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Shaped by clay


Whether it's lying dormant in your backyard or molded into your favorite cereal bowl, Southern Indiana clay's got something to offer everyone.


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To open up the ball of clay, I burrowed my thumbs in the center and pulled outwards. /Photo by Catharine Dahm

For gardeners it's a nuisance; for potters it's an opportunity. At its worst, it's a stained footprint on your carpet; at its best, it's the centerpiece of your dining room table. You would've found it refined as food storage vessels in the huts of Native Americans, but now you can find it displayed in the shape of a snowman in an elementary art class. It lies unseen beneath our fields and forests and takes shape through the fingertips of our artists.

In this feature, we'll dig up the history of clay and how it shaped the lives of the people who called Southern Indiana home. We'll tell you how to throw clay on a potter's wheel and how to dig up your own from the ground. We'll introduce you to traditional potters and one who is redefining the art. Join us as we take a fresh look at the prominence of clay, from what it meant to the Native Americans and German Uhl brothers to what it means to potters and mankind today.

An afternoon at the wheel

On the top of a hill in Seymour sits the Southern Indiana Center For The Arts, a gathering of art barns with a gravel driveway that winds up and around the tattered buildings. After multiple detours and a dangerously sharp right turn, I arrived for my first pottery lesson.

Looking for any sign of civilization besides the bustling squirrels, I stumbled into the Don Hill Pottery Barn. My eyes scanned old wooden shelves lined with clay figurines of laughing snowmen, African masks (with unintentional overlaps of glaze that resulted in brown smears) and muted jade-colored carved pots. A cheery voice beckoned me out of my trance.

"So have you had any experience with throwing pots?"

"Oh yeah, definitely," I responded. "Whenever I visit my aunt in Maine, I throw pots on her wheel." I hoped it wouldn't be obvious that I hadn't visited this aunt since the fourth grade.

The woman introduced herself as Betty Johnson, my teacher for the next hour. She immediately took me the opposite corner of the room, where she handed me a wire to cut the clay to "see what I remembered." I knew I had embellished my experience a little too much. However, as I sat down on the low, wobbly chair and cautiously pressed the wheel accelerator with my right foot, everything began to feel natural.

After throwing the clay on the middle of the wheel, I held the clay down as the wheel spun, a long process called "centering," to remove bubbles. The clay was cool, and I had to struggle to keep the slippery mass from flying toward the wall. With the occasional help of Betty's warm hand against mine for extra support, I won the first stage of the battle.

"So are you moving more toward a bowl, tall pot, dish, or..."

"I'm just pulling out the edges a little," I mumbled. I realized that I didn't answer her question, but I had no clue as to what I was making. The clay was still the boss of me

I burrowed my thumbs deep in the center of the clay and pulled outwards, watching the amorphous ball open up and encircle my hands. My thumbs sunk deeper and deeper toward the wheel as I anticipated the shape my piece would take. All I knew was that bowls and pots were hollow in the middle, and as proud as I was of what I had done so far, my ball of clay wouldn't pass as pottery.

But I was proud to end up with a dish the perfect size to support my morning bowl of oatmeal. I wiped the sides of it with a wet sponge and at last, I was the boss of the clay. However, my battle wounds showed in my clay spattered jeans and clay-caked arms.

"Now let's set this out to dry and get you cleaned off," Betty said as she handed me a stained rag and a bucket full of a milky mix of clay and water. "We wash dirty with dirty here."

Before leaving, I rubbed my name in the sloppy mix of water and clay on the plate with my pot to mark my territory. When I returned in two weeks, I would glaze the pot I made. As I thanked Betty and slid the door close, I cast one last glance back at the pot I had thrown. I had created something physical, something creative, and I felt accomplished. I decided I would finally find a way to fit that ceramics course into my class schedule next semester.

Want to get your hands in the clay? Check out these nearby locations:

Southern Indiana Center For The Arts

The go-to place in Seymour for one-on-one lessons, whether you're looking to try out the wheel or mold a mask.

Contact: 812-522-2278 or www.soinart.com

Earth and Fire

New Albany's paint-your-own-pottery shop that's perfect for large groups or parties.

