A Space Like the One that Fostered Me
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In the following interview, conducted in September 2021, I talk to Delores Pottery—a potter who lives, makes work and teaches in Durham, North Carolina whose studio, which is currently housed in a non-profit space downtown, is also called Delores Pottery. Delores dreams of opening an independent clay studio for potters of color, a mission she arrived at by first getting serious about her own work, dedicating herself to two apprenticeships with remarkable potters, finding first that there is an audience for her work and then that the same is true for her teaching. But as she found herself immersed in the pottery community, what she didn’t find is very many other Black people at the wheels, teaching or running studios. She’s working to change that and here, she shares why. --Shannon Doyne, East Fork
East Fork: You've been a full-time potter since 2013, right? How did you get started? When did you know pottery wasn't meant to be a hobby for you, but rather, your career? How did you make it happen?
Delores Pottery: I think on some level I’ve always wanted to be an artist. I’ve always loved creating. If it wasn’t the traditional childhood mud cakes, it was weaving little hearts out of fallen willow branches.
It wasn’t until my junior year in college that I started to focus on really being an artist. I was telling everyone who would listen, and even those who wouldn't, that I was going to be an artist, that I WAS an artist. At the time I had a full academic course load, worked two jobs and had a pottery assistantship at Claymakers in Durham. I was working and moving nonstop but I barely made work.
My independent study professor asked me, "How many hours a week do you spend in the studio?" I was also taking one three-hour sculpting class at Claymakers. So that plus the one three-hour wheel throwing course on campus, I was working a total of six hours a week in the studio. He looked at me and simply replied, "You won't make it."
Now, I was hurt. I really wanted to be an artist and to have someone tell me, without sympathy, that I wouldn't was just deflating. He followed up with, and I'm paraphrasing, "There are soo many talented artists fighting to do what they love for a living. They're actually putting in the time, making the sacrifices, devoting their life to their passion and even then, so many will not make it."
At the time, what I took from that was, I wanted to be an artist but not really. I went around telling everyone about how being an artist was so great but I hadn't really devoted myself to the work. Right then I made a decision to really commit, not kinda commit for show and to look cool doing the whole struggling artist thing, but to make everything I did support my one goal of being a working artist.
I quit one job to make time for creating and spent every spare minute I had in the studio. I gave up Friday and Saturday nights with friends, parties, which is hard for a 22 year old, but I wanted clay to be my life. I lived at Claymakers, as many artists and staff there can tell you. I kept telling everyone that I was an artist, but not verbally. I told everyone by my actions. People began to see my commitment, see the effort I was making and offered help, gave me scrap clay, supplies, private lessons and opportunities to connect and work with established artists.
This community guidance led me to my apprenticeships, one with Alan Bennett and the second with Eric Serritella. My apprenticeship with Alan Bennett mainly focused on mixing glazes, wood and raku firing. He would often start the day with a question: “What kind of glaze do you want to make?” I would answer and he would make a recipe up on the spot for me to try. It was whimsy and magical, in a setting reminiscent of the secret garden with tucked away studios, sculptures sprinkled throughout the grounds, and creativity in every nook and cranny. Cedar Creek Gallery reminded me of my childhood daydreams and reinforced the idea that pottery could become my new canvas for creativity.
My apprenticeship with Eric Serritella was focused more on intention. Eric’s trompe l'oeil sculptures are collections of thousands, if not millions of intentional strokes to create such a life-like piece. I was able to learn what it takes to sell my work but also what it takes to continuously sow a piece of my creativity, a piece of myself, into each of my works. I learned that my work, in the end, is not for or about me. It is a gift to the community.
EF: How long have you been teaching students? What do you like best about teaching?
DP: I've been teaching at my studio for 4 years and it’s taken a lot to get it to this point.
As a studio manager and creator, it’s hard to step away from the everyday problems and big picture concerns of the studio. Teaching has been a way for me to reconnect with my initial love of pottery. I love the simplicity of turning clay into functional everyday items.
I often tell my students, throwing is like playing the drums: one foot is working the pedal while the other is balancing your weight, one hand is here while the other is there, all the while you’re still having to keep in mind what you’re creating and adjust everything as you go. It's a complete mental immersion.
I really enjoy creating an environment where people can relax and tune out the world. It’s like therapy for some people and I'm beyond grateful to be the facilitator of such a restorative space.
EF: You want to open a community studio for potters of color. Tell us about that. Why is this something important to offer to the community? When you spoke, you mentioned offering studio assistantships so that in exchange for working, the assistants will get studio time and the ability to learn directly from you. Why is this an essential part of the studio you want to build?
DP: Durham is a very diverse area with Blacks or African Americans making up 38.65% of the population. I’ve been in and out of pottery studios for over eight years and in that time I’ve seen very few people of color attending classes and none teaching or in any management positions.
I think this is a larger issue that stems towards education, resources and wealth distribution. I can’t tackle all of these large and imposing issues but I can stand as an example of diversity in this field. I can be a representative and work to create a diverse community and offer opportunities.
