It's an exhilarating experience, but also expensive, time-consuming and frustrating when artists don't have access to the technical information that can make or break them. Pitelka can relate. Fresh out of school, he opened his own ceramics studio in Blue Lake, Calif., and experienced his fair share of frustration. To help ease the transition from student of the craft to studio operator, Pitelka has written Clay: A Studio Handbook, a new release by The American Ceramic Society.
"Artists often go deeply in debt to set up their dream studio -- or they approach it on a shoestring and spend years trying to build a good studio," said Pitelka, head of the Craft Center's clay studio and former recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. "Part of my incentive for writing this book is the frustration I went through as a studio potter. Just out of school, I had minimal preparation for professional studio work; here at the Craft Center, we're much better at teaching the technical and business end of art."
The handbook is a distillation of 30 years of learning it the hard way. An encyclopedic approach to the art and business of clay, it covers handbuilding, throwing, decorating and firing clay; studio design, set-up, operation and safety; the construction of clay tools and equipment, including kilns; and exhibiting, selling and marketing.
Pitelka, who laughingly admits that other potters have called him a know-it-all, says he didn't set out to learn every nuance of a challengingly complex art. Life experience simply steered him in that direction. He worked as a welder, fabricator and mechanic in California while studying clay -- skills that have since served him well.
An art graduate of Humboldt State University, he earned an MFA in ceramics from the University of Massachusetts. He established and ran his own studio for 10 years before embarking on a full-time teaching career in 1988, first at U Mass, then Northeastern University, and then at North Dakota State University, where he was head of the Art Department. He joined the Craft Center faculty in 1994.
The publisher bills Pitelka's text as "the most practical, all-inclusive studio handbook for students, studio artists, educators and all those interested in the art of clay."
"Every single bit of information in the book is based on what I teach and do myself," Pitelka said. "Success often has as much to do with access to information as talent and skill."
Most artists will readily admit to the difficulty of supporting themselves by their craft. Learning to be self-sufficient by being a jack-of-all-trades can go a long way toward running a successful studio. For sheer economy, ergonomics and even self-satisfaction, Pitelka recommends that potters build as many of their tools and equipment as possible.
"Anytime you buy a tool designed by someone else, it's a compromise, because you're having to adapt to someone else's vision of a tool to your own hands and way of working," he said. "So I always encourage artists to make their own. These tools become fixtures in the studio -- they're instruments of studio ritual. They're a joy; they enrich the studio experience. And a potter needs to enrich his or her existence. It can be a repetitive art, and anything you can do to create Zen-like ritual is to your advantage."
Within the Middle Tennessee area, including Nashville, Pitelka estimates there are some 50 to 60 professional potters making a living from their work. The field has grown tremendously.
"The studio ceramics movement really gained momentum after World War II, when college enrollment soared under the GI Bill," said Pitelka. "Especially in the West, you began seeing more and more art schools. So there was a tremendous stock of potters anxious to get out there and work. A number of people wrote influential books that I grew up with. I wanted to create a newer, more comprehensive version of that.
"To me," he said, "this is an in-the-trenches handbook, and I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea of its getting covered in clay in a potter's studio."Clay: A Studio Handbook (hardcover, illustrated, 384 pages) will soon be available at the Craft Center, located off I-40 Exit 273 near Smithville, as well as the University Bookstore on the Tennessee Tech campus. It can also be ordered at BookWorks in downtown Cookeville -- or on-line from amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com or the publisher at www.ceramics.org.