Alyssa Steinhorn, 10, a fifth-grader at Dayton Oaks Elementary School, sat quietly painting a ceramic piggy bank that will be bright pink when it is finished. Across the table, her sister Amy, 5, painted a ceramic star box and her sister Julie, 7, painted a fairy sitting on the moon. Even their mother, Joyce, joined in the fun and painted a ceramic bumblebee.
At a table nearby, Erin Hodge, 16, a junior at Long Reach High School, serenely painted stripes onto a ceramic bowl. Although the colors looked muted at this stage, they will turn out to be bright orange, bright green and bright blue, she said.
The room, where the girls and other customers worked, was bright and open. Music played quietly in the background.
This was not a summer ceramics class, and it was not a day at a pottery studio in the traditional sense. It was a typical afternoon at the Pottery Stop on Snowden River Parkway in Columbia. The "paint your own pottery" store is quickly becoming a new tradition around the country and throughout the world, according to the Contemporary Ceramics Studio Association (CCSA).
"This is ceramics made easy," said store owner Lisa Feltz, who opened her Columbia shop nearly a year ago.
In a traditional pottery studio people would be making pieces from scratch or starting with greenware -- a shaped piece that has not been fired, Feltz said. It could take days or weeks to finish a piece.
At the Pottery Stop and about 1,400 other stores like it across the country, customers purchase pre-formed pieces that have been fired once, called bisque. All the customer has to do is decorate it, which usually takes less than 90 minutes. The store takes care of the rest, as employees glaze the painted piece, then fire it in a kiln.
"It takes the process of making pottery from five steps to one step -- the creativity part," said Angie Verburg, CCSA executive director.
"The finished piece is always a little surprising," Feltz said. "I think that's one of the fun parts. Sometimes things blend in unpredictable ways or the brush stroke looks a little different."
Feltz added: "You don't have to be an artist to paint pottery. We have idea books and stencils and transfers. But we really try to steer people away from those. My staff is out there to be helpful, make suggestions and make people feel good. We always say, `If you find a design you like, let me tell you how to do it.' Our mission is to have everyone say, `My piece looks great.' We want people to discover the artist within."
"It's easy," 5-year-old Amy Steinhorn said. "You pick out an object, look at a finished one, pick out your paint you think would look best and squirt it on a palette, then paint."
"They even clean up for you," her mother, Julie Steinhorn, said.
"Most people come in just having heard of it, they don't know what they want to do," said store employee Maegen Supple of Owen Brown.
"There are different techniques they can use," she said displaying a plate with about eight types of background finishes.
There's the splatter brush. "You dip the brush into the paint, turn it around and it flicks paint everywhere," she said. "You can also go for a rub-on look, which is simply a cotton ball covered in paint rubbed in circles on the piece."
Feltz does not have a long history in ceramics, although she says she always has been "crafty" and she enjoys painting. She was a special-education teacher until she opened her first shop in Frederick in 1999. She sold it in 2004. While she was teaching, her students gave her a bowl they painted. When she had children, she knew she wanted to open a business.
The Pottery Stop has workshops for adults, ladies' nights, full-day and half-day camps for kids and corporate team-building parties.
"Our jobs tend to be stressful," said Cora Gallagher, a child-life specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital who attended a department party with about 14 others in mid-July. "We work with children who are having medical treatments or hospital stays. It was nice to do something together that is relaxing. We chatted and painted and discussed what works [on the pieces]. We normally work in different parts of the hospital and don't even see each other. There were a few new people that joined the department. It was nice to get to know them."
No matter what the occasion for painting, the finished products can become keepsakes and gifts, Feltz said.
"They can become family heirlooms," she said recalling her own experience. "I took 14 plates to my grandmother's 85th birthday party. Each one of the relatives placed their hand next to hers and made a hand print plate. She had them all displayed in her home until she passed away. After she passed away, we each took our own plate. I still walk by and touch her hand."
The Pottery Stop is at 9400 Snowden River Parkway. Pieces run between $9 and $40. There is no time limit for working on a piece. The next camp will begin Aug. 7 for ages 8 and older. Information: 410-309-6500, or www. ThePotteryStop.com.