Potter Gary Rith

T

he work, they say, is messy but satisfying.  It starts with water and clay, not the rough, sticky mud from stream banks our pioneer forebears had as their only choice but custom-mixed stoneware chosen by the preference of the artist.   It’s pummeled and kneaded before being shaped into useful and beautiful objects, then after several sojourns in a kiln to harden and fuse the clay particles and the glazes used to decorate them, the pottery created by area artisans is ready to move on to its new home.  

Basic similarities in materials and technique are so individually interpreted, it becomes relatively easy to look at a piece of pottery and recognize who made it.  Some potters rely more on form, some on texture, others work with distinctive glazing, or use their work as a canvas for art.  

“With Syracuse, RIT, and Alfred University turning out some of the best potters on earth, there are a lot of potters here and a very congenial arts environment,” said Gary Rith, who moved to the Freeville area seven years ago, from New Hampshire.  It was easier to sell pottery in that tourist-rich environment, he said, but he likes living here.

Like many professional potters, he sells much of his work through online markets.  Rith is an active craftsman, selling his work locally through the Handwork Cooperative and the Ithaca Farmer’s Market, but his experience suggests this is a town with not a lot of wiggle room for gallery space.  “I’ve been involved in eight different stores locally that have closed or gone out of business,” he said.  “There’s a lot of idealism here.  It’s like restaurants: sometimes there are more great ideas than there are customers.”

Most potters work functional pieces, though many also use ceramic as a sculptural medium.   Mary Ann Bowman, who works in white stoneware, partly for the way it takes glaze, creates friendly, fanciful animals including shy or smiling birds, and long-legged frogs at ease  in garden beds.  A member of the Ithaca Art Trail, she prefers having studio visitors to traveling to shows, where she can take only a small fraction of her work.  Occasionally, she admits, a sculpture becomes something functional, like her animal-inspired mugs.

Bowman, like others, said the Internet has greatly impacted her work.  “Information is much more readily available,” she said.  “Information has expanded greatly, materials change frequently, especially those mined from the earth.  There are more investigations, more people experimenting with different techniques and ingredients.”  She belongs to an online discussion group about glazes; it’s also become one of the ways she learns about advancing technology.  For instance, she’s recently purchased a machine that mixes her clay from dry materials.  

Is this taking pottery in some new directions? “Definitely,” said Mary Ellen Salmon of Salmon Pottery in Trumansburg, a fine arts gallery.  “I think there is more technology and it’s improving.  A lot of people are doing finer work, more colors are available for higher temperature glazes.  More chemistry and technology and kiln control gives you more and more options.”

Her full classes and waiting lists for class openings attest to a strong area interest in pottery.  And while she carries mostly functional pottery—“It’s part of why I like being a potter: people use your stuff every day!” she said—her gallery, which showcases the work of many local potters, specializes in the slightly unusual.  “I like to carry things that have a unique take.  I think pottery goes in trends, but there is good variety in Ithaca.”

Scott Van Gaasbeck, owner of Frog Hill Pottery in Brooktondale, mixes his own clay and fires his work in a wood-fired kiln he built himself.  “I think everything I make is completely functional, and I’m making it to be used every day,” he said.  

“But I’m hoping it serves as getting art out into peoples’ lives.  Most people don’t buy it thinking of it as art.  If I present it as art, it gets a lot of attention, a lot of compliments, but Ithacans don’t buy it.  So I just focus on making items which are functional but also have a beauty to them, to make people stop and look at it twice.  People will stop and tell me about their favorite mug, and it’s a humble thing.  I would like to do something more monumental than mugs, but they care enough to make this human connection to tell me how much this object means to them.  So if I’m doing that with my life, I can be pretty happy when I think about things that way.”

Ithacan David Kingsbury has a local following through Handwork and the farmers market, allowing him to sell his work almost exclusively in the region.  He works in high-fire stoneware because it’s a food-safe, functional material.  “Form is probably most important to me, but for economic survival, I’ve had to pay a lot of attention to glazing as well.”

“At Handwork, each participant gets to bring in what they want, display what they want.  You’re in charge of your own little section, so it’s a chance to be creative in the way you present your work, and you get a lot of feedback.”

For Kingsbury, making pottery is more than a livelihood.  “It’s something that goes hand in hands with my spiritual approach to life, where beauty and utility mix,” he said.   “I’m uncomfortable making art objects that take up space in yours house and don’t do anything.  A pot is an honest, beautiful object that takes part in your life.  And I really believe the objects we surround ourselves with either take energy from us or give us energy.” 

In the lively local pottery scene, every working potter names several others whose work, quite different from their own, is something to admire.  There are fewer local crafts fairs than in former years, so finding area pottery one might start with the Greater Ithaca Art Trail, the farmers markets, and Handworks, as well as a few other galleries in town, then branch out, asking questions.  Potters don’t generally see their local colleagues as competition.

“Our competition is the cheap pottery made in China and the stuff at places like Pottery Barn,” Rith said.  “So you might as well follow your imagination and have fun.  It works for me.”

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