Teresa Taylor is in love with clay, forever

An artist’s key to creativity, success and sustainability is adoring the material he or she works with.

Teresa Taylor takes a break in the upstairs showroom of her Barnstead studio, Salty Dog Pottery.

Teresa Taylor was in college when she first handled clay—and fell instantly in love with the material. Her signature work includes both functional and decorative pieces, both readily recognizable for their unique carved decorations inspired by the natural world. She loves to cook and garden, and makes table ware, vessels for flowers and plants, and birdbaths. Since 1973, Taylor has been working in her Barnstead studio, called Salty Dog Pottery, and this summer marks her thirty-ninth year as an exhibitor at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s annual fair in Newbury (see page 70 for more information).

New Hampshire Home (NHH): What drew you to clay?

Teresa Taylor (TT):  Growing up in Chicago, I babysat for artists’ children and my best friend’s parents had a potter’s wheel in their basement. I began at the University of Illinois as an English major, but I already knew that I’d be a craftsperson. I took some weaving classes, because the tactile materials were speaking to me, but when I began working with clay, I fell in love with the material. I always felt comfortable working in three dimensions.

NHH: When did you make a commitment to clay? 

TT: After two years of a ceramics course here and there, I decided at age twenty-one to become a studio potter. It’s a great age because you believe you can do anything! Those days [the early 1970s] were simpler times, and I had few concerns about money. A good friend said that if I wanted to become a studio potter I had to go east, so that’s what I did. After a couple of weeks driving around to different potteries, I wound up in Hopkinton at Vivica and Otto Heino’s studio. Vivica had taught Don Pilcher, one of the University of Illinois faculty, and the Heinos were getting ready for the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Fair in Newbury. They had built a salt-glaze kiln and were fascinated with my salt-glaze work, which resulted in wonderful textures and deep pitting on my pots. I remember asking Vivica and Otto if I could make a living as a potter. I was so young! I also met [potter and former New Hampshire Artist Laureate] Gerry Williams, who knew so much about clay, glazes, building and firing kilns, and he readily shared that knowledge with me.

One of the main reasons I ended up in New Hampshire is because of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. It’s such a solid organization of craftspeople, and there was nothing of that sort in the Midwest at that time.

NHH: What inspires your work?

TT: The natural world. Some people look at my small sculptures and ask if they came from the sea. I’m always observing in the woods and along the river right outside my door or at the ocean. Every summer, my family goes to Popham Beach in Maine, and I’ll often go to Seapoint Beach in Kittery Point, Maine. I love the smell, the sounds and the way the beach feels.

As I walk along the ocean or river, or in the woods, I pick up objects and put them in a printer’s box in my studio I call my “inspiration box.” It has seed pods, shells, corals, sticks, stones and feathers, among other treasures. I’m always wondering how these things will impress into clay or thinking about their form.

Teresa Taylor collects objects from the beach and woods­—like seed pods, shells, stones and sticks—and places them in her studio in a printer’s box she calls her “inspiration box.”

NHH: Do you prefer to hand-build or throw?

TT: I started out hand-building but always lusted after the potter’s wheel. The skills you learn for hand-building are comparable to those for the wheel, but first, you have to master the machine. I learned to throw on a kick wheel—I loved the physical exercise, the rhythm of the machine, the hunching over and speeding up to center the clay, the slowing down to pull up the walls, and then repeating the process. It required focus and being centered. As a beginner on the potter’s wheel, my attempts to control the clay resulted in the clay controlling me. The eventual collaboration yielded successful cylinders, the basic form for all others. Throwing looks easy, but it takes many hours of practice.

For many years, I have been combining slabs or coils on thrown pieces. I love the ability to do both.

In the early 1990s, I began to study drawing, painting and sculpture at the University of New Hampshire. I wanted to gain more confidence in drawing as it related to the marks I make in the clay. 

Teresa Taylor carves designs into a slip (liquefied porcelain clay) she’s placed on a stoneware bowl. A finished
example is on the shelf to her left.

