Potter shapes timeless art

Craft: Welsh potter Phil Rogers has traveled the world selling his wares and teaching. He uses a technique that dates from the 1500s.

November 15, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The day's work has yet to start, but already Phil Rogers sees a problem.

The pottery he created Saturday -- the half-dozen vases, bowls and jugs that he had shaped on a potter's wheel at Baltimore Clayworks -- has dried too much overnight and might be too brittle to mold into finished products.

Rogers, who has come to the arts center in Mount Washington from his native Wales to pass on a few secrets to his fellow potters, realizes the pottery is too dry when he picks up a jug and places it on the wheel spinning in front of him.

"It should be softer," Rogers tells the class of 10 students yesterday. "If the clay is softer, it's easier to manipulate." He ended up softening the pieces by applying damp towels to their exteriors.

Such are the vagaries of pottery.

Even if the clay is soft enough, the temperature in the kilns could be so high that it cracks the pieces. Even if the kiln temperature is right, the gases that fire up the kilns -- brick-lined furnaces that heat up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit -- could mix incorrectly, scorching the pottery or turning bright glazes to a dull gray.

"It's a craft where there seems to be a million factors involved in what determines the finished product," said Joyce Michaud, who teaches pottery and is director of the ceramics program at Hood College, where Rogers helped build a kiln.

No one knows this better than Rogers.

Rogers, 48, has written two books on pottery, has his work on display in several museums in the United Kingdom, and makes about 2,000 pieces of pottery each year at his studio in the Welsh town of Rhayader, using a salt-glazing technique that goes back to the 1500s.

But he still gets nervous when he fires up his kilns.

"I enjoy every minute of it, but it's actually very hard, very exacting work," he says.

The average kiln must stay heated for up to 14 hours to harden the clay. Rogers' kilns use so much power that he fires them up only about eight times a year.

That means loading them up each time with six weeks' worth of work, or roughly $4,500 worth of pottery.

"That's a lot to invest, and one problem along the way and it's all gone," he says.

For the most part, he says he's been lucky.

Rogers traveled to the United States last week to help build the kiln at Hood College in Frederick and teach a weekend class at Baltimore Clayworks, a nonprofit arts center that brings in ceramic artists to teach classes about once a month.

Students, most of them potters with years of experience, paid $180 each for the two six-hour sessions.

"I just wanted to get some rejuvenation," said Gerald Shabe, 69, of Fallston, who has been working with pottery for 33 years. "Everybody has their own way of doing things, and it's good to see someone else's technique."

Rogers taught the class "throwing and altering techniques," the steps taken when a potter initially shapes his piece on the wheel and applies any stamps, grooves or finishing touches before firing it in the kiln.

"You have to work with complete confidence and not be hesitant about what you are doing," he said, using a cheese slicer to whittle shavings of clay from the sides of a fruit bowl, giving it a beveled, multisided look.

The finished products were a collection of foot-high urns, colorfully shaped bowls, and coffee-mug-shaped vases.

"He's very modest, but he's one of the best potters out there," Michaud said.

Rogers worked as an art teacher for a few years in Wales before he opened his studio in 1977.

He has traveled the world peddling his wares and teaching pottery, including a stint in Ethiopia a few years ago teaching prostitutes pottery in an effort to keep them away from the world's oldest profession.

"To my knowledge, they still have a successful pottery operation that employs 25 women and their children," Rogers said.

He said his work is heavily influenced by the pottery of Korea and Japan, where ceramics are collected like paintings and handed down in families from one generation to the next.

"In Japan, ceramics are revered," he said. "They regard their pottery the way that we regard our paintings," he said.

He said that in most Western countries, pottery isn't seen as an art form.

But it is seen as something of a timeless craft, he said.

"There is still a huge fascination with the potter's wheel and with the way a piece seems to form before your eyes from the bottom up when you shape it with your hands," he said. "It's magical."

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