Friday, December 12, 2014

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. 

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