Subscribe

Clay Into Gold

Dan Cutrona At the sound of the bell jangling against the door, Betsy Powel emerges from the work room of a renovated 1913 schoolhouse in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Sporting a well-worn apron, her cheek is streaked with paint, and a few strands of hair escape from her long braid. She plants her hands on her hips, no time for preamble. “Well, what do you want to know?”

What most visitors to Salt Marsh Pottery want to know is how 65-year-old Betsy makes beautiful pottery. Her bowls and plates are imprinted with delicate flowers and adorned with wisps of baby’s breath and wild grasses; some of the flowers are even plucked right from the workshop’s front porch. The pottery draws inspiration from whimsical forms of sea life, and Betsy’s talents have drawn a devoted following from far and wide. For that, she has her father to thank.

Betsy’s father, Bill Vinton, was raised in a Baptist missionary family and lived in Burma until the age of six. He worked various odd jobs: touring the world as a piano player fundraising for the mission, running a summer camp, and other offbeat tasks. While visiting Fryeburg, Maine, despite his confession that he knew nothing about using clay, he was swayed into teaching a pottery course. He quickly developed a signature technique: by draping clay over well-worn river stones, and then pressing strawberry leaves and wildflowers that he found by the side of the river into it, he made something new. The imprints were then painted, sometimes to match the original stamps and sometimes with free-flowing creativity.

Dan Cutrona Betsy credits her father wholeheartedly with teaching her the craft; she even pays homage by keeping a piece of his work on display in the showroom next to a photo of him. Betsy remembers coming home from school and working in the pottery workshop he owned back in Maine. For every 30 pieces that she finished with sandpaper, her father would reward her with a record soundtrack to a different musical, all of the classics: The Music Man, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma! Her eyes sparkle as she begins humming “Till There Was You,” cutting off just as soon as she gets started.

Ever a family person, Betsy proudly introduces her husband, John, a painter and illustrator whom she met while both were in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. As a young couple, they moved to Massachusetts, starting a new life together and a new business: Salt Marsh Pottery. A quintessential cottage industry, Salt Marsh Pottery started in 1969 with Betsy working solitarily in the corner of their house. From there, the business grew—it grew so large, in fact, that they needed an old firehouse to meet their needs before moving into their current space in 1986.

The intricate detailing of Betsy’s pieces is what makes them unique: their textures are created by hand-pressing flowers into clay. All of them are hand-painted by a team of artists who work in a small but airy space set off from the work room. “They’re the true artists,” Betsy says. “I just make things nowadays.” Inspired by life on Massachusetts’ South Coast, Betsy incorporates different stamps in her work: crabs, fish, even a tiny lobster. She creates molds from her collected treasures, so that they can be used over and over again, and Betsy doesn’t have to worry about hunting down out-of-season flowers for custom commissions.

Dan Cutrona Although all of the gallery work is beautiful, it’s not these items that draw most of her customers: it’s the imprints of baby hands and feet immortalized in clay, a unique and permanent reminder of “just how tiny they used to be”. “It’s our most popular seller,” Betsy says. “I’ve had babies as young as nine days in to do their footprints. Surprisingly, I have yet to find one that we can’t keep still long enough to print.” She seems to have a penchant for preserving the past: brides come in to have their bouquets imprinted on plates, plaques are painted in commemoration of anniversaries, children’s hands—one for each year—are pressed into tiles. Each Christmas, Betsy holds an event for families to come in to her shop and paint tiles in exchange for a $25 donation to the Neediest Family Fund.

Since its humble beginnings, Salt Marsh Pottery has grown increasingly popular, drawing customers from far-flung locales and even winding up on the pages of Better Homes & Gardens magazine. But Betsy seems bewildered by success. “We had no idea what we were doing! We never expected to still be here after 25 years … but here we are.”

Visit the Salt Marsh Pottery showroom at 1167 Russells Mills Road in Dartmouth, call 508-636-4813, or log on to their website at www.saltmarsh.com. Appointments are also available with Betsy outside of showroom hours; call for more details.