Dickinson pottery artist finds inspiration in working with clay
Eleanor Brown’s house along Dickinson Bayou, built in the 1930s, is quaint, historical and charming. But it’s the art studio out back where Brown spends most of her time, firing up one of her four kilns and removing clay that will become stepping-stones, bird feeders, ceramic flowers, jewelry, bowls, vases and more.
Her studio, Bayou Pottery, contains a multitude of pieces in various stages waiting to become finished products. Shelves upon shelves showcase items that have been completed and glazed to perfection.
“There’s a lot of freedom when you work with clay because it’s very forgiving,” Brown said. “It’s not super expensive like watercolor paper and you can mess up easily. Also, before the clay is fired, if you have any problems with it, you can just let it dry, pulverize and use it again.”
Brown lately is assembling tiles for stepping-stones, getting them ready for the next step.
“So, I’ll apply tile adhesive on the stone and lay my mosaic tiles on top, and let everything dry overnight,” she said. “The next day, I’ll apply grout, let it set up, then wipe it off until everything is nice and smooth. After it’s dried, they’re finished, and they’ll hold up for years. I have some outside that are 20 years old.”
The mosaic tiles didn’t just magically appear. They had their own journey, she said.
“There are different kinds of mosaic — some made of glass and some of tile,” Brown said. “A lot of people will make tile and break it up with a hammer, but I prefer using cookie cutters to make my designs out of a flat slab of clay. After firing the pieces in the kiln, I apply three coats of glaze and fire again.”
Brown’s handiwork includes ceramic bracelets, earrings, coffee cups, wall pockets, cake platters, garden flowers, Stations of the Cross, and plaques with various designs.
“I make linoleum carvings for some things,” she said. “That way, if something breaks, I don’t have to carve anything over.”
When it comes to pottery terminology, Brown knows that many people get confused when it comes to things made of clay, she said.
“Pottery is just one part of ceramics — earthenware, stoneware and mosaics are all clay-based,” she said. “It all has to do with the temperature something was fired at. For instance, you wouldn’t want to use unglazed terra-cotta as a dinner plate due to water absorption. You would want to do mid-range firing that turns rock hard, which is a type of stoneware. There are so many facets to clay and a myriad of things you can do with it.”
The ceramic flowers that stand out in Brown’s garden in front of her house were made by “handbuilding,” another ceramic term.
“Handbuilding is when you are using more slabs of clay and you’re forming that into something like these flowers,” she said. “You’re not using a wheel; you’re just cutting things into sections and putting them together. I won a national award for a functional teapot depicting a heron in his surroundings using handbuilding and it was quite a challenge.”
So, when we think of pottery, most of us think of potters who sit at a wheel and make bowls, right?
“Well, yes,” Brown said. “I have several wheels, but I feel most comfortable working in clay organically. I’ve been to Taos, New Mexico, where a Native American teacher took us into the woods where we dug for clay and had to work to get the rocks out and add water before we could proceed.”
Brown taught art for 37 years and has been a member of Saltgrass Potters in League City since 1990. She has studied the works of many potters during her career, but the one who stands out the most is Maria Martinez, who was of Tewa heritage of the San Ildefonso Pueblo in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Martinez, who died in 1980, became world-renowned for her black-on-black pottery.
“She was from a small pueblo in New Mexico, and her work can be found in many museums,” Brown said. “She was known for the art of making black pottery and she did that by smothering a cool fire with dried cow manure trapping the smoke. So, when I was teaching at the junior high in Santa Fe, Texas, I had a student who watched the video about Martinez and decided he would copy her. He went into his backyard, dug up some clay, made a small pot and used Martinez’s method of firing. When he showed it to me, I was thrilled, because I had a student who did something out of the box.”