Friday, December 12, 2014

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.

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