When Sasha Bakaric signed up for a “Clay for Toddlers” class at the Durham Arts Council a decade ago, she figured it would be something fun to do with her 2-year-old daughter. It was, but the course also led her in a new direction.
“That was the first time I’d touched clay,” said Bakaric, 45, now a full-time potter in Chapel Hill. “It feels so good in your hands.”
The desire to build things wasn’t new to Bakaric (pronounced BACK-a-rich), who grew up in what is now Croatia (then Yugoslavia) wanting to be an architect.
“I took art classes in school, but it was a very unstable time in my country, and the arts seemed an insecure future,” she said. “So I studied math because it was a challenge.”
After college in Croatia and the U.S., Bakaric ended up back in Zagreb, becoming chief financial officer for a 6,000-employee company transitioning to a market economy. She moved to the Triangle in 1998, when her husband, Sasa Pekec, joined the faculty at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, where Bakaric took an administrative job.
“I had a successful career and wasn’t thinking about art,” she said. “Pottery was a nice escape.”
She started taking classes at Claymakers in Durham and the following year, Pekec bought her a wheel so she could throw clay at their home. Her makeshift studio was a glorified crawl space in the basement.
“It was just tall enough that I could stand in it. For water, I used a hose from the yard.”
From the clay, Bakaric learned life skills as well.
“The process itself is very meditative,” she said. “It teaches you to be patient. Coming here, adjusting to a new country, finding new friends – I think clay taught me to go one small step at a time.”
In 2004, the year her second daughter was born, Bakaric left Duke to be a stay-at-home mother.
“I never thought I would do that, but I had to travel a lot for work and couldn’t imagine being away that much.”
Three years later, when she felt she could return to work, the desire for a corporate career had been replaced with an urge to make pottery. But although Bakaric loved the process, she had no singular style.
That changed in 2008 when she took a workshop on the terra sigillata technique with Ronan Peterson, a well-known Chapel Hill potter.
“It’s basically clay dust mixed with water that you use instead of glaze,” she said. “If you polish it lightly you get this little bit of a sheen like velvet. It doesn’t feel like glaze, but like clay, warm to the touch.”
Her work soon transformed from generic to a distinctive style seen in her curved vases and sculptural orbs decorated in gray tones punctuated by carved squiggly lines, amoeba shapes, and dots, both white and colored.
“People say my designs look Scandinavian because of the clean lines, but it’s more me being the mathematician. Things have to be in order.”
After someone pointed out that her etchings resembled amoebas, she begin paying attention to photographs of microscopic cells and viruses. “I love the contradiction that those images are so beautiful, but are often of scary things, like super viruses.”
Bakaric credits Frank gallery, an artists’ cooperative in Chapel Hill where she’s now on the governing board, with giving her confidence and exposure.
“Before they opened in 2010, I thought, OK, I’m going to apply but there’s no way I’ll get in. When I got in, that gave me wings to try other things.”
Sandy Milroy, a fellow Frank member and art curator at Straw Valley Cafe in Durham, just tapped Bakaric to show her work at the cafe gallery in December, pairing her with black-and-white photographer John Rosenthal.
“Sasha’s work has an elegant simplicity to it,” said Milroy, a collage artist. “I really admire her and her work a lot, and she’s done a tremendous amount for Frank.”
Bakaric’s art received another boost last year when the family moved to a house in Chapel Hill with a walk-out basement they transformed into a pottery studio and gallery. This year she was awarded a Durham Arts Council grant that she plans to use to buy a larger kiln, which will enable her to scale up some pieces.
For now, though, Bakaric is busy stocking her shelves for a host of fall shows – the Orange County Open Studio Tour starting this weekend, the Carolina Designer Craftsmen show, and the Straw Valley exhibit.
“I’m a little scared, because at last year’s open studio tour I sold a lot. So now I’m working like crazy. I don’t want to run out of work, though I guess I can’t complain about that happening.”
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