high school physics, has been their life for almost 40 years.

Lutz potter Harry Welsch throws a small 
piece in the Florida studio he and Kim 
Wellman-Welsch call home for most of the 
year. Welsch, recently retired from Tampa's 
Chamberlain High School, where he taught
 physics for more than two decades, said the 
most successful scientists are the most 
creative thinkers. 
(Photo by Anne W. Anderson)
Somewhere along the line, the line between “her pottery” and “his pottery” blurred, then disappeared. He/she would start a piece; he/she would trim it and finish it; together they would fire, glaze, and fire again. For the last few years, a third pair of hands—daughter Adrienne’s—has joined the chain from wheel to table to kiln to shelf. Their son lives in Orlando.

Kim Wellman-Welsch may have started the wheel turning, as it were, by taking a pottery class from a friend back in the mid-1970s. But Harry Welsch kept the wheel turning and the kiln firing. In fact, he built the first wheel and kiln.

“That was about the time Adrienne was born and everyone was hippies,” says Wellman-Welsch with a laugh, referring to the revival of interest in the handcrafts during that period. She sewed and had taken basket weaving and loom weaving classes, and she was working for the phone company in Bradenton.

Working with clay sounded like fun, so she accepted her friend’s invitation, not knowing how radically it would alter their lives.

Earth-toned glazes in shades of blues, rust, and sand flow 
across this large platter made by Wellman and Welsch 
Pottery in Lutz. Clay holders grasp bundled-reed handles, 
suggesting the link between the organic and the inorganic, 
the living and the life-giving. 
(Photo courtesy of Wellman and Welsch Pottery)
“She’s what we call a natural,” says Welsch of his wife. “The first time she sat down to throw, she could center [the clay]. She was cranking out pots so fast her friend couldn’t keep up with firing them.”

So Welsch built a kiln—the first of many, as it turned out. But he knew what he was doing.

“The first serious job I had was setting up travel trailers—doing the wiring, plumbing, and other construction,” says Welsch, who also has made all the work tables in the studio and some of their home furniture.

It also didn’t hurt that he had studied physics, along with chemistry and biology, in college.

“I built her first clay wheel from a physicist’s perspective,” Welsch says, speaking of the forces working on the clay as it spins.

The faster the wheel spins, the more tendency there is for the clay to be pulled off center and to fly off the wheel or, if perfectly centered, to flatten and spread evenly toward the edges. The potter’s job is to counter the force of the spinning wheel, keep the clay centered, and draw the clay inward and upward. Once the clay is evenly centered, then the potter must control the rate at which the piece is opened and at which the walls are pulled outward and upward.

Before long, Welsch was sitting down at the wheel, too. Then people started buying their work.

One of the tens of thousands of mugs, bowls, and other
functional pieces Lutz potters Kim Wellman-
Welsch and Harry Welsch have made over their almost 40 
years as professional artists. The distended areas recall a 
time before silverware when potters added bits of clay to 
the drinking vessels so they wouldn’t slip out of greasy 
hands.  (Photo by Anne W. Anderson)
“One day, she just told the phone company, ‘I quit,’ which appalled our parents,” says Welsch.

“But we have always treated it like a business with accountants and health insurance,” Wellman-Welsch says. “I have been a working mother since 1976, when I started working in the studio full time. My kids grew up being around clay.”

Wellman-Welsch says she finds centering the clay very calming.

“It’s the feeling in the flow of the clay,” Adrienne adds, as her mother picks up a finished mug and cradles it in her hands.

The mug Wellman-Welsch holds isn’t the non-descript, smooth-sided coffee shop variety. This mug, glazed seafoam green on the bottom and sky blue on the top, grows smoothly from the base then bulges outward toward the midsection.

“Back in the days before people used silverware to eat, potters would add bits of clay on the outside of drinking vessels,” Welsch explains. “That way they wouldn’t slip out of greasy hands.” He gestures toward the distended area in the mug where lines carved into the clay have caused the glazes to pool and blend. “We use an incisor tool to distort the clay and add interest.”

“It gives a more tactile experience for whoever is using it,” Wellman-Welsch says.