In 2019 I started building the only wood kiln in downtown Durham. I see woodfiring as a decorative collaboration between the artist and the fire. While I create the shape, the flame and wood ash create paintings on the pots. They leave traces of their journey. This collaboration reminds me of how life shapes us all.
I am a Black Woman sharing and practicing a craft where most of my students are white and my peers are predominantly white males. My childhood trauma and life experiences with being the other has left its marks. And like the wood-fired pot, I believe it makes me all the better for it. Being Black has provided me with a different lens in which to view the world.
In the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” I have chosen to use the trauma of my childhood, to use my race and gender as instruments in my creative tool box. Although others may wish to use them against me, they cannot weaponize what fuels my determination to persevere.
I have been very lucky to find such loving and open clay communities and to participate in my apprenticeships. Not only did they provide me with an abundance of knowledge about pottery, they also taught me how to be a more conscious person. Living a life where you create everyday functional items and art gives you a new appreciation for the skill, talent and craftsmanship that goes into your dinner table, favorite coffee mug, the painting you love to visit at the museum and any and every item you interact with. In the words of Eric Serritella, my apprenticeships have taught me how to “walk with quieter footsteps.”
I want to share the knowledge I have acquired throughout my life, from the clay community and my apprenticeships, but I also want to spread appreciation for all people and entities. Pottery is about taking the dirt and mud of the earth and creating beautiful wares and art. It’s about taking what so many ignore and showing the world its beauty.
EF: When you close your eyes and picture the space you would like to find for the studio, what does it have that your current situation does not? I know more space is one thing! But what else? What does it feel like to be there?
BP: Once I was a self-sustaining artist, I began to dream about building a pottery community space similar to the one that fostered me. I joined an art collective known as Liberty Arts in 2017. It’s an amazing space that offers very reasonable studio rent in exchange for working at the collective.
At Liberty Arts I've been able to produce all that I need, collaborate with artists of different backgrounds and share ideas and opportunities. I've been able to grow and develop as an artist and I have been given the financial space to create a community pottery studio.
I started teaching small and private classes at Liberty in 2018 with two wheels, one kiln and very limited supplies. My studio is currently located in a warehouse with no heating or AC and I’ve had to get very creative to make the space an inviting one for students.
Over the past four years, the pottery studio has grown to eight wheels, three electric kilns, one raku kiln and one wood kiln under construction. I now offer three classes per session, studio assistantships, open studio passes, raku workshops, visiting artists classes, kiln rentals and woodfired workshops in the near future.
I always find it hard to start dreaming the really big dreams. Before I became a full-time potter, I was terrified that selling pottery full time wouldn’t work. When I started creating my current pottery studio, I wasn’t sure anyone would want to take classes with me. Having the faith in your own dreams and the courage to work towards bringing them to fruition, is something I’ve worked on over the years and I still find myself scared to dream big.
When I envision my dream studio I think of “My Secret Garden.” I want everything to be a revitalizing experience, from driving up to the building, to the actual studio space. My dream studio would be a large two-story climate-controlled barn on open land. This studio would be home to wood kilns, workshops, pottery and handbuilding classes taught by myself and visiting artists. Along with offering studio assistantships, I would host artists’ retreats and artists in residence. I want to create an artist community. It's amazing to have ideas shared and refined just in casual conversation with like-minded creators.
Now that’s a big dream, but you have to start big and scale back to what you can do. In reality, a climate controlled space with about 2,500 square feet would be ideal. I currently have about 1,200 square feet and I’m bursting at the seams.
EF: How does your studio continue the tradition of pottery made by Black potters who once lived and worked in the place where you live?
BP: I don't know much about Black pottery in my area or across the United States outside of slavery times. Dave the Potter is most known for his amazing work and his attempts at finding his own identity while being enslaved. “I wonder where is all my relation / Friendship to all—and, every nation” is inscribed on one of his pots.
Like most artists, I look to my work to wade through life’s difficult questions. Dave used his pottery to question his world, religion and love. I know pottery skills were passed down and I know other minorities have a rich history with clay, but that story isn't being told. Maybe I can be a part of that story and make others aware that we possess the talent and we are a part of the clay community and history.
Chip Hunter, one of Delores’s students, wrote this about his teacher:
"I recently had to move to Durham for several months for medical treatment, and was looking for something to do during my free time. I ran across Delores Pottery Studio, and having made pots some years ago, decided to look into it. The studio, run by Delores Farmer, is very well equipped with pottery wheels, kilns, and tools in great condition; it is well organized, and has everything required to work with clay. But the most important part of the studio is Delores herself. Thanks to her, the atmosphere is creative, supportive and fun for all, from beginners making their very first pieces, to those with years of experience. She is always found helping, and works constantly to assure that all are getting the assistance they need. It is easy to see the results, as the more experienced students have grown and moved into teaching roles themselves under her tutelage. And I have NEVER seen her without a big smile for all! Delores Pottery Studio is a marvelous art resource for Durham, one of the best community studios I have seen, and I feel very fortunate to have found it. When I return to Durham, I will absolutely come back and take advantage.again, and I look forward to seeing Delores again soon."