NORTH CAROLINA MAKERS: BLUEGILL POTTERY
North Carolina enjoys a vibrant community of makers, artisans, craftsmen, and artists. At the OUR STATE STORE, we travel the state hunting for local artisans who create special, handcrafted goods, and we’re giving you a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the creators of some of our most popular products. Sit a spell with us as we introduce you to some of our favorite North Carolina makers.
From the sands and sounds of the coastal region, to the peaks of the western mountains, and through the hills and parks of the Piedmont and Sandhills, North Carolina is blessed with wondrous natural sights and habitats. This month’s featured artisan, Vicki Gill of BLUEGILL POTTERY, finds inspiration for her work right in her own backyard at her Gastonia home and studio.
Potter Vicki Gill moved to North Carolina in 1982, when she and her husband moved from Louisiana to Gastonia for his work. Charlotte’s skyline is close by, but Vicki’s home borders an undeveloped wilderness filled with winding, natural paths and towering trees. Her children grew up playing in these woods. During her walks, she collects pieces of wood, leaves, rocks, and other natural items to incorporate into her work.
We spoke with Vicki Gill to hear more about her work, philosophy, and life.
How did you get started?
I was a fine arts major in college and took ceramics as my last elective course, just before graduating. I fell in love with it. Nothing about sculpture or painting touched me like making things in clay. When our children were school-aged, I began taking classes at a community college nearby and was in the studio almost every day. Now, I work full time as a potter but have a flexible part time job doing business administration for my husband’s business.
My first studio was in our garage. A neighbor and my son helped me close in one of the bays and I happily worked there until 2004. Then, a commercial building that we owned became available and I moved the studio there.
Can you tell us more about your studio space? Do you prefer organized chaos or everything in its place?
I have a gallery space in half of the building and the rest is devoted to making and firing the work. It is open to the public when I am there and by appointment; however, I still continue to travel some for pottery shows. I teach hand-building classes occasionally, and I sometimes exchange mentoring and studio space for help around the studio.
My studio is a mixture of organization and chaos. I always try to improve my efficiency as an artist so I try to label and put things in a logical place. However, when I have many deadlines, things end up all over the place, and it becomes very messy. If the studio looks pristine, it is because I have just spent a couple of long days cleaning and organizing.
What’s a normal day like at work?
Every day is different in the studio. Often I will try to plan out a week but that schedule quickly changes. With clay, things are always changing and you learn to be flexible. When I throw a lot of pieces, the next day has to be devoted to adding handles, trimming and decorating. Sometimes humidity and stormy weather dictate my kiln firing schedule and how fast work dries. When I have a deadline, I have to think backwards from the finished pieces to plan out when I need to complete each stage in the process.
Take us through your process to make one of your pieces.
To start a new piece, I sketch out ideas and shapes. This helps me focus when I actually make the work. Things will evolve but just putting the idea on paper gives me direction. I may make a new texture, like the stamps I created for the PETITE POTTERY PINECONE TRAY and the PINECONE SOAP DISH. Often I will make several versions in differing sizes to see what works best. I carve them out of clay and bisque-fire them so they will be strong enough to use over and over.
I will then choose a form to create the new work in. I like to use a slumping technique, when the clay goes into a premade form. For my hand-built work I have a large slab roller that resembles a monster pasta maker. Clay is fed into it and comes out in a slab that has a uniform thickness. I will texture and draw on the slab, then gently place it into the form. Handles and any other decoration are added immediately. Then I let it dry slowly. The pieces have to be cleaned and sanded before the first firing (to about 1900 degrees).
After this bisque firing, I clean and inspect the pieces and apply the glazes. I make and mix my own glazes from food safe minerals and they are transparent colors that are layered on top of each other. Many of the pieces have 4 to 5 different glazes applied in a certain order to achieve the finished piece. The second firing is done to about 2260 degrees. This creates a beautiful glassy surface on my stoneware clay, which is a very durable and functional type of clay.
We love that you can share your process with us. This video demonstrates the detailed process you follow to create one of these trays.
Your pieces are very labor-intensive, but the work translates into stunning pieces of functional art. Can you tell us more about what inspires your pottery?
Most of the inspiration for my pieces comes from nature: flowers, branches, leaves, birds, and fish. I love the beauty and shape of Eastern ceramics and have tried to bring those ideas into my work. Inspiration comes from the natural beauty around me. I have always loved the woodlands. We live near a beautiful, undeveloped area. When I go there, I carry back little souvenirs, things that will work themselves into my clay work as images or textures.
What hobbies do you have? What keeps you feeling creative?
I heard another potter say that they had more ideas than they had time for. I certainly feel that is true for me. While I love to read, watch movies and spend time with family, those ideas are always driving me to get back to work. Pottery is such an involved art form because there are so many areas you have to master in order to create a beautiful piece. It has taken me over 20 years to develop a mastery in throwing, hand-building, designing, glaze making and kiln firing. I am very intrigued by glass and would love to learn more about it. Luckily, it uses some of the skills I have already learned so it wouldn’t be completely new. I also love the look of encaustic painting. I began painting again about 5 years ago and I think that if I can’t physically manage clay work as I get older that I may explore painting.
If you could speak to yourself 5 years ago, what advice would you give?
The advice I would give myself five years ago would be to breathe more deeply and to learn WordPress. Keeping the marketing and promotion side of my business going and handling a website has not been easy. I would always rather be making the pieces than sending out emails, putting up images, entering info into the computer, and paying bills.
What do you feel sets handmade pieces apart from mass-produced pieces?
There is a spirit of the maker in each piece and I believe that is what you are experiencing when you choose handcrafted work. Sometimes as a maker, you get to see someone’s immediate reaction to your pieces. When I see a person engaged by a piece, walk over to it, pick it up and nestle it in their hands, I know they have found their piece. And I am certain it will be going home with them and the fact that just the right person found just the right piece delights me.
Shop our collection of BLUEGILL POTTERY HERE, or visit Vicki at her studio at 4522 Wilkinson Boulevard in Gastonia.