The clay lady: Inspired by the living world around her, Sheila Clark just can't get enough - of making pottery, that is

October 6, 2013 12:37:21 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Sheila Clark is nature's child, open to textures, shapes and hues that surround her. The bark of a tree, veins in a leaf or the swirl of a mollusk shell may be her muse. Once inspired -- and she's always inspired -- her hands recycle the gift, channeling it into pottery pieces, both large and small. Her matte-finish work in colors that bring to mind dusty robin's eggs, sea foam, loamy earth and shifting sands have an organic quality, as do the free form shapes she often likes to create. 


The Pitter Potter, as Clark's husband Billy Gip dubbed her, moved to Columbus with her kilns about two years ago from Cleveland and has been busy ever since. On Tuesday, she was surrounded by platters, bowls, trays, pots, spoon rests, crosses, a potters wheel and all manner of curios in the spacious garage and den that have been converted into a home workspace. Or maybe playspace is the better word. 


"I'll never live long enough to make all the things I want to and use all the ideas I have, but everything is so much fun!" she declared. "I could do this all the time and never get tired of it."  


Clark, petite and vital, was dressed in work clothes and an apron liberally decorated with chalky telltale splotches. Her eyes gleamed when she talked of clay. Students in the Delta used to call her "the clay lady," a handle she was proud to wear, especially when working with at-risk youth through a program known as Communities in Schools. Clay is forgiving, she told them, and they could remold their lives, just as clay can be reworked into another shape. 


And then there is the clay she orders by the ton; 50-pound boxes of it stand stacked near her potters wheel and slab roller.  


Taking a beautifully prepared and very large slab of clay "dough" that had been smoothed to an even thickness through the roller, she deftly lined up three ears of Indian corn in the center and pressed. Her small fingers pushed the kernels and crackling husks against the impressionable surface. In short order, she had transferred the slab to another work bench and begun propping up "folds" of clay with Nerf-like balls to give her harvest tray with its corn motif a wave-like shape.  


Clark uses almost anything to apply textures. Old doilies, golf balls, jewelry, handmade clay stamps, sponges, dowels and vintage buttons are a few of her favorites. And a cotton picker spindle from her daddy's farm makes a dandy fish's eye.  


Her glazes are her own (sometimes secret) recipes, color shades she's developed through experimenting and fine tuning. They are usually applied with nothing more exotic than a plastic pitcher and a tub. Their beauty is only revealed after the firing process. 


Charming cabbage-shaped pinch pots (just right for dips) are one of her signature pieces, and her large serving trays and party-sized bowls (great for salads and fruits) are popular in shops that carry her work, like Mak B & Co. in Starkville. She has a few pieces in the Columbus Arts Council's G2 Gallery at the Rosenzweig Arts Center. Her pottery can also be found in shops in Hattiesburg, Laurel, Madison, Cleveland and Huntsville, Ala. 




The art of throwing 


"Most of my pieces are hand-built, but I also love to throw; it's very therapeutic to throw," Clark explained, moving to the potters wheel to demonstrate the process of transforming clay into a vessel on the wheel as it hypnotically spins and hums.  


Of course, there's also that other kind of throwing -- the kind Billy Gip ended up doing in his brief spell at the wheel in earlier days. 


"I was spinning the wheel and it was like an accelerator that got things going too fast and clay was slinging off everywhere. And then Sheila told me the next time I did that I was going to have to clean it all up -- and that just took the fun out of it," the Magnolia Tennis Club pro joked. 


In truth, Sheila Clark's husband was very instrumental in getting her passionate hobby-turned-home industry off the ground, by buying her the first of what would eventually be four kilns, for Mother's Day back in 1996. He's also been a big help with maintaining kilns, rolling slabs of clay and acting as support team for the woman he's obviously proud of.  


"I love watching her do it; she's progressed so much, and to this day she still doesn't think it's work," he smiled.  


When forced to be away from the the creative process for long, "I get mean!" chuckled Sheila, who hones her skills at workshops at renowned schools like the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee and the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina.  


She professed to being amazed when her first pieces sold. "And I'm still amazed," she said modestly. "I absolutely love it. If I'd done this when my kids were little, I would have neglected them," she grinned. "God gave it to me at the right time; he gave it to me when I had time to do it." 


Editor's note: Sheila Clark can be reached at 662-392-4838.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.