Creating beauty out of clay
By Kerigan Butt
Emily Greenplate has been making pottery for the last eight years.
By Steven Hoffman
Emily Greenplate measures her growth as a ceramic artist by the pitchers that she creates out of clay. Pitchers aren’t her favorite things to make -- that would probably be bowls or cups -- but the pitchers are more difficult and they mark her developing talent as an artist. She has made more than 100 pitchers in her Landenberg studio during her eight years of creating stoneware pottery.
Greenplate, 22, grew up experimenting with all kinds of art -- charcoal drawings, pencil drawings, watercolor, acrylic and oil painting -- but when she began making pottery at the age of 13, she knew it was where she would focus most of her artistic energies.
“I love the ability that pottery gives me to create something unique and artistic, but to have it be useful as well,” Greenplate explained.
Today, she is a junior at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., where she is pursuing a fine arts degree. She’s also an entrepreneur, operating Dragonfly Pottery out of her home. She has already experienced firsthand the challenges that working artists face when trying to sell their work. She attends craft fairs and has built up a customer base over the years. She will also be opening up her studio for a sale that will take place on Black Friday.
Her mother, Cindy, recalled that Emily had a natural gift when it came to pottery, and the family isn’t surprised that she has developed into a successful artist at a young age.
Cindy had made ceramics herself and was able to teach her daughter the basics.
“She started making things that were much more beautiful than I ever could,” Cindy said. “She immediately took off.”
The family purchased a pottery wheel for Emily to use. She initially used a family friend’s kiln, but that arrangement didn’t last long as the family wanted to encourage her artistic endeavor.
Cindy explained, “She was so good. We knew that she would do something with it, so we decided to get her a kiln of her own. We saw it as an investment in her future.”
Having an electric kiln that fires to 2200 degrees Fahrenheit gave Greenplate better control over the temperatures, which is important. She also found a mentor who would help develop her skills.
“Pottery is very forgiving -- and you can add or subtract from it,” she said. “I took lessons for a few years from Paul Romanick, of Romanick Pottery. He and his wife have a studio. You can see his influence on my work. A lot of the glaze techniques I use are his.”
It takes Greenplate about half an hour to throw clay on the wheel, then she has to fire the piece, glaze it, and fire it again -- a total of two or three hours of work per piece.
When Greenplate first began learning the techniques of making pottery, the resulting creations often found their way into the homes of family and friends. If you’re fortunate enough to find yourself on Greenplate’s Christmas list, there’s a good chance that you already own at least several pieces of her pottery. She loves to create personal gifts for friends and loved ones.
“People who are close to me already have pieces of my pottery,” she said with a laugh.
She improved through lots of practice. She would make mugs and bowls over and over again, experimenting with how she could vary the results.
“I really like making bowls,” she said. “The shape of a bowl comes more naturally than something that is vertical.” Candleholders are also favorites. And mugs are always in demand.
Her mother, naturally, is the biggest fan of her work.
“My kitchen is filled with her stuff,” Cindy said, explaining that her favorite work might be a brown serving tray and bowl that she keeps on prominent display. “It’s beautiful art, but it’s also functional,” Cindy said. “And I love beautiful things in my kitchen.”
By the age of 16, Greenplate felt comfortable enough with her work to start taking it to craft fairs to sell. “Each summer, I do a couple of fairs,” she said.
The lifelong resident of Landenberg grew up enjoying the quiet lifestyle and rural atmosphere of the community, and her upbringing is definitely reflected in her work.
“I grew up here,” she said. “I remember biking to the Landenberg Store to get penny candy.”
When she’s not working on her pottery, Greenplate likes to play Frisbee or experiment with other art forms, including sculptures or doing screen prints.
Her work at Messiah College has encouraged her to branch out and try different techniques. For instance, after she spent a few weeks making 15 ceramic pieces, she took them and fired them in a trashcan with straw, dog food, and sawdust thrown in. This method of firing created a different kind of finished product. She’s also experimenting with her glazes to give her work unique characteristics.
“I want to come up with my own glazes and mix my own recipes,” she said. “I like to make each piece individual.”
Greenplate described her style of pottery as being very precise. “In the pottery world, I’m a tight potter. I try to make the forms exact and precise,” she said. “I’m drawn to pieces that are the same size and the same shape. Not everyone is like that.”
Cindy said she can always pick out her daughter’s pottery, in the same way that she could identify Emily’s handwriting. She still recognizes the influence of Paul Romanick on Emily’s artistic style, but noted that her daughter’s work is evolving.
“Initially, her stuff looked a lot like his,” Cindy said. “But she’s been experimenting and developing her own style. She’s always likes to try fun, interesting things. She certainly loves it and works at it.”
One of the things that Emily really appreciates about college is the opportunity to interact with other artists. She finds the exchange of ideas to be very helpful. She is very pleased to be pursuing a degree in fine arts, because she has talked to many other artists who encouraged her to complete her education before trying to make a living from her artwork.
She has been working to expand the opportunities to sell her pieces. She exhibits at the Newark Arts Alliance gallery and sells mugs for $15 to $18. All her pieces are reasonably priced. With each unique creation that ends up in someone’s home, a few more people find out about her work. “Most of my business is word-of-mouth,” she said.
All of the homemade pottery is safe for the microwave and dishwasher.
Greenplate said she feels prepared for the transition after she graduates from college.
“This is something that I love,” she explained. “No matter what else I’m doing in my life, I can keep doing this. My ideal dream would be to have a studio where artists would have spaces to work on different kinds of functional art pieces.”
In that ideal dream, Greenplate will be working right alongside those other artists, still measuring her progress as an artist by how well the latest pitcher turns out.
Visit dragonflypots.com to learn more about Greenplate’s work and the products that are for sale.
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, e-mail email@example.com.