Getting a chance at trying your hand in something completely fresh is a beautiful thing, especially when it leads to a profession. As I see time and time again, you don’t usually get to choose when these life changes occur, but often they’re dropped in your lap and you’re given a choice between sticking to what you know or taking a leap in hopes that something great awaits.
Meet Joan Beck of Abingdon, who owns Earth and Fire Pottery. Through life’s many twists and turns, she ended up becoming a potter and starting a full-time business. We get to reap the benefits of her gorgeous work each week at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market and at festivals throughout the year, including the Virginia Highlands Festival.
Joan’s work speaks for itself, offering calm and cool colors for any room of your house. A piece of handmade work is known to lift the spirits, and I truly believe that energy emanates from the work of artist’s hands. My Mother adored her new vase made my Joan, and it now sits among paintings from New Mexico trips past.
Wow, y’all, I love art. Go visit her next Saturday at the market to see a plethora of her breathtaking pieces! Enjoy the interview below, where I found how Joan got her start in pottery…or in other words, came from the clay. Or to the clay?
Sarah: How did you get into pottery?
Joan: Well, I developed an appreciation for pottery at a very early age. I grew up in Michigan and I used to go to art shows with my family, and at that time I collected banks. So to me, finding a pottery bank was like the ultimate find. So fast forward ahead, I became a bio-chemist at a pharmaceutical company and later met my husband and we started a family. And he had his weekly tennis night out, and I kind of felt like I also needed a night out from the family. And at that time all my friends were busy with their families. So, a coworker suggested that I take an art class at the Kalamazoo Institute of Art, and that’s when I basically started my pottery career. This was 1999. And what happened later on was, Pfizer came through and bought our pharmaceutical company out and over 2,000 people in the same sitting lost their jobs at once. I was given an opportunity to move with the company, and at that point my husband wouldn’t have a job. I had been doing pottery on the side, and I had started in a few shows and was making some money. So, that’s kind of how I became a full-time potter. That was back in 2003.
Sarah: Is it more fulfilling than working for the pharmaceutical company?
Joan: It’s not that same salary, I can tell you that much! But I’m my own boss and I’ve learned over the years that I can say no. It’s definitely more enjoyable. I basically touch pottery every single day of the week. There’s not a day that I don’t do something in my studio.
Sarah: That’s awesome. What are some of your favorite pieces to make?
Joan: I would have to say my ikebana vases, just because I know how much the customer is gonna enjoy it. They’re pretty, it’s simple, it’s easy for them to use. They basically cut the flower, stick it down in there, add water and they’re set to go. I’ve had master gardeners tell me it’s even helped with their floral arranging. And the whole key to my ikebana vases is a floral pin frog, because some potters will use holes in their pottery, but by using the pin frog—which is that spikey thing in my pots—it’s not stem dependent. I’ve used everything from herbs to tree branches using the same frog. You don’t aim or anything. You just pick it, plop it down in there and add water. You can honestly use it with the dried or the silk flowers. It’s meant for cut, fresh flowers, but I always just say pick it, stick it, add the water. Ya know! You’re good to go. Easy and simple. They are by far my best-selling item and I’ve had so many compliments of people coming back and telling me how much they enjoy it.
Sarah: So, do you have a set-up in your house? Is there a specific room that you work in?
Joan: I have a few. Pottery is not an easy craft; it takes up a lot of space. I do have my home studio. I’ve got a potter’s wheel, 2 kilns, I have a slab roller that rolls out big sheets of clay, and then I also have a pottery extruder that’s like…I always try to explain that to people like it’s a big play-dough machine that basically forces clay through a dye and forms it into a shape. And I do make my own dyes.
Sarah: How do you make the dyes?
Joan: You can make a dye out of metal or wood, but for simplicity I use wood. So I basically draw a design on a sheet of wood, and you use a saw to cut out the design.
Sarah: It’s so intricate. And can you talk about the horsehair and the animal vases?
Joan: Sure. The horsehair pieces are totally different than the other pieces I do in my studio. The main difference is that there’s no glaze on those pieces. What I put on there is called a terra sigillata. It’s an extremely fine mixture of clay and when it’s fired, it develops into a shiny coating. I pull those pieces from the kiln when it’s over 1,000 degrees, and that’s when I’m actually applying the horsehair to the piece, and it burns in and gets that carbon trailing. You get the smoking effect within that terra sigillata layer. And since it’s technically not a sealed clay body…in other words, it’s not glazed, it’s considered decorative. So, water doesn’t hurt the piece but over time it could seep out. I always tell my customers that the horsehair pieces are decorative. The ones I have in my home, I don’t even have flowers in. To me, the pottery is the artwork. You don’t need anything extra.
Sarah: And you can do that for various animal hairs as well?
Joan: Yeah, I’ve actually started doing it for people’s pets—a lot of the horses have been people’s pets—even pets that have passed away. There’s always a story that the customer tells me and they’re always quite moving. I actually just did a dog for somebody and they literally picked hair out of the carpet that the dog used to pee on because the dog had passed away and they had already cremated the animal. So I mean, they’re quite touching, a lot of the stories I hear. You see it a lot out West because the Native Americans are still doing that style of pottery.
Sarah: It kind of reminds me of speaking to Lillian Minix, and how there’s a lot of remembrance of family members that goes along with it. Just a way of respecting them after they’ve passed on and keeping them alive in your space. It’s something that our culture could seem weird about. But it’s more of a respect thing. So, how long ago did you move here?
Joan: We moved in 2008.
Sarah: Is there anything about the community here that stands out?
Joan: Well I think that the farmer’s market is a special place. I would have never done a farmer’s market in Michigan and maybe it’s just because there were more fine art shows in Michigan. The farmer’s market, I see the same people every weekend. I mean, they won’t miss a farmer’s market even if they don’t need to buy anything. So, it’s a very eclectic place to be in Abingdon. And I have to admit, it’s a huge rush to me when a new or repeat customer returns and tells me how much they enjoy the piece that they purchased, or the many compliments that they receive on the item. I’m very thankful for all my customers.