Falls potter retains national honor
Potter Stephen Earp "throws" an object on a potter's wheel in his Shelburne Falls studio.
Potter Stephen Earp decorates a plate using the sgraffito technique.
SHELBURNE FALLS — For the seventh year in a row, Shelburne Falls potter Stephen Earp has been selected as “one of the top craftspeople working with traditional tools and techniques” for the Directory of Traditional Crafts.
The directory is published annually by Early American Life magazine, and is now out on the newstands.
The 144 artists included in the directory are ranked as top in their fields by national experts from the National Trust, Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winterthur, Historic Deerfield, Old Sturbridge Village, Hancock Shaker Village, and antiques dealers, scholars and professional instructors.
“The directory has been used for nearly three decades by curators and living history museums, owners of traditional homes, and motion picture producers to find artisans to make period-appropriate furnishings and accessories for displays, collections and use,” according to Tess Rosch, the magazine’s publisher.
“The judges look for authentic design and workmanship, whether the piece is a faithful reproduction or the artisan’s interpretation of period style,” Rosch explained. “Scholarship, as well as use of period tools and techniques, is particularly valued in this competition.”
Earp’s specialty is redware pottery with slip and sgraffito decoration. This decorative technique involves applying contrasting layers of clay to an unfired ceramic object, then scratching through the layers to create the design.
Redware was, at first, the Colonial “country cousin” of the pottery that came from England — often made of clay that came from the American colonies. Earp said, under the earliest English trade laws, the Colonies “were meant to simply provide raw materials, including clay” to English manufacturers. But, by the late 1700s, American potters were producing wares equal in quality to the imports. Red clay deposits were plentiful, and all they needed was a potter’s wheel and a kiln.
“Redware potters of the past made phenomenal works simply by relying on the materials they had available around them,” Earp says, on his website. “The attitude, ‘what can I do with what I have?’ greatly appeals to me. It helps foster a sustainable approach to both working and living. To me, making pottery is not just about the forms themselves; it’s about the community I live in, its history and what it has to offer today.”
Earp received a bachelor of fine arts degree in ceramics from the University of Iowa. After an apprenticeship at St. John’s Pottery in Minnesota, he worked in Nicaragua as a ceramic technician for the craft-support organization: Potters for Peace. He was also a master potter at Old Sturbridge Village. Earp has taught wheel-throwing and glaze chemistry classes at several pottery centers in the state.
Earp said he moved to Shelburne Falls about 10 years ago.
Although he buys most of his clay, Earp uses some local ingredients. For instance, to obtain the silica used in his glaze, he burns hay in Conway. He says “the ashen remains of plants constitute a unique matrix of minerals impossible to duplicate in any other fashion.” He also works on a homemade treadle wheel, which is foot-powered, and similar to those used by redware potters for hundreds of years.
For more about Earp’s work, visit his website: