Sophisticated enough to be museum pieces yet made to be handled and used, pottery is one of the earliest known arts as well as a significant vehicle of contemporary expression. Shaped into vessel form, clay comes to evoke the human body—its strength and beauty but also, often, its fragility and imperfection.?
As the art critic Jed Perl once wrote: “There is something in the ancientness and the plainness of ceramics that mixes together the practical and the metaphysical to a very extreme degree. No other art is simultaneously so literal and so metaphorical. Every ceramist who makes a vessel, a literal thing, is also making the vessel, a metaphorical thing.”
The Finger Lakes region is home to an admirable group of potters. While working in a traditionally communal artform, professionals today commonly build and fire their wares in individual studios.?
This weekend marks the second year of the annual Finger Lakes Pottery Tour. Following the recent trend for self-guided ceramics tours, the two-day event gathers nine regional and nine guest potters. The tour will take place in the studios of three founding members: Julie Crosby’s in Mecklenberg, Julia E. Dean’s in Ithaca’s, and Renata Wadsworth’s in Danby. In addition to work for sale and scheduled demonstrations, food vendors add to this lively and informative event.?
Crosby emphasized the affordability and approachability of pottery.?
“It’s a very accessible artform that people can really connect with and they get to use it every day,” she explained. “It ends up becoming a part of your life.”?
The tour differs pointedly from the popular Greater Ithaca Art Trail, with which some of the participants have also been affiliated. While the Art Trail features a much larger, shifting roster of artists working in a range of mediums, the Pottery Tour is more focused. Highlighting a core group of regional potters—supplemented each year by different guest artists drawn from outside the area—the event balances the familiar and the new.?
“One reason [for the tour] is to be able to connect the potters with the community directly, without being in a gallery or being in a craft show,” Crosby said. “It’s a little more of an intimate experience.”?
Crosby, who established her current home studio and kiln in 2007, is one of the area’s most distinguished ceramists. She is the subject of a feature length documentary, “By Hand and Fire: Julie Crosby Pottery,” which recently premiered at Cinemapolis. The work of local filmmaker Marilyn Rivchin, the movie delves deeply into her techniques, process, and inspirations.?
The artist discovered clay as an undergraduate at the Hartford Art School in Connecticut, where she received a B.F.A. in 1995. She is also a nationally-known kiln builder, a skill she learned in 1997-98 while working as a special student with Lisa Stinson at Louisiana Tech University. She works primarily in stoneware (fired at high temperature) using her self-designed Bourry box wood-and-salt kiln. ?
Crosby’s style is distinctive. She cites Native American wood vessels and prehistoric Japanese pots as particularly influential. Combining a minimal use of glaze with the controlled accidents of kiln-firing, her approach is austere and formal. Cut-out handles, boat-like shapes, painterly surfaces, and the combination of faceted forms with rounded ones are all common signatures.?
Dean is a production potter, working with a more large-scale, standardized approach. Some of her most distinctive vessels incorporate impressions of leaves and other natural and man-made forms. She is also the founder and director of Ithaca’s Clay School. The school, an important teaching center and communal workspace, opened in 2015. It’s located in Ithaca’s South Hill Business Campus in a well-appointed space that also houses Dean’s personal studio.?
Wadsworth, who works primarily in porcelain, brings an elegant, streamlined sensibility to her work that contrasts with Crosby’s and Dean’s more textural inclinations. Among others, her Danby studio will host veteran Pennsylvania potter Jack Troy, whom Crosby described as “a legend in ceramics.”?
Crosby and her fellow artists plan to hold on to the spirit and core membership of the Pottery Tour while continuing to develop.?
“In terms of the future, we just hope that it continues to grow, that we get more visitors each year and more visitors from further away,” she said. “And in that way, we will be able to invite more well-known potters and maybe have more studio locations,” she said.?
The Finger Lakes Pottery Tour tour runs May 11, from 10-5 p.m. and May 12, 11-4 p.m. More information, including a complete artist list and demonstration schedule, can be found at www.fingerlakespotterytour.com.