Connie Norman
Connie Norman

Nancy Utterback – Plinth Gallery Artist Interview

Today’s interview is with Nancy Utterback, she is the director of the Boulder Pottery and is instrumental in bringing Flashpoint – An International Wood fire Exhibition to Plinth Gallery.  It’s been a pleasure getting to know Nancy via electronic communication.  She seems to be the “Flashpoint” for ceramic community in Boulder, Colorado.  I know in the very near future I will be taking a road trip to the Boulder Pottery Lab.  Enjoy the interview!

To learn more about Nancy visit her website and the Boulder Pottery Lab click here.

To learn more about Plinth Gallery click here.

“Plinth Gallery and The Boulder Pottery Lab present, Flashpoint-An International Wood Fire Exhibition”, a two-month juried show of wood-fired ceramics. Juror John Balistreri, Professor of Ceramics at Bowling Green University in Bowling Green, OH, has selected an exemplary collection of 50 pieces for this exhibition. The works for this show demonstrate a diversity of style by contemporary ceramic artists who continue to use this ancient tradition of firing with wood.” – Jonathan Kaplan – Plinth Gallery

Flashpoint opens First Friday, October 5th 2012, from 5pm-10pm with an artist reception and awards ceremony. A special wood kiln demonstration, construction, and firing, is scheduled for November 2nd and 3rd at Plinth Gallery, to coincide with Denver Arts Week.

Plinth Gallery 3520 Brighton Blvd Denver CO

Tell us a little about yourself!

I am a Colorado native. I grew up in and around Boulder, I went to school in Boulder and I have worked at the Boulder Pottery Lab since 1991. I always knew I was an artist. I started out studying painting and printmaking, first at DU and then at CU, but it was love at first touch with clay. I have never looked back. Today, after more than 30 years in clay I still can’t wait to get to the studio. I have a full time job running a teaching facility and teaching classes and I work 20 or 30 hours a week in my own studio.

It may sound like I don’t have a life beyond working in clay, but I do. I am married and have a wonderful dog name Word who is a year and a half old. My days are filled with hikes in the mountains, walking with Word in the park, drawing, making pots, firing and spending time with great friends.

I’m active in my community. I sit on the board of Studio Arts Boulder, run the Boulder Wood Fire group and wood fire research project and I teach pottery to people with mild traumatic brain injuries.   

How were you instrumental in bringing Flash Point: An International Wood Fire Exhibition to Plinth Gallery?

I started the Boulder Wood Fire Group in 2006 to help me conduct the Wood Fire emissions research project. Last year I was contacted about a wood firer, Hiroshi Ogawa in Oregon. He was celebrating his 50th year in clay and was thinking about an exhibition that would tour the country. I contacted Jonathan at Plinth and asked about doing a show. Hiroshi didn’t end up having a touring exhibition but that idea planted the seed for the show and Jonathan was generous enough to let me be involved in the Flash Point exhibition.

I love the communal sharing of the wood firing, and it sounds like you have created quite the community of wood fire potters in Boulder, will you tell us the story how all this came about.

I was doing a lot of the American Craft shows around the country including Baltimore and San Francisco. I found myself interested in all the wood fired work I was seeing. After attending a NCECA conference I became determined to learn more about wood firing.

Hiroshi Ogawa was having community firings at his studio in Elkton Oregon. He watched me as I circled his booth at every show and eventually we started talking. He invited me to come to Oregon to fire. I set out with the idea of changing the surface of my work, working on larger forms and learning more about the firing process. I packed up the van and headed to Oregon in March of 1996.

It took us 3 days to load the kiln. Working side by side with potters from all over the country I began to realize how little I knew. We were looking at the work in a new way, but we were really beginning to give ourselves up to the idea of collaborating with fire in a process that had consumed most of us for decades.

I started out thinking I would learn a new way to reach for personal expression. I fantasized I would add another tool to my tool belt. While I always realized that working in clay is a kind of meditation, a prayer of sorts, I never really understood the Zen of clay until that very first wood firing. By the time we had loaded the kiln, my world had expanded and I was no longer just interested in my work, I was obsessed with the entire 400 cubic feet of work. Every pot in the kiln was important to me and I knew that I would be connected to each potter in the firing crew for the rest of my life.

A wood fired kiln is quiet. You may have a crew of 8, 10 or 12 potters working at once. Each potter stoking in a rhythm, working as one for the crew leader. I had to dig down deep to keep up my energy and to understand the kiln, every move we made seemed counter intuitive. I began to understand that clay had always been my teacher and now the wood kiln was taking my education to a new and profound level.

