I have seen Teri Herel’s pottery several times at the Ellington Farmers Market prior to the day I drove to her home in Ellington, CT to interview her for the “Meet the Vendors” series on this blog. One of the things which struck me about Teri, as I browsed her pottery at her market display, was her quiet nature. She didn’t interrupt me with a sale’s pitch as I picked up her beautifully handmade stoneware items in my hands to consider each one. There was a sense of ease about her, and I appreciated the comfort of looking over everything in her booth without any pressure or distractions.
Because I have always had a fond admiration for pottery artists, and dabbled in trying to make pottery myself years ago in high school, I was excited to visit Teri at her home where she makes all of her pieces for her business called ESP Pottery, named as a tribute to the Ellington Sand Pit, known by locals in the town where she lives and creates her works of functional art.
The minute I walked into her dining room at her home from her front door entrance, I was distracted by her handmade stoneware of whites, blacks and blues, all elegantly displayed on her dining room table.
Adjacent to the table filled with various pottery and stoneware was a tall hutch loaded to the brim on every glass shelf with beautiful pieces. And by her bay window, three pure white pottery chimes were hanging with lacy curtains as a backdrop.
I have to admit, I had some initial trouble focusing on my list of interview questions prepared for Teri on this day because I was preoccupied with looking over all of her beautiful pieces in the room. As I glanced from one piece to another, I started to take some quick photos, and knew I would not be able to leave this interview without purchasing an item on the way out.
Teri was very excited of my timing to meet with her because her kiln was ready to be opened. She had just completed firing a batch of freshly made wares, and lucky for me, I would be able to witness the opening of her kiln. But before proceeding to see her kiln, we entered her small studio workshop in the back of her house.Small Studio Workshop
Many carving tools filled every available corner and space in the room which Teri uses to create her wares. Her tools, bags of clay, and lacy doilies used to make imprints on some pieces, were scattered on every possible usable surface in her workshop. Even an old wine bottle from her days of making wine was tucked into a corner. There was no doubt in my mind, an artist lives in this house. I admired the expansive window along the back wall facing her backyard with trees. To be working in this room with the birds flying by from time to time was a vision of envy for me.
Teri enjoys all parts of her craft, from throwing clay on the wheel to glazing, but her favorite part is attaching parts and carving designs on her pieces by hand. She also pokes holes or cuts shapes into half-dry pieces before everything is fired.Phases are completed in Stages
Teri explained how she throws clay for about three months, carves décor on the pieces in batches, and then spends about two weeks glazing all of the finished pieces. Doing her work in stages, as she explained, is more economical. Plus, you have to wait until you have enough pieces to completely fill the large kiln.
A few recently glazed un-fired coffee mugs were available for me to see, and Teri told me to take note of them for next she would show me how they looked after they are fired in the kiln.
After a view of her studio, we proceed back through her great room, and the view of her kitchen was my next surprise. Her kitchen counter tops were filled, again, with many of her completed pieces from the past and recent. Her world is surrounded by her art. Inspiration filled every usable space in the kitchen area as well – just like her workshop. And of course, her dish rack located by the sink was filled with handmade dinner plates and various coffee cups.
Teri told me that most pieces on her kitchen counters are ones she cannot part with after making them. And, if she makes a new design she really likes, she always keeps at least one model in her stock.The Opening of the Kiln
We proceeded to her basement next, down a large flight of stairs, where I noticed a large block of clay wrapped in plastic sitting on a bottom step. Later, Teri told me she uses 200-250 pounds of clay per firing cycle in her kiln. At least eight bags of clay at 25 lbs. each are used during each cycle of firing.
The clay is fired for about eight hours to 2170 degrees F, and to a point where it is solid. It is high-fire clay because her pieces are fired to temperatures above earthenware (think flowerpots) and often below porcelain. This makes all of her stoneware pieces stronger than low-fired pots.
“There are a few main types of clay. Stoneware is different than earthenware which is more porous. Firing clay to the point of making it solid, makes it strong and functional,” Teri explained.
Combining beautiful aesthetics to functional clay vessels is what Teri’s art work is all about. She makes all of her stoneware strong while offering unique designs. Unlike low-fired pottery, which breaks easily under the wrong conditions or if accidentally dropped, her high-fired stoneware is exceptionally strong and usable as food service pieces. Like commercial stoneware, they are watertight and are dishwasher, microwave, and oven safe. The glazes used do not affect the functionality of her stoneware vessels.Unveiling Freshly Fired Pieces
As Teri began to open up her kiln, she explained the solid nature of all her pieces further, “If you accidentally whack one of your commercial kitchen dishes for example, it usually won’t break easily. Stoneware is very durable.”
