Passion for clay: Northfield potter still excited about his career choice more than three decades later

  • Potter Tom White with works in progress in his Northfield studio. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Tom White in his Northfield pottery studio. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Tom White Pottery on display at his Northfield Studios on Winchester Road. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Tom White in his Northfield pottery studio pulls and squeezes a bowl into shape as it slowly spins on his wheel. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Potter Tom White pours glaze over a plate before finishing it in his kiln. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Potter Tom White stands at the door of one of his workshops. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Tom White Pottery on display at his Northfield Studios on Winchester Road. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Potter Tom White loads his kiln for a firing. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 8/10/2016 1:48:50 PM

Nestled between rows of pines trees on Winchester Road sit a series of old-fashioned wooden sheds. On the outside of one rests a faded Massachusetts license plate reading “CLAY 86,” along with several deer skulls.

Outside in the afternoon sun, sawhorses with boards stretched across them display a rainbow of different colored bowls, pots and platters — the fruit of Tom White’s hours of labor over a pottery wheel and at the kiln.

Local art collectors might recognize White’s work from the logo he stamps on all of his creations: a “T” hovering over a “W” surrounded by a square. As White has made tens of thousands of pots in his 41 years as a potter, his creations can be found in galleries and at crafts shows across the United States.

“I have to say that for sheer technical mastery, I have never met a potter to match Tom White,” said Daniel Bellow, one of White’s former apprentices. “His pots (are) elegant, understated, perfectly balanced, strong and delicate at the same time.”

Yet, even after four decades, White says that no two of his pieces are ever exactly the same.

“Each piece is unique because there’s no exact science,” White said.

Walking around his studio admiring his works in progress, or his finished pieces in the adjacent gallery, each piece features a different variety of colors, pattern, glaze or texture.

“There’s always a newness, even to familiar shapes,” White said. “In six months, I might not recognize the pots I have now.”

Roots of a career

Tom White’s passion for art began when he was attending Monmouth University in Long Branch, N.J., for an unrelated major — biology.

“I was always into the natural world. It seemed like a good fit coming out of high school, when you really don’t know what you want to do,” White said, adding that he was considering becoming a veterinarian.

That began to change when White took a summer pottery course.

“I enjoyed it so much, and I was immediately good at it,” White said. “I found myself continuously cutting other classes to go to the studio.”

By the end of his junior year, he had become a fine arts major. White’s love for art could be seen through his grades. After finishing his last biology class, he had a grade point average of 2.8; by the end of his college career, in 1975, and after taking two years of art classes, it was a 3.9.

“I immediately opened a studio upon my graduation,” White said. A native of Belmar, N.J., White stayed in his home state for five years.

After meeting people from Massachusetts at craft shows, White knew he wanted to move. Northfield — it wasn’t too rural, nor was it too crowded — had agreeable seasons and featured local residents with an appreciation for art.

“There was a lot of support for handmade things in New England,” White said. “People in New Jersey, you say you’re a potter and they ask ‘What do you do?’”

“(In Massachusetts) they appreciate handmade things,” White continued. “They know what goes into it.”

So, 36 years ago, White purchased a plot of land in Massachusetts and built himself a potter’s palace, complete with three separate sheds: one to house his two kilns, another for his studio and a third for a gallery of finished products.

White makes an eclectic variety of items that are all fully functional: pots, bowls, mugs, flasks, shot glasses, large stadium bowls made for serving, chop stick holders, platters, teapots and more. Art enthusiasts can purchase White’s work for $25 for small items like shot glasses, to $250 for large serving platters. All items, remarkably, are dishwasher and microwave safe.

The usefulness and beauty of White’s pieces has attracted attention not only from customers, but from Foodies of New England, a food magazine out of Sturbridge.

White accepts custom orders from clients. For example, he made a 10-place dinner setting for a New Hampshire wedding and makes custom flasks for a motorcycle club in Vermont.

After a representative from the magazine spotted his work at an art show, Elaine Pusateri Cowan, a professional chef and owner of The UXLocale, a restaurant in Uxbridge, came to White’s gallery. Pusateri Cowan cooked asparagus puttanesca in the gallery, and one of White’s pots was featured on the cover of the winter 2015 edition.

Where to find White’s pottery

To sell his work, White regularly attends craft shows across the country. He has been invited to the Worcester Center for Crafts’ Pottery Invitational (www.worcester.edu/Pottery-Invitational) “a handful of times,” which White said is an honor as “only 20 nationally recognized potters who come with somewhat of a following” are allowed to attend each year.

After shows in Baltimore and Philadelphia, where 500 or 600 craftsmen attend, White said he becomes nearly overwhelmed with orders.

“You go down there and book almost a year’s worth of work,” White said.

White has regularly been involved in the annual Asparagus Valley Pottery Trail (www.asparagusvalleypotterytrail.com), a self-guided driving tour of clay studios in western Massachusetts that has been held each spring for 12 years.

Just before Christmas, White holds an open house and holiday sale at his studio that he said is well attended by community members. This year’s event, which is the 36th annual, is scheduled for Dec. 10 and 11.

White said that seeing others appreciate his work is one of the most rewarding parts of being a potter.

