By Brock Hires
In a cozy studio nestled next door to Baker’s Acres nursery in Tonasket, Concetta Mazzetti opens a kiln to inspect her students’ artwork.
“Oh, this one looks beautiful,” she said with a smile, gently carrying it over to join the collection of other works she and her students have recently crafted at Circle Ceramics.
Mazzetti, who was born and raised in northern Okanogan County, opened Circle Ceramics a few years ago and continues to teach the art of pottery and ceramics to the community.
Pottery is one of the oldest and most popular decorative arts, consisting of clay objects that are heated to harden them. With fragments being found in almost all time periods and civilizations around the world, pottery remains one of the most durable forms of art. Because it is such an enduring resource, it has become a valuable part of historians and archeologist's understanding the past. Mazzetti remarked on how when the world ends, all that likely will remain is “mylar balloons and pottery.”
Pottery is created by clay being formed into objects of a desired shape and then heating them, usually using a kiln, to high temperatures (also called firing) which induces certain reactions to increase their strength and rigidity. A clay object that is left to dry without being fired will be fragile and likely to crack and break. Mazzetti commented on how even though fire can have a negative impact in our lives, in this art form, it is the beneficial necessity. “Fire is scary. It’s dangerous. It destroys things,” she said. “But fire is the essential thing that turns forms of clay into functional and beautiful art. It’s that spark.”
Mazzetti graduated from Tonasket High School in 1999 and attended college to complete a degree in art and play therapy. It was in 2008, while living in Florida, that she tried her hands at ceramics and found her passion.
“A dear friend had a Groupon to take a pottery class and she invited me to join her,” she recalled. “I went to this class and met Ann Darling, a master potter. I fell in love with it. I spent every Thursday in her studio for the next six years.”
Mazzetti credits Darling for setting the “fire inside of me.”
“I love it when I put clay on the wheel and I don’t know what it’s going to be,” she said. “I’m the potter, and it’s the clay. Together we make beautiful art.”
Pottery is often described as a therapeutic and relaxing. Working with clay can unite your mind and body in harmony, allowing you to focus your creative goals and ambitions. An activity like this can open your mind and help to relieve your stress.
Mazzetti explained that working with clay is as much as an art form as it is meditation and relaxation for the soul.
“There is nothing else except for this lump of clay and my hands,” she said. “There is a moment when you feel it becomes centered. There is this light in people’s eyes when they get to experience it themselves. I think on top of it being hands on, it’s also a form of meditation. You are centered when your clay is centered. It takes patience, then you get to have fun with how creative you want to get.”
Turning clay into ceramic
The ceramics process beings with placing clay on the pottery wheel.
“If you throw something on the wheel, it can take you 10 minutes to make a mug; but then it’s soft and pliable, extremely fragile,” Mazzetti said. “Then it has to dry enough until leather-hard stage.”
A simple mug can use as much as a pound-and-a-half of clay, which can take several days to reach the leather-hard stage depending on how the item is stored and dried.
The clay is slightly firmer during this stage, allowing the artist to trim, add handles, and make other adjustments before the clay becomes too hard. The clay is referred to as leather hard because it has a soft leather-like texture.
A ridge, or foot, is also added to the bottom of the ceramics to protect it before entering the kiln. The kiln is the device used to fire clay to extreme temperatures.
“The first firing takes about 18 hours to fire and eight hours to cool down,” Mazzetti said. “If it’s not dry enough, things can explode in the kiln. It’s a delicate balance of moisture content at this point.”
The initial firing in the kiln is called bisque firing, which hardens the clay into ceramic and makes it porous and suitable for glazing.
“Bisque is half-baked,” she said. “This is where we decide what color we want things to be. Do we want to paint, designs, patterns or images on our items, or do they just want colors that run and move so that they are complimentary to the shape of the vessel?”
“With bisque ware, the clay is still “open” and porous. The clay still has not become completely vitrified, and the glaze gets pulled in and locks itself in to the bisque pottery piece,” she said. “As soon as the glaze wraps itself around the vessel and they bond, the finale is almost revealed.”
Depending on the type of glaze used, the kiln is fired at different temperatures – or cones- to complete vitrification.
“When we fire to a cone 5, the kiln reaches 2,232 degrees,” Mazzetti said. “I fire at night, and I open all the windows in the studio.”
For a cone 5, ceramics will bake for 36 hours from beginning to end.
“I think the biggest challenge for me is letting go of expectations and my students’ expectations, too,” she said. “Not every piece is going to be perfect. There’s going to be faults, flops and fails, as well as triumphs, perfection and surprises. The more experienced you become, the more flexible you are with the outcome of every piece, you’re like, ‘Oh, oh well” when things don’t look the way you anticipated.’”
Mazzetti offers courses for those interested in experiencing the art of pottery. Throughout the year she offers five, three-hour weekly classes.
“Some people come in and they’re green and have always wanted to take a class,” she said. “I try to match those individuals together so that the learning curve is easier to climb together.”
Upon enrollment in their first six week class, students are given 25 pounds of clay where they will complete something with a handle, a bowl and a vessel with a lid by the end of six weeks.
“And nine out of 10 succeed,” she said.
She also teaches her students about the molecular structure of clay, the form, how we use our body to shape the clay and hand muscle techniques.
“My goal is to teach students what they want to learn,” she said. “We build all sorts of unique things. At the end of six weeks, most people keep going and continue attending classes.”
Her classes not only bring out the inner artist in her students but have been a success with people with special needs.
“I have a student who had a traumatic brain injury,” she said. “He has a hard time speaking and is physically and mentally disabled from an accident. At the wheel, t"he centeredness, he’s pinpoint and mindful. It’s like a transformation.”
Another student is blind.
“He uses this space like physical therapy to open, strengthen, and use his right hand,” she said. “We were throwing lefthanded, and after four months, he was able to throw righthanded.
Using his hands to feel his work, Mazzetti said he has become “an amazing potter.”
Mazzetti said one of the most rewarding aspects of her ceramics class is seeing her students’ improvements through the course.
“(Students say) ‘I’m not artistic, I’m not good at this. I don’t have a creative bone in my body,” she said. “Everyone has that artist inside them and no matter someone’s attitude when they walk in the studio, when they leave, there’s more confidence.”
Through the years Mazzetti has made just about everything imaginable from mugs to bowls and vases to decorative pots.
In 2013 she was commissioned to make sinks for a home in California, which used about 16 pounds of clay each.
Nowadays she prefers to be a learning studio rather than a production studio.
“I don’t want to be a studio potter,” she said. “I call my art pieces ‘sisters,’ not twins. There are never two things that come out here exactly the same. I don’t want to replicate 100 items that are all the same. I enjoy the teaching part way more than I want to do production.”
She does, on occasion, sell some of her works at local festivals and community celebrations.
“I did an art show down in Chelan for Earth Day and their summer arts festival,” she said. “Last year I did the Garlic Festival in Tonasket. When I have a booth, I bring a small wheel and a couple tools and I throw while people are walking by. People love the experience of watching art live, I like to give them that.”
During a holiday bazaar at the Tonasket Community Cultural Center last December she sold almost everything.
“When I’m teaching classes, I make at least one of everything, sometimes more,” she said.
She often collaborates with Crafted Coffee and Boutique in Okanogan, where their patrons can enjoy painting hand thrown items, using color fast glazes to complete their own pieces.
To sign up for a class, or for more information about ceramics, see Circle Ceramics online at circleceramics.org, call 206-930-1045, or follow on social media. ♦
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