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ARTISANS: Spotlighting Makers of Handcrafted Goods : She's Fired Up Over Primitive Ceramics


When Paula Sorenson, a Laguna Beach-based artist who specializes in ceramics, visits the beach, she is often asked if she is a sushi expert. Perhaps it's because she's usually inspecting seaweed while she's there.

"People are always curious about what I'm doing," she said. "I've had people ask me if I gather all the seaweed to eat or if I work for a sushi restaurant. Others think I'm a scientist, testing the water because they see me holding up the seaweed and examining it."

Actually, the plant, along with other natural items such as wood chips, pine needles, grass clippings and straw, is used to create the interesting and original designs on Sorenson's ceramic pots, covered dishes or platters.

"In college, I was an anthropology major," Sorenson said. "For that reason, I've always been interested in primitive ceramic processes. I took ceramics classes in college, but it was more as a hobby, not necessarily a vocation."

Five years ago, on her 40th birthday, Sorenson decided that the time had come to give herself permission to do what she loved: create ceramics and see if she could make a living at it.

"Becoming an artist was something I always wanted to do, but I pushed it in the back of my mind," she said. "I decided to go into teaching instead. Then I got married and had children, so I had even less time to think about ceramics. But there was something about turning 40 that made me at least want to try to fulfill this desire."

Sorenson started by taking a course at the Irvine Fine Arts Studio and became even more intrigued with primitive ceramics processes.

Having no access to a kiln one day proved fortuitous.

"Out of desperation, I took them out to the beach and built a fire in one of the pits there," she said. "Then I discovered that the results were better than I had imagined. I basically started researching firing techniques and taught myself what I needed to know."

Anytime there was a lecture on primitive ceramics, Sorenson was there. She wrote to other artists who worked in this style and was surprised by their enthusiastic response. They told her how to build the best pits and provided support.

When Sorenson is creating her ceramics, she makes a pot or bowl in much the same way any ceramist would. The only difference is that she uses a special brand of clay made of more sandstone than porcelain so it doesn't crack as easily. After the pot is "thrown," it is bisque-fired.

"Then I take all my pots and figures and pack them with seaweed, salt, hay or any other natural, organic items that might be around," she said. "Then I torch them."

The end results are items that are glazed with different patterns and designs all around them. Sorenson never knows what a pot is going to look like until she pulls it from the fire.

"It's very spontaneous and random. That's what makes it fun for me," she said. "You never know what the outcome will be. It's like getting a present. I figure that about half the contribution is mine and about half is nature. The colors and patterns are always different. The glaze crackles in various ways as well."

Most people who see Sorenson's work think it's raku , a Japanese method of firing ceramics that also involves using natural materials.

"Actually, mine is a different method, although it's similar," Sorenson said. "I use more varieties of materials: banana peels, rice husks, whatever's around. All the patterns and colors come from these items."

Others think that the items were made on an American Indian reservation because of their primitive, handmade appearance.

"A lot of people ask me if I import my ceramics from New Mexico," she said. "But whether they think it's a Japanese or Indian technique, everyone's interested."

Although Sorenson has a large kiln now built in her back yard, she still goes out to the beach on occasion to fire her wares.

"When my daughter was younger, it was really something," she said. "I'd have to load up all the pots, the wood, the seaweed or whatever I was using, a lunch for her, blankets and some toys, and haul everything down to the beach.

"The whole process, from building the fire to the firing itself, takes from six to eight hours. A lot of surfers would stop by to see what I was doing."

Now Sorenson's children are also involved in helping her. Her teen-age son and 7-year-old daughter often help her prepare the kiln.

Sorenson also creates small ceramic boxes, urns and large vases, figures of bears and fish, and platters. All are finished in the same way.

"These items are designed for decorative use, and while vases can hold water, they are not watertight," she said. "I wouldn't recommend that anyone use these items for drinking or serving food."

Small covered jars are frequently used to hold jewelry or potpourri. The jars range in price from $25 for a small container to $150 for a large urn. Platters, because of the difficulty involved in firing them, range from $100 to $125.

Sorenson also creates masks using the same processes. Most masks sell for about $35 and up.

"I'm always looking for something new and different," she said. "That's what makes this art form so much fun."

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