This graceful, tall, lidded box, created by 
Wellman and Welsch Pottery in Lutz, rises 
from its base and fans out near the top. 
Brown sandy glaze ripples down like a 
wave-patterned beach being dragged 
out to sea by the aquamarine undertow. 
(Photo courtesy of Wellman and Welsch Pottery)
“We want people to pick them up, feel the 
distortions, spin them around in their hands,” Welsch says.

“They feel good to us,” Wellman-Welsch begins.

“And we want them to feel good to others,” Welsch finishes.
Part of the Wellman and Welsch artistry is in adding visual and tactile layers to seemingly simple pieces like mugs and bowls.

Another part is in the melding of natural elements, especially in the larger-form pieces they create. Attachments formed into the clay pieces hold, after firing, handles of wrapped reeds, bamboo, tree branches, and other natural items, linking the wood and reeds with the earthy clay from which the organic matter grew. The glazes in shades of blues and browns and sands and greens flow into and around and through each other, recalling the intertwining of earth and sky and stream and sea and woods and marsh and desert.

The two may have been “naturals” when it came to pottery, but Welsch’s thirst for knowledge took them, in the late 1980s, to Rochester, New York, where he earned an M.F.A. They returned to this area, thinking Welsch might find a position teaching art. Instead, he became the physics teacher at Chamberlain High School.

“If you think about it,” says Welsch, who retired from teaching this past June, “DaVinci, Michaelangelo, Gallileo, all the heroes from physics, were both great engineers and great artists. The scientists who are the most successful are the ones who are the most creative thinkers.”

Tour-goers following the south-to-north route will find Wellman and Welsch Pottery listed as the fourth stop. Guest artists John Kellum, Laurie Landry, Charlie Parker, and Matt Schiemann will display their work on the grounds, and a 3 p.m. kiln opening is scheduled on Saturday. Look for Wellman and Welsch Pottery online at

Kim Kirchman and Mark Fehl: Clearwater professor and Tampa teacher dance with clay and space and people

Kim Kirchman shapes the edge of a hand-built 
piece in her Odessa studio. Kirchman applied 
the floral design by first painting it, with colored 
glazes, onto newsprint then pressing it into the 
unfired clay. (Photo by Anne W. Anderson)
Third in a series by Anne W. Anderson (the other half of we), who visited with each of the studio owners hosting the 2014 Tampa Bay Tour de Clay, a self-directed series of stops stretching from Palm Harbor to San Antonio. 

Mark Fehl throws goblets in the studio he and 
Kirchman built. Feel uses a non-electric kick
wheel so he can control its speed and be more 
a part of the process. (Photo courtesy of Kim 
Kirchman / Hidden Lake Pottery)
For Kim Kirchman and Mark Fehl, owners of Hidden Lake Pottery, pottery isn’t just a way of making a living. It’s a way of wedging together pieces from their childhoods, their academic studies and travels, the rituals of friendships and family life—plus their sensibilities to movement and space—and, from those pieces, shaping a life. That life is reflected in their daily routine.

Most mornings, Kirchman, ceramics professor and director 
of the ceramics and wood studios at St.Petersburg College’s Clearwater campus, and Fehl, an art teacher at Tampa’s Northwest Elementary School, get their children off to school, then head in opposite directions. They spend their days helping people of all ages find artistry within their own lives. Then Kirchman and Fehl return to their Odessa home, which is tucked back off of a quiet road not far from Gunn Highway.

Behind their home is Hidden Lake, secluded by a stand of cypress and other vegetation. In front is the airy studio they designed and for which Kirchman built all the cabinets, shelving, and worktables.
The tall glass windows in their studio look out over a wooded area lush with trees and brush and critters.

“We’re in a rural pocket here,” said Kirchman, a fourth-generation Floridian whose father was born and raised in the Everglades. Kirchman, raised in DeLand, recalls “marathon fishing and camping trips” in the Ten Thousand Island area of southwest Florida.

