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Practical Pottery

When archaeologists dig up pottery shards at an ancient site, the pieces are usually treated as artifacts or holy relics or historical works of art.

The folks who made them thousands of years ago? They used them for drinking, for eating, for storage.

Pottery is art. But it’s also practical.

This weekend, the inaugural Pottery on the Hill event brings 15 of the most renowned potters in the United States to the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, which opened to the public last year. 

The focus of the show is on the practical side, and the organizers’ concept was simple — fewer artists, more pottery. The intimate setting offers visitors the opportunity to see 100 or so practical vessels from each of the potters’ collections. The idea is to present useful products such as teacups, bowls, casserole dishes and coffee mugs. This is not a show for sculpture pieces.

“It is important for the lucky people who will buy these pots to complete the transaction by putting the pots to use in their daily lives, not just placing them high on a shelf for display,” said Louise Allison Cort, curator for ceramics at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution. She will give lectures on “Pots and People” at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday.

Potter Dan Finnegan worked closely with Hill Center board presidents Steve and Nicky Cymrot to plan the exhibit. He chose friends from the East Coast, for the most part, so they would incur fewer financial risks. 

But don’t expect the potters to interpret the art form similarly just because they all come from the same geographic region.

“By and large, we don’t have regional styles in America,” Finnegan said. “We have the resources to go all over the world now.”

One of the potters showing at the event, Michael Hunt, studied under a master potter in Korea and uses a Thai-shaped kiln; another, Bruce Gholson, switches among porcelain, stoneware and red clay to “stimulates ideas,” while Ryan Greenheck chooses to strongly define the rims and the feet of his pots. 

Trista Chapman, who describes her work as “whimsical,” uses decorative techniques she learned while working with kids during an apprenticeship in Richmond, Va. 

“I never really enjoyed my work when it was finished before, when it was just dipped in a glaze, and it was a brown or a blue, more traditional,” Chapman said. “I guess it sort of was a natural way to branch off and do my own work. I went with the bright colors.”

Bob Briscoe, a friend of Finnegan’s and an early inspiration for the event, called his style “crude.”

“My aesthetic starts out as intentionally functional. I haven’t been able to find a word to replace ‘crude,’” Briscoe said. “I like them to have a little funky edge. The pots are made to be used.”

Pottery continues to have a role in today’s technology-charged world because the ancient art form continues to serve a practical, as well as an aesthetic, purpose.

“Everyone feels really confident that this will be a great cultural event on the Hill,” Finnegan said.

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