She opened the cover and then removed the first thick level of a shelf (a tier over the pottery). As she did this, I could sense Teri’s excitement as the pieces below were revealed in perfect condition. She couldn’t wait to see how they came out – and even after all the years of making her wares, the anticipation she exhibited as she unveiled her fired pottery was apparent – she was very excited – and her feeling of excitement never wears out. It is like Christmas day to her each time she opens her kiln filled from top to bottom with stacks of pottery and stoneware.
“Glazing is tricky to learn,” she further explained as she showed me what the piece in her workshop looked like after firing. “What you see is not what you get, like as with a painting.”
At this time, I could see the intensely blue coffee mugs, once white in her workshop with dipped glazed. The intensely vivid shiny ocean blue coloring on the mugs with a texture imprinted on the outside was revealed. Seeing the change in person was inspiring.
Even though many of Teri’s pieces are made with marbled white clay and matte charcoal black tops, like her pitchers shaped fat belly style with long necks and heavy duty handles, Teri also uses some of the shiny bright vivid colors, as with the blue mugs sitting next to the water pitchers.
Teri explained it takes years of practice to perfect the process of learning how to throw pottery and perfect glazing techniques. In fact, she spent 8 to 10 hours a day practicing her skills for a full year before she began to expand into selling her stoneware work and handcrafted gift wares. Her goal was to master the technique before going into business, and anyone whom has ever attempted throwing pottery on a wheel can appreciate the perfection of her art today.
She compared learning how to make stoneware or pottery to learning how to play an instrument, where practice is mandatory before you may have a solid performance in public. Patience and perseverance is required, but Teri also believes anyone can do it if they put the work into the craft and take the steps to improve along the way.Her kiln has 10 cubic feet of space and the stoneware is put into it in layers, with each layer being separated by a thick heavy shelf. Her kiln is the size comparable to a standard commercial production kiln, and if you go with any larger, she said it gets harder to load. Pieces cannot touch each other and there needs to be air movement, and reaching down into the kiln can be tricky if it is too large.
Green energy (renewable resource electricity available through their local power company) is used to power her kiln, but other kilns use gas or wood burning. However, wood burning needs to be fed wood for many hours, requiring high labor. Gas kilns, like wood, need to be in an outbuilding, so electricity is what Teri selected, and although green energy is a little more expensive, and she likes it and finds she is still exploring the different effects she can create with her electric kiln.A Hot Cup of Tea in a Warmly Fired Piece
After she completed carefully taking each piece out of the kiln, and looking all of them over, we headed back upstairs for a cup of hot tea. I felt honored because she served it in one of her newly fired blue mugs just removed from the kiln, something she says is her favorite part – enjoying coffee or tea in a newly made mug. A warm mug fresh out of the kiln is an experience I will never forget. And another fun surprise for me on this day.
As I watched the steam rise from the cup, I couldn’t believe I would be holding a piece of just fired “warm” stoneware in my hands – filled with fresh tea no less. There is something special about holding pottery, which is something Teri brought to my attention, when we discussed the market customers.
Teri said, “People like to hold pottery before deciding to buy it. It needs to have the right weight and balance. I have noticed as customers are visiting my tent at the market, they select the piece they were holding in their hands and felt comfortable with. On an unconscious level, they pick a piece that feels balanced. They don’t realize the connection sometimes, but I have.”
I could relate to this “feeling the weight” comment by Teri. There is a physical connection to pottery made with clay from nature and the earth, and as you feel the curves in a handle, or the imprints of a texture, you instinctively want to run your fingers against it. One has to wonder if there is a spiritual connection to pottery and stoneware. I certainly know I feel this way.
So now after enjoying all the views of her workshop and kiln, it was time for our Q&A, as follows:Why do you use white and neutral tones primarily for your pieces?
“I love the texture of matte clay, and I also like bright and shiny Caribbean colors. Almost everything I make has a contrast component to it. Some pieces have shiny interiors with matte exteriors, and often there’s a stark contrast in color. I find these contrasts make the pieces more interesting. The goal of my work is to provide very artistic functional pieces, and my personal style, which has become recognizable by the market customers, includes these color and texture contrasts.”What is your favorite part of being a vendor at the Ellington Farmers Market?
“My favorite part is conversing with new and repeat customers. I’ve found a lot of customers buy my wares as gifts for family and friends, while others buy pieces for their own collections. I’ve enjoyed finding interest in the full range of what I make, from large centerpiece vases and teapots, down to little animal creatures and quirky coffee mugs.”A Bridal Shower Gift purchased On the Run
“Week after week, people return to buy pieces of my pottery to add to their collections and to give as gifts, but one of the sales I remember most was a group of girls looking for a bridal shower gift in a hurry. The bridal shower was in two hours. They picked out a beautiful centerpiece bowl, but were very concerned if I had a box, which I did along with ribbon to wrap it up perfectly. They were quite excited.”
