Ceramic artists around the country have long held Helena’s Archie Bray Foundation in high esteem. The nonprofit ceramic art institute lies just outside the Capitol City, among the ruins of an old clay manufacturing company.
Right now, a group of artists are learning to take their craft beyond bowls and vases.
Visiting artist Christa Assad calls it chocolate stoneware clay.
And it does sort of look like her students are manipulating wet mounds of creamy milk-chocolate.
Assad moves among the spinning electric pottery wheels of this cramped workshop—dolling out tips to potters of different ages and backgrounds.
“Your fingers don’t really engage and keep your elbows locked into your thighs, don’t go quite so fast,” she said to one student.
She demonstrates by effortlessly shaping the chocolate clay with strong hands. The silver streaks in her dark hair matching her metallic silver eye-liner.
Student John Laver came here from San Diego. He’s working his clay into a nice little cup.
“About a six-inch-tall cylinder, about three inches in diameter, and I don’t know where it’s going to go from here,” Laver said.
The Archie Bray foundation didn’t ask Assad to come up here from Berkeley to teach these experienced potters to make cylinders, that would be way too easy.
Assad has a reputation for working with other shapes.
“Are we trying to make square things on a pottery wheel?” I asked.
“Yes!” Assad answered enthusiastically. “We’re trying to depart from the normal, the perfectionism that’s associated with making round things on the wheel.”
Then, maybe while it’s still spinning, they may jab here and stab there–starting to prod that pot into another realm. The spinning stops, the clay stiffens a little and before it’s too hard, you cut it, and bend it.
“And reassemble it off the wheel,” Assad said, “changing the axis of the way things were originally thrown.”
Thrown means shaped in the clay world. Assad says cutting into an almost dry pot, you can throw whatever you want.
“Square, cones, rectangular, octagonal–you name it,” Assad said.
Fort Collins, Colorado potter Darin Steege works in this kind of abstract pottery and wants to expand his horizons.
Over the next few days, Assad’s class will be turning out all sorts of weird looking pots that aren’t pots. Or…not always. Assad is modeling her pieces off real objects.
“Lately, I’ve been using things like hand grenades, paint buckets, urban objects found on the ground,” Assad said.
Her hand grenades actually do double as peaceful, fuctional tea-pots.