Local clay artists strike out independently
Art's Corner by Miriam Pickens
Strolling down 5th Street in Calumet, I looked in the window of the store where Rowe Furniture used to be, on the east side of the 200 block, and I recognized the iconic works of local ceramicist Bill Thompson. He was a fellow classmate of mine when I took pottery classes at Finlandia, who would create small white clay vessels, color them completely, and then carve intricate patterns into their entire surface, creating beautiful signature pieces. I was glad to find him again and stopped in to have a chat and learn more about his evolution as a ceramic artist.
Bill grew up in Copper City and graduated from Calumet High School in 1998. Honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 2002, he worked for a while as direct care staff for Copper Country Mental Health. Inspired to become a nurse, he pursued his degree at Finlandia. He switched majors to Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA) and graduated in 2007. After several years working as a PTA, Bill decided that his real calling was art; he could work independently and do what he loved. Kenyon Hansen and Denise Vandeville were Bill’s pottery instructors at Finlandia. Upon receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, Bill did an internship at the Calumet Art Center, but when COVID-19 hit and it was essentially shut down for a while, he decided to open Copper Island Clayworks. He’s also had a solo show at the Copper Country Community Arts Center, and is currently selling wares at the CCCAC, the Calumet Art Center, Denali’s, and Candi’s Corner Café.
The highlight though, of Bill’s training, was in about 2017 when Kenyon brought him along to the Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, as his assistant; mixing glazes, dispersing clay to students, and helping in general while Kenyon was teaching. Getting to be in that space, seeing all of their different aesthetics, techniques, and styles, was really important for Bill. The best part though was the “boneyard”, which was a massive collection of unglazed pottery from students and professionals who had been at the school over the years.
“So there was a plethora of examples of pitchers, mugs, handle attachments, bowls, and shapes…it was like a living encyclopedia of problem-solving solutions”.
Looking at these forms gave Bill a chance to explore different shapes, to find examples similar to ones he enjoyed making, and to see how different artists may have attached a handle or a spout. At the end of the class, everyone shared their social media connections on the chalkboard, and Bill made some good friends in the pottery world beyond the Copper Country.
Bill often starts the day throwing small pots, and there are many small intricate pieces in his gallery. But it’s nice, he said, to regularly work some big pieces that take the larger muscles and also provide a larger canvas for the carving. It’s interesting to note that whereas there is a technique called sgraffito, which is basically scraping off the surface color to reveal the clay color beneath, Bill actually uses more of a carving technique which creates a textural component as the color is removed. It’s pleasing to feel the design as well as seeing it, when you hold, for example, a bowl of soup in your hand. Most of the colors come from commercially available underglazes, but Bill also creates slips and terra sigillata from local clays, two forms of surface treatments to create a contrasting color; usually a chocolate brown with tinges of black or gold, depending on the source.
One of the best things, Bill said about being an artist, is that he can choose what he does depending on how he’s feeling, keeping in mind that the variety of shapes, colors, and sizes does give a pleasing aesthetic to his displays. Another great thing is being able to share his craft with his two children. Bill’s eight-year-old son is already throwing pots on the wheel. Bill’s daughter, 12, does sketching as well as acrylic painting. Bill’s wife Sherri, owner of LunaMeraki Studio, is a published mixed media artist and instructor whose main focus is polymer clays. She was first introduced to this interesting medium playing with Sculpey with their daughter, and now Sherri is on the Sculpey Design Team. Bill and Sherri have collaborated on projects, and you can see her polymer clay jewelry and other works such as boxes and pictures at Copper Island Clayworks as well. Whereas Bill’s work is generally monochromatic on the white background, Sherri’s is extremely colorful with beautiful designs and textures.
Bill has done really well in this location in Calumet. He has participated in the Poor Artist’s Sale all the way through college and beyond, and will probably be there this December, but he’s considering just opening his doors to the studio on 5th street. His big project is developing a teaching studio. He has purchased three new wheels plus two second-hand ones for students, as well as a slab roller. Keep an eye open for upcoming classes in the next few months. For more information about Bill’s work, check out his website at copperislandclayworks.com.
Also, check out the new workshops and classes being offered at the Finnish American Folk School. Kay Seppala will be teaching a five-string kantele class, and Clare Zuraw will teach a jouhikko class via Zoom. These traditional Finnish instruments are available for students to use at the Finnish American Heritage Center in Hancock. Local instrument maker Alice Margerum has a few handmade ones available for rent.