Saturday, December 31, 2011

Just in general....

I wanted to take a moment to wish everyone the very best for 2012. As 2011 comes to a close, I'm grateful for all the blessings this year has brought me, including new members of my spiritual family, continuing creativity and the strength to handle the year's challenges. I set myself the goal of averaging one blog post per week in 2011, a goal I met and exceeded, much to my surprise. (It got a bit tight there in November!) With the help of my spiritual family, especially the members of the Feline Management Team, we made it!

Best to all!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House - Meet the Artists: Charlie Palazzola

Charlie in his studio
That's right - only one day until the Second Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House on December 10 (10a-4p), during which we open up the studio to fellow local artists and all of our fans for a day of holiday cheer! This year, we'll be featuring artisan baked goods and live music, in addition to five unique garden- and home-inspired artists. This is the last in a series of posts introducing the artists contributing to the event - a series of posts intended to introduce them to you so you could get to know each of these amazingly creative and generous folks a little bit better.

Charlie Palazzola is a Detroit-based singer, songwriter and fine artist.  He was heavily influenced during the 1960s by local AM Radio and performers such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Motown sound and the diverse and original talents of that era. In the 1970s, his interests expanded to include an interest in singer/songwriters and soul artists on FM Radio including James Taylor, Elton John and Al Green, as well as rock groups such as The Who and Pink Floyd. Sequeing into the 1980s, Charlie continued to develop his guitar "chops" with significant influence from musicians including Jeff Beck and Keith Richards as his individual style continued to evolve. Charlie honed his musical talents in numerous bands during his early career, including Funkster, Tin Soldier and Blue Room, each with its own distinct sound and personality, each a platform for Charlie's eclectic musical influences and talents.

Self Portrait. 2011.
In a break from his musical evolution, in the 1990s Charlie chose to fully embrace his long- time interests and talents in the visual arts, eventually graduating form Wayne State University with a BFA in painting. Numerous canvasses later, he is once again also revisiting his musical side, returning to song writing and live performance. Charlie is currently refining his songwriting skills, producing a number of new compositions including instrumental blues/roots music while experimenting with alternative guitar tunings.

Charlie is another person who joined my family this year. I met him through sheer happenstance. My best friend, Catherine Dumke, was getting a house ready to sell the summer of 2011 and needed someone to do some painting; her real estate agent recommended Charlie, who makes a living wielding a larger paintbrush to subsidize his more creative pursuits. Catherine mentioned him from time to time, what a nice person he was, his obvious talents, how much she enjoyed working with him on the house. I don't have a lot of time during summertime, as I'm gardening and doing pottery, so I hadn't had a chance to meet him, although we all thought it would be a good idea, if we could just find the time.

Well, when the power went out at my house for the umpteenth time this summer, I found the time. I needed someplace to store my perishable foods and Catherine offered the use of the refrigerator at the house at which Charlie was painting. So we met. And had this great conversation. And had another one when I picked up the food. And another when I came to help Catherine with some stuff around the house. I mentioned my August garden tour and he asked if he could come and, if so, how much admission was; I said all he needed to do was bring his guitars and play us a song or two.

There are these perfect, rounded moments in life, moments that are so refined and whole the memory of them is indelible.  Such was the moment Charlie launched into his first composition at my garden tour in August 2011. The music rose up through the garden and drifted out over the neighborhood, a perfect union with a late summer day, redolent with warm colors and glowing scents.

Need I say more?

Deluxe Sunflower - Teddy Bear

Gary Kohs and Laura Scaccia are two of the people who joined my family in 2010. Laura's sister had purchased one of my sunflowers at Pewabic Pottery and told Laura about me.  She got in touch and we made arrangements for the two of them to stop by the day before Mother's Day.  Gary and Laura arrived a bit early - early enough that, while I was out of the shower, I was not really dressed. I let them in and asked that they hang in the dining room while I dressed. And that is about as formal as our relationship has been since.

Gary and Laura (and their family and friends) have been some of the most supportive folks I've come to know since the inception of Black Cat Pottery: A sunflower tile has been installed above the stove in Gary's kitchen; one of my Ginormous Original Sunflowers hangs in the peak of Gary's pizza oven on his terrace; a plaque reading "Villa Girasole"("House of the Sunflower") is a housewarming gift from Laura; and 40 Mini Original Sunflowers were gifts to the guests at the official housewarming party. And that's just for starters.

The Inspiration. Gary can be kind of a challenging guy. In a good way. The day we first met, he challenged me to fabricate a ginormous sunflower completely covered by petals. I asked him if he was trying to kill me. (I'm still wondering about that....) But I'm not one to let a challenge pass, so I finally started to work, and the product is my Deluxe Teddy Bear Sunflower design.

The Process. I start the process as I would any Deluxe Sunflower, with a slab of clay draped over the hump mold, which has been placed on a kiln shelf. For the Ginormous Deluxe Teddy Bear design (inspired by the Teddy Bear Annual Sunflower, the center of which is entirely covered with petaloids), I use all seven sizes of sunflower petal cookie cutters. I score the entire surface of the slab, then apply the petals in rows around the piece sequentially, largest to smallest. Although I only use one row of each of the six largest-sized petals, I do use multiple rows of the smallest petal for the central rosette. The key here is to make sure to push the petals down as much as possible so they don't stick up and are vulnerable to breakage through the rest of the process. It is pretty heavy, what with the shelf, the plaster mold, and all that clay.

