This article was published in the Winter 2018 edition of the Ojai Valley Guide magazine. It is reprinted here with their permission. All photographs are copyrighted to their respective creators, as named and credited. The content is copyright to the author. ©2018 Anca Colbert – All Rights Reserved
A Place for Potters
A rekindled interest in pottery activity around the Ojai Valley.
Story by Anca Colbert
In Ojai’s history and reputation of attracting artists and creatives of all kinds we know that potters and ceramic artists have long been drawn to live and work here, in this place, this small town nestled in a heavenly mountain valley.
Naturally, Beatrice Wood’s storied life and career first comes to mind. “Beato” lived here from 1947 (when she built her house and studio in the East End) until her death in 1998, at the ripe age of 105. For many, she put Ojai on the map. She did so for this then-young art lover, freshly arrived from Paris to Los Angeles, who first came to Ojai in 1973 invited to lunch by Beatrice, who at the time was just settling into her new home in the Upper Valley, next to the Happy Valley School. That home and studio, now transformed into The Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, welcomes visitors on pilgrimage seeking a glimpse into the famed artist’s inner and outer landscapes.
From illustrious potters and ceramic artists to modest craftspeople, from devoted amateurs to occasional or accidental hobbyists, Ojai’s story as a home to those who want to work with clay endures. In recent times, that long-established tradition is rejuvenated and invigorated by the arrival of new potters to the area.
Simply defined, pottery is “one of the oldest and most widespread of the decorative arts, consisting of objects made of clay and hardened with heat. The objects made are commonly useful ones, such as vessels for holding liquids, or plates or bowls from which food can be served.” (George Savage, Britannica)
Pottery is both an object of utility and an object of beauty.
Originally developed for utilitarian purposes, making simple objects for cooking and use in everyday life, over time pottery became a craft, then a decorative craft, and later on an art. As to the distinction between crafts and art… that’s another (long) story.
The main types of pottery (earthenware, stoneware and porcelain) look distinctly different. Due to the huge combination of choices available to a potter – e.g., the types of clay and their quality, the mixing of various materials and the vast range of techniques used (hand-building or wheel, kiln types, firing temperatures, etc.) – the works produced result in astonishingly different shapes and textures. Some of it by design, some of it by chance.
From its simplest utilitarian manifestations thousands of years ago to the complexity of modern and contemporary sculptural works, pottery is a cultural artifact that traces the evolution and reflects the richness of human history and civilizations around the globe.
At the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, now a mecca for ceramics lovers, one can view Beatrice Wood’s legendary luster glazes and provocative figurative sculptures, and learn about her extra-ordinary life. The Center’s Director, Kevin Wallace, tends to her legacy and opens the doors to visitors by organizing art events, art shows and workshops. The latter are more like retreats, opportunities to learn, surrounded by nature. Valerie Freeman, a painter and sculptor, took one workshop and then started creating her own lustrous glazes. In addition to ceramics, the workshops offer also basketry, fiber, and woodwork; these experiences attract artists and students, private family and corporate retreats. Her spirit is still present in her studio at the foot of the Topas.
Vivika and Otto Heino’s lives played a key role in developing the identity of Ojai as a place for potters. Married for fifty years, the couple produced a significant body of work in their artistic partnership, mostly traditional vessels decorated with delicate glazes of their own.
In 1973, they moved to Ojai after purchasing the McAndrew Road studio of their friend and former student Beatrice Wood, and established their own studio: The Pottery. Former students, collectors and devotees flocked to their studio year after year. After Vivika’s passing in 1995, Otto continued to work, with help from younger potters and assistants. He developed his world famous (secret and much coveted) “yellow” glaze, regaled visitors with colorful stories about his life, tended the kiln, and worked with students and apprentices till his death in 2009 at the golden age of 94.
How could we include every gifted potter and ceramicist who came to live and work in Ojai? Impossible in this space. For now, let’s briefly acknowledge only a few whose presence and influence made and continues to make a difference.
Larry Carnes’s studio near the Ojai Lumberyard was for many years a must-stop for pottery lovers. Larry was versed in clay chemistry and its scientific analysis, and had collaborated with Otto Heino. He welcomed students of all levels. After he moved away, his place sold in 2017 and its activities were rekindled as the Firestick Pottery Studio and Gallery.
