It looks so easy in Charlie Parker’s hands. (No, not the saxophone, though he’s heard a lifetime of those jokes.)
In his case, it’s several pounds of clay that Parker pats between both hands, preparing to demonstrate a throw onto a pottery wheel for two students at his 3,600-square-foot pottery studio in St. Petersburg.
The legendary potter and ceramics educator holds a variety of ongoing or one-time classes, and this one is called Happy Hour, when visitors who become students for a few hours are invited to bring wine and munchies. So they sip cabernet from ceramic cups taken down from a shelf while Parker goes through a demonstration.
“Most people come here don’t have a clue what clay is all about, but they want to try it,” he says, adding in his customary laid-back philosophy, “There is no failure.”
This is a working studio, so the class takes place while studio members are bent over their wheels, quietly molding their clay, looking up occasionally, especially to smile wryly in response to one of Parker’s jokes. On the other side of the large, open workshop are shelves displaying members’ completed and fired pottery – plates, vases, lamps, blue wine glasses, decorative pots. And against the back wall – as well as in the front gallery space – are Parker’s signature large bowls.
Parker opened this studio in St. Petersburg’s up-and-coming Warehouse Arts District in early 2012 following more than 15 years with St. Pete Clay, which he helped found in the 1990s, 30 years after he started his career in pottery at the age of 14 as a part-time clay mixer at the Minnesota Clay Company.
His new studio is one of the stops on the district’s monthly gallery walk, via trolley, occurring every second Saturday among the artists, galleries and art suppliers that have moved into and refitted old warehouses and former manufacturing companies. During the gallery walk, Parker does a wheel demonstration.
But in these classes, students get their hands dirty, too. After a brief introduction and a demonstration of how to make a bowl, he tells them to go grab an apron and to sit back down behind their wheels. First comes the throw – and if it’s a little off-center, he will nudge the clay into place – then the starting of the wheel with the foot pedal. Next comes a touch of water on the clay, but not much.
“We’re not going to use a lot of water,” he says. “Friction is my friend.”
Then the tricky part begins: the trifecta of centering the bowl – position, control and power. The left hand, he says, is for power, the right, for finesse. The clay is rigid but starts to take shape between the hands. “If you have little movements, the clay will find you,” he says.
With Parker’s guidance and applied pressure where needed, the spinning clay rises in a cone shape. Then it’s time to use the right index finger to press down in the center and then to gently pull back its forming walls, with equal amounts control and power – Zen movements, he says. (Pull back too fast and the clay could go flying off the wheel and across the room.)
Slowly, a mouth opens, then widens – a bowl coming to life – then wobbles, and almost collapses, until Parker steps in again, salvaging the student’s efforts just in time. The bowl is formed, slightly crooked – its proud owner insisting the shape is artistic.
Now it’s time to choose under-glaze colors, and Parker teaches design techniques on how to make them swirl – or to fling a darker color on a lighter one. Later, within the coming weeks after Parker fires the bowls in his oven in the back at 1,900 degrees, the bowls will be ready to be picked up by the students, who will find them glistening in deep tones of earth brown and copper, another in bright swirls of yellow and blue.
During the class, working quietly off to the side, artist and studio member Deitra Morris effortlessly makes a bean pot on the wheel, then uses a rolling pin to iron out a strip of clay into which she’ll press a seashell for designs – later wrapping the strip around the belly of the pot before it’s fired.
“I always loved clay, it’s one of those mediums,” says Morris, who lives half the year in Texas and half in St. Petersburg, where she is a member at the studio, a second home of sorts for her, after knowing Parker for more than two decades. She got her start in a pottery class in high school in the 1970s, and over time specialized in high-fired functional pottery.
For years it was something she had to fit in between many other jobs – as a mother as well as a heavy trucks diesel mechanic, or at animal control and the parks department.
“You come in dirty and greasy and all of a sudden it melts away all that stuff,” she says. She got lost in the clay, molding and capturing artistic kitchenware, but also forming something practical in which she could cook her gumbo, chicken and rice. It’s also something she knows will outlast her.
“When I’m dead and gone,” she says, “my bowls – if they don’t smash them – will live forever.”
IF YOU GO
The Charlie Parker Pottery studio is located in St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District at 2724 6th Avenue South. Parker holds wheel demonstrations during the district’s monthly gallery walks and also teaches classes in group and individual settings, including weekday Happy Hour classes, where students are invited to bring their own beverages and munchies. For more information on the Warehouse Arts District gallery walk, visit http://www.warehouseartsdistrictstpete.org/. For more information about Charlie Parker Pottery and classes, call (727)321-2071 or visit www.charlieparkerpottery.com.