Slipping Life’s Bounds
Woods Hole potter Tessa Morgan’s designs reflect a uniquely Cape Cod artistic spirit flying free.
Tessa Morgan first worked with clay to sooth her teenage angst and nurse the creativity her parents instilled in her when she was a little girl. In the 35 years since, that early work—tiny pots she made at a neighbor’s house in the Maryland countryside outside Washington, D.C.—has evolved into vases, lamps, bowls, and tiles that sing with Morgan’s spirited designs and gorgeous hand-mixed glazes.
“It’s still evolving and maturing,” Morgan says of her pottery during a break in her home studio, Flying Pig Pottery in Woods Hole. Dressed in jeans and apron, she juggles long work hours with her family’s schedule in her home’s basement, a combination display area, retail shop, and kiln firing area. In the cozy space, Morgan’s one-of-a-kind ceramic home items keep company with decorative tiles framed in discarded dune fencing and mugs for the local NPR station. Upstairs, her family is moving into late-afternoon mode. Husband Tim Lineaweaver operates Quissett Counseling and Consulting in a first-floor office. The couple’s son, Nicky, has come home from high school. Another son, Dylan, is 21 and in college.
When Morgan began selling her pieces in her mid-20s, her signature pottery was defined by sharp blue-black images set against a creamy white background. This technique, called sgraffito, became her stamp in trade: designs carved into a band of hand-painted clay (known as slip) on a piece of thrown pottery. Subdued blue-black animals, mermaids, fish, and plants cavort happily on the pottery’s light background. One oval platter is encircled by an elephant, giraffe, lion, and fish, all looking content to be together in a carefree dance. This lightly naive spirit holds great appeal for her clients.
“It’s much like doing a line drawing,” Morgan says of her sgraffito. It is also reminiscent of her drawing technique when she was a little girl in Georgetown with five sisters, an English mom who stayed home, and a dad who worked at the Federal Reserve Bank and was “always creating things.”
“My parents encouraged any kind of creativity,” Morgan says. “That’s what my sisters and I just did.” In the mid-1970s, the family moved to a rural Maryland farm. Morgan, 14, was miserable, dealing with the culture shock of adapting to country life after Georgetown. “I was horrified,” she says. She was unhappy enough that her mother arranged for her to take pottery lessons from an elderly woman down the road who sold her pots in the back of a gas station and kept her pottery wheel in the kitchen.
At 15, Morgan got an unlikely opportunity to work deeply on her craft. She had made plans to hike with friends in the White Mountains (with her parents’ full permission) and took a hitchhiking detour to Truro, where the kids were arrested for a minor infraction. She spent a night in the Provincetown jail. “I was kind of wild,” Morgan says. “This is the other side of having parents who give you the freedom to create and think outside the box. The down side is they gave me too much freedom.”
She was grounded her entire junior year. “I had to spend every weekend on the farm my junior year, so my pottery flourished,” she says. In her senior year, she started making pots in a yurt in Glen Echo, Maryland, an arts community outside of Washington, D.C., where, she recalls, “I got heavily involved with different colored slip applications and sgraffito.” Her style was born.
In the years since, Morgan’s pottery has become more experimental in color, design, and size. A new shade, a sumptuous sea foam green, shines on a line of platters with sgraffito designs of lively fish, turtles, and other marine creatures. “I just kind of stumbled onto that glaze combination,” she says. Another darker shade of green glimmers in collections of bowls and other dishes, including mugs she produces for WCAI/WNAN, which the local NPR radio station uses for fundraising. The mugs have boosted her already considerable professional profile, something she owes to happenstance. “I’m not savvy at marketing,” she says. “It just happens.”
She’s also introduced a new ark full of African animals; one themed wall hanging is a tableau of leaping lions, peaceful elephants, and inquisitive giraffes. Its size, topping one foot by two feet, is giving Morgan some heady new freedom. “I like using multiple tiles to create a large clay canvas where I can play with more complex design elements and the relationships between the various figures, textures, dark and light,” she says.
The larger tile work has led to commissions for homes on both coasts. One current project is a large tile design over the stove of a Cape Cod kitchen. As Morgan relates, the homeowner said, “Do whatever you want.” So Morgan combined elements of her new African theme with her traditional Cape marine figures and a gentle field animal here and there. “It’s kind of all over the place, which she wanted,” Morgan says. Another set of her work has gotten smaller, with the introduction of a new line of hanging tiles framed in a discarded dune fence from Nobska Beach in Woods Hole.
Now, after almost three decades of exploring themes around animals and plants, Morgan has started a line of “women’s platters,” such as one with two women, each holding a glass of wine and deeply attuned to each other. “I was inspired by female friendships and how important they are,” Morgan says, “talking out concerns, laughing, being creative.”
Now that her children are older, Morgan treasures spending more time with her women friends and sees more women’s platters in her future. She also sees more large installations, such as her kitchen tile designs, projects that offer her the coveted “clay canvas” for deeper creative expression. As she says, “I enjoy creating little stories on my mugs and other pottery, and working on the wall art as a clay canvas really allows me to spread those stories out.”
Flying Pig Pottery, 410 Woods Hole Road, Woods Hole, is open seven days a week. Morgan’s work is also available at Coffee Obsession in Falmouth and Woods Hole and at shows around Cape Cod and eastern Massachusetts, including the upcoming Wellfleet OysterFest, Oct. 15-16. For more information, visit www.flyingpigpottery.biz or Flying Pig Pottery’s Facebook page.
Mary Grauerholz is communications director for the Cape Cod Foundation and a freelance writer.
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