I fired in Oregon for about 6 years, each year learning more. I began to think about building a kiln in Boulder where my students and colleagues could share a similar experience. I finally decided to propose building a wood fire kiln to the City of Boulder. I was required to get a permit and when I went into apply for the permit I was told that they would not allow a wood kiln in Boulder. I started to leave but I turned around and asked “why”? The guy behind the desk stood still for a moment and then said he didn’t know.

After returning to the lab I decided to try and find out why the planning department didn’t want us to fire with wood. I sent out a request for help to the combustion-engineering department at CU and immediately heard back from Michael Hannigan. He was a combustion engineer and he was willing to help me. We decided to do a wood kiln emissions research project.

We got permission to build two kilns and do the research project for the next 3 years.  I worked with Michael Hannigan and John Zhai from CU and we teamed up with Jeff Sorkin from the US Forestry department. You can read all about the research in Studio Potter Magazine.

What other clay artist influenced you if any and why?

As a self-taught potter it is difficult to identify influence. I think that everything we see, hear, feel influences the work we make. Every potter I have had the opportunity to watch work has left a mark on me. From Hamada to Cardew,  Picasso to Ruth Duckworth , Lucy Rie and Hans Coper to contemporary potters like Michael Simon, Jeff Oestreich, Ron Myers, David Shaner, Don Reitz, Betty Woodman—the list goes on.

Tell us about the history of the Boulder Pottery Lab.

The Pottery Lab was started in 1954 and in 1956 Betty Woodman convinced the City of Boulder to move it into the old fire station #2 at 1010 Aurora. Betty set up an educational program for students as young as 4 and as old as 94.

Betty had come to Boulder with her husband George who was teaching art at CU. Betty decided to offer classes for spouses of professors and other individuals looking for a challenge. Her program was so well thought out that we continue to run the program in almost the same way. Over the years the program has been run by other well-known potters such as Steve Briggs, Kate Inskeep, David Clinkenbeard and currently myself.

The Lab has a great reputation as a teaching facility; we have 20 wheels, 5 electric kilns, 3 gas kilns and a Raku kiln. We have 2 extruders, slab roller and a pug mill. In 2006 we built an Anagama wood kiln and in 2009 we built a Bourry box kiln. The program continues to thrive. There are 140 adults and 110 children that go through the program every 9 weeks. Many potters in the area took classes at the lab and many have returned to teach at the lab.

What is most inspirational to you?

Clay. When I see, smell or touch clay, my heart opens. Music, nature, color and laughter all enter the studio and keep me going, but it is truly clay itself, the way it moves, breaths, changes and teaches that inspires me.

Has a significant personal experience shaped your work?

I come from a fairly large family. Privacy was non-existent. I began keeping a journal when I was very young. Writing helped me find out who I was and helped me get away from the chaos. My work still integrates my journal entries with my clay forms and I experience the same kind of relief from the pressures of the world. Love, loss, happiness and despair all find their way onto my pieces sometimes through a drawing and sometimes just written between the lines.

What techniques do you usually work with and what is your favorite tool?

I am a thrower and a hand-builder. I throw and alter my forms and for more extreme or precise forms I turn to hand building. I build surfaces with slips, glazes, washes, and stains. My pieces are fired in atmospheric kilns using salt, soda and/or wood ash.

My favorite tool in my first treadle wheel. It came to me magically and changed the way I work.

You are mostly creating pottery pieces. How would you explain your attraction for functional ceramics?

We sometimes think that our lives are made up of extraordinary experiences. Our visit to the art museum or a once in a life time trip to Paris. But for me, the most sacred moments are ordinary. The sharing of a good meal with someone you love, an intimate conversation over a cup of tea, the washing of dishes at the end of the party standing side by side with your best friend. These are the moments I treasure and these are the moments I celebrate with functional pots.

What do you love most about your studio?

Privacy. I am by nature an introvert. I love walking those 10 feet from my back door to my studio and sinking into that sacred creative space that brings out the best in me.


What advice can you give aspiring artists struggling to find their own voice and look?

Make pots. Make lots of pots. Our voice comes with experience and confidence. Be honest, tell the truth, the whole truth in your work.

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2 Responses to “Nancy Utterback – Plinth Gallery Artist Interview”

  1. ang Says:

    thanks connie you have the best interviews!! my friend has just made a bourry box kiln a soon I would hope to be getting a pot or two in there… so excited about the process after seeing some sparks from the wood in and exhibition just this wkd at the subversive clay conference

  2. Connie Says:

    Hi Ang
    I’m so lucky that people want to do the interviews! Nancy work is awesome! I want to go to a subversive clay conference!!

    I’m going to Aussie land Christmas 2013! I don’t know where we ging yet. Maybe our paths will cross!