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ARTISANS : Each Set of Hands Coaxes Clay Out of Ceramics Mold

August 13, 1994|VALERIE ORLEANS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It begins the same. A lump of clay, mixed with water. For ceramic artists, the challenge is to make that clay take form, whether it's a bowl, vase or functional object. Yet despite the fact that these artists start with the same basic material, the end result is often surprisingly different.

Ceramics is one of the oldest and most enduring of art forms; pieces are among some of the earliest artifacts discovered. And despite advances in technology and quality of materials, many of the same ancient skills are needed to create modern pieces. "Throwing" a pot by guiding wet clay over a spinning wheel employs the same techniques used in ancient times. After the pot is thrown or designed, it is fired in a kiln and decorated as the artist chooses. Frequently, a piece may be fired several times.

The following artists, whose works are on exhibit through the end of August at the Sawdust Festival in Laguna Beach, consider ceramics their primary medium. Each uses different methods to achieve their distinctive looks.

Rocket Fuel and More

Barbara Schuppe of Laguna Beach grew up in a household filled with art and lots of craft projects. Her mother, who is also an artist, encouraged her daughter's creative interests by keeping their home well-stocked with paints, pencils, and other tools of the trade. Although trained as a painter, Schuppe always loved the "physicality" of ceramics.

"I earned my master's of fine arts degree at Cal State Long Beach," she said. "While my education is very valuable, I think I've learned a great deal on my own by experimenting and trying new ideas."

Schuppe's work combines her love of ceramics with painting. Her fanciful creations include bowls, platters, oversize coffee mugs, teapots and tiles featuring brightly colored rockets, cherries and other fruit (reminiscent of styles of the '30s and '40s), and numerous references to one of America's favorite beverages: coffee.

For 17 years, she has created her pieces, working from her home studio and gathering ideas from customers.

One of her most popular creations is a large coffee mug depicting a blasting rocket. The notation, "Rocket Fuel," is painted along the rim. The idea came from a customer request.

"Several years ago, a woman stopped by my booth and asked if I'd paint the words rocket fuel on her coffee mug. She said that all her friends called her coffee 'rocket fuel' because she made it so strong," Schuppe said. "With the recent proliferation of coffee shops, those mugs are among my most popular items. And for some reason, the rocket fuel theme seems to delight people."

Many of her creations, including her teapots, feature the fiery red rockets.

To create her pieces, Schuppe uses a low-fire technique so that the colors remain bright. At low-fire temperatures, the kiln is heated to about 1,850 degrees, as opposed to high-fire temperatures where the heat can reach 2,400 degrees.

"When you fire ceramics at high heat levels, you lose the vivid colors. I think the brightness of my work is what attracts people," she said. In more recent years, she has made molds of some of the most frequently requested pieces so that she can create them more easily.

"Working with earthenware is a little like trying to throw peanut butter," she said. "It can be very time-consuming to get an exact, even fit. By making my own molds, I can slip-cast a piece and still achieve the look that I want. Also throwing clay is physically difficult, especially with large pieces that can get very heavy."

Once the piece has been cast, it is fired and afterward Schuppe goes about painting one of her designs on it and fires it again. Then the piece is glazed and fired one last time.

So far, by listening to those who enjoy her work and trusting her gut feelings, she has managed to support herself with her art.

Her oversize mugs run about $22, teapots are in the $90 range, and bowls and platters sell between $45 and $90.

"Most people don't get rich doing what I do," she said. "But for me, this is a great life because while the work is challenging, it's also a lot of fun. I couldn't keep up with it if I didn't enjoy it."

Combustible Finish

Eddie and Patti Kaplan, also of Laguna Beach, got their start in ceramic art almost by accident.

"Actually, my background is in music," Patti said. "But in 1973 when my children were young, I decided to stop playing in my band. A neighbor convinced me to sign up for a ceramics class. It sounded like fun, so I did."

Eddie, in the meantime, was working as a sculptor with no experience in ceramics. One day Patti decided to show him how to throw clay on a wheel.

"It took me quite a while to learn how to do it, while Eddie was just a natural," she said. "It took him no time at all to learn how to throw pieces that were better than mine."

Before long, Eddie's sculpting gave way to ceramics. The Kaplans began looking for new ways to distinguish their pieces. That's when they discovered the Japanese art of Raku.

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