Studio Visit: Gail Russell, Sunbury, Ohio

Just the Facts

Clay
Standard Clay’s 257 English porcelain

Primary forming method
primarily wheel throwing, some slab work, hundreds of hand-made sprig molds

Primary firing temperature
cone 10 reduction

Playlist
NPR and the birds outside

Favorite tools
Shimpo VL Whisper wheel, an old  Venco pugmill with new stainless-steel barrel, granite-topped
wedging table

Wishlist
space for a spray booth

Studio

My studio is in a converted, separate, four-car garage. I’ve been in this space since 2013, when my fiancé, Don, and I joined forces and purchased an 8-acre property outside the village of Sunbury, Ohio. Located just northeast of the Columbus freeway outerbelt, it’s rural, yet city life is easily accessible. My former studio of 27 years was in a 100-year-old barn, on Peachblow Road (hence my studio name: Peachblow Pottery), which is just 12 miles away from my new location. It was a great space, but at times the dark wood and the low ceilings could become a bit claustrophobic, as was the encroaching development. What I love most about my new space is the 9-foot ceilings, and that I filled in the front and rear garage door areas with as much glass as I could, allowing the sunshine in and affording a view of the acreage and wildlife out back. Though it’s a smaller studio space, just over 700-square feet, plus a storage nook, it’s well organized to accommodate the basic work flow from forming, to firing, to retailing.

I’m primarily a thrower, and love my quiet Shimpo VL Whisper wheel. The top of my wedging table consists of two large pieces of granite—one piece has the polished side face up, which is perfect for wedging stiffer porcelain and for stretching slabs, while the other piece has the non-polished side facing up and is ideal for wedging softer porcelain. This piece is a composite granite material, as I discovered the real thing can release small bits of stone, which I don’t want in my porcelain! The biggest advantage of the granite is that it does not absorb the clay and this prevents creating clouds of dust in the air when cutting and slamming the clay to the surface, in contrast with canvas-covered plaster. My 4×8-foot, slate-topped work table also offers the same advantages as the granite.

I have boxes of bisque-fired sprig molds, some dating back 30 years, mostly nature inspired. These are used sparingly for texture, accents, or finials.

For bisque firing, I have two Skutt electric kilns, and my propane-fired glaze kiln is in the studio. The convenience of having it indoors outweighs the inconvenient amount of space it occupies. Being able to wax, glaze, decorate, and immediately load the kiln without having to transport pieces saves time and energy.

My production and glaze-firing cycle typically runs about six weeks. I typically make around 1500 pots in an average year. I’ve worked in porcelain and used copper red glazes since undergraduate school, and continue to run tests in most firings. Combining different red and shino formulas, along with layers of other glazes and wood ash, produces richer depth and color than just a single glaze. I’ll sometimes fire a piece a second time, which enriches the surface and color, but there’s always the risk of losing the piece to cracking, glaze runs, or bloating in a second firing.

Paying Dues (and Bills)

I completed my BFA in ceramics at the University of Evansville (UE), Indiana, in 1976, under the excellent guidance of Les Miley, and participated in three of UE’s summer salt-glaze workshops in nearby New Harmony, Indiana. A major highlight of my undergraduate education was spending my junior year abroad at UE’s Harlaxton College, housed in a manor house built in 1854 and located 100 miles north of London. Harlaxton afforded wonderful opportunities, from working on a Roman-Britain archaeological dig to traveling extensively around England, Scotland, and Ireland in order to visit potters, museums, and historical sites. The two months between semesters were spent exploring Europe, from Norway to Greece.

Following my BFA, I was a studio assistant/apprentice to potter Dick Studley, outside Boston, Massachusetts. Studley was a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, and produced functional flameware pottery, marketed primarily through major wholesale shows. When the flameware orders were caught up, we’d clean up the studio and get out the porcelain for a change of pace. Those two years were an invaluable education in the real world of making a living from one’s art, and we are friends to this day. Following my time in Boston, I studied with Don Frith and Don Pilcher at the University of Illinois, graduating with my MFA in 1981. I have been a full-time potter working in porcelain ever since. Two work trips to the Yucatan during graduate school allowed time to visit indigenous potters there, and trips to Mashiko and Kyoto, Japan, in 2002 were also career highlights.

I spend the majority of my work time in the studio, squeezing in the inevitably mandatory office time when necessary.

Marketing

I’ve been fortunate to be able to sell a large percentage of my work from my 250-square-foot gallery at my studio, open by chance or appointment year round. Location, longevity, and education are key here. Spring and fall open houses have always been my most profitable shows, and though advertising is expensive, you have to let people know you’re having a party if you want them to attend! Patrons enjoy seeing the studio and throwing demos, and learning about the process. I consign work to several galleries, and still do 6–8 art fairs a year—I enjoy getting out, meeting new patrons, and connecting with other artists, which also helps combat the isolation of working alone. With my interest in gardening and flower arranging, I’ve also been an exhibitor at several national flower conferences. I have gleaned much from them about design and exhibition needs for specific flowers. Though I’ve been slow to be involved in social media, I am learning and appreciate its value, and plan to increase my presence.

Research and Inspiration

I love that no two days are alike in this job. Being the designer, producer, marketer, bookkeeper, equipment builder/maintainer, etc., keeps it interesting, and physically challenging. When I feel the need to recharge, reading books, visiting galleries and exhibitions, and finding resources of information online are helpful. The camaraderie of other potters when attending or teaching an occasional workshop is rejuvenating for the creative mind and body. I’ve also been taking tai chi classes for two years, and find the stretching, balance, and concentration required for the set of 108 moves to be an immensely valuable addition to my routine. A tai chi break helps to re-center me mentally and physically, as will a walk out back on the paths I’ve mowed through the field.

When I hit a wall creatively, I generally find that simply plowing through it is best. Two of my favorite quotes are “Do something even if it’s wrong!” (Tim Mather), and “Just work ’til something makes sense!” (Don Reitz). To stay tuned in to news and world events, I enjoy the New Yorker, Art News, and Audubon magazines, and historical fiction/non-fiction books when time allows. NPR is an almost constant companion, for growth and connection. Another welcome diversion and inspiration is our large vegetable garden and many fruit trees, as are my honeybees (definitely a more challenging hobby than when I began it 25 years ago!). I gain inspiration and patience from both garden and bees—the lesson being that growth comes from persistent work and attention to detail.

Most Important Lesson

Life, and working in clay, are full of curve balls. The advice I would pass on to others is the same advice I follow from Don Reitz: “Just keep working ’til something makes sense!” It’s worth it.

www.peachblowpottery.com

Facebook: Gail Russell, and Peachblow Pottery

Instagram: @peachblow_pottery

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