Pottery on the Hill: A Celebration of Clay Art

By Phil Hutinet on November 13, 2023
Junko Young. Image courtesy Pottery on the Hill and Hill Center

In my first conversation with Dan Finnegan since the pandemic, we dove head-first into the world of pottery and the fascinating ways in which clay is recast into its original form—stone! Curator of the renowned Pottery on the Hill which takes place annual at Hill Center, Finnegan offered a glimpse into which ceramicists he selected to show at the twelfth edition of the expo.

An Ever-Evolving Art Fair-Style Event
Finnegan’s original vision for Pottery on the Hill was to show the best-of-the-best in useful pottery in Washington, DC. This year, the exhibition welcomes an array of new exhibitors, offering new perspectives on ceramic making.  While Pottery on the Hill has a core group of exhibitors, Finnegan always makes room for guest artists. As chance would have it, due to various circumstances, many of the regulars were unable to attend this year. As a result, the exhibition will feature many new faces, providing the expo’s audience with an opportunity to see a wide array of new works.

Two of the spotlight artists from this year’s edition are David and Junco Young, an artist couple who have not only mastered the craft of pottery but also manage a family farm in Gettysburg, PA. With an inspiring journey that includes studying pottery in Japan, their story reflects a blend of culture, art, and agriculture. David and Junco Young bring new ideas about farm-to-table or more precisely, farm-to-plate-to-table at this year’s Pottery on the Hill.

Michael Kline. Image courtesy Pottery on the Hill and Hill Center

North Carolina and the Pottery Connection
As it so happened, Finnegan spoke to me from the North Carolina Highlands where he was teaching a pottery course at the world-famous Penland School. According to Finnegan, North Carolina has been a center for ceramic making in the United States since the colonial era. Geologically, the region’s ubiquitous clay deposits made it an ideal location for pottery production. Coupled with the presence of the Penland School, one of the oldest craft schools in the country, the region is home to many prominent American potters.  This year’s Pottery on the Hill hosts three ceramic artists from the Tar Heel State, including Christina Bendo, Danielle Carelock and Michael Kline, who continue to preserve and innovate this cherished art form.

Guillermo Cuellar. Image courtesy Pottery on the Hill and Hill Center

Minnesota’s Flourishing Pottery Scene
Originally from Venezuela, Guillermo Cuéllar has found his artistic home in Shafer, Minnesota, where he stands among the distinguished artists participating in this year’s expo. His journey in ceramics is intertwined with the legacy of Warren MacKenzie, a renowned American potter who nurtured several generations of ceramic artists. Guillermo’s creations seamlessly blend functionality with a heartfelt tribute to the indigenous crafts of Venezuela. Minnesota’s pottery scene has become quite established in recent years, influenced by MacKenzie’s enduring impact. Cuéllar himself plays an essential role in his community, hosting the beloved St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour since 2009. This eagerly anticipated annual gathering unfolds against the breathtaking backdrop of the St. Croix River Valley in Minnesota, uniting not only regional master potters but also passionate pottery enthusiasts, all deeply rooted in this time-honored tradition.

Stacy Snyder. Image courtesy Pottery on the Hill and Hill Center

From Electric to Atmospheric Firings
Not all pottery is created alike. Pottery on the Hill features a wide range of firing methods, each creating vastly different final products. While most participating artists fire their pottery at high temperatures (around 2,350 degrees), the firing process itself varies significantly from one artist to the next. For example, Stacy Snyder employs the use of imagery and decals on her pottery. To produce exact results, she uses an electric kiln. In contrast, artists like Mark Shapiro, Sam Taylor, and the Finnegan employ atmospheric firings. These firings, often using wood as fuel or introducing salt into the chamber, infuse unique character and texture into the pottery.  You never know what you are going to end up with until the firing is done!

Atmospheric firings, such as wood firing, involve labor-intensive processes, with artists constantly stoking wood for up to 18 hours to achieve the desired temperature. This method differs greatly from electric firing, where the firing process is mostly controlled with the touch of a button. The choice of firing method impacts the overall look and feel of a potter’s work.

The Age-Old Debate: Art or Craft?
The debate over whether pottery is primarily a functional craft or an art form in its own right has persisted for years. However, the distinction between the two is often arbitrary. Even a simple mug serves both a functional and artistic purpose, challenging the boundary that attempts to separate the two aspects of pottery. Finnegan and his fellow potters celebrate the versatility and artistry embedded in the craft and hope to demonstrate how a ceramic piece can be more than just a utilitarian object.

Coincidentally, Simone Leigh, a living artist in her mid-fifties whose highly-anticipated solo show opened at the Hirshhorn this month, serves as an outstanding example of harnessing clay as a medium for fine art. While the early ’90s saw Leigh engaged in crafting functional pottery, she defied the discouragement of skeptics and chose to pivot her artistic journey towards sculptural ceramic work. Her forthcoming exhibition not only showcases clay’s remarkable versatility but also elevates stonework to the pinnacle of fine art, effectively tipping the scales in favor of art over mere craft.

Touching History Through Clay
As my conversation with Finnegan drew to a close, he shared something most unexpected. While Pottery on the Hill is experienced both as an annual gathering for ceramic enthusiasts and as an invaluable networking opportunity for exhibitors, it extends beyond these vital roles. Through a visit to Smithsonian’s Asian Art museum each year, Finnegan offers participating ceramicists a chance to traverse through time, allowing them to engage with ancient pottery from centuries past. Guided by a curator, Finnegan and his peers are granted the unique privilege of not just observing but physically interacting with vessels that have endured the rigors of history, spanning hundreds and even thousands of years. Among the many indelible impressions, the one that lingers most vividly in Finnegan’s memory is the connection he made when tracing the fingerprints of an ancient artisan, an experience that profoundly deepened his reverence for this enduring art form.

What is clear is that regardless of the approach each artist takes, the common thread weaving through Pottery on the Hill is an unyielding passion for clay from some of the nation’s most renowned potters. The diversity of techniques, inspirations, and backgrounds on display at the event is a testament to the enduring allure of the medium. Pottery on the Hill represents not only a celebration of craft but also a testament to the interconnectedness of potters across regions and generations. It’s a reminder that the clay arts continue to thrive, evolve, and inspire in an ever-changing world. With each piece, the potters participating in the event leave their fingerprints on history, bridging the divide between utility and artistry.

Pottery on the Hill 2023 Schedule
Fri., Nov. 17: Ticketed Preview Reception
Tickets: $40/advance, $45/day of the reception

Free Show & Sale
Sat., Nov. 18, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. | Sun., Nov. 19, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Raku Firing with District Clay
Sat., Nov. 18, Noon to 3 p.m.

Potter Demonstrations
Sun., Nov. 19

Hill Center is located at 921 Pennsylvania Avenue SE | For more information go to www.hillcenterdc.org/artist/pottery-on-the-hill-2023-the-potters