Contact: 812-944-7357 or www.earthfirepottery.com

Bloomington Clay Studio

A community-based studio with classes for the beginners and open studio access for the clay masters.

Contact: 812-340-8462 or www.bloomingtonclaystudio.com

Torner Center

A recreation center in Terre Haute with weekly classes for those who want close guidance.

Contact: 812-232-0147

Fired Up!

A drop-in studio in Evansville for kids (or those in touch with their inner kid) who want to buy pre-made pieces and get creative with glazes and finishes.

Contact: 812-476-3121 or www.firedupevansville.com/about

Uhl pottery: An organic style of Southern Indiana

Though their roots lay in Germany, the Uhl brothers left a mark in small-town Huntingburg history with their original style of pottery.

History: In the 1840s, the Uhl family left Lisbon, Germany, for America, where they found their niche in Evansville. The Uhl brothers operated a pottery business there for over 50 years, importing the finest clay from deposits at Stand Pipe Hill in nearby Huntingburg. After the death of older brother Louis Uhl in 1908, the remaining Uhl men moved to Huntingburg, where the Uhl Pottery Company remained until it closed in the 1940s. Today, local clay potters manufacture miniature replicas of Uhl pieces so the surviving Uhl family members can retain the trademark, while the originals can sell for around $100.

How to recognize an Uhl piece: Because the Uhl brothers manufactured everything from miniatures to six gallon barrels, you can't always distinguish a piece by its shape or function. However, here's what you should look for:

1. The color of the clay is a creamy white.

2. There are often mold numbers embossed somewhere on the piece.

3. The most accurate sign is one of these stamps for Uhl pottery. However, only 30 percent of the pieces were marked.

Dig your own clay from the ground

With a few household items and help from Marvin Bartel, Emeritus Professor of art at Goshen College, we show you how to make your own authentic Indiana molding clay and embrace your inner artist.

What you'll need: shovel, bucket, wooden spoon, window screen, canvas sheet and plastic bags

1. Dig up clay soil and set out to dry completely.

2. Put clay in a bucket, submerge it in water and allow it to soak until it becomes mushy. Make sure not to stir it or you may disrupt the process.

3. When the clay is soft, stir it until it becomes a thick liquid, also known as a "slip." Bartel says that the mixture should be the consistency of coffee cream.

4. Pour the slip through a window screen (or another fine mesh) to filter out any rocks, trash or sediment in the mix.

5. Allow the clay to settle once again. Once it has settled, a film of water will rise to the top, which you should pour off.

6. Spread the mushy clay on a porous surface, such as canvas or denim, and allow it to dry to a dense, solid state. Once the clay is almost dry, store it in plastic bags or start modeling. If the bag is airtight, the clay will stay good indefinitely.

7. For adults: Take your finished pot or sculpture to a kiln to fire your own piece of earthenware pottery. For kids: Mold what you want, let it dry, and when you're ready to create something new, soak the dried clay in water until it returns to its wet consistency and start over again!

Warnings: If the clay cracks easily, mix in store-bought clay to increase the plasticity. If the clay is too sticky, add fine sand to give it more bulk.

Bloomfield artist Nell Devitt, 61, has made a name for herself exhibiting her square-tile pottery that was influenced by cathedrals in Italy. Devitt's work has been featured in galleries across the country, and her commissioned work can be seen in gallaries and exhibitions as far west as California all the way to Nova, Scotia. After studying pottery in Japan after college and apprenticing under acclaimed artist Ono Yoshi, Devitt returned to Bloomfield to master her skills.

Nell Devitt, local artist

Bloomfield artist Nell Devitt, 61, has made a name for herself exhibiting her square-tile pottery that was influenced by cathedrals in Italy. Devitt's work has been featured in galleries across the country, and her commissioned work can be seen in gallaries and exhibitions as far west as California all the way to Nova, Scotia. After studying pottery in Japan after college and apprenticing under acclaimed artist Ono Yoshi, Devitt returned to Bloomfield to master her skills.

