State of the Arts

S39 E7 | CLIP

Potter's Paradise

Alan Willoughby is a ceramic artist who is now using words to express his frustration at the state of the nation. His house and studio in South Jersey are a personal refuge, where he's built a wood-fired kiln that he uses it for both pottery and pizza. His wife, Linda Shusterman, is a ceramic artist as well; we visit the studio they share.

AIRED: July 24, 2021 | 0:06:45

[ Guitar music playing ]

Narrator: Ceramic artist Alan Willoughby has a recent work

included in the 2021 New Jersey Arts Annual,

hosted this year by the Newark Museum of Art.

Willoughby: It's the first time I submitted the work

that I made with the words on them to a show,

and it was really nice and felt it was a real honor

to get it into the Newark show. I was a little shocked.

[ Chuckles ]

Narrator: Alan and his wife, Linda, also a ceramic artist,

share a large, sunny studio

at their home in Deptford, New Jersey.

Alan designed and built the wood-fired kiln

in the backyard.

Shusterman: We've been married since 1987,

and we met at a crafts group meeting in Philadelphia

in 1977.

Willoughby: Our ceramic work,

really, I break it into three categories.

Linda has her style, I have my style,

and we have work that we collaborate on together.

Narrator: The fireplace in the living room, for example,

was a collaboration that includes both of their works.

Willoughby: Well, I think it started with --

We had a brick fireplace,

and we realized that, you know, we're ceramic artists.

We got to do something about it, 'cause was sort of ordinary.

It was nice, but it was ordinary.

And I don't know exactly how we came up with the idea,

but we -- Inevitably, you have pots

that go through the firing process,

and they don't work out properly.

So somehow or other, we got the idea,

"Let's cut some of these pots in half

and mount them on -- on the facade of the fireplace

and then do the mosaic around them."

And we felt like we came out

with what we'd call a real -- a potter's fireplace.

[ Calm music playing ]

Linda's work goes in one direction

with a painterly quality.

Mine goes in another

with its own kind of painterly,

but a little bit more about the surface.

Narrator: Alan creates his surfaces not with bright colors,

but with organic earth tones using their wood-fired kiln.

Shusterman: I originally was working with

a lot of painted surfaces,

highly colored things that are fired in a gas kiln,

which has a lot more control.

In the wood kiln, there is no absolute control.

It depends on where it is in the kiln,

how the flame hits it, where the wood ash falls.

So there's a lot more unexpected results.

Willoughby: One of the things I see over time is my going back,

getting -- trying to get more connected to nature,

And on many different levels, as a ceramic artist,

firing in a wood kiln with wood as the fuel source

is one of those ways.

I try to get most of the wood from storm-damaged trees

or old wood that's died.

I'm digging my own clay

and processing it as a part of what I do.

So, this is wild clay of New Jersey

that I picked up

down in Millville, New Jersey.

A good potter friend of mine has a couple dump load trucks of it

that was mined very near his studio.

What I love about the wood kiln is you can set it all up,

load the kiln and everything,

but there are so many factors involved.

You set the framework and the context,

but nature or the kiln

or the kiln gods all play a role.

For many years, the idea of putting words on pots --

just, like, not my cup of tea. I just wasn't there.

But this grew -- this came out of, I really think,

the very strong influence of my upbringing,

my parents and the family that I was raised in,

and a belief that it's really important to be involved

in terms of socially and in your community.

I was brought up as a Quaker,

and I'd say in my family, we were radical Quakers.

My parents were always on the forefront of nonviolence

and social change.

Very, very amazing people.

90 years old, my mother was arrested

and went to jail for two weeks

for protesting the bombing of Iraq.

With everything that was happening in our country,

I realized I had -- I had to do something more.

I just couldn't be satisfied

and I wasn't comfortable making beautiful handmade work.

And the idea of just taking words

that could get us to a better place really came to mind.

And then eventually, it evolved into some phrases

that might get us to a different place.

So another one that I've used is "Good trouble,

necessary trouble," John Lewis' statement.

[ Guitar music playing ]

Narrator: This Empowerment series,

with words stamped into the clay,

also inspired the creation of his Empowerment pizza oven.

It's proved to be a big hit with neighbors and friends.

Shusterman: We started out with just a basic form,

and it looked so kind of pathetic,

because here we are, ceramic artists --

Willoughby: It sort of looked like a turtle.

Shusterman: Yeah, it looked like a turtle. So --

Willoughby: Without a shell.

Shusterman: I said, well, we've done outdoor mosaic projects,

so why not mosaic the pizza oven?

And Alan said, "Aha.

I'm going to make wording, empowerment words."

[ Guitar music playing ]

[ Indistinct conversations ]


[ Laughter ] Woman: Lucky Gander.

Shusterman: Gander?

Yum, yum, yum.

Willoughby: We're allowed to spoil him.

Right, Gan?