Who & Ware Local Artisans and Their Work

Who and Ware: Porcelain pottery by Deborah Harris

CorrespondentNovember 1, 2013 

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Chapel Hill potter/craft pottery teacher Deborah Harris holds two prime examples of her porcelain specialties: a raw porcelain finished lidded box with celadon interior and a favorite carved ginko leaf motif, and a soy sauce bottle with a fine celadon exterior finish. Harris was loading up her freestanding kiln adjacent to her home with porcelain pots for her monthly firing.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

After ushering her two children from birth to kindergarten, Deborah Harris intended to return to her career as a physical therapist. But a flier for a ceramics class at Sertoma Arts Center in Raleigh 18 years ago led her and her skillful hands down a different path.

Harris, now a full-time potter living in Chapel Hill, was an early arts lover, regularly visiting New York City museums with her mother (she was raised just north of the city in Westchester County) and at 17 spending a summer as an au pair in Paris, where she entertained her young charges with museum outings.

At Sertoma, “I couldn’t get enough of pottery,” said Harris, 58. “I enjoyed it so much that whenever my children were in school, I’d go to the studio and work. I think of my first five years as an exploration of different styles.”

Her experiments in functional pottery were successful enough to hold up her end of the household bargain – to earn enough from sales to cover her expenses.

Five years later, in 2000, another class led to another revelation. A workshop at Penland School of Crafts in Western North Carolina introduced her to porcelain, her clay of choice ever since. Unlike earthenware, the raw material found in nature, porcelain is a clay blend.

“It’s very silky and smooth. I find it sensuous to work with,” she said. “You can throw it thin, and if you fire it at a high temperature, it can be translucent. It also has this beautiful tone to it when you ping it, like glass.”

While Harris’ time in Europe expanded her artistic awareness, Asia became an even stronger influence, especially after a 2001 trip to Japan arranged by her husband, Dean Harris. They visited major pottery centers, including Hagi, Karatsu, Imari and Tokoname, which she compared to North Carolina’s Seagrove.

“You could walk around and visit different studios,” she said. “The trip also showed me how Japan values pottery as a cultural component versus in the U.S., where it’s kind of dismissed as not really art.”

Even before that journey, she’d admired the Japanese aesthetic. Her home decor is Japanese-influenced, and she lives in a 1976 one-story house constructed by the noted modernist builder J.P. Goforth.

For nearly a decade, Harris immersed herself in distinctive shino-glazed pottery after being introduced to the method at a workshop at Claymakers in Durham, where she also teaches. The American version of the traditional orange-hued glaze, developed for Japanese tea ceremonies, adds soda ash.

“During the firing, you get all these beautiful carbon crystals in the glaze, and it creates these lovely organic patterns.”

She loved the outcome, but found the process to be frustratingly unreliable.

Though she still glazes some vessels with shino, Harris has turned her attention to understated green celadon glazes, which she decorates by carving in designs, thereby controlling the surface instead of leaving it up to carbon crystals.

Most recently, her riff on the celadon has produced another striking line. Inspired by a 10th-century Chinese vase she spotted in a book, Harris brushes a watery layer of black, called a slip, onto forms. She carves designs into it, bringing out the white porcelain underneath, and then covers the remaining surface with celadon. She adorns many with etchings of ginko leaves, peonies or other florals.

“The black-and-white really makes it pop,” she said. “If someone is walking by my booth, it really catches their eye. Once people are drawn in, they’ll also take the time to look at the quieter celadon carvings. The response has been really good.”

Noted Triangle potter Ronan Peterson was impressed enough to invite Harris to join his popular group sale earlier this fall.

“Pairing the black-and-white with celadon gives things a wonderful contrast,” said Peterson, who has watched Harris’ work progress for more than a decade. “I think the carvings in general have brought out more of what she’s trying to say.”

Twice a year, Harris and fellow potters Evelyn Ward and Gillian Parke hold a group studio sale, and every fall she opens her studio to the public during the Orange County Artists Guild’s Open Studio Tour, held this weekend and next.

Another seasonal favorite is the Fine Designer Crafts Show, hosted every Thanksgiving weekend in Raleigh by the Carolina Designer Craftsmen Guild.

However Harris gets her work out to the public, she appreciates its durability.

“These pieces will be around long after we’ve gone, maybe for some archeologist to find and say something about our society. That’s quite something to think about.”

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