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I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the whirling gray blob beneath the potter’s fingers. As his wheel spun furiously, he pressed gentle hands around the clay and all at once – he held a mug. I was afraid to blink in case I missed a part of the metamorphosis. He made it look so easy.
The potter is Richard Wetterer, owner of Shanware Pottery in Rumney, New Hampshire. Richard is a master of his craft, and pottery captured his interest at a very young age. He was always interested in art, but the first time he saw pottery made, he was ten years old at the Montana State Fair. “It looked so amazing, the way clay would grow up into a shape,” he said. This wonder has stuck with him ever since, as he still loves the “throwing” part of the process most of all. “You take something that has no shape and give it shape. You take nothing and make it something. It’s magical,” he said, as the wheel slowed and he picked up his finished product.
Originally, Richard was more interested in sculpture, but he said, “I found it was easier to make a living making pots.” Sculpture is larger and harder to sell, because often people are searching for that one very specific piece for their sitting room or garden. Because of its size and cost, people rarely buy it on a whim. Pots, mugs, and other household items are pieces of artwork that get used daily and are loved more.
Richard has accumulated a long list of credentials in pottery. He has a Master of Fine Arts from the Rinehart School of Sculpture at The Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore. He also graduated with high honors from University of California in Santa Barbara, and was an exchange student at the University of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh College of Art. He is a past member of NY Sculptors Association and past member and past president of the New England Sculptors Association. He is also a member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen.
All those titles represent years of grinding work. When I remarked to Richard how effortless he made pottery look, he laughed and told me about when he was trying to grasp the basics in high school. “At first, I thought I would never learn,” he told me. “I’d go to class thinking, ‘I’m gonna make a pot. This time, I’m gonna make a pot!’ ”
After Richard mastered the craft, he went on to teach others, first at Tausen State College and then Mount Ida College for ten years. “Seemed like longer,” he chuckled. “[Finally] I decided the students were having much more fun than I was.” He grew weary from the long hours and not being able to create much himself.
Even so, Richard is a firm believer that we need quality art programs in our schools, and he suggests teaching as a good career option for art majors. “You can fill up the refrigerator a lot faster that way,” he said. “Art does not get the attention it deserves in the public school system. Without arts we’d all be up in a tree.”
While Richard was battling frustrations of the college setting, a friend of his encouraged him to become a full-time potter and in 1975, Shanware Pottery was born. Richard’s work is inspired by the traditional stoneware and porcelain of ancient China and Japan, so he chose to mark his pottery with the Chinese symbol “Shan.” “Shan” means “mountain,” and represents the “character, strength, and durability of all the work.”
Richard’s first studio was the basement of an old bank building in Massachusetts. “Every time I washed the floor, I could smell horses, because that’s where the banker used to keep his horses,” he said. “It was an interesting place to work because you could never tell if it was night or day, or winter or summer, but there were no distractions, which was nice.”
In 1987, he migrated to Rumney, New Hampshire. First, he worked out of an old barn. That was torn down in 2004, so he moved to his current studio, a little white building filled with sunlight, with a boardwalk to his kiln for easy access in the winter months. In the front room, visitors can look at his beautiful wares, all displayed at the perfect angle on tables and shelves. Paintings from local artists cover the walls, and it seemed like I could browse the room for hours, examining each piece. There were mustache mugs, vases, teapots, things that I had never imagined made out of pottery.
As I stepped from the front room into the back studio, I felt the contrast. The back room wasn’t a place for art to sit and look pretty. It was a place of progress. Hard curls of discarded clay littered the floor like giant fingernails. Gray dust stained the tables and the old wooden chairs, even Richard’s rubber sandals and socks. Vessels in various stages of life, from greenware to glazed, waited in tribes around the studio for the next step in their production. Paper sacks of dusty minerals also waited their turn to be made into glazes, and raw clay sat ready to be thrown. Something about the quiet chaos reminded me that true art starts out as a giant mess. Even the mess remained tranquil. Plants made bright green spots around the studio, and there was an assortment of postcards tacked up above one of three pottery wheels. Frida Kahlo and two walruses were the cards that jumped out at me particularly.
Richard showed me everything: the kiln, the wheels, the different minerals he used to create different color of glazes…I found the studio so fascinating that I spent a little time simply wandering and snapping photos of the little details that made me smile. I found the art in its messy stage more calming than the shelves of finished product.
If you’d like to read more about how pottery is made, Richard has a great article on his website that explains every step. While you’re there, click through his online gallery and explore the different items he has for sale. Pottery always makes an elegant gift for family, friends and coworkers.