Pottery — hand-shaped dishes, pots, pans, baubles and so much more — created, often with an individual artistic flair from moist clay and fired by heat, is an art form as old as man himself.
Actually, an old Spanish saying reportedly seen in potters’ studios throughout Spain says, “God made the first pot and it was a man.” Perhaps this is the reason potters seem to be inexplicably drawn and bound to this hands-on “old-as-dirt” art form with such passion and love.
Chuck Wagoner and wife, Sue Badertscher Wagoner, are celebrating 30 years of creating such pottery in Parke County this year. They established their pottery at Billie Creek Village near Rockville in 1982, but Chuck’s desire to work with clay stems way back to childhood when he discovered “the magical material” in a creek bed at his grandmother’s farm.
“I would have to say that the reason I still work with clay is the same reason I first started. It’s fun to make things out of it.” He says this magical material is “immediately responsive” and easy to be spontaneous with. “I’m still crazy about clay after all these years!” he added.
Chuck said his first experiences with clay were at his grandmother’s farm where Deer Creek provided a plentiful supply of a yellow-red surface clay that Indiana is famous for.
“I liked to make little clay animals and little pots and plates and carve imaginary Indian settlements into the banks of the creek,” he said.
Although Sue’s passion for working with clay wasn’t born as early as Chuck’s, soon after being introduced to pottery upon meeting Chuck, she became as enamored as he was with the art form. Today, Chuck stresses, not one thing is made that they both haven’t had a hand in creating.
“She’s an equal half of the pottery,” he said. “We consider ourselves a ‘mom and pop’ industry and there’s nothing we didn’t both work on.” Chuck went on to say that they work together on every aspect of the production and each can do any of the steps of the process.
As a child, Sue loved to draw and paint but said she really found her niche when she signed up for John Laska’s summer art classes at Indiana State University’s Laboratory school. Following graduation from “Lab” school, she took many more art classes from Laska, learning to draw and paint realistic stilllifes and portraits. She enrolled at Herron Art School to study art after graduating from Lab school and went on to win many awards over the years for her paintings and drawings. Working with clay, she became well known for her miniature pottery made on the potter’s wheel. Her work can be found in prestigious collections throughout the country.
Sue also specializes in many other items such as toothbrush holders, candle cut out pots and animals that are made from wheel-thrown forms and then transformed into cats, pigs and other whimsical creatures.
Her favorite pieces are those useable ones. “I love it that you can eat from them — that they are actually functional and don’t sit around and collect dust,” she said.
Pottery for the past 30 years has been special work she said, in that it is something she and Chuck can do together. “That is so special,” she said.
Chuck made his first pottery on the wheel when he was in a high school art class in 1974. That was when he became friends with well-known potters Richard and Marj Peeler, who became his mentors. Richard was a long-time professor at DePauw University, and his and wife Marj’s pottery, created at their studio in southern Putnam County, is now found in collections throughout the world.
After graduating from high school, Chuck continued on to Ball State University to study art and work on an art education degree. After one year he transferred to the University of Wisconsin to study salt-glazing firing techniques, which were later used on their imitation turn-of-the century pottery at Billie Creek Village.
Following Ball State, Chuck moved to Bloomington where he worked at the Bloomington Pottery Co. making functional pottery that was shipped all over the United States. It was here he learned to make “production pottery.” He said it was not unusual for potters there to make 100 or more pots a day. One technique he really excelled at was making handles by “pulling them” out of a soft piece of clay into long, graceful forms that lead to the handles that they now use for their pottery and for which they have become known for.
He later moved to Terre Haute and studied ceramics at ISU where he met his future wife, Sue. ISU had one of the strongest ceramics programs in the U.S., Chuck said. It was headed up by a local teacher and artist, Dick Hay. Some of the most important classes he took were with Hay, he said.
Chuck and Sue were married in 1981 and began demonstrating and selling at Billie Creek in 1982 where Wagoner Pottery was a staple for 30 years. When the village recently closed, the owner of the Mill at Bridgeton, Mike Roe, gave the Wagoners a new home to demonstrate pottery and to sell their wares.
“I love making pottery while watching the water go over the Mill dam, and Sue and I feel very strongly about providing demonstrations of pottery on the wheel. It is important for young and old alike to be able to see how it is done. It is part of Indiana history and a big part of human history,” Chuck said.
“We are proud to be a part of the arts and crafts heritage of Parke County,” Chuck said of their 30 years crafting wares. Besides being an integral part of the arts and crafts community, Chuck teaches art at North Vermillion High School and Sue works for the Rockville Community School Corp.
They both give credit to parents, especially their mothers, for encouraging their pottery efforts when many said it was not a viable business. “My mother encouraged me to take classes and pursue my interest in pottery,” Chuck said. “I’m especially grateful that she supported me and that Sue’s mother supported her all along the way. That went a long way in us reaching our 30-year celebration.”
At this point the Wagoners are working out of their home studio where they create functional high-fire stoneware for oven, microwave and dishwasher use. Their pottery ranges in price from $3 to $35.
They make their own glazes and fire all the pottery to 2,300 degrees. They use a clay that is consistent so they can count on it to work for everyday use.
“We like to say our motto is ‘Made to be used,’” Chuck said.
Besides being available at Bridgeton Mill, you can find Wagoner pottery for sale at Neva’s giftshop on the north side of the Rockville square, Arts Illiana in Terre Haute, The Putnam County Museum in Greencastle and the Turkey Run State Park gift shop.
Check out their website at www.wagonerpottery.com. The Wagoners have plans to begin selling their wares online in 2013. They also have made the Peeler Ceramic Art Film series available on their web page and also on YouTube, www.youtube.com/user/WagonerPottery. These 16 mm films were the most used ceramic educational films for many years, according to Chuck.
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