I set the piece to dry until I can lift it off the mold safely - pretty close to leather hard. I carefully lift the piece off the mold, flip it over and cradle it in my left hand (here's where having those petals well down really makes a difference) to cut holes for hanging wire and attach a fitting to the back for a stake. I then carefully flip the sunflower back onto a clean kiln shelf and allow to dry completely before firing.  Because the piece is quite massive, it's best to let it dry for several days before trying to fire; otherwise, it could easily explode - an expensive lesson.

Glazing is simple yet tricky. There is no "center" to glaze another color, so I'm only applying one glaze to the entire surface; in this case, I'm using Amaco's Potter's Choice Salt Buff - for some reason, this was just the "right" glaze for this design. The piece, however, is probably the heaviest piece I have to glaze. I cradle the piece in my left hand, top side up, and ladle the well-mixed glaze into and over all of the petals for three coats, allowing the piece to dry between. Then, using a slip-trail bottle, I drizzle more glaze haphazardly over the entire surface - thereby achieving the "irregular" application necessary to achieve the correct effect. Once the top surface is dry, I flip over the flower and brush glaze on any unglazed portions of all the petals. I then allow to dry and fire on stilts. I have found that using seven or eight bar stilts place under the slabbed flange is the more efficient arrangement.

Because the piece is so large, I tend to allow the kiln to get pretty cool before opening, to minimize the risk of fracturing if it's cooled too quickly.

Gary's next challenge? A sunflower larger than 24 inches across. I'm still working out the details on that one; once I'm about eighty percent there, I'll take that on as well! 

Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House - Meet the Artists: Jennifer Flynn and Urban Attic

That's right - only one day until the Second Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House on December 10 (10a-4p), during which we open up the studio to fellow local artists and all of our fans for a day of holiday cheer! This year, we'll be featuring artisan baked goods and live music, in addition to five unique garden- and home-inspired artists. I thought it would be nice to introduce them to you so you could get to know each of these amazingly creative and generous folks a little bit better.

Jennifer Flynn, owner of Urban Attic, a unique gift shop located in Ardmore Park Place in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, graduated in 1985 from Michigan State University with a BA in Advertising. She worked in communications in Chicago at MTV Networks and Katz Communications and in Texas at the Arbitron Rating Company and Harrington, Richter and Parsons, another communications firm. Despite embarking on a promising career in the communications industry, Jennifer took herself out of the workforce in 1991 in order to focus her energy and time on her family, especially loving and raising her two sons, Patrick, 20, and Andrew, 17. Multi-talented and uber-creative, in 2010, she decided to strike out in a new business venture, a unique gift shop to showcase her work and the talent of other Michigan handcrafters and artists. Thus was born Urban Attic.

Tea Bag Caddies crafted from vintage handkerchiefs
I first heard of Jennifer early in 2011 through my friend, Don Schulte, who had happened on her shop in when he and his wife stopped for a bite at the Ardmore Cafe, in the same building. He suggested I look into the gift shop as a venue for some of my work. I then happened to meet Jennifer's mother-in-law when giving a presentation for the Grosse Pointe Garden Center at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial. Recognizing the workings of fate, I contacted Jennifer and set up a  meeting, having determined that her shop - an intimate space chock full of unique Michigan-made goods - would be most suited to my smaller pieces: Mini sunflowers and daisies, fairy houses and lace bowls. After an initial meeting, I felt I had met yet another kindred spirit and, indeed, I count Jennifer as the first of four people to join my family of choice in 2011.

Paper cones fashioned from old wallpaper samplebooks -
what a great alternative to the traditional stocking!
Although we're featuring Jennifer's baked goods at the Second Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House - including her famous Mom's Bananas Nut Muffins (ask me for the story behind this recipe title), aside from her family, Urban Attic is now her primary focus. And although she carries products produced by local artists and artisans (including various work by Black Cat Pottery and notecards and prints by Notable Greetings), her own creations are some of the most interesting and inventive objects I've ever seen. Jennifer is a past master of "up-cycling", taking goods other folks would simply discard (hopefully, recycle) and giving them new life. Whether it's taking an old book of wallpaper samples and converting them into beautiful decorative cones that would make a Christmas stocking envious or creating a beautiful paper rose from the page of an old musical score, Jennifer exemplifies the magical evolution of the silk purse from the proverbial sow's ear.

Every time I walk into Jennifer's shop, unless she's catering to the needs of a new or long-loyal customer, she has new ideas to share. Folks ask me when I sleep; I know Jennifer doesn't! She has an unerring eye for the "finishing touch" - the little detail that brings out the heart of a piece, whether it's a bottle of olive oil next to one of my tiny lace bowls or the "gratitude" cards available at her "counter", an up-cycled sideboard. As the year has progressed, Jennifer's love for baking has finally taken a back seat to her dedication to her new-found home, Urban Attic.

"As long as I can remember I've found joy in making little things for people who come into my life. Today, the place I sit down to write or to create what is in my head, just feels like the right place to be." - Jennifer Flynn

Find more information about Jennifer Flynn and Urban Attic at

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Lace Bowls 1: Red vs. White Stoneware

Lace Bowls, Peach Stoneware
One of the more popular designs I've developed in the last year or so has been my lace bowls. Using the same Sasaki Colorstone stoneware dishes as molds that I use for many of my leaf pieces, I've come up with two "designs" in four sizes that have been very popular this holiday season. The idea evolved from the lace I had used for the centers on some of my sunflowers. I had found a heart-shaped piece of lace at either Joann's or Michael's; it was a bit challenging to work with, as the concave section at the top of the heart made for a "blank" in the design of the sunflower's center that I would have to "fix" by rolling the bottom of the heart in to that section; cumbersome but effective. This lace texture sunflower has been very popular, although it may partly be due to the color I stain the petals - bright orange.