NHH: What type of clay and glazes do you use, and how do you fire?

TT: I work with a white stoneware that’s fired at Cone 10 in a gas kiln outside my studio. I don’t do any firings in winter, as the outside temperature has to be above 40°F. Until three years ago, I fired most of my work in a salt kiln, which needs to be rebuilt.

Making a pot takes multiple steps: you form the piece, then you dry it slowly, until it’s leather hard. Then you add handles, feet, other decorative touches and surface design. At this time, I often lay down a slip [liquefied porcelain clay with a colorant] and carve through it. This is called sgraffito and is a big part of my work. After drying and bisque firing at 1830°F, I spray, paint, pour or dip glazes on each piece. Then it’s ready for the final glaze firing to 2350°F.

Firing my pottery is a process that involves understanding fuel, burners, atmosphere and other technical
issues—when you fire the kiln, you have to pray to the kiln gods! I’ve used wood and propane for salt glazing and my gas reduction kiln. In my gas reduction kiln, I change the internal atmosphere and the results are not always predictable. When you deprive the kiln of oxygen, which is what happens during reduction, this causes a chemical reaction with the glazes. I call this “alchemy.” The weather and season also affect the glaze results. I use glazes that have many personalities, and these glazes have different ways of responding depending on where the pot is in the kiln, what type of day it is and how hot the kiln gets. This is exciting for me—the kiln is always full of surprises and you never get 100 percent of what you expect. No two pieces are ever exactly alike.

NHH: How do you feed your creativity?

TT: I have a lot of friends who are artists, and once a month, we meet for an “art day” in the studio. We also get together on Tuesday mornings at Kimball Jenkins School of Art in Concord. This helps me practice my mark making and use materials other than clay. I’m just playing and stretching, and it’s so important to do this without any pressure of deadlines. This is where growth and change happen. I visit museums, galleries, art and craft fairs; read; and take workshops.

Something that’s become very important to me are the North Country Studio Workshops at Bennington College in Vermont. I am president of this nonprofit arts organization. These advanced-level programs happen at a great time—the dead of winter when artists have more free time. I’ve taken clay workshops with potters who’ve achieved significant recognition, and each class has been so inspiring. In the winter of 2014, I took “Hand-building the Figure with Coils” workshop with Adrian Arleo from Montana. I also studied with Michael Sherrill from North Carolina, who started as a potter but is now a sculptor doing big installations. We worked with tubes and created forms by altering clay as it came out of the extruder.

As part of the New Hampshire State Arts Council Percent for Art program, Teresa Taylor was commissioned to make this ceramic installation for the Hillsborough Country Superior Court in Manchester. The Merrimack River inspired her design.

NHH:  What do you do when you’re not potting?

TT: Although I think of myself as a studio potter, teaching is a big part of what I do. I love teaching students about clay—I love the material and its versatility. There are so many different kinds of clay and glazes. You can make functional or nonfunctional work. You can paint or carve it. You can create sculpture and relief tiles. As a studio potter, you have to figure out how to make a living, and teaching complements this—you’re teaching what you love to do.

I teach in the New Hampshire Institute of Art’s bachelor of fine arts program and also for the school’s Continuing Education department. That class is the called “When the Wheel Meets Hand-Building,” and my students include doctors, lawyers, teachers and people who sit behind a desk. They love this class because clay makes you center, focus and be in the moment.

I’m also on the New Hampshire State Council on the Art’s roster of artists. Since the mid-1980s, I’ve been doing residencies in schools around the state and have taught many students how to create sculptural tiles for large tile installations in their schools.

NHH:  Where can your work be found?

TT: I sell at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen shops and at their annual craft fair. I also sell at the Millbrook Gallery in Concord, at Exeter Fine Crafts and directly from my studio. People are welcome to stop by any time. I’m here most of the time, but people should call or email first, just in case I’m off teaching—or at the beach.   

Categories: Artwork and Design