When I mentioned Teri’s calm presence the times I visited her booth at the market, she replied with, “There can be hours that can go by when all is quiet with no sales, but suddenly a rush will come through. You can’t predict what people will want each week, so I try to bring some of everything. In general, though, the sales have been remarkably consistent at the market. It’s been a very good fit.”When did you start to learn this craft?
“In 2005. I was obsessive about it when learning. Initially, I didn’t tell my private instructor that my goal was to do pottery as a business. I told her I wanted to learn technique. After an entire year, practicing 8 to 10 hours every day, I finally revealed to my instructor that I was opening my business. Her reaction was extremely positive.”Do you do this full time, or do you have another job?
“I’ve been working as a musician for twenty five years and play clarinet for an orchestra in Milford, Massachusetts. When I have time, I can’t resist making some instruments out of clay. My two careers seem to complement each other, both requiring the practice and focus on mastering the art, which I’ve mentioned.”What kind of skills do you think are needed to do this; do you think there’s a special talent required?
I don’t think “talent” is required initially. It’s about spending the time to learn and having decent teachers. It is a repetition type skill, where you learn slowly and repeat the techniques until it is mastered. You should not expect the learning curve to be fast. As you develop, you have to objectively look at your results and do the work needed to improve it. I also feel that aesthetics can be learned. After all, a vase is a vase. Vases have been made since ancient times. You can easily look in museums for general ideas, and then you can learn how to balance those forms and make them work to your personal aesthetic.”What do you feel are the business challenges to do this?
“From a business perspective, learning public relations and marketing is probably the biggest challenge. Just like the clay work, it also takes time.”How about concerns about others artists copying your style?
“I’ve met all kinds of potters, and no matter their style, I don’t feel concern about the copying of my work. The only person I compete against is myself. I feel that a bad artist won’t get the same results of a good artist, no matter how hard they try to copy, and great artists don’t want to copy because they have their own vision.”I saw you offer classes, tell me more about these.
“My classes are currently offered at the University of Connecticut Community School of the Arts located near Mansfield training. We have semester community classes for adults, teens, and children. More can be found on my website about the dates and program.”I also notice, you have no pieces wasted, like cut pieces are attached as décor on your stoneware, or how you have made tiles or mosaics from broken pieces. Why do you do this?
“I enjoy the challenge of giving new life to broken pottery, and try to salvage broken pieces in creative ways. Broken pots are turned into planters, and shattered pieces are used to create mosaics for trivets, boxes or clocks. The glazes and textures are still beautiful and deserve to be enjoyed in some way.”When at The Market:
Teri Herel of ESP Pottery is at the Ellington Farmers Market every weekend in season from May through October. She has been there now for two full seasons going on her third. And she noted one of the personal side benefits of selling at the market is that her family eats very well because they pick up food from the local farmers selling there too. Plus, of course, she enjoys her constant interactions with her customers. She said she gets to hear a lot of their stories and who they bought a gift for when they return to tell her about it. Half of her customers buy for themselves, while others buy for friends or family as gifts. She enjoys forming relationships with her market customers. It is one of her favorite aspects of bringing ESP Pottery regularly there. Even Sunday school teachers have purchased pottery for their teachings. There is always someone new to meet and knowing her functional and unique gift wares are utilized by her fans is her biggest reward. Selling at the market has been a great success for this artist.Written by Cathy Testa
P.S. I purchased a beautiful black wooded box covered in a mosaic pattern of broken stoneware pieces, now serving as a jewelry box in my home. That evening, when I walked by it in the dark, I noticed there was something glowing on my bureau. To my surprise, the box had ‘glow in the dark’ shards in the mosaics pattern. Teri uses a special glaze that will glow! Another surprise of the day.
About the author:
Cathy Testa is a plant blogger and container garden designer located in Broad Brook, CT. She contributes some of her time to writing for the Ellington Farmers Market Blog as a freelance writer. Photos with this post were taken by Cathy Testa.Esppottery Contact Information:
Artists’ Open Studio of Northeast CT
Teri Herel’s studio in her home is tucked by the road side and is very private. She has Crystal Lake nearby, and participates in the Wyndham Arts Council located the opposite direction of the lake. In the fall, she participates in an Artist Open Studio, and her ultimate goal is to establish a retail space. She is currently exploring locations, but she will continue to be at the Ellington Farmers Market in season as well.