I have always been a very tactile person (hence the interests in gardening, pottery, needlecrafts, etc.) I had been working with some bowls for an Empty-Bowls Fundraiser sponsored by Firebrick Gallery in Rochester, Michigan, and decided to use the lace texture and see what happened with that, using the same Sasaki Colorstone stoneware bowls as my molds for these pieces as I had been using for my leaf pieces and other, earlier designs. I had found various sizes of lace at Joann's and Michael's that would accommodate the various sizes I wanted to make.

The technique here is to roll out the clay in the slab roller, place the piece of lace on the slab and roll it into the clay with a heavy maple pottery rolling pin.  If I'm doing a straight edge on the piece, I cut out enough around the lace to work with and place it in the mold.  I usually try to center it but have learned that the pieces can be pretty interesting if they're a bit off-center. (There's a story there I'll share some time.) I use the flattish side of my smooth river stone to work the clay into the mold consistently, peel off the lace and cut the edge of the piece to the edge of the bowl using a sharp tool. If I'm doing a scalloped edge, reflecting the scalloped edge of some of the lace pieces I've found, I use a sharp tool to cut out the form of the lace and place that in the mold as above, although in this case it's more important that it be centered.

Lace Bowls, Lite Stoneware
I let the pieces dry enough to come out of the molds, sign them, then let them dry completely.  Once dry, I use synthetic steel wool to remove the burrs from the cutting tool at the edge of the piece, correct any irregularities on the back of the piece, and to smooth the edges of the pattern made by the lace inside the bowl. This last step is very important, as I have discovered that a glaze applied over a sharp, unrefined edge can make for a piece that is very uncomfortable to handle; for some reason, the glaze enhances that sharp edge, to the extent that I have even cut myself on it. Just a couple sweeps across the surface with the synthetic steel wool is sufficient to correct this issue. These pieces can easily be nested for bisque firing, so you can fire a pretty dense load, getting maximum space and energy utilization.

Glazing is pretty straightforward but glaze selection is important.  The raised lace pattern is particularly effective when a glaze that "breaks" is used - a glaze that changes color as it thins over the edges of s surface. (This is part of the reason I used lace-imprinted clay for my studio's glaze test tiles, to see which glazes would behave in this manner.) These glazes will really enhance the already-extant texture in the bowl. Many of Amaco's Potter's Choice glazes fit the bill, especially Indigo Float, Lustrous Jade, Textured Turquoise, Vert Lustre, Blue Rutile, Chun Plum, Albany Slip Brown, Ironstone and Ancient Jasper. I have noted a preference for the brighter colors in the blue to green range in my client base.

Glazing consists of dipping the piece, using dipping tongs, into the well-mixed glaze two to three times, depending on the glaze's consistency. I do not wax the bases of the pieces because it looks odd, considering there is no real "bottom", just a curved underside. I fire them on stilts and use my Dremel with a grinder accessory to remove any stilt marks.

I did experiment with different clay bodies as well, both my usual Peach Stoneware from Rovin and their Lite Stoneware, a very white body suitable for handbuilding and throwing. I found in most instances that the redder clay was more effective in bringing up the contrasts in the breaking glazes, a phenomenon reflected in the choices I make for my sunflowers, bird bowls and wall pockets.

I am now experimenting with other lace forms.  My good friend Deb Hall has been very generous, gifting me with some of her Maltese grandmother's handmade lace for use in my studio.  Her grandmother actually won first prize at the World's Fair during the 1930s for her lace bedspread, so you can imagine how grateful I am that Deb chose to bequeath some of her work to Black Cat Pottery Studios.

I like nothing more than when a prospective customer really "experiences" one of my pieces - handles and caresses it. These lace bowls really lend themselves to that dynamic.  

Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House - Meet the Artists: Timothy Hanks and Bird Homes by Tim

Tim at work in his studio
It's only a few days until the Second Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House on December 10 (10a-4p), during which we open up the studio to fellow local artists and all of our fans for a day of holiday cheer!  This year, we'll be featuring artisan baked goods and live music, in addition to five unique garden- and home-inspired artists.  I thought it would be nice to introduce them to you so you could get to know each of these amazingly creative and generous folks a little bit better.

Tim Hanks, owner and operator of Bird Homes by Tim, earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Wayne State University, exploring numerous media during his studies. The offspring of two creative parents, Tim was never discouraged from his creative pursuits but it wasn't until about ten years ago that he found his metier. While shopping for a gift, he noticed that most bird houses sold to the general public were of very poor-quality, often made on the cheap overseas. He decided to make something better; more than bird houses, he wanted to make bird homes, using his woodworking expertise and the artistic skills and sensibilities that had been finely honed during his sojourn at Wayne State.

