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Maker Moment: An interview with potter Hannah Niswonger

Posted by Melissa Massello  April 19, 2013 09:00 AM

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Covered with bright colors, playful patterns, and images of fauna of all types, you can't help but feel happy when looking at Hannah Niswonger's pottery. Born into a family of printmakers, quilters, knitters, and painters, it's no wonder the joy of craft comes through in Hannah's work. We caught up with the Winchester resident for an interview before today's CraftBoston show opens:

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What's the first project you remember making/crafting?
I grew up in a family of makers: my father, Gary Niswonger, is a printmaker turned painter, who taught for 39 years at Smith College. My mother, DeeDee, writes, makes beautiful quilts and is a great baker. My brother Bart Niswonger makes fabulous furniture. My sister Melissa is a consummate knitter. More surprising than something we would choose to make ourselves, would be something we actually paid someone else to make for us! My first major clay project was a coiled sculpture of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god. He just kept getting bigger and bigger, until he was too big to fit into our kiln. We had to build up the sides with fire bricks to expand the electric kiln. He was meant to be blue, but we couldn't get the kiln up to temperature with the lid open, so his glaze turned out a rather alarming shade of purple.

What do you DIY the most?
For the last twenty years, my dominant medium has been clay. I first fell in love with potters, who do everything themselves! I spent a memorable summer at Watershed Center for the Arts, where potters retreat to dig local clay out of the hillside and transform it into every imaginable form. I had a cohort whose project was building functional furniture out of clay, and setting it to float on the pond. Her unstoppable determination to do what should have seemed impossible inspired me greatly. I went on to spend years making 4 footed ceramic animals with slender legs, just 'cause someone said it couldn't be done. Which brings me to: my Biggest fail? Quite literally: I made a life-sized cow out of slabs of clay, but it didn't make it to the kiln.

Anything you DIY now that you never thought you would?
I started off my life in clay making sculpture, and never imagined I would become a potter, but my latest project is slab-built stoneware pottery. I hand-paint my work with underglaze stains, and use animals as imagery. I love the way people connect to the pots I make through the animal faces on my cups and bowls. I also think a lot about the way we are impacting the world around us, and I'd like to remind people, in a gentle way, to think of our global impact on the natural world. My pots strive to remind users of the amazing diversity that surrounds us, from marsupial mice to dragonflies, tiny songbirds and frogs.

Favorite tools/materials?
I work with white stoneware, because it gives me a clean canvas on which to paint. I love working with all colors of clay, and have, at times, had a dozen clay bodies going at once in my studio, but my current strategy for happiness is to simplify. I use one clay body and two base glazes, which I make myself. I love the chemistry of glaze mixing, and have always made my own glazes and stain combinations, for maximum control of my product. Also because it's interesting to figure out how different mined materials combine for the perfect glaze. And it's cheaper than buying commercial glazes.

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Has a project outcome ever surprised you?
Unfortunately, working with clay, project outcomes very often surprise me! The kiln can misfire, the clay can have flaws, the glaze can be too thick, too thin, or peel off. My friend Colleen McCall and I sat through glaze calculation class in graduate school taking notes on common glaze flaws, and then rushed off to our studios to try them ourselves. Colleen's specialty was inserting plaster chunks into her clay to create explosions in her pieces--but that was in the days of sculpture, where disasters can be a good thing. Functional pottery is all about control, and I tend to avoid exploding pots.

I recently worked for 3 months on a large tile project. I had not been satisfied, previously, with the quality of the tiles I was able to make in my studio, so I spent 2 months developing a new process: extruding the tiles. The end result is beautiful, and has made me conscious of the tiny scale of my typical work, and eager to make more work at a larger scale.

What's your top tip for first-timers?
My advice for beginners is repetition. For me, one of the best things about making work for craft shows is that in order to succeed at shows I must make so much work, and there's nothing like making 50 bowls for resolving design and manufacture problems.

"When I'm not making stuff, I'm..."
When I'm not making pots, I'm playing with my three kids, our dogs, and our communally owned chickens. I feel very lucky that my chosen path allows me time to be home after school with my kids, while still making work that I find satisfying.

Thanks, Hannah!

Visit Hannah at the CraftBoston Spring show, today through Sunday at the Seaport World Trade Center, 200 Seaport Blvd, Boston.

~Tara

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the Authors

Melissa Massello is a newspaper journalist turned startup junkie and lifelong Bostonian who prides herself on her do-it-yourself attitude. From making her prom dress out More »
Tara Bellucci is a Boston-based writer that lives for fonts, food, and flea market finds. Whether decorating jars of her homemade jam for The Boston More »

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