Potter and sculptor Myra Toth started teaching ceramics at Ventura College in 1976. The influential teacher, now retired and with more time to work on her own art, holds yearly workshops in her Pyramid Studio in Ojai and attracts students from all over the world.
Out of the sixty-eight or so current members of OSA (Ojai Studio Artists) six are artists or sculptors who are creating and innovating primarily with clay: Richard Flores, Richard Franklin, Valerie Freeman, Bruce Tomkinson, Sandra Torres, and Wyatt Amend.
Frank Massarella, the popular potter and teacher, opened his “Firehouse” studio and school in 1982 on Montgomery Street, where the Ojai Vineyard is now located; Frank recently re-opened his studio in Oak View. His influence endures in Ojai.
Following up on Beatrice Wood’s legacy, a few independent potters in the valley work with luster glazes, e.g., Sooz Glazebrook and Nanci Martinez.
To make pottery you need a studio.
Not every artist can afford to maintain one, so having access to properly equipped studio space with good light is essential. Potters often need to have access or rent space in other potters’ studios. A professional studio usually offers space and use of equipment that includes kilns, potters’ wheels, slab rollers, and more. Walls are usually lined with shelves for works in progress at various stages of completion, and dozens of pots and jars filled with chemicals. A spirit of camaraderie develops among potters as they talk shop and collaborate while sharing work spaces, resources, tools and techniques. And the occasional drink. Pottery is the kind of craft that is best learned from teacher to student, from “master” to apprentice. You learn a lot by seeing how others do it. Same goes for glass artists. And cooks! But to become a “chef,” you must spend years chopping the parsley just right, or cooking the rice to the perfect temperature and consistency for sushi. Attention to detail. Focus. Practice. Patience. All skills and traits a potter must have in order to become good at their craft. A sense of humor is also much-needed on the road to “perfection,” as one must deal with the inevitable failures that are part of the learning experience.
Firestick Pottery Studio on Ojai Avenue offers classes, studio spaces and a gallery.
In June 2017 Robin Nahin bought Larry Carnes’ house and studio. Robin has been throwing pots at Long Beach City College since 1970. She has been coming to Ojai for 37 years and is now bringing renewed energy into the spacious studio and outdoors areas. Local potters Wyn Matthews and Sean Ponder have taken turns there in teaching and tending the five kilns (3 electric, 2 gas) on the premises. The studio has attracted beginners and serious potters, and a couple of established local artists who have expanded their work to include luster glazes (painter and sculptor Valerie Freeman) or paint on ceramic vases (plein air artist Jeff Sojka). A gallery space indoors displays and sells works made on the premises.
Another resource for studio space and learning opportunities is The Ojai Pottery and Clay School on Fox Street, established years ago as “a professional studio for adult students at all levels dedicated to teaching and supporting the creation and promotion of ceramic arts.”
A few artists contribute to the recently revived activity in pottery around town.
In 2006 Sandra Torres moved with her family from Santa Barbara to Ojai. Having recently joined the Ojai Studio Artists, her studio was open to visitors during the October Studio Tour. What a treat to discover her and her masterful artistry!
“The character of my current work resides in the exploration of small but significant variations of shape, size and patterns.”
An architect, with an MBA to boot, Sandra first turned to ceramics in 1999 and acquired an international education through apprenticeships and classes in Santa Barbara, in Mexico, China, Hungary, and Belgium – influences visible in her artistic pursuit. The simplicity of her shapes and exquisite quality of her porcelain works stands out by its technical achievement and its delicacy.
Eight years ago, Scott Chatenever moved his home and studio from Santa Barbara to Ojai. A dedicated ceramic artist, he came to pottery from a scientific background as an engineer; he is driven to research the materials and the process of working with clay. Scott makes his own tools and marks to use on his pottery and ceramics.
With an extensive experience of studying and teaching pottery techniques, he generously shares his deep knowledge and passion for the medium and its history. His work is organic, reflecting a keen attentiveness to the natural world with its range of textures and dimensions, from the roughest (tiny, muddy mushrooms carefully carved out) to the smoothest (huge, fish tiles and murals illuminated in lustrous glazes). This consummate craftsman plays masterfully with forms and techniques: “I work obsessively to create new life forms.”