Tim's time at WSU was an important period in his growing awareness as a fine artist. "While attending art school, one particular class, Native American Art, strongly reaffirmed my ideals about the role art could play in people's lives," he says. "Despite not having a word for art, historically the aboriginal tribes of North America infused everyday, utilitarian objects with representations of spiritual figures and potent symbolism, taking what could be a simple, mundane object and transforming it into a spiritually charged piece. My approach to artistic expression is, at its core, one that echoes this concept."


The resulting products, Bird Homes by Tim, combine strength and elegance with features designed to protect and shelter songbirds over many years, relying on the specifications developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Each home features the ingenious use of repurposed antique hardware to help protect the entrance against interlopers. They are also made with proper drainage, ventilation, and access for seasonal maintenance, maximizing comfort and functionality.

"With each home I create, I seek to produce an aesthetic design that does not interfere with its function," said Tim. "Form has to follow function above all else." Each Bird Home by Tim is a one-of-a-kind creation, built of durable, 3/4-inch-thick, top-grade California redwood, with integrated hardware decorations, sometimes with complementary pyrography. These charming designs are built with an attention to detail that shows a true craftsman's touch, reflecting a spirit of Old World attention to detail.

I met Tim several years ago at the Indian Village Home and Garden Tour, where we were both vendors.  During a brief respite at my own tent, I took a quick tour around to see the other artists at the event.  I was immediately to Tim's booth - partly due to the extremely high quality of his work but also because of the pieces themselves; although I am not a "birder", I am always interested in the birds in my environment and find their behavior fascinating. Over time, I was able to become friends with Tim and his wife Barb.  I remember the first time I went out with the two of them for a meal and a movie and that I felt like the referee in a tennis match, so quickly was the conversation progressing between the two of them, with no input on my part - quite a feat, for those whom are aware of my tendencies to verbosity!

Since then, Tim has become one of the folks in my network of artists whom I try to promote and with whom I share opportunities, and he has certainly returned the favor. But more than that, Tim (and Barb) has been there for me at some very critical times, especially in the last year or so.  He called up at the last minute the night before the first Holiday Open House - right after my friend Chris had called to say he would not be able to make it down as early as he hoped due to a business obligation - and came over to help me clean up the basement. Briefly put, Tim voluntarily took on cleaning tasks I would not ask of anyone, ever.  And he and Barb also, at the last minute, helped me break down from an event during a period when I was in a lot of pain due to a chronic health condition. But most importantly, Tim was there for me earlier this year when I had to let my cat Alexander Ulysses go - a debt I can never truly repay. Tim has truly been a friend in deed.

I find Tim's work both beautiful and functional, a combination sorely lacking in most of our current cultural artifacts. I never tire of hearing about his newest artistic challenge - a challenge, more often than not, he has imposed upon himself. Some of my favorite conversations with Tim are discussions of recent finds of vintage hardware, the progress of recent designs and new ideas on synthesizing his training and his evolving aesthetic. It's always exhilarating to hear the excitement in his voice as he describes the evolution of a design, the resolution of a conceptual barrier or the discovery of a gem amongst a box of dross.

"As a young man, my sense of the wonder of nature was developed by exploring the wooded, undeveloped areas near my family's home in Warren, Michigan, as well as during vacations at my grandparents' lakeside cottage in rural mid-Michigan. It fed my fascination for our avian wildlife species and their habitats, a fascination that continues as I have been able to successfully channel it into my craft." - Timothy Hanks

See More of Tim's work at

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Sycamore Bowls and Leaf Pocket

Tiny, Small, Medium and Large Sycamore Leaf Bowls
Down my street around the corner and over one block over are a couple of American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) trees. (There are also a couple of them if I go up my street, turn in the same direction and go a block.) A lot of folks don't like the American Sycamore because it is perceived to be a "dirty" tree - partly due to its exfoliating bark but also because it is subject to a condition called anthracnose, which causes premature leaf drop, often leading to a second season of raking with these trees. (Also the reason some folks refer to them as "Sick-a-mores".) I actually quite like the exfoliating bark and, although I don't have to deal with it directly, consider the issues with anthracnose bearable because the tree is so lovely, plus the branch angles on our native Sycamore is such that it is most likely to come through the season with little or no ice or snow load damage - not a minor consideration in view of our Michigan Winters.

Tiny and Small Sycamore Leaf Bowls
I also like the leaves. They range in size from quite small to relatively huge. What I find interesting about these leaves is that, even though they're coming from the same specimen, there seems to be two different forms, one a simple palmate leaf and the other a more complex palmate form with more points to it, so I can get two very different types of "looks" from this one tree's leaves. I like to visit my neighbor's property in the fall and see if I can scare up a few leaves for my pottery, scouring the tree lawn and gutter for leaves of the right size. I was actually able to come up with some very large leaves this season, both from the trees in my neighborhood and with the assistance of my friend Theresa. I decided to make sets of "leaf bowls" using both leaf forms, again using my Sasaki Colorstone dishes as molds.

I first saw this stoneware back in the 1990s, at a shop in Ithaca, New York.  I was only familiar with what the manufacturer refers to as the "Coupe Soup Bowl". What I liked about the dishes in this set were they were all based on sections of perfect spheres.  The dinner plate is basically a section of a very large sphere; the soup bowl, a section of a smaller one. Over time, I had broken a number of the soup bowls and went online to see if I could replace them. Unfortunately, Sasaki was no longer making the pattern; the good news was that there a couple of companies specializing in handling tableware replacements, including Replacements ( and Tabletops, etc. ( In searching for my replacement soup bowls, I learned that there was a large vegetable serving bowl, an even larger salad bowl and a much smaller dessert/sauce bowl (although I would prefer a larger bowl for dessert most days!) I ordered a number of each of these, in the color choice which was least expensive, to use in the studio. (These are also the forms I use for my very popular Lace Bowls.)

