Clay, in and of itself, looks a lot like mud.
But put it in the hands of someone like Marion Schlauch, and it becomes art.
Next weekend, Schlauch and 27 other artists will showcase their talents in the first-ever Smoky Mountains Pottery Festival.
Jeanie Hilten, events coordinator with the Great Smoky Mountains Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, said planners for the event are excited with the response to the June 7 event on the grounds of the Townsend Visitor’s Center.
“As far as we know, this is unique in East Tennessee for certain, and in Tennessee as a whole to have an all-pottery festival,” she said. “We’ve had real good response from artists. We have 28 potters.”
Hugh Bailey, a Knoxville potter known for his clay sculptures, will have an exhibit space, as well as do demonstrations and make creations throughout the day.
Bailey, an artist with 50 years experience, was born in Bristol, Va., in 1943. He realized his passion for art in grade school, received his bachelor’s degree from Berea College in Kentucky and continued his education by attending the University of Indiana to receive a master’s degree in fine art. After graduation, Bailey worked as a graphic designer for 41 years for the University of Tennessee.
“With a variety of artistic interests, ranging from Oriental and ceramic art to watercolors and whimsical clay animals and a lifetime of professional experience, Hugh Bailey is a great addition to the festival,” Handly said.
Bailey has spent his career working on ceramics, watercolors with an emphasis on sculptural pieces and has received recognition for his paintings and ceramic animal sculptures.
Currently residing in Knoxville, he teaches classes and participates in exhibitions at the Children’s Museum. He is a lifetime member of the Foothills Craft Guild, the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild, the Knoxville Watercolor Society and was one of the original members of the Art Market Gallery.
Hilten said there would be demonstrations of how to “throw” pots as well as building free hand. Joe Frank McGhee will demonstrate a special technique called Raku firing.
Schlauch, herself an accomplished potter, said she was excited about the educational opportunities as well as exhibiting her work. Raku, for example, isn’t demonstrated that often and is a low-fire technique in which the pottery or item being fired is pulled out of the kiln and placed directly in a container with combustible material, creating interesting glazes and looks to the pots. She said she was excited about the Raku demonstration.
“It’s showy,” said Schlauch. “He (McGhee) puts the hot pottery in cans or containers with combustible material, and it gives a unique glaze.”
“We’ll have a Children’s Tent, not just for children, for anyone who wants to get their hands in the clay,” Hilten said. “Carol Ware will help people enjoy learning how to make things.”
Hilten said there would also be music and plenty of food. “But the main thing is to emphasize the wonderful craft of pottery in this region and give people the opportunity to visit and buy directly from the artisans and teach about pottery and a little about history,” Hilten said. “We have a whole area of styles, everything from Raku, functional and decorative to sculptures and jewelry. We have a wonderful range of skilled workers, a beautiful array of work.”
Hilten said the idea for the Smoky Mountain Pottery Festival is simple. “We want to emphasize talent in our region, but we have guests from South Carolina, Ohio and Texas. This festival is to really celebrate this craft and art,” she said.
Schlauch said that each year she goes to a pottery show in Dillsboro, N.C., that was started by three potters years ago. Now 35 potters participate in the juried show in Dillsboro and the city closes the street in the middle of town the first Saturday of November. McGhee, who will be doing a Raku demonstration, is one of the founding members of the Dillsboro show. The Smoky Mountain Pottery Festival was patterned after the Dillsboro show.
Schlauch taught school for seven years and started throwing pots while living in South Florida in 1973. She and her husband moved to Blount County in 1978.
Schlauch and some of her friends had the idea for the new Townsend festival after seeing the success of the Dillsboro event. After pitching the idea to events coordinator Jeanie Hilton, they started organizing the event.
Hilten said they met with Herb Handly, vice president of the Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitors Bureau, and he got excited about the project. “We went from there. We took a trip down to Dillsboro and met with potters about how they operated, and they were gracious and willing to share how things worked,” Hilten said. “We decided it would fit our mission of heritage tourism and promoting things significant for East Tennessee and the Smokies.”
Schlauch said there was a committee of artists who worked on getting quality potters who would represent the craft well and inviting them to apply to be exhibitors. “We’ve been planning this for over a year. It’s a juried show,” Schlauch said.
Schlauch said planners are optimistic the new festival will be well received. “We would love a couple thousand visitors,” she said when asked her hopes for the number of people. “We just hope to educate the community on pottery traditions and to foster their love of pottery. That’s the neat thing about pottery.”
Schlauch said pottery from different price ranges will be available, with items from just $1 to some costing several hundred dollars all on display.
While talking about the upcoming festival, Schlauch showed off some of her skills from 36 years of working as a potter.
“All these pots started out as a lump of clay,” she said as she showed different plates and pottery items in her shop near her Walland home. “I like doing a wide variety. That’s the fun of pottery.”
She fires her pieces in her electric kiln she and her husband built in her workshop.
“I dip glazes and spray glaze. I love the effect. You get really nice graduations of color.”
Schlauch said pottery normally shrinks a little more than 12 percent when it is fired.
To demonstrate how some of her pieces are created, she first wets her hands and then throws the lump of clay onto the wheel. She “centers” the clay so the walls will be even.
“This part of the process takes some strength,” she says as she works the clay while the wheel holding it spins. “It’s a gradual process. You want to firm up the rim.”
After she has the molded the clay into the beginnings of what will become the finished product, Schlauch stops and takes a heat gun to the partially dry the piece. “I do a technique called dry-thinning. It helps refine the shape and makes it thinner and lighter. I can then play with the shape,” she said.
As the piece is partially drying, Schlauch talks about how excited potters throughout the region are about the Townsend Pottery Festival. While the festival will draw from the traditions of the area, potters from outside the area also plan to attend. “There will be lots of different styles,” the former art teacher said.
Before the reporter and photographer leave, Schlauch has a bowl ready to put the finishing touches on and eventually be glazed and fired. The beauty of the bowl can already be seen, even in its unfinished stage.
Saturday, June 7, at the festival:
• Featured potter Hugh Bailey will do demonstrations from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
•Raku firing demonstration will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• The Children’s Tent will be open throughout the day
• Demonstrations of wheel throwing and hand-building will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• Music will continue throughout the day.
The festival is made possible in part by a grant from Arts Build Communities, a program funded by the Tennessee General Assembly and administered in cooperation with the Tennessee Arts Commission and the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Greater Knoxville.
“This grant helped us plan another great event that is intended to educate our community and visitors about the culture and artistry of the Smoky Mountains,” Handly said.
For more information on the Pottery Festival, call the Smoky Mountain Convention and Visitor’s Bureau at 1-800-525-6834 or 448-6134 or visit www.smokymountains.org/pottery-festival.html.