Fehl's and Kirchman's work on display at Hidden Lake Pottery 
in Odessa for the 2014 Tampa Tour de Clay. (Photo courtesy 
of Hidden Lake Pottery)
Fehl, too, recalls being a “kid with a cane pole catching bream and sunfish” from ponds in the then-wooded areas surrounding Clearwater. Born in Michigan, Fehl came here as a child, attending an un-air-conditioned Plumb Elementary, Oak Grove Middle, and Clearwater High.  

The two met in the University of South Florida’s clay studio—both originally were interested in drawing, painting, and other arts but found a home in the earthiness of clay.

Fehl became the director of what was then the Centre Studios in the USF student union.

Along the way, Fehl worked with Ed Ross, the artistic founder of Community Stepping Stones, a non-profit organization facilitating community art projects in the Sulphur Springs area, and he and Kirchman were studio mates with Richard Beckman, who was until his 2004 death a leading Florida sculptor and USF professor. When Kirchman returned to USF for an MFA, Beckman was her mentor.

Their extended academic experiences shaped their outlook on the artistic life.

“You meet people of all ages from all walks of life,” Fehl explained. “Interacting with a community informs you in a way no other experience—other than travel—can.”

Their art has become as much, maybe more, about the process as about the product.

In the studio, their community is each other and, in a way, the clay and the space itself.

Kirchman, for instance, almost totally hand-builds her pieces. She works with slabs of clay, shaping them into functional items such as serving dishes. Then Kirchman paints, using glazes, intricate floral and other designs onto strips of newsprint. After they dry a bit, she presses the newsprint onto the unfired dish. Then she carefully peels the paper away, leaving the glazed design behind.

For other pieces, Kirchman winds coils of clay atop each other, then blends them together to create jars or other vessels.

“Hand-building slows down the process,” Kirchman explained. “That way I can focus on gesture and on the nuances of the piece.”
Books on the tables and books on the shelves speak of Kim 
Kirchman’s and Mark Fehl’s work as educators and as part 
of a larger historical and artistic context. 
(Photo by Anne W. Anderson)

Gestures of the potter’s hands create a sense of movement in the clay. One huge jar seems alive with the organic swirling of water, the swells and eddies revealing, then concealing, glimpses of what could be biomorphic plants and ferns.

Both processes require not just movement in the clay, but a choreography of sorts in the studio as Kirchman shifts from slab roller to table to drying area back to table and so on. “I become very aware of how I am moving through the space of the studio,” Kirchman said.

For Fehl, who uses a manual foot-controlled wheel, the awareness is even more localized to “the ebb and flow” of his own body.

“It slows down movement and ties you into a more primal point,” said Fehl.

Fehl’s work begins with symmetrically thrown bowls. Then Fehl distorts, expands, and layers the pieces, looking for a balance within the asymmetry and drawing on memories of shapes and designs acquired over the years.

Kirchman points out window-like designs in some of Fehl’s pieces.

Who says bowls have to be round or level? Kirchman's
tableware would be right at home in Wonderland!
“Those were influenced by actual windows on ancient castles and forts we saw in Japan,” said Kirchman, who led a group of college students on a month-long tour of Japanese traditional kiln sites, studios, and museums. Kirchman also has visited Korea, a country whose pottery history pre-dates that of Japan.

Outside the studio stands a massive wood-fired kiln, inspired by the Japanese kilns and built by Kirchman and Fehl with the help of a larger community of clay friends.

“That’s 40,000 pounds of dry-standing bricks,” Kirchman said, recalling the physical labor.

Four times a year, they load the kiln and light the fire. Friends help feed about a cord of wood into the flames starting about 4 a.m. and ending about 10 p.m. They monitor the temperature constantly until it reaches 2400 degrees. Then the kiln takes a week to cool before it can be opened.

“That’s when we find out if it was a success or a disaster,” said Fehl.

Visitors on Tour day will see the open kiln with some work left inside and can ask questions about the process. Tour-goers following the south-to-north route will find Hidden Lake Pottery studio listed as the third stop. Guest artists Chuck McGee, LCMcGee, Kimberli Cummings, McKenzie Smith, Jonathan Barnes, and Trevor Dunn will display their work throughout the shop. 