Large Sycamore Leaf Bowl
I follow my usual technique - rolling out a slab on the (slab) roller, smoothing the surface with the flat edge of my steel kidney and rolling pin, rolling the leaves into the clay and cutting them out with a very sharp tool. I pull away the waste clay and then lift the leaves into their respective bowls. I try to select leaves that are a bit larger than the bowl form so I can manipulate the tips a bit to give them a sense of movement.

Once they've dried, I can sometimes remove the Sycamore leaf (this does not work with Elm, Oakleaf Hydrangea, Catalpa and other leaves with fuzzy undersides or very friable leaves) and reuse it. I was able to do this with the very large, complex leaf my friend Theresa found during a trip to Indiana with her grandson, Evan. Theresa very carefully preserved this leaf, keeping it flat on damp paper towels until she saw me; she wasn't sure what it was but I knew right away and asked if I could have it to use in my pottery, as I had not yet been able to find a very large leaf in that form. I used the leaf for two bowls (one to sell and one to give Theresa as a thank-you gift) and a large Leaf Pocket.

Large Sycamore Leaf Pocket
The leaf pocket was challenging - supporting two large slabs of clay is difficult.  I solved the problem partly by keeping the piece on a kiln shelf for much of the fabrication/drying/bisque firing process.  (A similar piece made from the large leaf from the other set of bowls failed, probably because I dried it too quickly; I hope to try that one again next year - it was quite impressive, larger even than this Leaf Pocket.) I have learned with these large Leaf Pockets (Catalpa speciosa falls into this category as well) is to glaze them holding them in my hand rather than trying to use the glazing tongs.  If I support the curved front wall in my left palm, I can use a 2-oz soup ladle to pour glaze into the cavity; then I just pour the glaze over the back, turning the piece to get complete coverage; due to surface tension, the glaze usually "falls over" the piece's beveled edge, although I do touch up with a little glaze dropped from a brush. The challenge is flipping a piece this large over onto a stilt or stilts to dry; I've solved this by having a stilt ready to take the upper portion of the piece as I flip it over onto another stilt further down: Although a pretty adept maneuver, it has generally worked, now that I have some practice and have developed more patience.

For glazing, I used Copper Carbonate solution and Amaco's Oil Spot on the simpler leaves; Mason Stain Sage Gray and Salt Buff on the more complex ones. The Salt Buff is supposed to go on in "three irregular coats". Because I'm not sure what that means exactly, my solution has been to dip/pour three coats, letting each dry in turn, and then dripping glaze over the surface with a slip-trail bottle. My results have been better than anything I've seen on the Amaco website.

Keep an eye out for our native Sycamores. Don't confuse them with the "London Planetrees" that have been planted quite a bit recently, which are actually the offspring of a spontaneous hybrid between our native Sycamore and the Chinese Sycamore (Platanus orientalis) in Kew Gardens in London (hence the common name). The London Planetree has more greenish bark and carries it fruit in clusters of two, while our native tree has more whitish bark and carries its fruit individually.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House - Meet the Artists: Chris Hopp and Farmbrook Designs

It's only a week until the Second Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House on December 10 (10a-4p), during which we open up the studio to fellow local artists and all of our fans for a day of holiday cheer!  This year, we'll be featuring artisan baked goods and live music, in addition to five unique garden- and home-inspired artists.  I thought it would be nice to introduce them to you so you could get to know each of these amazingly creative and generous folks a little bit better.

Chris Hopp is a Southeast Michigan native, raised and educated in Royal Oak. After high school, Chris experimented in several careers in service and technical fields, finding them immobile and unrewarding. In 1999, a backyard hobby of making small planters and leaf imprints from hypertufa transitioned into a part-time business venture. Farmbrook Designs was established as a partnership including Chris and his Mom, Glenda Hopp.  (The company's name is derived from the address for a piece of property Glenda sold in order to finance the business's start up.)

Often used in the manufacture of decorative indoor and outdoor accents, Hypertufa is a light-weight concrete substitute consisting of Portland cement, perlite, vermiculate and peat moss, making for a more natural-looking finish to the pieces in which it is used.  About forty percent lighter than traditional concrete, hypertufa is every bit as strong and can sustain the freeze-thaw cycle of the typical Upper Midwest winter - even buried under several feet of snow!  "Hypertufa has been a great medium to work in," says Chris. "I can turn my inspirations into practical hypertufa home and garden designs anyone can enjoy and appreciate."

Chris's inspirations are many and varied, including Japanese lanterns, indigenous cairns and other stone structures. These have evolved into his current designs, including a five-piece snow lantern, inukshuks and even large monoliths, inspired by naturally-occuring fractured basalt obelisks. "I'm always tweaking my designs," explains Chris. "It's interesting to look back at my original lanterns and see how they have evolved over the years." The pieces conceived and crafted by Chris and his Mom early in the business have evolved into even more sophisticated designs as Glenda has retired to work on her own business, So Many Colors, and Chris's long-time girlfriend, Chelsea, has stepped in on a limited basis to contribute her own unique voice.