Scott Chatenever demonstrates and embodies the obvious fact that pottery is both an art and a science.
Wyatt Amend grew up in Ojai surrounded by a world of opportunities to pursue a creative path. The young artist found his own distinct direction. He combines superb technical skills with sculptural innovation. Treating clay like wood, he is “using the ceramic wheel in a reductive way to carve out his pieces.” For him, the glazing process is particularly important. “Although my glaze is all in the details, sometimes the patterns get lost in the molten half of ceramics. A pristine gridded out application of glaze mixed with the high temperature of my firings can lead to a whole new mandala of colors. The exact patterns are as important as the variation of firing, and are not possible without one another.”
From bold, modernist sculptural forms to meticulously crafted vessels inspired by the golden age of Venetian glass, Wyatt Amend explores his artistic medium in an innovative, adventurous manner.
Marc Millovich has been hand-building pottery exclusively out of micaceous clay for 18 years.
A California native, he traveled the world. A year ago, he and his family moved from La Madera, New Mexico to Carpinteria. Two months ago, he rented studio space at Firestick Studio on Ojai Avenue to do his work and, maybe, teach classes.
Making pottery with micaceous clay is a method dating back at least 800 years. The clay contains mica (hence the sparkle) the fire pit must be outdoors, and the vessels are good for cooking. They look ancient, simple and spectacular. I believe Marc Millovich is the only potter to practice this technique in this area. Felipe Ortega was his mentor in this craft.
“Playing in the mud is a timeless human pastime. I only make cookware, as this is clay I have to dig for myself. For me to use it for anything else would be a shame as it adds richness to all flavors married in it.”
Marc’s interest in sustainable living and holistic cooking will no doubt enrich Ojai’s like-minded community. “I am as passionate about my pottery and process as I am about cooking in them.”
Beatrice Wood often compared her pottery making to cooking. When asked about the recipes for her famed luster glazes, she would reply: “Oh! Well, just a pinch of this and a pinch of that.” Like Otto Heino, Beatrice would also talk about her excitement of getting up early in the morning to open the kiln and see what came out of the overnight firing. Yes, more cooking.
A ritual relationship develops between potters and their kiln. It is one of the utmost importance.
What comes out of using your hands to mix clay with water, to shape something out of nothing, to turn the wheel, and to see the result transformed through fire is nothing short of magical. It’s sheer alchemy.
Pottery making is slow, three-dimensional, and tactile. In counterpoint to a fast-moving world and a contemporary culture hooked on two-dimensional, image-based technology and virtual reality, “making” with one’s hands is a form of meditation, a grounding therapy, a creative exercise in slow motion, and a sensual experience. Remember the erotic pottery-making scene in the movie “Ghost?”
The pleasure of touching the clay is powerful. The pleasure of feeling the texture of the various artifacts, of experiencing the way light is absorbed or reflected on their surfaces is seductive. It’s a form of play for all our senses.
Standing in line for tacos at the OSA opening night party mid-October, the woman next to me introduced herself as having just moved to Ojai from San Diego. That’s how I met Lynn Render and her husband. It turns out she is (you guessed!) a potter who would like to set-up a studio here and work again, now that her husband retired.
“I’ve known Frank Massarella for many years as my husband, Ron, and I would come to Ojai for me to attend workshops with Vivika and Otto Heino, stopping to visit with Beatrice Wood. We would always stop by and chat with Frank and Dusti in their “Firehouse Pottery.”
Full circle to our story…
Lynn is fascinated with the variety of expression that comes out of people’s hands. “Those of us with more years in the business might have more technique, but what comes from the heart is amazing!”
Consider the kind of direct, palpable choice that making pottery brings to a person’s life. A child can quickly learn how to do it. A ceramic artist spends a lifetime refining their skills. In both cases, it’s profoundly satisfying to mold clay to be able to enjoy and to share with others the creation resulting from that experience: a physical, sensual, playful, simple and complex experience.
Anca Colbert is an art adviser, curator, writer, and long-time resident of Ojai.
She gratefully acknowledges the courtesy of the various artists and photographers giving her permission to select and use their photographs to illustrate this article.