Ira Burhans: Hard work and “happy accidents” fill Palm Harbor artist’s life

Palm Harbor artist Ira Burhans carves a design into the lid of a 
serving dish. Each piece Burhans makes reflects his love of the 

outdoors and his commitment to producing beautiful items people 
can use in their everyday lives. (Photo by Anne W. Anderson)
Second in a series by Anne W. Anderson (the other half of we), who visited with each of the studio owners hosting the 2014 Tampa Bay Tour de Clay, a self-directed series of stops stretching from Palm Harbor to San Antonio. 

As a boy, Palm Harbor potter Ira Burhans, canoed and fished Minnesota’s rivers and lakes. Today, he and his wife, Barbara, also an artist, windsurf, paddleboard, and paddle surf Florida’s coastal waters every chance they get.

But time on the water isn’t about escaping from the demands of making a living by producing thousands of casserole dishes and plates and pitchers each year.

For Burhans, whose Clay and Paper Studio is the second stop on the south-to-north 2014 Tampa Bay Tourde Clay route, time spent on the water becomes part of the work he shares with others. The wave-traced patterns in the sand, the dappling of reflected light on the water, and the shapes of leaves find their way into the pieces he makes.

Twenty years ago, the sharing was more obvious.

“This is one of the few pieces I have left from my work in the 1990s,” Burhans said, holding up a fish-shaped vase. Brightly glazed, dappled greens and blues surround the fish’s yellow-orange body. The fish’s fins, some sporting wavy textures, extend from the body of the vase.
Burhans places a lid onto a serving dish—both 
pieces in the leather-dry, unfired stage—to be 

sure of the fit. (Photo by Anne W. Anderson)

Today, Burhans’ work has evolved into something much more subtle, more evocative than actual.

“I’m not trying to duplicate anything,” Burhans said, as he carved graceful curves into the lid of a casserole dish. “It’s more of a being influenced by.”

Burhans wheel-throws his straight-walled casserole dishes, for instance, shapes them into an oval, then pinches the ends slightly, suggesting the bow of a canoe or simple boat. He lets the pieces dry, then uses a wooden stylus to carve wave-patterns into the sides of the vessel. Sometimes the handles take on the shape of a shell or wave.

After firing the vessels in one of his three kilns, Burhans glazes each piece, often with sand tones accented with greens and blues. Then he fires the pieces again at an even higher temperature until the glaze turns to glass and the clay becomes nonporous.

Burhans grew up in the Twin Cities area knowing he would be working with his hands. His mother had a craft business, making slip-cast ceramic figures using molds.

“Her kiln was in the basement,” Burhans said. “I used to help her when I was a kid.”

As a teen, Burhans worked with his father, who owned a sheet-metal manufacturing company.

“I’ve got the scars to prove it,” Burhans said with a rueful chuckle, holding out his hands.

But it was the fluidity of clay that beckoned Burhans, who studied both pottery and sculpture at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. After graduating in 1980, he discovered a group of artists in Pinellas County.
“The artists invited me to set up shop in old downtown Palm Harbor,” Burhans said. “In 1981, I became one of the first ceramics instructors at the Dunedin Fine Art Center. I worked with Bede Clark, who was recently featured on the cover of Ceramics Monthly.”

Lush foliage covers the lid and spills over the sides of this casserole dish 
created by Palm Harbor artist Ira Burhans. (Photo courtesy of Ira Burhans)

Burhans taught four classes a week while developing his own business, and the art center provided him studio space.

“Barbara gave me a five-year plan,” Burhans said. “We had to consider how to support a family and kids as artists.”

The business side of being an artist sometimes is overlooked. “The general public sometimes view artists as not doing serious work, even though we have college degrees and are professionals in our field.”

For Burhans, it has meant years of cultivating wholesale customers—his work is sold in a number of galleries around the country—as well as investing in the art community where he lives. Today, Burhans teaches one class a week at the DFAC and the Burhans own Clay& Paper Gallery of Art in downtown Dunedin that features the work of several area artists.

Most days, however, he slips on headphones, tunes in to some classic rock or blues, and settles in behind the wheel. Burhans works alone in his studio at his Indian Bluff Island home, making elegant but functional stoneware designed to be used, not just looked at.