Farmbrook Designs's pieces range from the whimsical to the truly magnificent, including hypertufa mushrooms, planters, lanterns, fountains and garden furniture. Chris is constantly developing new designs inspired by traditional garden accents, such as European Saddle Stones and Millstones.

I met Chris in East Lansing, at the 2007 Master Gardener College on March 17.   I had run into him previously, at previous conferences, but had never really "met" him.  He was back for the (???) time, sharing his work with a very enthusiastic and supportive Master Gardener audience, along with his girlfriend, Chelsea Martin. At the end of the conference, he and Chelsea came down to my table and purchased a number of my toad houses to use in some of his planters in preparation for an event later that Spring in Chicago.

I continued to run into Chris and/or Chelsea over the next year or so at various gardening conferences and tours, gradually getting to know one another better.  I had long admired Chris's work but hadn't really seen a design that grabbed my attention. In October 2009, Chris and I were at a conference in Saginaw, where he lured me out to his van (a whole story there) to show me a absolutely gorgeous large trough he had planted with dwarf conifers.  I was stunned.

A new candleholder concept from Farmbrook Designs
featuring a vintage insulator
Even though Chris has not had formal art training and is largely self-taught, he is one of the smartest, most creative folks I know. He not only has this inimitable ability to conceptualize a form and the means to make a mold for it (engineering and industrial design talents), he has this natural knack for combining his hypertufa pieces with appropriate plants and carefully selected stones and mock mulches in genuinely beautiful compositions. I knew - seeing this beautiful trough planted with dwarf conifers  - I was getting closer to the type of piece I wanted for my garden. Heading out on a limb, I asked Chris that day if there was a design he had wanted to develop but had not yet had the opportunity to do so. He shared his vision for a very large trough on legs. Hearing his description, I placed my order, to be delivered before my first of two annual garden tours in May 2010.

Chris delivered the trough on a Tuesday evening.  I clearly remember the conversation we had about placing the trough - I wanted it to be a "wall" for an outdoor room, delineating the drive from the back yard proper.  As Chris was placing the two supports, I expressed my concern about whether the lawnmower would knock the trough over one of the three or four times a year I actually cut my lawn.  Chris gave me a look (with which I am very familiar now!) and patiently explained that the trough, empty, unplanted, weighed 200 lbs and that each of the two legs weighed between 80 and 100 pounds.

I shut up. Really. I did.

Two evenings later (he's a bit of a night owl, is Chris!), he came back to plant the trough for me.  I remember coming home from teaching a class at the Anton Art Center in Mt. Clemens, MI, and rushing to the back to turn on my outside lights to see his finished handy work. It was amazing.  So amazing that, this Spring, during my annual Clematis Pruning Workshop in April, when things (including the Sedums and Sempervirens Chris has planted in the trough) were barely waking up, the workshop attendees were universally amazed at how wonderful it looked, even still shrouded in their winter's sleep.

This year, Chris installed two more large troughs on legs (at different heights from the one I bought last year) and I finally found a place to put a fountain. Next year it's going to be a lantern. Once I figure out where to put it!

It is always a pleasure to run into Chris - he always gives me a really big hug and there are always new ideas the two of us are working on - sharing them helps us along in the design process.  Chris is the very best younger brother a creative, driven girl could ask for.

"The opportunity to envision and develop a concept and, finally, transforming that concept into a beautiful and unique finished and functional object is one of the most rewarding of human experiences." - Chris Hopp

See more of Chris's work at

Large Cottonwood Bowl

One of the concepts on which I've been working for many years was to fabricate a large, shallow slab bowl impressed with large leaves, the lip of which was cut to the edge of the leaves.  I wanted to use the basin from a large cement birdbath I had been given by my friend Catherine Dumke from her Mother, Dorothy's, house, a vessel I had used to make a series of large birdbaths with stands back in 2008.

I started out using large Redbud (Cercis canadensis) leaves.  The process I used initially involved rolling out a rather thick slab of clay.  I applied the leaves in a pattern large enough to fill the basin - lapping four leaves, tips toward the center, four-square in the center, then surrounding them with another eight leaves, aligned so they carried on the axes determined by the first four leaves, with four additional leaves to fill the interstices.   I cut out the entire piece using a very sharp tool and pulled away the excess clay.  In order to support as much of the slab as possible to minimize stresses, I carefully rolled the slab onto my large pottery rolling pin, which I then kept from rolling while bringing it over to lay into the mold.  Once centered in the mold, I pressed it in with the relatively flat side of a smooth river stone to get as true a form as possible.  Then I'd let it dry.

Of course, being the rather impatient person I am (no snide comments, please), I would dry the piece as quickly as possible - but it would still take a couple or three days.  I would inevitably end up with stress cracks at the margin of the piece at the centers of some of the leaves and where the leaves met and overlapped, points where the clay experienced the most stress from the fabrication and drying processes.

Large Cottonwood Leaf Bowl
I can't tell you how many of these pieces I tried to make.  At least two early this year, with the same result.  (Let's talk about the definition of insanity, shall we?)  Tackling it once more this fall, I followed the same process and tried applying small medallions of clay with stamped impressions at each stress point.  This was a bit better structurally but I wasn't pleased with the result - not as "clean" as I really wanted.  Then I backed off, using some large Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) leaves for a smaller piece.  I used the same technique, but the piece buckled and puckered - it was pretty interesting looking and I stayed with it, but it wasn't what I was really looking for.

