A New London artist shares her love of pottery with the community
● By Richard Gaw
Brenda Kingham, of New London, with some of her work.
By John Chambless
As a young girl, Brenda Kingham had the many advantages of art schools and plenty of books, but her love of working with clay perhaps began at the beach, where the sand could be molded into almost anything she imagined.
“Mostly I did painting and drawing, but I guess my working with clay came from my many years at the beach,” she said. “You build sand castles, and dig down to the wet sand, let it dribble, and build all these marvelous things. Later, I would watch people work with clay and think, 'Sometime I'm going to do that'. But I never got to do it until I was in my 40s.”
Kingham grew up in the Philadelphia area, but now she lives in New London, where she has a small pottery studio. She spends most of her time sharing her skills with students of all ages in classes held in Delaware. Giving a tour of the large pottery classroom at the Absalom Jones Art Studio in Wilmington, where she has taught for 20 years, Kingham showed several examples of her work.
“I do a lot of these that people recognize,” she said, taking out two unglazed vessels that incorporate graceful geese into their designs. “I used to go hunting with my husband,” she said. “I wouldn't shoot a gun, but I would watch these beautiful birds fly in. They're so graceful, and I thought, 'I could do that in art.'”
Kingham's style is much broader, however, and includes ancient-looking raku vessels and large stoneware pots that have a distinctive, earthy surface texture.
Kingham teaches with a small group of other artists, including Ray Lewis, who has worked with her for the past two decades. “We have all ages. We have people who are 15, up to a couple of 92-year-olds,” Kingham said.
When people learn to work with clay on a wheel, the process involves relaxation and concentration in equal measures. “If you're a type A personality, it might be intimidating,” Kingham said. “It is a learning process. It's muscle-nerve response. You have to relax a little. You can't think of anything else except the clay. You can't think about the report you have to get in or anything else. You have to pay attention to your hands on the clay. Otherwise, you'll rip the clay right off.”
At the studio, Kingham enjoys working with other creative people who learn from each other. Not everyone is a beginner, and established artists have taken classes to stretch their boundaries. Kingham will demonstrate thowing pottery on the wheel so that students can see where they might be going wrong. “There's a lot of creative energy in here,” she said. “You share, and they share. It's like getting a pottery book where you see all different types of pottery. Just sitting at the tables here when it's really busy, you learn from each other.”
Adding to the magic of working with clay is the fact that the glazes don't resemble how they will end up after the pieces are fired. Taking the lid off of a bucket of brown liquid, Kingham said, “This will be a blue glaze after it's fired. That's part of the surprise of it. But you learn.” Artists who want to achieve a specific color, or interplay of colors, have to know what the glazes will eventually look like.
In the case of raku pottery, the pieces are heated until red hot, then put into cans with combustible material so that the smoke makes unique patterns on each piece. The artist doesn't know what they've got until the lid is lifted.
It's the same kind of mystery with the kiln, Kingham said. “It's like Christmas every week,” she said. “I love loading a kiln to fit in as many pieces as I can. Then I just love to take the kiln door off and see what's inside.”
It can take a day to heat a kiln to the proper temperature, and another day for it to cool down enough to see what the results are inside. Sometimes, things go wrong, but it's all part of the learning process.
Kingham, who was widowed some 25 years ago, said pottery “has taken over my life, in a good way. Thank heaven it was there. I've expanded my family with all the potters and other artists. I don't think of it as work. It's something I love, and there's something different every day.”
Kingham said her work is in a few galleries in North and South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey, but she doesn't keep very strict tabs on what's out there. “I'll do a few shows here and there,” she said. “I'm around if they ask.” She doesn't have a presence on the internet, and it just fine with that. Her low-key approach, working one-on-one with students or relying on personal contacts to sell her work, fits with the firmly rooted nature of her work.
Asked to describe how the style of her work has evolved, she thought for a moment and said, “I started out simply, and I guess you're influenced by everybody around you, your style of living. A lot of potters have been told that they have to have a recognizable style. My birds are my recognizable style, but for the rest of my pottery, I try to keep stretching.”
She keeps very few of her own pieces as favorites in her home, but does collect pieces by her students that she enjoys. “My own pieces come and go,” she said. “I love them for a while, but I want to keep moving on.”
After all the years – 30 of them spent working at the Art Studio -- Kingham is still struck by the magic of working in clay. “The marvelous thing about clay is that you just take a lump and you can make magnificent things,” she said. “If you have enough patience.”
Kingham teaches on weekdays at The Art Studio (310 Kiamensi Rd., Wilmington, Del.). Classes are held in a variety of pottery techniques, and the studio also offers classes in other mediums. For more information, or to register, call 302-995-7661 or visit www.nccde.org/artstudio.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.