Each piece must be very similar, although not exact, in size and thickness to the others he has made. Customers expect the pieces to bake food, for instance, at certain temperatures for particular lengths of time; a difference in thickness might affect how a recipe turns out. Within what some people might see as limiting parameters, Burhans plays with variations of form, design, and color.

“I draw from the Japanese understanding of art,” Burhans said. “The function determines the form of what I make. My work is not just about making pots with simple lines and organic forms; it is about committing to a particular consistency of lifestyle out of which the work flows.”

Every piece shaped by Burhans’ hands carries with it a bit of his life. And he never knows exactly how each piece will turn out until it emerges from the kiln.

“The Japanese have a term which translates ‘happy accident,’” Burhans explained. “There’s always an element of surprise when I open the kiln. Kind of like my life.”

Tour-goers following the south-to-north route will find Burhans’ studio listed as the second stop. Park in the cul-de-sac area near his home and follow the wavy molded-concrete walkway—inlaid with bits of broken ceramic tiles—to the left around back to find the kiln area.

Burhans opens his kiln around 10:30 a.m. and visitors are invited to join the chain and help pass the pottery hand-to-hand from kiln to table outside.

Visitors also can climb the stairs in the front—look for the colorful collection of ceramic starfish lining the overhang above the garage—and walk in to the Burhans’ living area where guest artists Alan Bennett and Brenda McMahon will display their work. This year, visitors can make a donation and play Spin-the-Wheel to win various prizes; proceeds go to support WMNF and the SafetyHarbor Art and Music Center.

The Pottery Boys: Palm Harbor artists pursuing second-career passions

Glenn Woods, Palm Harbor ceramic artist, works on a large 

plate. Woods and Keith Herbrand own the Pottery Boys Studio, 
one of the host studios on the 2014 Tampa Bay Tour de Clay.
All photos courtesy of Glenn Woods and Keith Herbrand
First in a series by Anne W. Anderson (the other half of we), who visited with each of the studio owners hosting the 2014 Tampa Bay Tour de Clay, a self-directed series of stops stretching from Palm Harbor to San Antonio. 

Fifteen or so years ago, Glenn Woods had won awards for crafting words and images into newspaper, radio, and television ads and was working as a marketing research analyst.

He hated it. What he loved was taking lumps of clay and crafting them into beautiful platters, vases, trays, and teapots, a passion he had been nurturing since high school.

Fifteen or so years ago, Keith Herbrand was in the retail grocery business. It paid the bills, but Herbrand and Woods, then living in the Midwest, were working up the courage to trade their traditional jobs for the riskier business of being full-time ceramic artists.

“We found a wholesale ceramics business, with a home and studio, for sale in Palm Harbor,” Woods said. The Pottery Boys, as Woods and Herbrand named their business, spent the first year filling orders contracted by the previous owner.

“Widgets,” Herbrand termed them. They soon realized widgets weren’t their passion.

“We always tell people to be careful when you take on someone else’s dream,” Woods said with a laugh. “It could become your worst nightmare.”

Today, Woods’ pieces seem rooted in the twilight world between reality and dreamland. Vases with rounded bowls grow upward, leading to hand-carved, petal-like openings—as though the vase, unwilling to wait for cut flowers, became one itself. Graceful teapots with curved handles and spouts feature sculpted vines and leaves sprouting from the lid. The gnarled, twisted stems of gourds and melons contrast with smooth-skinned, ribbed bodies.

  The shapes hearken back to Woods’ childhood, spent roaming the woods and exploring rural life surrounding the small northern Indiana town of Middlebury. But the glazes, especially on Woods’ more recent work, add an ethereal dimension of their own.

“We’ve been experimenting with crystalline glazes for the last eight years and matte crystalline glazes for the past two years,” Woods said.

One of Woods’ more recent pieces, this vase 
rises into a carved-petal blooming lily. Subtle 
matte crystalline glazing enhances the delicate 
beading around the neck and the gentle curved 
lines of the bowl. 

Crystalline glazes contain zinc and silica suspended in the mixture. When the glazed piece reaches melting temperature, the zinc and silica flow together, bond and form crystals during the cooling process. Artists raise and lower the kiln temperatures to control the rate at which the glaze flows, the rate at which the crystals grow, and to influence the color, texture, and size of the crystals.