Tiny, Small, Medium and Large Cottonwood Leaf Bowls
Taking a break from this design concept, I started working with some Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) I gathered near my house, returning to a design I first developed with Redbud leaves, in which the leaves' bases overlap in the center of the bowl with the tips tapering to the outside.  I had done pieces with large leaves before, but decided to make a set of four graduated pieces, reflecting the four bowl sizes I had found in my Sasaki Colorstone stoneware.  Because of how I was orienting the leaves, I could roll out the clay slab (thinner slabs for smaller pieces), smooth the surface, apply the leaves and roll them into the clay, cut them out and then press them into the bowls with ease - because the leaves tapered to the outside, so they fit into the bowled forms with no puckering or buckling.

Tiny, Small and Medium Cottonwood Leaf Bowls
This approach wasn't going to work when I returned to pieces with the leaves pointing inward - I already knew the clay would buckle and pucker if I rolled the leaves into the clay first and then tried to fit the slab into the mold, resulting in pieces that looked cruder than I wished.  A new approach was clearly in order for these designs.  So I rolled out slabs of clay (again, thinner slabs for smaller pieces), formed them into each of the bowls using a sponge and soft kidney, then applied five leaves of relative size into each piece, with the leaves pointing in.  After I had placed the leaves where I wanted them, I used the river stone to press the leaves into the clay and then cut them out with the sharp tool.  All of these pieces seemed to come through the drying process pretty well.

I tried another very large bowl using unusually large Eastern Cottonwood leaves I had collected from saplings at my friend Chris Hopp's workshop in Dewitt, Michigan.  This time, I decided to roll out the slab, cut out a large piece, form it into the mold, smoothing it completely by alternating with a soft rubber kidney and a natural sponge.  Then I applied the twelve rehydrated Cottonwood leaves in the same pattern I had used before, using the flat side of the river stone to get the best impression possible.  (This actually works quite well in pressing the leaves in - there is no need to use an edge of the stone to press in the leaves; the flattish side of a river stone, swept over the surface with some consistent pressure, works just fine, maintaining a very consistent overall plane in the piece; if it starts to stick to the leaves, just spray with a little water.)  Then, using the sharp tool, I cut the margin to the edges of the overlapping leaves.  I put the piece on the bottom shelf of my drying area and promptly forgot about it.

Ginormous Cottonwood Leaf Bowl/Basin.
For some reason, this time it worked!  There were no stress fractures at all when I pulled the leaves off.  I cleaned the piece using synthetic steel wool and bisque fired it, letting it cool completely before opening the kiln.

I used my typical process to glaze it, staining the inside of the piece to bring up the leaves' veins, pulling off the excess with a damp sponge, and applying wax resist before glazing the exterior.  I wanted to fire the piece upside down so there would be no stilt marks, so I took a small, very clean, kiln shelf, put it on three four-inch kiln posts and turned the bowl over on top of it, so the inside of the bowl, with the stained and waxed leaves, rested on the shelf.  (It is very important that the entire inside of the piece be absolutely clear of any glaze.)  I fired the kiln as usual and waited until the interior of the kiln was within 20 degrees of the ambient temperature before opening.

It worked.  It was great.

So, bolstered by my positive experience, I tried another Redbud bowl.  Which cracked.  Again.  So, I realized two things:  (a)  The fabrication process changes may have helped with the structural issues; but (b) They had not solved the entire problem.  I decided to be extremely patient.  I fabricated the piece again, as I had the Cottonwood bowl, but applied wax resist to the exposed clay edge where I had cut out the leaf margins.  I then put the piece even further away in the studio, where I wouldn't look at it for several days.  When the piece was sufficiently dry that the leaves were pulling way from the clay, I removed the leaves and applied wax resist to the upper surface of the piece, putting it back where it had been.  When it was dry enough to pull it out of the mold, I signed the underside, replacing it until it was bone dry.  Although I haven't done anything more with this piece as yet, there are no cracks.  So far.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House - Meet the Artists: Glenda Hopp and So Many Colors

We're quickly coming up on the Second Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House on December 10 (10a-4p), during which we open up the studio to fellow local artists and all of our fans for a day of holiday cheer.  This year, we'll be featuring artisan baked goods and live music, in addition to five unique garden- and home-inspired artists.  I thought it would be nice to introduce them to you so you could get to know each of these amazingly creative and generous folks a little bit better.

A sample of one of Glenda's
hand-dyed fabrics
If you were to meet Glenda Hopp today, you probably wouldn't begin to believe the road she's traveled in her journey to So Many Colors. But then again, her experience isn't that much different from that of so many creative folks out in the wider universe. Glenda earned a BA in Social Science from Michigan State University, followed by a Masters of Arts in Vocational Rehabilitation from Wayne State University. Ten years of employment in social service followed, succeeded by  clerical work in a fast food regional office where she learned the first version of Lotus 1-2-3, tapping into a heretofore unknown passion.

Glenda at the Rust Belt Market
with some of her wares
Glenda fell in love with software, initially expressed through teaching DOS and the first versions of Windows, later while developing a talent for writing software instruction manuals and teaching business software - skills that seem sadly lacking in the current era.  She carved out a niche teaching and consulting on software designed for ISO 9000 requirements, all the while raising her son Chris as a single mother. In 2000, her employer eliminated her business unit, leading her to the realization that she could no longer work for anyone else. Ever. Again.

