Clay pottery exhibit on display at Salmon Falls Gallery

  • “All Roads” by Larry W. Elardo, white stoneware cone 5 with oxide, glaze and copper foil. Contributed photo/Salmon Falls Gallery

  • A sculpture by Lulu Fichter. Contributed photo/Salmon Falls Gallery

  • A sculpture by Boyan Moskov. Contributed photo/Salmon Falls Gallery

  • A sculpture by Sarah Burns. Contributed photo/Salmon Falls Gallery

  • "Wave Form" by David Ernster, stoneware and glaze, 2019. Contributed photo

Staff Writer
Published: 4/29/2021 9:52:54 AM

The line between pottery made for the cupboard and pieces made as a form of self-expression is hard to define. It’s a tension New Hampshire potter David Ernster thinks about often, and one that serves as a foundation for a ceramics exhibit opening Friday at Salmon Falls Gallery in Shelburne Falls titled “David Ernster Curates Clay.”

“As potters, we struggle with this — being pigeonholed (as a craft),” said Ernster, curator of the exhibit. “There’s a line between craft and art that people want to make. … That’s a very fluid thing because we all have a different vocabulary with the medium.”

That line falls at different places for different artists. And according to Ernster, it’s drawn when the artist begins “to use the vocabulary of the medium and the process to express more original thoughts and ideas.”

To that end, along with a few selections by Ernster, the exhibit features the work of 10 New England potters: David Orser; Steven Procter; Don Williams; Andy Hampton; Larry Elardo; Boyan Moskov, who focuses on experimental sculptural pieces; Lulu Fichter, who works in porcelain; Sarah Burns, who uses a wood kiln to fire her work; Northfield potter Tom White; and Laurel MacDuffie, who describes her artistic process as “feeling around in the dark. My experience is of facilitating the emergence into form of a being that already exists.”

According to a press statement, the clay exhibit is part of a larger art initiative from the gallery featuring exhibits curated by past and present featured artists. Ernster’s curated exhibit is the first.

“I just love his work,” said Donna Gates, the gallery’s director, noting the curation is “really a fine eclectic, but you can tell that there’s continuity. His eye is taking you through pieces he really loves.”

Among those pieces on display is “All Roads” by Elardo, a white stoneware piece featuring oxidized organic-looking lines like a maze within which there’s a glazed vase. Another, titled “Wave Form” by Ernster, is a rectangular ribbed piece reminiscent of waves onto the shore. Ernster noted a number of larger pieces by Duffy as being exemplary of ceramics molded as a form of art.

“They’re the large, abstract pieces of clay that really talk about the nature of the material, the nature of the process,” Ernster said. “It has to do with form, but it’s entirely focused on process and material.”

For Ernster, who holds a bachelor’s degree in metalsmithing from the University of Iowa and a master’s degree in ceramics from West Virginia University, the exhibit explores a subject he’s been considering for his entire career. He grew up in Iowa on the Mississippi River, an experience that’s influenced his work over the past few decades. Many of his pieces are a study of how a “material moves and is shaped,” Ernster explained — like the way a fish moves underwater, a bird flies through the air or “like seeds under the ground and how they move to get to the surface.”

In both an abstract and a physical sense, form follows function, he said.

“Functional ceramics is something that I think all of us as potters have a real deep appreciation for,” Ernster said. A viewer might consider a ceramic piece hanging on the wall or resting on a pedestal to be art. But there’s “an entirely different relationship” with a cup or a bowl.

There’s a certain intimacy that’s held in functional ceramic art. For example, Gates described her cupboard as “full of mismatched beautiful pieces of pottery. In the morning, I think, ‘Do I want to have my tea with a Frank Edge, or a Molly Cantor?”

In her work at the gallery and as an art teacher, Gates, who founded and directed Mudpie Potters at Leverett Craft and Arts, noted she’s seen a similar theme represented in the work of many potters: “I’ve read so many statements by clay artists over the years — hundreds,” she said. “The idea that they love making something beautiful that someone else is going to have in their everyday life.”

Ernster described this intimacy as “accessibility,” as it allows people who otherwise might not notice a ceramic piece hanging on the wall to appreciate art in a unique way. “In this show, people are taking that idea of function and moving that context into their own form of function,” he said.

Practically, the exhibit represents a reemergence for Salmon Falls Gallery, which is owned by local glass artist Josh Simpson. Like every other arts organization, Gates said the gallery retreated online because of COVID-19. It’s been a challenging year.

“It’s just been so crazy. You can’t count on anything. Nothing. We were lucky to get one of those loans to keep our salaries in place in the beginning. We took that time when the doors were closed to really focus on the online store, and that’s been working. This gallery has been here since 1985, so we really have this long history of being a brick-and-mortar place to see local artists. That was a weird shift to make,” Gates said, noting, “It’s so hard to represent art in the virtual world.”

“David Ernster Curates Clay” can be seen through June 27 at Salmon Falls Gallery in Shelburne Falls. The gallery is open Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays and Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. and virtually in the gallery’s online store at any time. A full list of the participating artists can be viewed at For more information, go to or call the gallery at 413-625-9833.

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