When the pieces cool, the flower- or star-shaped crystals look as though they are floating in mid-burst over the colored surface, creating a sense of explosive exuberance.

“However, more recently we’ve gone from using the glossy glazes, which produce large, flashy crystals, to working with glazes with a matte finish,” Woods explained. “The matte glazes produce softer, more subtle crystals, which enhance the details of more complicated pieces incorporating carving, beading, and piercing.”

Woods doesn’t hesitate when asked who influenced his journey into pottery.

“My high school art teacher,” Woods responded. “She noticed I was working on an intricately beaded, crocheted necklace for my mom, whose severely arthritic hands kept her from doing craftwork.”

That art teacher did more than introduce Woods to clay and other materials.

“I had struggled with learning problems, which lead to placement in “special education” status from third to about sixth grade. The “slow learners” were basically placed off to the side and not really expected to participate in the learning process,” Woods said.

Despite his difficulties with the academic courses for so many years, Woods found art leading him back into and helping him to understand those other subjects. His high school art teacher helped him use math to learn how to mix glazes, how to use language to express his artistic ideas, and how to see the science in the art.

Eventually, with his teacher’s guidance and encouragement, Woods won a scholarship competition and entered the University of Indianapolis.

Courtly handled vases, hand built from slabs 

rather than being formed on the wheel, dance 
a stately minuet, their skirts flowing with soft 
green matte crystalline glazing and gilt-hemmed 
bases gracefully moving with the music. 
“But freshman weren’t allowed to take studio classes,” Woods said. “I remember pressing my nose up against the window of the clay studio, watching the older students working with clay. Finally the instructor invited me in and let me throw, too. There were seniors coming over, picking up my pots, and marveling at how light they were!”

Because Woods hadn’t taken a foreign language in high school, he was faced with taking up to three years of a foreign language in college to earn a fine arts degree.

“I wanted to take American Sign Language,” Woods said. “But at the time ASL wasn’t considered a foreign language.”

Instead, Woods earned a Bachelor of Science in Arts with a concentration in clay.  At his exit interview, though, Woods recommended allowing ASL as a foreign language to help students with no exposure to foreign languages earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree—the foreign language requirement being the only difference between the two degrees.

“I also suggested all art majors take an introduction to business course,” Woods said.

Not knowing how to turn his passion for clay into a business, Woods found himself working as first a graphic artist, later an art director, and eventually a television research analyst. He was very successful—but not very happy—at it.

Meanwhile, Herbrand was learning the art of running a business. Herbrand, who grew up on a dairy farm, earned a degree in business from the University of Wisconsin then became a branch manager for a major grocery chain.

“I had very little exposure to the arts through high school and even college,” Herbrand said. “But my background allows us to run an art business. For both of us, clay is a full-life endeavor.”

It’s also hard work. Most weekends, Woods and Herbrand pack up their show tent, display racks and dividers, and crates of ceramics. Spring and summer, they travel from their Illinois studio to art festivals across the Midwest. Fall and winter, they work the art festivals in Florida and Georgia.

The drives home become production meetings where they plan the coming week’s work. On Monday, Herbrand weighs out balls of clay, bags and marks them for Woods, then mixes glazes. They produce between 40 and 60 pieces of varying sizes each week.

Woods also teaches at the Dunedin Fine Art Center, offers workshops through a local potters’ guild, and has written how-to articles for PotteryMaking Illustrated magazine. Woods said he gets a lot of satisfaction from helping others learn how to create their own work.

“I guess I’m playing the part of my high school art teacher,” Woods said.

Tour-goers following the south-to-north route will find The Pottery Boys’ studio listed as the first stop. Park in the large field next to their home and enter through the front door. Walk past the grand piano, through the kitchen—help yourself to refreshments—and out to the pool area for the kiln opening, which happens around 9 a.m. Or, linger in the living room area with guest ceramic artists Chuck Solberg, Teresa Testa, Cory McCrory, and William Kidd.

This year’s media sponsor is radio station WMNF. The Pottery Boys also will be selling raffle tickets to support Suncoast Hospice.