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Well-Known Potter Brings Life to Nevada Ghost Town

Charles Hillinger's America

November 10, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

TUSCARORA, Nev. — For the last 20 years, potters from all over the world have been coming to this 19th-Century ghost town tucked into the remote northeast corner of Nevada on the slopes of Mt. Blitzen.

They come to understudy a balding, bearded, lanky hermit who gave up university and city life to escape to the peace and quiet of this old mining camp located 52 miles from the closest grocery and gas station.

Dennis Parks, 48, started spending summers in Tuscarora in 1966, conducting workshops in a turn-of-the-century chicken coop he converted to a studio. Then, in 1971, he chucked his career as a professor of art at Pitzer College in Claremont to live with his family year-round in this remote ghost town.

That was the year he paid $3,000 for the old Ziefel's Rooming House and the one-third acre embracing it.

"I came here, to the uncrowded quiet, to join the ghost of Flyspeck Bill, Crooked-Neck McCray, Dirty Shirt George and all the other flamboyant Tuscaroran miners of another day," Parks said.

Has No Regrets

"I came to work with clay, to write, to raise my two sons, to live a precious life style with my wife, and to share my knowledge of an art form with anyone who dared and cared to escape and experience another perspective where the air is clean, the water clear."

He has no regrets. Neither has his wife, Julie, 50, or his two sons, graduates of a one-room elementary school 15 miles from here and a small high school in Elko, 52 miles to the south.

Julie and Dennis Parks' son Ben, 25, won a scholarship to Stanford, earned his degree in economics and is currently doing postgraduate work at the University of Nevada, Reno. Son Greg, 24, won a scholarship to UC Santa Cruz and is now at Ohio State's school of veterinary medicine.

"When I came to Tuscarora for a sabbatical in 1971 the kids made me promise we would return to California after the full year here," Parks recalled. "We had goats, chickens, ducks, geese. All of a sudden we had a farm. The kids didn't want to go back. I resigned my position at Pitzer."

In the midst of dozens of dilapidated miner shacks, crumbling abandoned buildings and century-old frame dwellings stands the two-story Tuscarora Hotel and Pottery School. Only students and friends stay in the hotel. There are no rooms to let.

In summer as many as 15, mostly college and university students, attend each of three two-week sessions at the hotel and in the studios behind it. The cost for tuition and room and board is $455 for two weeks.

During the rest of the year, from April to December, from two to eight professional potters and art professors are in residence at any given time, paying an $830-a-month fee that includes room and board.

Single-Firing Method

Parks is regarded as the leading exponent of the single-firing method (normally pottery is fired twice) and firing with discarded crankcase oil. His techniques are spelled out in his guide published by Charles Scribner's Sons. More than 10,000 copies have been sold.

"Dennis Parks is widely known by Australian potters. I have been reading his articles in ceramic publications for years. His book, 'A Potter's Guide to Raw Glazing and Oil Firing,' is my bible. That's why I'm here," said Peter Thompson, 40, from Kuranda, Queensland, Australia.

Cuban sculptor Arturo Bassols, 53, a professor of art at Delaware State College, who came to learn Parks' methods, said: "I incorporate a lot of ceramics in my work. He throws pots and plates like no one else."

And, professional potter Mary Shrier, 29, from Darby, Mont., said she wants to "learn everything I can about single firing and firing with crankcase oil. Dennis is a master at that. I used his book to build a kiln."

The trio make up Parks' present class, staying in the potter's century-old, two-story frame hotel and bolstering the local population to a total of 19.

Parks is also busy producing his own pieces of pottery, which command high prices and are sold here and at Stremmel Gallery in Reno.

He said he doesn't seek out large numbers of students and carefully screens those who apply, basing acceptance on artistic merit.

From December to April he divides his time working at his craft in Tuscarora and traveling with Julie and his mother, Lois Parks, 79, who also lives here.

In 1977, he was a member of the first official delegation of American artists to China. During the winter of 1982, he was an artist in residence in Hungary. He has taught "summer school" in Australia in January and February.

Julie Parks is an active environmentalist with Friends of Nevada Wilderness. Recently, she testified before a Congressional House Public Lands Committee in support of a wilderness bill to preserve a minimum of 21 of the state's 113 national forest roadless areas.

Julie and Dennis Parks live across the street from Della Phillips, 86, a lifelong resident of the ghost town and curator of the Tuscarora Museum, which is also her home.

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