Nancy Adams played matchmaker and set me up with one of her fellow potters, Ginger Steele. Initially I was a little apprehensive because I only had about two days notice to put things together with her and didn’t have the time to do much research and preparation. Traditional oral historians may have said no or encouraged me to try to do it at another time. But I chose to go ahead because it was set up so nicely for me.
Ginger lives in Cornelius Oregon, about a half hour west of Portland, on the same property as her nursery New Leaf Greenhouse. When I arrived for our interview I was a little early and wandered around a bit. Don’t ask me why, but I didn’t take any pictures of the nursery or beautiful farmland that surrounds it. I blame the insomnia that I started to experience at Nancy’s. So, you will have to take it on my word for it that this place is gorgeous. Given the beauty of the nursery and Ginger’s love of the natural world, it’s easy to see where she gets her inspiration for her pottery designs. Her love of plant life runs deep and is rooted in her childhood when she became a collector of seeds and a gardener.
Ginger salt-fires her work in a hand-built, gas-fired kiln. She has built 8 kilns from scratch over the course of her ceramics career. When I say “from scratch” I mean she cuts the bricks herself. A pure act of bravery as far as I’m concerned.
The firing is the last step in finishing ceramics and it brings a lot of effort to completion. During my time working in ceramics I only worked with commercially-built, electric kilns. I’ve always been impressed by people who build their own kilns or do crazy things like fire with gas or wood. So many things can go wrong in the best of circumstances with firings - pots can blow up or crack, glazes run off the pots or turn weird colors. So adding variables that may be challenging to control (like hand-built kilns!) takes courage. Firings for even experienced ceramics artists are done with prayer and will bring out superstitions in even the most skeptical. Operating hand-built kilns always seem like a special kind of magic to me. I’ve felt the same way with gas and wood-fired kilns; magic I tell you, it’s all magic. My sister did a ceramics residency in Japan and I was fascinated by her description of the wood firings they do - which has to be monitored for at least 24 hours and up to 4 days. Take a look at the trailer for Out of the Fire, a documentary about a Virginia potter’s 3 day wood firing. Just watching the trailer you will get a peek into the anxiety that is prevalent around firing ceramics and what’s at stake.
Ginger came to pottery unexpectedly in 1993 when she accompanied her teenage daughters to a pottery class. It was love at first touch and she’s been developing her work the 22 years since then. Even though she didn’t settle into pottery until her 40s (she’s 67 now) she grew up making art and had a mother who made sure she always had supplies to work with. She carried this practice into her adulthood and prior to coming to pottery was always creating something, whether it was painting, sewing, or furniture making. Even now, she carries out many creative pursuits including playing the accordion!
Ginger sells her work at art festivals, in stores, and online through her website. However, she especially enjoys taking her work to the art shows and festivals. I am very interested in the business of art and how an artist finds ways to make her living. This is a time of great change for the art market - for both individual artists and for galleries as well; the landscape has changed rapidly over the last 10 years. For many years art shows and festivals provided artists with a consistent means to sell their work. When I worked for Sandi Dihl in the 1990s it was not unusual to see her rake in over $10,000 at a weekend show. Nancy Adams talked to me of the high times of the festival circuit in the 1980s and 1990s. But talk to artists now about shows and clearly, those days are over. A lot shifted not only during the recession, but fewer people are going to those shows because you can buy directly from artists on Etsy (or other online markets) or from artists’ websites. Many artists find that these shows simply aren’t worth it anymore. This is why I found it particularly interesting that Ginger still really enjoys going to shows. Because creating art is such a solo practice, she likes going to the shows to connect with people about her work, get direct feedback on new items, and be with other artists.
Art in the Pearl - A show Ginger has been involved in for many years. Looking at the participants from 2015, it looks like a show with many amazing artists.
Richey Bellinger Her first ceramics teacher. I am especially drawn to artists who practice in several mediums. He’s not only a potter, but a musician and photographer as well.
Grandma Moses has been a source of inspiration for Ginger. She didn’t begin painting until her 70s and became a well-known landscape painter. She painted up until just a few months before her death.