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Out in the 'Asparagus Valley,' an artist's life is kiln-fired

By Jan Shepherd
Globe Correspondent / April 19, 2009
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PELHAM - "This is potters' heaven," said Francine T. Ozereko, referring to an area in Western Massachusetts that is home to a cluster of 36 clay artists who are the Asparagus Valley Potters Guild. The name of the group, founded in 1976 by Michael Cohen and six others, recalls the area's once famous crop.

"We're all pals doing the same thing," said Ozereko, who remained here after earning a master's degree in ceramics from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1981.

Visitors can view their works next weekend during the 5th annual Asparagus Valley Pottery Trail Studio Tour and Sale. The self-guided tour features 10 members' studios tucked away on back roads and in historic villages from Northfield to Amherst. Over the weekend, the potters sell their work, demonstrate techniques, and encourage questions about their clays, wheels, glazes, and kilns.

"Five of us started the trail to let people know we're here. We want them to come and see what we do so there's more recognition for the work," said Ozereko. She and her husband, Frank, a UMass-Amherst ceramics professor, converted a two-car garage behind their home into a studio.

Ozereko creates playful birds and floral designs in black-on-white porcelain vases, mugs, trays, platters, wall pieces, and sculptures. She covers wheel-thrown or slab-rolled pieces with a clay slip, then carves it away, a process called sgraffito, to form each figure. In the electric kiln, the slip turns black, and the background stays white.

Cohen's studio is up the road from the Ozerekos. He has been here since 1973, yet it's his first time participating in the tour. His 2,000-square-foot studio accommodates all facets of pottery making. The 100-cubic-foot, gas-fired car kiln dominates the main room. "The kiln took three months to build," he said. "Its catenary arch is held up by gravity. Fired for 24 hours, it takes two days to cool down."

Twelve years ago Cohen switched from tableware to producing royal blue square tiles that function as hot plates and wall art. He hand-carves stamps for the tiles' center designs. Son Josh, who joined the enterprise a decade ago, added spoon rests and sponge holders to their line.

In North Amherst, Angela Fina throws porcelain casseroles, soup tureens, tableware, and vases in gorgeous glazes from her own formulas. "I never fire the kiln without a test glaze," she said on a visit to her basement studio. When Fina taught college ceramics she specialized in glaze chemistry. She built her gas-reduction kiln so she could stand in it and fashioned the door from light-weight space-age material so she could open it without help.

At the trail's most northern stop, Tom White built a post-and-beam studio down the slope from his house about 14 years ago. "I do a 44-yard commute with my cup of coffee," he said.

White mixes his own clays and glazes and throws on kick wheels. Always experimenting, he often combines thrown and slab elements for new pieces, such as flasks. Wholesale lines are fired in an electric kiln while a separate shed houses a 45-cubic-foot gas-reduction kiln that he fires about once a month with one-of-a-kind pieces. Fascinated by the results in different kilns, he often puts work in other potters' wood and soda kilns.

Eight miles from White, Tiffany Hilton and her husband completed a kiln shed at their rural Greenfield home this winter after she bought her first gas-reduction kiln last August. "It's been three years of saving and 20 years of dreaming before I bought it from a New Hampshire potter," she said.

Specializing in stoneware dinner sets and tableware, Hilton formulated new glazes because mixtures for an electric kiln behave differently in reduction firings.

Lucy Fagella transformed her Greenfield home's attached barn into a studio and classroom with two electric kilns, wheels for herself and four students, and lots of shelves. A potter for 23 years, she throws porcelain vases, bowls, mugs, butter bells, and garlic grating dishes. In 2005, she started making funerary urns, now an important part of her Lucia Pottery business.

"I can't sleep at night because I have so many ideas for pottery," she said. "I have a sketchbook because every pot begins with a drawing and I write down what glazes to use."

Stephen Earp throws traditional redware in a hillside shed behind his Victorian Shelburne Falls home. A former Old Sturbridge Village potter, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of historic clays, forms, and designs. "Redware is a broad term for domestic pottery of the 17th to 19th centuries," said Earp. Immersed in historical pottery styles, he laughed that his new electric kiln sports high-tech controls. However, he's not abandoning the old-style treadle wheel he built with found wood. "It's my dream wheel," he said.

With his pots, Earp adapts "interpretive drift" for finer hand-tooled designs, improved handles, and refined throwing. "I look backward to move forward," he said.

Some potters prefer a studio away from home. Mary Barringer, editor of The Studio Potter since 2004, loves the short commute from Buckland to her Shelburne Falls building. "I was lucky to buy this building. It's my dream studio," she said. Upstairs she produces the international journal and downstairs she hand-builds sculptural forms. Interested in surfaces, she layers glazes and slips for distinctive colors and textures. The electric kiln provides the final step.

After the trail weekend, Shelburne Falls potter Molly Cantor moves from a riverside studio-gallery to a large Bridge Street space in the town center, where she plans to add wheels for teaching and create a potters' community. Another sgraffito artist working in black and white, she carves woodblock-style images of plants and animals. Firing an electric kiln in her studio, she also uses a wood-burning kiln she built eight years ago in nearby Leverett. "The wood-fired pieces have more warmth and variations in the surface from the flame and ash," she said.

Donna McGee loves to bike the 6 miles from home to a Hadley studio where she has worked since 1982. Low-fired red earthenware is her choice because she can have more color in the portraits, scenes, and animals she paints on vessels, dishes, tiles, and tile murals. Slips, underglaze pens, pencils, and stains are some of her drawing materials.

"I often paint the beautiful scene out back on my pottery," she said. "I love to draw."

Jan Shepherd can be reached at jshep@earthlink.net.

If You Go


Asparagus Valley Pottery Trail Studio Tour and Sale

413-772-3141

www.asparagusvalleypotterytrail.com

April 25-26, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free.

A pottery trail "passport" stamped at seven or more studios will be eligible to win a pot donated by one of the potters.