Arts & Culture Guide

Hot tickets for the fall season. PLUS: Our thriving pottery scene, two unlikely documentary filmmakers and more.




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Local potters Tom and Carol Longacre. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Fired Up
Pottery’s low-key appeal makes it a perfect match for our western suburbs, where some of the region’s best potters reside.

By J.F. Pirro


Most potters work in their studios in isolation. So whenever West Chester’s Suzanne Kent has the opportunity, she participates in community firings.

“It’s one way to get back to the original way pots were fired,” she says. “There’s something about the craft that brings people together in these firing communities. And because of that, there’s something that goes beyond being an object maker. I wouldn’t call it religious, but it makes me rethink how important making pots has been in my life the past 35 years.”

Shows and festivals are also a communal experience. Many of this region’s best potters exhibit at the storied Stahl Pottery Festival in June in Powder Valley, Pa., and some again at Stahl’s fall show in October.

For almost 100 years, Stahl’s Lehigh County site once served as the home of three generations of redware potters—Charles, the father, sons Thomas and Issac, and grandson Russell Stahl. In 1987, descendants purchased the site and founded the Stahl’s Pottery Preservation Society, which maintains the historic site and museum, while hosting the two festivals and other events to promote handcrafted pottery’s history and the work of current artisans.

“We have electricity; they didn’t,” says Phoenixville’s Tom Longacre of Longacre Pottery. “They dug their own clay; I buy mine.”

CLAYBODY, a group of Chester County artisans, formed three years ago with the intention of showcasing their work and increasing the awareness of fine handcrafted work in and around Chester County. CLAYBODY has already had several shows at places like Historic Yellow Springs, the Phoenixville Art Center, the West Chester Art Trust and the DaVinci Gallery (as part of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts).

“The handmade pot’s task is to nourish,” says CLAYBODY founder Nell Hazinski. “Objects that are made thoughtfully and carefully ritualize and enhance the food we eat, quietly nourishing us as they accompany our daily tasks. The pleasure of a well-formed bowl or a balanced mug is not a small thing. With each use, there’s a life-sustaining celebration of the human connection between everyday objects, the spirit of the maker and user, and the food.”

Hazinski’s home base is Milkhouse Studio in Phoenixville, but the potter has had studios in Colorado and taught at several Pennsylvania art centers, SUNY Binghamton in New York and a Seisen International School in Tokyo. Hazinski has owned and managed a cooperative craft gallery, and was a resident at the Clay Studio in Philadelphia.

Other area potters include Chadds Ford’s Joan Gale, whose work at Swamp Fox Pottery combines interests in nature and art. When a neighbor, Jean Salter, opened a greenhouse and pottery studio in her home, Gale visited as a child, and the two made horticultural pottery. Gale, who has an Applied Science degree in ornamental horticulture, is also an instructor at Chester Springs Studio. She’s been a juried member of the PA Guild of Craftsmen since 1994, and her work has been displayed at Longwood Gardens, the Brandywine River Museum and the Philadelphia Flower Show.

Phoenixville’s Longacre developed an interest in pottery as a biology major at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1970s. When he returned home to West Chester University for an advanced degree in secondary education, he took an introductory pottery class. “I only got Bs because I never asked questions,” he says. “But I used ceramics as a reward system (to balance math and sciences).”

There’s a lot of science to his “cone 10” gas-fired reduction process, which heats his pots at 2,350 degrees. He also mixes his own glazes, while creatively and constantly developing new shapes for the 18 shows he does each year with his wife, Carol, whose knack for selling complements her spouse’s love for his work. “She knows how to sell,” says Longacre. “Artists are a bit on the negative side. We’re always especially afraid that the customer might not like it.”

Recently, when he had trouble getting raw materials (something to do with closed mines), Longacre made a positive from a negative. He compensated by focusing on his glazes and creating a unique line of multiple-poured glazes.

“Awesome” is his favorite word to describe his inventory—signed with a capital “T” and a lowercase “l”—as he sets up his booth at the Stahl’s Festival in June. Here, he exhibited his new electrified lamps for the first time. And, of course, his prices are “great”—and they really are. Longacre says his work is driven equally by his love of the craft and the need to sell. “I still have to pay the electric company, which doesn’t care how artsy my work is,” he says.

Eagle Gallery in Eagle, Whole Foods in Kimberton, Art Fx in York and Hardcastle Gallery in Centerville, Del., carry his pottery—which, he maintains, is one of the most individual of art forms.

A ceramics instructor at the Valley Forge Christian College in Phoenixville, Longacre has a line of durable, functional stoneware mugs, fruit and chowder bowls, utensil holders, casserole dishes, plates, teapots, vases and pitchers, among other things. “They’re for your countertop—I ask [customers] to use them,” says Longacre.

Some of his best work is “hand-built” from slabs not thrown on the wheel. The key to those—or any piece, for that matter—is trusting yourself. It’s a massive responsibility when you’re going through 4 tons of clay a year. “The garbage man hates me,” says Longacre. “Consistency is the big thing with any potter. We try to reduce the number of our mistakes.”

Kent also began studying pottery at West Chester University while completing a degree in education. For the past 25 years, she’s been a full-time studio potter in West Chester, making utilitarian pieces fired in wood, gas and electric kilns. She, too, teaches pottery—at Chester Springs Studio—and is a member of the Wallingford Potters Guild.

Since she never took any undergraduate art classes, it wasn’t until she was 26 years old that she dug in. “I became hooked on the process and the discovery of something new that was pleasurable,” says Kent.

She experimented for seven years while also working part time at a West Chester nursery school—then opened her first studio. “It’s been very good for me to have been in the same geographic location,” Kent says. “I’ve become the town potter and, through the years, built a group of relationships with those who began as customers but have since become friends.”

While Kent sells at boutiques, she prefers dealing directly with buyers—even if the liberal buyer is a thing of the past. Now people are more in tune with purchasing a piece because they either connect with the object or with the artist. With age, even Kent is more inclined to make what she wants—and not necessarily what sells best.

“I feel more experimental,” she admits. “I won’t be here forever, so I have to do what I enjoy. I’m fortunate that I’ve picked something I can do for an occupation. Each year, this becomes more of a lifestyle choice. Most of the important people in my life I met through pottery, and I feel more secure in who I am.”

For more information on the potters profiled here, visit:
• Chester Springs Studio at yellowsprings.org
• CLAYBODY at its Facebook page
• Longacre Pottery at longacrepottery.com
• Milkhouse Studio at phoenixvillefarmersmarket.org/artists
• Stahl’s Pottery at stahlspottery.org
• Swamp Fox Pottery at swampfoxpottery.com
• Wallingford Potters Guild at thepottersguild.com
 

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