Did you think you were going to be an artist when you were growing up?

I think I always knew there were things I wasn't going to do, so maybe that's the answer. I remember responding to very visual topics in middle school, and there was this time my eighth grade art teacher put down a lump of clay in front of me and I remember what it smelled like. That might've been it - it just turned me on.

Where does the minimalist design in your art come from?

Let's see. I come from a functional pottery background, and when you're making vessels, you do repetition. I'm not an expert on minimalism, but I do feel like repetition is an aspect of minimalism. The simplicity and directness of clay enable you to have a process. I also think that just abstracting an idea is simplifying it and taking it down to its most basic form, and that's been something that's always intrigued me. The intellectualizing and the drawings sort of came later.

What moment really got you interested in working with square tiles?

I remember when I was in Italy, and I was in the cathedral, and I looked down at the tile floor. This wasn't ceramic, it was marble. And there were patterns in the floor, and after that I'd started thinking about them for my tiles. And that kind of got me. I started sketching and drawing those tiles, and that was the beginning of doing these patterns that were sort of based off a tile that I saw when I was in a cathedral in Turin.

How has your work has changed most in the past 10 years? What do you attribute to this?

Well ten years actually goes very fast [laughs]. I don't change my work drastically from year to year. I feel like the ideas that I've been working with, I've been working with from the beginning, and I just do variations on them. I find that that's actually more interesting to me. Clay is so overwhelming at times. You can do anything with clay, so the possibilities are limitless. So you have to really put parameters around your work to do anything. If I feel like if I'm repeating a work, it will improve.

How much time a day do you spend in the studio?

That's just the great part about being self-employed. You can be your own boss. When I'm busy, I'll be out there from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. If the clay's at a certain stage, it's very demanding. Sometimes you're in the studio all the time, and other times there are days where I can go to the beach or lake on a Monday morning when other people are in their studio or office (laughs). I like to work on the weekends and around holidays a lot - definitely the holidays. It's a good distraction from everything else.

What does the future hold for you?

You tell me! I don't know, I hope just more of the same.

Devitt's work can be found at different art galleries including: Relish, in Bloomington, and Addendum, in Carmel.

Clay City Pottery, offering stoneware for over 100 years

If you're ever passing through Clay City, consider stopping by Clay City Pottery Stoneware, a stable of the city that's just southeast of Terre Haute. The pottery business, which still stands today, was established by Beryl Griffith in 1885. After the business was passed down through each generation of the Griffith family, Justin Lewicki now operates as the company's owner. Now , Clay City Pottery Stoneware continues to offer traditional pottery that is both lead-free and safe to serve food from.

Clay City Pottery prides itself on making ceramics the "same way they were made over 100 years ago," Justin Lewicki says . Clay City first takes raw clay extracted from local coal mines and shovels it into a washer. Once inside the washer, a large paddle mixes the clay with water to create "slip." The large debris then settles at the bottom of the washer and the slip is pumped off of the top. Once the slip is filtered out, the clay goes through a filtering process of six to eight hours of high pressure pumping that results in a fifty-pound cake of clay.

Once the clay is ready to be shaped, it goes through a process called "jiggering," where soft clay is thrown in a spinning mold and taken out by hand. The excess clay is removed by hand or by wooden scraper, and the remaining bowl is sponged clean on the inside.

After four to seven days, the bowl is dry and ready to be glazed. Lewicki still uses a family recipe to create the base glaze, which is used in all of the Clay City's glazes. Once the glaze is dry, the bowls go through a firing process that takes three to four days. After cooling, the bowls are unloaded and ready to be taken to the retail store.

Clay City Pottery produces approximately 200 small bowls or 100 large bowls a day. While they make bowls in various colors including walnut brown, robin's egg blue and sage green, Clay City bowls are most notably known for their signature cobalt blue bowls. Most of their pieces cost less than 30 dollars, and can be ordered from their online site or found in store's of major pottery retailers including Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma.

Clay City Pottery's retail store is open six days a week. Stop by for a chance to pick up some traditional pottery that doubles as functional pottery and the next centerpiece for your dinner table.