“I like the enjoyment that other people get out of it,” he said. “At a craft fair the other day, somebody came up to me and told me they have popcorn in my bowl every night … That kind of keeps you going.”

Even after 41 years, White continues to be inspired to create entirely new works of art.

“My work everyday inspires me for the next day,” he said. “It’s a progression. Your inspiration quite often comes from yourself. It’s the best kind.”

White also sells his work throughout the year at The Artisan Gallery in Northampton, three League of New Hampshire Craftsmen galleries in Meredith, Littleton and Nashua, and Salmon Falls Gallery in Shelburne Falls.

From pottery wheel to gallery

White spends long hours in his studio, one of the three wooden sheds alongside his gravel driveway. Underneath wooden beams and soft light, White starts by kneading or wedging the clay, a process that he says removes any air bubbles and foreign objects like stones.

Next, White plops the mound of soft clay onto his pottery wheel and molds the clay into a creation, kicking the bottom of the wheel with his foot regularly to keep it spinning.

“Once centered, I pull the walls up to make the bowl,” he explained.

While the clay is still moist, White uses tools to decorate a piece with texture. Then, the pieces go into the kiln in another of White’s sheds.

White has two kilns: a salted kiln and a gas-reduction kiln. He explained that a salted kiln is so named because when it reaches 200 degrees Fahrenheit, he adds in a ladle of salt, which turns to steam and coats the pots with a clear glaze. A gas-reduction kiln, he said, by contrast, produces more colorful pots.

Both kilns reach 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit and hold 150 pieces each. Finished stoneware will have spent 14 hours in a kiln.

For many of White’s pieces, he removes them from the kiln, glazes them and then fires them in the kiln a second time. He said the kilns produce vitreous, durable pots.

However, glazing is not as simple as it might sound. White said there are hundreds of ways to glaze pots, and he has dabbled in hundreds of ways, himself.

“You’ve gotta run the full gamut,” he said. “I was lucky to have a science background. Glaze chemistry made a little more sense to me.”

Some of the common types of glaze are matte glazes, which have more clay; gloss glazes, which have more silica; and satin glazes, which are in between matte and gloss. White said feldspar is the main ingredient in many glazes.

He also sometimes adds ash to his glazes, which makes for a rougher surface. Or, he can always use the salted kiln to apply a glaze.

White’s studio features shelf after shelf of pieces that are works in progress, waiting to go to the kiln. After they are complete, they fill the adjacent gallery with dazzling colors and are illuminated by soft rays of light that shine in through the windows.

White said that of all his pieces, teapots provide him with the greatest challenge, but also the greatest enjoyment when he creates a satisfactory piece.

“There’s so many parts that have to relate and come together to make a successful piece,” White said.

Passing on his gift

Over the years, White has taken on a handful of young apprentices, many of whom have gone on to lead successful careers as potters in their own right.

Karen Downing met White at the American Craft Council Show in Baltimore, Md., in 1983. She had been learning the basics of pottery in Washington, D.C., under the tutelage of potter Jill Hinckley, and felt it was time to see what else she could learn from other artists.

“I talked to several potters, but Tom’s work most embodied the things I was interested in,” she said.

Downing said there was “a rigour and precision and thoroughness in Tom’s work” that she admired and that has continued to exert a huge influence on her art today. After visiting White’s studio, it was decided that she would become his apprentice for the next year.

“It was such an invaluable time — full of learning, full of pots, full of living a potter’s life, full of fun,” Downing said. “My time at Tom’s gave me a complete grounding in the potter’s life, in how a studio functioned; in thinking about a coherent body of work; in the technical aspects of clay, glaze and firing; in setting up displays and doing shows; in the discipline required to make good pots day after day; and in what it was like to be a potter.”

Yet, one of Downing’s most important lessons from White would seem to be one of the most simple: to clean the studio floor every day.

“Not only is it a matter of health and safety, it also sets the tone for everything that happens in the studio, and underlines the fact that every single step in the long process of making a pot is important,” Downing said.

More than 30 years after her apprenticeship with White, Downing (www.karendowning.co) is a professional potter working in the Breckland District of Norfolk, England. Downing said White’s teachings have always stuck with her and influenced her work.

“I still use what Tom taught me,” she said. “I often hear his voice in my ear, and I think of him everyday as I mop the studio floor.”

Another of White’s apprentices, Daniel Bellow, was first introduced to White’s pottery when he was in high school in the 1980s. Fascinated by White’s expertise and how he could “spin beauty out of nothingness,” Bellow eagerly apprenticed with White following his junior year in college.

“He taught me how a production studio worked, how to get a pot right the first time so you handled it as little as possible, to keep everything organized like a little factory,” Bellow said.

Bellow said that more than 30 years later, he still uses the same utensils that White showed him how to use in making his own pots for Daniel Bellow Porcelain (www.danielbellow.com/index.php), his business in Great Barrington. Yet, Bellow said, their two styles may never be exactly the same.

“I still wish I could make pots like Tom White,” Bellow said. “When I look at my own pots at the kiln unloading, that’s the standard by which I judge them. It sends me back to work every time.”

To learn more about Tom White and his art, visit: www.tomwhitepottery.com




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