This weekend, art fans can leave a muddy week behind to embrace a world of Virginia clay.
About three dozen of Virginia’s top potters, sculptors and jewelers will gather at William Monroe Middle School in Stanardsville for the Virginia Clay Festival.
The fourth annual festival, presented from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, focuses on a single medium expressed in myriad forms. The same block of clay can reveal intricate porcelain earrings to match your mom’s favorite sweater, a whimsical guardian for your garden or the perfect platter for your holiday roast.
“It’s exciting to focus on one medium, and it’s a unique festival from that standpoint,” said Alan Yost, Greene County’s director of economic development and tourism. He expects about 3,000 visitors to attend this year’s event.
Another aspect of the festival that sets it apart is the chance to see “35 of the best potters from across Virginia” demonstrate their techniques.
“A lot of times, you go to festivals and you only have the opportunity to buy,” Yost said. “At this festival, you can actually see art being made.”
Holly Horan and John Pluta of Noon Whistle Pottery in Stanardsville founded the festival four years ago with the Greene County Tourism and Visitor Center. The event gives them a chance to share their own love of clay and its endless possibilities with a wider audience.
Pluta creates sculptures from clay, adding wood and vintage objects to shape fanciful creatures, while his wife divides her time between building her functional pottery pieces by hand with slabs of clay and spinning them into shape on her potter’s wheel.
“I have some sculptures that I’ve been working on for the past year,” Pluta said. “Mine are kind of wacky, whimsical caricatures.”
Clay also has a sneaky way of igniting curiosity. Everything from building techniques to decorative flourishes will be demonstrated, making the festival a valuable opportunity for people who’d like to learn to make pottery themselves, Pluta said.
“Each potter takes an hour during the weekend to share what makes it special,” Pluta said. Visitors can speak with the artists and ask questions.
Two potters will explain how to build kilns for firing pottery. And every hour and a half to two hours, “we’re going to have a raku-firing demonstration,” Pluta said.
The firing demonstrations never fail to fascinate, he said. One of the kiln openings each day by Blue Ridge Pottery will feature Nancy Ross decorating the pottery with horsehair.
Spectators often are surprised to see how quickly new pieces can go from fire to table. In addition to the works fired during the event, “they’ll have a bunch of pieces glazed and ready to go,” Pluta said.
Most demonstrations will happen inside the middle school’s gymnasium and an outdoor tent area. “There are things to do outside, but the majority of it is inside the gym,” Yost said.
On Saturday, watch Steven Summerville assemble a teapot with long legs, Tom Clarkson throw pots on the wheel, Lisa Zolandz create a narrow-necked vase with a crystalline glaze, Barbara Mann demonstrate terra sigilatta application and burnishing and Carrie Althouse fashion such closed forms as apples, pears, chickens and cats.
Jane Angelhart will demonstrate mishima decorating technique. Deb Barr will sculpt and decorate clay jewelry, while Betsy Curtiss will sculpt a small animal. Janice Arone will be building large bowls by hand.
Head to the outside tent to hear Samuel Deering explain how to fire a wood kiln. Lee Hazelgrove will use a torch in large vessel construction, while Michael Laroche will present spiral surface designs. Andrea Denniston will present slip casting on a simple cup and an underglaze inlay, while Hona Knudsen will throw a pitcher form and pull a spout.
Sunday’s indoor demonstrations will include Becky Garrett throwing sets of bowls and cups. Karis Swink Barry will be creating a mug from start to finish with sgraffito, while Neal Reed will demonstrate sgraffito carving on green ware. Wendy Wrenn Werstlein will show how to cut and shape an undulating rim. Josh Manning will present wax and brush decoration techniques.
Jennifer Paxton will explain jewelry design, texture and glazes, while Stephen Palmer will build a tray with slips and stencils. Sidra Kaluszka will transform a teacup into a sculptural piece, while Maggie Stultz will create whimsical, colorful pottery from start to finish. Susie Wilburn will show visitors how to apply color and graphics to clay surfaces.
Outside, Elizabeth Krome will throw rectangular baking dishes, Trista Chapman will make a teapot from altered thrown forms and Ron Sutterer will use a rib to form bowls. Nell Fredericksen will show visitors how to use a cylinder shape as a starting point for design, and Jake Johnson will throw forms with lids — and take requests.
There’s no denying clay’s tactile appeal, and watching all those demonstrations might make one’s hands fairly itch to give pottery a try. The children’s area, called Play with Clay, gives tomorrow’s artists a chance to squish, roll, coil and carve their own new treasures.
Even adults can’t resist. “I’ve been caught there before,” Yost said with a chuckle.
Throughout the weekend, musicians will be performing traditional Irish and old-time music. The combination of Greene County’s Blue Ridge views and haunting Celtic and Appalachian harmonies gives the homegrown celebration of native clay its sense of place.
“Part of it really goes back to our mountain heritage,” Yost said. “To have that old-time Irish music as well also speaks to that mountain heritage.”
Jane Dunlap Sathe is the features editor for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7249 or [email protected]