Show's sales feed her pottery habit

ACC: For Ronni Aronin, the dichotomy of her craft is that the clay is both in her control and outside it.

February 23, 2002|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

It's Saturday, the midway point of the American Craft Council's 26th annual show in Baltimore, and midway through the most important annual weekend in Ronni Aronin's life.

Aronin, 50, is a Mount Washington potter who has taken part in the nationally renowned ACC Craft Show every year for the past 21 years, a track record that might just be a record for participation. The show, twice as big as the next biggest show of its kind in the country, is a juried event, which means that you don't just pay an entry fee to be able to show your work.

Artists from around the country send in slides of their ceramics, glass, wood, metal, fiber, leather, mixed media and jewelry creations to a panel of their peers, who select just who gets one of the craft show's coveted 800-plus booths. Even if you made the show the previous year, that doesn't guarantee you a spot the next. For the 2002 show, 2,500 craftspersons and artisans applied; only nine from the greater Baltimore area, including Aronin, made the cut.

Twenty-one straight years makes Aronin a kind of Cal Ripken Jr. of American crafts, a fitting description for an artist whose greatest passion besides clay is baseball, particularly her beloved Orioles. It's not hard to get her talking about the game.

"I'm a huge baseball fan," Aronin says. "I used to go with a group to spring training every year. I have a Brady Anderson poster and a Frank Robinson poster where I work. I'm on the [Orioles] 29-game season-ticket plan. ... Brady's still my favorite player. He's going to have a good year in Cleveland this year."

On the subject of her work, Aronin is equally enthusiastic, despite the fact she is what Anne Tyler might call the Accidental Potter. A psychology major in college, she didn't intend to have an arts career, getting started in 1979 through a college course.

She "wasn't good at it at first, but there was something about it that made me want to keep struggling," she says. "As a child, I didn't like clay, but I always wanted kits where you could make stuff. It's part of my personality. And I keep at it because it's such a challenging medium. You can never master it."

Aronin was one of the founders of Baltimore Clayworks, a pottery studio and gallery in Mount Washington where potters can rent small spaces and where, Aronin says modestly, they have on staff the best pottery teachers in Baltimore. Though Clayworks has grown and expanded since it began in 1980, Aronin's own ambitions remain modest. She is, she says, "a potter who does all her own work.

"Many of my friends, many potters, have assistants - to glaze, for example - or go to the next business level, having a gallery of their own. I just wanted to keep it simple, to be a potter."

Because of its size and reputation, the ACC show is the most competitive in the country. Aronin and other craftspersons have been entertaining visitors at the Baltimore Convention Center since Wednesday, when wholesale buyers began wandering the exhibits. Retail buyers - better known as the general public - began arriving yesterday, and can return today and tomorrow. More than 30,000 visitors are expected to troop through this year's show, paying $10 for a one-day pass, $18 for a two-day ticket.

For her, the annual show is "my bread-and-butter. I take orders from wholesalers and retail buyers, and I spend the rest of the year filling the orders, one at a time."

She doesn't like to talk about "the money part," she says, explaining: "It all depends on what you need to support yourself ... I make money to support the pottery habit."

Instead, Aronin would much rather discuss pottery itself.

There's a "dichotomy" in pottery, she says. "It's about control and loss of control. You can decide what you want something to look like, but when you fire it in the kiln at 1,500 degrees [for stoneware] or 2,500 degrees [for porcelain], you don't know exactly what it's going to look like afterward. You have a kind of loose control. It's a long process, and it can be heartbreaking sometimes."

Then there are the challenges of the medium itself. It's a craft with many layers: different glazes, different clays, paints, temperatures of the kiln, and each of those affect the clay.

"It can take years to really learn how to do one thing, such as porcelain, which I've been interested in for a while now," she says.

In her booth at the show, the objects on the left half - bowls, casseroles, servers, trays - are porcelains that could be used for serving or simply as decorative art. They are aswirl with minimalist but strikingly suggestive bright reds and blacks.

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