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I had a conversation with potter, Amy Hepner in her garage-based pottery studio on a recent rainy Saturday in Eugene. She’d been working on rounding out a pizza stone before I arrived and continued to sculpt it as we talked, sitting at her wheel in a black skirt and leggings covered in pale pink streaks of dried clay.
I sit down in front of her at the other wheel she uses for wet clay throwing. The wheel she sits at now has a lower horse power and is better for dry work, like trimming the pizza stone. Clay remnants coiled in a re-purposed tofu container, a jar full of shaping tools, and a cup of muddy water sit between us, all covered in a thin layer of dried clay.
“I usually end up making things I want, like a colander, or baking pan. My baking pans brown things really well,” Amy says, as she uses a tool to scrape away at the rough edges of the gray pizza stone while it spins slowly on her wheel.
She showed me the raspberries on the sides of her palms, and explained that this was a new clay for her that contained a large amount of grog, or gravel, which has the effect of a rug burn when she works with it a lot. The pizza stone is a new piece she’s been working on.
“I like to make things that are very functional, maybe unusual. The design might be influenced by nature, but the functionality is always first for me,” she says.
She approaches her craft with an artist’s perspective though, working in series. She studied art in college, printmaking, since her school didn’t have pottery, but pieced together as many pottery classes as she could from a local community college.
Amy became interested in pottery long before that. She remembers the first piece of pottery she’d ever seen.
“I lived in a really rural place. There were not a lot of exotic people. But my art teacher, Clay Walthall, was super exotic,” she says, describing him as tall, dark, and dressed in white painters clothing. He was also the first male teacher she’d ever had. “He had this real odd pencil holder and I asked him about it. He said ‘I made it. It’s pottery.’”
Her mother took Amy to his pottery studio for her eighth birthday and that cemented it. She got a tiny pottery wheel from the Sears catalogue for Christmas that year, and she’s maintained her interest ever since. She bought a real wheel in college, and eventually bought her own kiln.
Amy says she really started producing in 2000, and began selling her work in 2006, mainly to local markets in Virginia, where she is from. She amassed a large customer-base and following, enough so that her pottery eventually became her primary means of income, supplemented with the occasional bartending gig. Before that, she spent six years as a high school teacher, and while studying field biology, spend four summers banding birds on the Virginia coast.
Creativity informed by Nature, Fueled by Awe
Amy credits her art teachers in college with helping her think through the whys of her work, which she considers functional with artistic tendencies, inspired by the organic, and nature.
“I’m definitely inspired by my love for being outside, and it mimics my painting and drawing,” she says. But she adds that creating pottery is “more for meditation than anything for me.”
“I just like touching the clay, the wetness of it, the feel of it on the wheel, the silence in my head, and repetition. I’ve always liked repetition, thus the hiking.”
Amy not only hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail last year, which is where I met her, but has also completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
She blogs about her creative process on her web site, and writes,
“For me the best results come with routine, practice and facts, some excitement, and a large quantity of awe.”
When I read this I knew I needed to hear more about this idea of awe. Here’s what she tells me when I ask about it:
“Awe is not from pottery. If I have it it helps me with pottery. I get awe from nature, hiking, a weekend on the shore.”
Here, she pauses, still working with the clay. Then she looks up at me with her bright blue eyes and says, “quiet. On the PCT I was in constant awe. When I need quiet in the head I go out in the woods, I have to.” She says hiking for her, especially long-distance backpacking, really is the best medicine.
“I don’t think we live the lives we’re supposed to as humans. Everything has to be done now or yesterday. So not having too many choices [while on a long-distance hike] is nice, working the body hard, in a natural sense. That’s the same as awe –the trail does that. I did over 600 or 700 pieces when I finished the hike. I was blissed out from the trail.”
I ask her if she missed having a creative outlet for the five-month long PCT thru-hike, and what she did about it. “I took photos, and I would draw on napkins. I did miss pottery, but I like hiking just as much.”
Keeping the Passion through Transitions
This past winter Amy sold all of her stock, and moved to Eugene when her partner got a job there, packing up her kiln and supplies in a little U-Haul hitched to her Volvo. With no customer-base, no product, in a town she’d never been to before, what did it take to start all over again?
Amy admits it wasn’t easy. It took her a while to settle into her new space, and find the right frame of mind to be able to create.
“I have to be happy to make pottery,” she says.
I’ve heard this before. There is this idea that an artist needs to have the right conditions for their art. Many creators, myself included, use this as an excuse. Amy does not. She knows the conditions in which she needs to work, and she creates these for herself, whether it’s taking a nature break, or just forcing herself to work through it.
She still struggles with fear and rejection, and finds these are the reasons when she is procrastinating on her work. She has high standards for the quality of work she wants to produce. “I don’t approve of it yet,” she says of her new projects.
Even with her years of experience, she is still learning. After moving across the country, she discovered she wasn’t able to purchase the type of clay she was used to working with on the West Coast. She tried about eight different clays before finding one she liked, which was frustrating at times, but she learned to push through the frustration.
“I just had to make a lot of stuff, just keep making it. I don’t feel like this is a hobby. It’s like me, it’s what I do.”
She recently wrote: “Be the tiny ant that you are, make pottery and prosper in whatever farm or city you land in and stop the cycle of your tyrannical ego.”
I ask her about that ant and ego:
“For me self-pity or really big mental anxiety causes physical issues. I’m aware of my ego, it’s a little baby,” she says, a slight Southern accent coming out, as I picture her little baby ego. “I have to just shut it up, exercise, get to a point where I can do pottery.”
“Sometimes you have to just ignore what you feel like and make a lot of pottery. Just do it and quit it,” Amy says.
“I went from a town where I was the queen bee of pottery to here. Feels like I’m not special any more. I just have to work like an ant.”
And I can see it paying off. The last time we spoke on the phone she told me how excited she was about the batch of pottery she just took out of the kiln. She tagged a recent Instagram photo of these pieces #likeChristmasmorning. Her excitement for her work is contagious and easily understandable when you see and touch it.
Where to Next?
In the future Amy would like to see her work reach the level it was in Virginia, where it was self-sustaining and she didn’t have to have a day job. Right now she works nearly full time as an office manager and neurotechnician in a neuropsychologist’s office. She says the clientele make it interesting, but it’s just a job.
She is planning to hike the Wonderland Trail near Mt. Rainier this August, and the Continental Divide Trail, or at least part of it, in 2017.
As for her pottery, that continues to change as well. Lately she’s been thinking about creating a vagina series, that’s “more like an art happening than an art piece.”
I’ll be anxiously awaiting being able to eat potato chips out of a bowl shaped like a vagina at my next party. Until then, you can check out her other amazing work at claymasonstudio.com. You can also check out this cool video of Amy making pottery in her studio.