Art of the Earth

Cape Cod Art  /  ART Annual 2022 /

Writer: Julie Craven Wagner

Artisans across the region have made their mark in clay, each with their own story to tell.

From the earliest days of mankind, pottery has been crucial to daily life. Geological studies are constantly revealing shards and sometimes whole vessels from excavation sites that date back millenniums ago. The process of isolating rich clay, from what the earth commonly provides, shaping it and curing it in the sun or some other heat source for stability began less as an art and more as a survival skill.

Today, the Cape and Islands and surrounding coastal community has a long history of producing ceramic art. Even before the region became one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world, potters were drawn to this natural landscape and found a simple existence where they could indulge their love for making pottery. There is something meditative about making pottery—whether it is a slab technique, a coil technique, throwing by hand or throwing on a wheel, or pouring slip into a mold—it is a focused endeavour with very few distractions: just the artist, the material and the vision of the finished product.

One of the first Cape potters, Harry Holl found his way to the Cape in the middle of the 20th century, and set about creating a business that links ceramics to the Cape like a link in a chain. Scargo Pottery, crafted on the banks of the famed lake in East Dennis, has become a dynasty of sorts, albeit a potter’s dynasty which means it is more everyman and less monarchy. Holl and now his four daughters have all proudly picked up the mantle of “artist” and wear their titles proudly. Each worked elbow-to-elbow with their father who taught them his craft, but also taught them about the art business on the Cape, an industry that has had its ups and downs over the years, but mostly ups. Scargo Pottery, perhaps due to the variety of family involved, offers a wide range of ceramic art, ensuring most anyone can find something unique that appeals to them. In the words of Harry Holl, “I always felt pottery is a community affair. Each person in a family specializes in a different thing. There’s no better community than a family.”

Around the same time Holl came to the Cape, a bit farther down the road in Truro, Joe Colliano and Bill Hastings became known as “The Jobis,” and opened a pottery shop in a converted hot dog stand next to Highland Light. Their recognizable pinch pots and other dishes feature happy black fish with a white eye on a variety of colorful earthenware. Today, owner Susan Kurtzman is only the third owner in the 70 years of Jobi Pottery’s iconic history and she is still making the slip pieces using the same materials the Jobis used back in the day. “The only thing that has changed,” Kurtzman says “is that the glazes when Joe and Bill had the business had lead in the red and orange colors, so most of their pieces where subdued seaside colors. Today lead is outlawed so we have the whole rainbow at our fingertips.” Kurtzman also has some new designs that still capture the happy, whimsical spirit of the pieces that are collected worldwide.

The 1970s saw a migration of potters to the area, including Chatham Stoneware owner Gill Wilson who found his way to the Cape primarily because of the surf community and beautiful beaches, and just never decided to leave. “I thought then, and I still do, I’ve landed in heaven.” Wilson started making pottery in the creative art enclave of Hudson Valley in New York, so when he decided to put down roots on the Cape, a wheel and a block of clay turned out to be a pretty good plan. He says he has learned what works, what is popular and what sells. His colorful studio on Route 28 in west Chatham has a plentiful array of stoneware mugs, vases, bowls, platters and lamps in sea-inspired shades of green and blue and sporting iconic Cape Cod images. 

Jim Irvine has been a potter most of his life. The craft show circuit can be grueling, so in 2016 Irvine opened Creative Hands Gallery, first in East Sandwich on Route 6A and now in the village of Osterville. The artisan gallery features painting, fiber art, glass and jewelry, and naturally due to Irvine’s passion, work by over 20 ceramicists. Irvine expresses his art through the handbuilt stoneware clay. Coils and slabs are married in form and function and embellished with marks, glazes, stains and other accents as the artist determines. The result is a piece that appears to straddle history and modern day with an organic sophistication that seems impossible to have come simply from a man’s hands. Handbuilt production does not benefit from brevity, but Irvine who has been creating for all of his adult life, says he concentrates on one pot a day. With two dozen different artisans representing their clayworks, Creative Hands Gallery holds a place in the Cape art landscape that has no rival.

Sandwich’s Grainger Pottery is a second-generation family business. Marion ceramicists Geoff and Karilon Grainger opened their small shop over 25 years ago. Now their nieces Caroline and Lauren have taken the unique business to the next level. The Grainger process takes lives fish to create molds that are exact replicas of the creatures. But that is not exactly where their magic exists. The pieces are so special primarily due to the high quality, colorful glazes that bring each fish to life. Seemingly they offer as many varieties as there are fish in the sea and the biggest challenge in making a purchase at Grainger Pottery is deciding which catch to take home.

The island of Martha’s Vineyard finds Jennifer McCurdy in her Vineyard Haven studio throwing what she calls “Vessels.” McCurdy a potter who throws porcelain on a wheel. She spins her pieces so thin that the clay is just barely able to maintain its shape. “I throw my porcelain very thin,” McCurdy explained in a 2017 Cape Cod HOME interview, “and I do that because it’s the aesthetic of porcelain to be translucent and thin.” Engineering is on McCurdy’s side as she uses flexible metal ribs as she employs a technique called “dry throwing.” Since the ribs have a smaller surface area than fingers, McCurdy says they encounter less drag on the clay. After throwing the piece she has a brief window of just a few hours while the clay still has enough moisture to stand up to what comes next. Only then does her sculpting begin as she carves away significant portions of the porcelain to reveal beautiful interplay between positive and negative space.

Across the region, potters are settling in and creating a myriad of interesting and unique ceramics for anyone, for any occasion or need. Stopping in to a studio might be an interesting way to connect with the roots of the Cape in way that is very unexpected. As Harry Holl put it, “I learned the importance of living in the environment and atmosphere of the artist. You don’t learn by instruction. You have to discover yourself in your work.” 

Julie Craven Wagner is the editor of Cape Cod ART.

Julie Craven Wagner

Julie Craven Wagner began her experience with Cape Cod Life in 2010 when she joined the sales team after 10 years of working with local businesses on the Cape and Islands with WMVY. In addition to sales, she is the Associate Publisher/Editor of Cape Cod LIFE, Cape Cod HOME, and Cape Cod ART. Growing up on the Outer Cape has given her a unique perspective of life on Cape Cod, from tip to bridge, and that is reflected in her appreciation and presentation of stories found within the pages of our publications. Julie lives in North Falmouth with her husband, Eric, and their yellow lab, Enzo. When she finds free time, she enjoys her Cape Cod life sailing on Buzzards Bay, spending time on the beach in Wellfleet, or exploring Martha’s Vineyard.