Potter Holly Heaslip finds boundless inspiration in her Cape roots
Since she was 6 months old, Holly Heaslip has spent every summer with her family on Sandy Neck. Throughout her childhood, as soon as school let out she’d be trading in her shoes for a bathing suit, TV for a playground of sand, shells and water. “We lived by the tide,” she recalls. “We couldn’t wait for it to be high so we could go swimming, and then when it was out I was looking at starfish all the time.”
Heaslip’s lifelong memories out on Sandy Neck have subtly found their way into her work as a potter. Her white earthenware pieces, including an oyster platter and a conch shell-inspired bowl, are certainly beach-inspired, but not in a way that is merely superficial. “I don’t make pots with starfish and shells on them just because I live on Cape Cod,” Heaslip explains. “I make them because I’m wholly influenced and informed by them.”
One beach shell she finds constant inspiration in is the scallop shell—hence the name of her pottery line, Bay Scallop Pottery. “I love their fan shape—it’s just very simple and beautiful,” she says. In her over 40 years as a potter, the scallop shell has become a fitting representation of her work. “When they’re wet they’re much more brilliant, but when they’re dry they’re very subtle—you have to really look. I want people to really have to look at my work—at first glance you might not notice something because it is all white.”
“I like the white clay,” she notes, “because it reminds me of that bright white summer day on the beach and the light hitting the sand. There’s something calming and clean about it. And when light hits the clay, all you see is the form. You have to just respond to the form.”
Heaslip, a Barnstable native, says she always knew she wanted to pursue a career in art—she just thought it’d be as a teacher. In high school, she recalls how, on a whim, she and a friend attended a pottery class hosted by the Cape Cod Potters in Dennis. “I had never made a pot on the wheel—I don’t think I had even made the classic pinch pot that you make in elementary school—and I was hooked,” she says.
Nevertheless, Heaslip studied art education at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, pursuing pottery in the summers as an apprentice in Brewster. After receiving her master’s in ceramics and sculpture at the Rochester Institute of Technology School for American Crafts, she went on to teach part-time at the institute. “I did that for a while,” she says, “and then, to be honest, I got amazingly homesick. I cannot be away from the ocean—I just can’t. I think I should’ve been a mermaid,” she says with a laugh.
When Heaslip returned home to Barnstable, she began making pottery full-time out of her home studio. While she says she’s also painted here and there over the years, pottery is her passion. “I’m a real hands-on person, and I like constructing. I might’ve become an architect, but I couldn’t do math,” she says with a smile, adding, “It’s funny because I don’t get as excited about the end product; I love the process of it.”
Heaslip says half of her work—primarily functional pieces like mugs and tableware—is created on the potter’s wheel, with the other half—including her wedding cake toppers and ring bearer shell dishes—done by hand building, in which she rolls clay out flat and then shapes it. “People are astounded that you can make anything by hand that you can make on the wheel—actually a lot more things,” she notes.
Within her quaint basement studio, numerous inspirational quotes line the walls like hidden treasures. One quote in particular, from 19th century Pennsylvania potter John Neis, stands out: “I am made of potter’s thoughts. When I break, I will be gone.” The sentiment deeply resonates with Heaslip. “I put everything into my pots,” she explains. “If I’m at a show or I’m demonstrating somewhere, there’s always somebody in the crowd who asks, ‘How long did it take you to make that?’ It sounds corny, but my standard response is ‘a lifetime,’ because everything that I’ve experienced up to the point when I make that piece somehow goes into that piece and informs it.”
Though a full-time career in art education never panned out, Heaslip’s work has led her to recently start teaching pottery part-time at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth. On weekdays she teaches a pottery wheel class, and on Saturday mornings a class on hand building. “It’s a wonderful place,” she says. “I’m really lucky to be there.”
“She’s extraordinarily talented,” says Amy Neill, director of education at the Cultural Center. “She has so many years of experience, and I value her as a teacher because I know she has so much respect for each step in the process of making a piece. We feel lucky and honored to have her on our team with us.”
Whether it be through her pottery or her classes, Heaslip says she hopes to inspire others through her work. “When I meet a former student and they tell me they were influenced by my class, it’s the ultimate,” she says. “In the same vein, if someone has a piece of my work and it brings them joy, I’ve made my mark.”