Clarksville recently hosted River City Clay, a new art studio and art gallery that brings the art of artisan pottery to the city center.
Owners Ken and Melody Shipley and their business partner Shelby Crutcher offer their clay creations for sale, and for those curious about the process, there are a variety of courses to suit all skill levels.
As guests enter the space, an array of products are on display, including quirky pieces as small as shot glasses, bowls, pitchers and mugs, to decorative three- or four-foot-tall vases.
A long history in art
Crutcher was a student of now-retired APSU Professor Ken Shipley about a decade ago, she explained as he handled a 16-pound block of clay on his wheel and watched two students work on more small projects nearby.
“We are offering a 6 week course,” said Crutcher. “Ken and Melody (Shipley) teach them. We also offer classes by appointment for a maximum of four people at a time. So if anyone is interested in learning, they can take a 2 hour crash course in Pottery Throwing.
These courses, she says, are for people of all skill levels. She also claims that in six weeks there will be visible growth. Another benefit of the 6 week course is access to the workshop during gallery hours on Sundays.
“Everyone starts with a clay court,” said Crutcher. “They wedge it to remove air bubbles, which prevents it from exploding in the oven. They can hand build their object on the table or throw it on the wheel, a lot of finesse involved. After the steering wheel, once it becomes hard leather, they can trim it. When it’s dry, you put it in the bisque oven, which burns it at a temperature below 1800 degrees. The last step is the icing and then the final baking, at a temperature of around 2,200 degrees.
“Different glazes give different colors. The mixture includes water, finely ground chemicals, a little clay and different dyes. It’s like chemistry and baking a cake.
After being glazed, pottery becomes safe for food and drink. It is also microwave and dishwasher resistant and durable. Pottery can last for decades.
In the studio recently, Ruth Farwell was dipping several pieces in various glazes.
She explained that the copper carbonate makes the glaze she was working with a green color.
The mixture contains silica, which forms glass, and clay, which thickens the solution, so that it adheres better to the pottery.
“The firing actually turns the finish into glass,” Farwell said. “Being the first to touch this brand new glass is exciting. It’s kinda awesome.
Ken Shipley taught for over 20 years at APSU. He met his wife 19 years ago in college.
“We live in the countryside,” said Ken Shipley. “It’s nice to have this place in town. We take advantage of it. The studio / gallery is a place where you can buy pottery of all shapes and sizes or take classes. We both had to be 100% ok to open this place or it wouldn’t have happened.
Commemoration of the dead of September 11
Ken Shipley is well known in the community for his creations, his teaching and his generosity towards programs like Empty Bowls. The exhibit currently on display at River City Clay is Project 9/11.
“(It) started about six years ago,” Ken Shipley said of the gallery’s current exhibition. “Every year, people are invited to create a play. People who were directly affected by the events of September 11, so Gold Star families, and people with PTSD. We asked several people to decorate plates and leave them behind to be part of the collection. I think we have 70 or 80 plates at this point.
The plates are eclectic. Some are just pictures, the American flag or a plane flying over the Twin Towers. Some have words, “the house of the brave” or “what if we were still united? One, directed by Melody Shipley, shows a New York skyline. The towers are missing, but they can still be seen reflected in the water below.
“We were all affected by September 11,” said Ken Shipley. “Some more than others. One of the plates just has a 3-digit number painted in its center. She was a student of mine and a Gold Star wife. Her husband got off in a helicopter, and that was the tail number. All soldiers immediately recognize it for what it is. They’ll say, ‘who was that?’
The Shipleys make all the plates and define the colors and glazes. Participants decorate to their liking.
Then the plates receive a transparent glaze and a final baking. There have been decorating events at the VA Clinic, the Stephen A. Cohen Military Family Clinic and some at Fort Campbell.
Ken Shipley says the pottery creation process is calming, at least for him. He hopes the same goes for others.
“It can (also) be frustrating,” he explains. “They don’t call it ‘throwing’ for no reason. At first people have to find a place to relax, until they’ve mastered the clay. I know once I’ve had this , I’ve been looking forward to it ever since. Melody (Shipley) will notice my mood change and ask me how long I’ve been in the studio. Then she politely suggests it’s time for me to go out.
Ashley Wickland is currently a student at the studio taking her second 6 week course.
She just started about six weeks ago and has a few ideas for pieces, but says she quickly realized pottery wouldn’t be a second career.
Another student, Heather Wolfe, has some pottery experience, but is now starting from scratch.
“I try to standardize my pieces,” Wolfe said. “I liked doing it the first time around, but there was no availability to do it locally. As soon as I saw Ken (Shipley) opening a studio, I was excited to start over. I recommend it to creatives who think things come naturally. I challenge them to get out of their wheelhouse and get to the wheel.
Ken Shipley says the process is harder than it looks.
” It’s humiliating. I’m still learning today, “he added.” It’s a bit like music. You can always learn another lick. I like to watch the masters. There’s always a finger flick or something, and I’m like, why haven’t I thought about it, I’ve always been doing it.
Prices in the gallery can range from $ 10 to $ 1,000.
“The little things are bread and butter, that’s what moves,” said Ken Shipley. “We’ve only been here a few months. People come in and see things, seeds are planted. Every time they come in, they see something different.
“We will be removing the September 11 trays around November 1. At that point, we’ll rearrange the room and add other things. We’re going to have a kind of Christmas bazaar feel, with works by Melody (Shipley), Shelby (Farwell) and me. But we’re going to add a few more things to get that Christmas flair.
Ken Shipley says he still enjoys coming to work every day.
“Throwing on the wheel has always been my thing,” he said. “It calms me down. In 2006, I did a residency in Vallauris, in the south of France. It is the city where Picasso worked for 10 years at the Madoura ceramic workshop. The owners of the workshop put together a book. Suzanne Ramie said, ‘the only thing the master couldn’t master was to throw on the potter’s wheel.’
“It definitely takes a different mindset to relax enough to get through the tough things at the start of the learning curve. You can’t rush, and that might be the hardest part. It is a Zen experience. My undergraduate degree is in Religious Studies and Oriental Religions. This is how I found clay while studying the history of Asian art.
River City Clay is open from noon to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Find more information about River City Clay on Facebook and Instagram.