She and Chris started Farmbrook Designs, a creative enterprise dedicated to designing and fabricating unique, durable garden and home accents using hypertufa, a light-weight cement substitute, tapping into an entirely new side of her personality: "I never thought I had a creative bone in my body until I designed our molds for our lanterns," she says.  Glenda "retired" from Farmbrook in 2009, seeking other creative opportunities. She had always loved working with color but never thought she had an talent for it until she started dyeing fabric later that year, focusing on 100 percent cotton knits, an under-represented niche in the yard-goods market. "Seeing hand-dyed woven fabric for quilts inspired me to try something different with the low-water immersion process, getting the same sort of mottled colors, to create unique knit fabrics for clothing," says Glenda.

So Many Colors. So Many Looks. So Little Time.
In yet another example of "The Best Laid Plans", Glenda had originally intended to sell dyed yardage at sewing expos but an injured back and then ankle led to three missed shows. The resulting hiatus gave her the opportunity to reassess her creative trajectory.  She is now a permanent vendor at The Rust Belt Market in Ferndale and on Etsy selling scarves and other accessories fashioned from her unique fabrics. Cutting out the middleman, she's starting a clothing line of her own, probably to be called "Plan B" - because things don't always go as planned - coming out in 2012. "I have to do something with the hundreds of yards of hand dyed fabric!" she says - and has had interest in the clothes she's made so far.

Infinity Scarf - Green 
I first ran into Glenda the summer of 2007, at the Yule Love it Lavender Festival in Leonard, Michigan. I had met her son earlier that year but did not know him particularly well yet. It was nice to meet another member of the family and I really appreciated Glenda's dry, matter-of fact perspective on things.  I remember being particularly impressed at how she was able to just throw around those hypertufa things - I mean, they are "light weight" but they're still cement, for goodness sake!  As I got to know the family better, I realized that Glenda and her Mom lived not far from me - and I mean not far - less than a mile, I'd guess. There were times when we'd pass one another on I-94, running the stretch from Cadieux, near both our homes, to Roseville, where the Farmbrook shop was located for many years.  And although she's not directly involved with the company anymore, she does sometimes help Chris out at the occasional event, so I do get to see her on the circuit occasionally.  Glenda has always been one of the most independent people I've known - it's not easy to get her to let you help her - but she's also one of the most generous, level-headed folks in my personal universe.

Glenda Hopp
Founding Member, AARF
(American Association of Retired Fairies)
Earlier this year, we both got caught in a torrential downpour as we were breaking down at a local garden tour.  Even though she was completely finished and could have left, Glenda very generously helped me through the experience.  It was raining so hard and everything was so wet that I was contemplating just leaving the bloody tent there in that field by the Van Hoosen Farm in Rochester, but Glenda patiently helped me pack up and get me on my way.  By the time I got somewhere dry, I peeled off my jacket to see the tell-tale stains of either being caught in the rain or having a serious panic attack - probably both!  I don't know if Glenda really saved my life; it sure seemed that way at the time!

Although Glenda and her mother, Mildred (yet another inveterate cat lover!) live so near, I don't see them nearly as often as I'd like.  It's like that with family, I've found. So sometimes I drop by for a brief visit (to drop something off or pick something up, usually) after a quick call or invite them over to visit my feline family, see the latest creation I've purchased from Chris or just to enjoy the garden (Glenda, too has training as a Master Gardener). Somehow, we always have a lot to talk about when we do manage to get together.  Oftentimes, when we don't have the chance to meet "face to face", I find myself calling in to shoot the breeze as I pass the turn that would take me to their house - on my way to some other destination.  And I always have a great conversation with Glenda, about the creative process, what's happening in the garden today, dealing with cats, the crazy city situation.  And, finally, it's just about finding our own individual joy.

"One of the hardest things I've had to learn, and one of the best things, is not to struggle when your plan goes wrong. The reason behind every change in my life has been because something got in the way of my original plan. I've learned that if I don't struggle against it, new ideas and new opportunities just seem to... appear."  - Glenda Hopp

In Praise of Squirrels. Really.

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus caroliniensis)
Melanistic subgroup ("Black Squirrel")
Last week Monday I came home to what is, for me, a very upsetting situation: An animal in distress. A little black squirrel was in my back yard, moving lethargically and erratically, obviously disoriented and possibly seriously injured. As I approached it, carefully, it darted a short distance until it got tangled in some Clematis vines.

The squirrel was so beautiful - black fur soft and thick as the feathers of night, a dense, bushy tail; I was able to reach out and gently touch its haunch, so disoriented was it. It was obviously suffering from a recent injury or other affliction - other than its behavior, it was the picture of squirrel health. I called my vet, described the situation to the receptionist, who conveyed the details to the veterinarian on duty. I was told that, if I could capture the squirrel and bring it in, they could perform a humane euthanasia. Not being certain as to whether the little guy was simply injured or suffering from some neuropathic toxin, I opted to see if I could manage to get a hold of it and bring it in.

You know something is wrong when a middle-aged woman can actually catch a squirrel. It did bite me, through my gardening glove, but I managed to gently smother it in a large burlap sack and place it in a cardboard box. The little guy was quiet for the brief drive - I wondered if he'd had a seizure due to our encounter. I got him to the vet's office, where they took him back for evaluation. I later learned that he was so severely injured - probably due to a fall resulting in a closed-head injury, which is not uncommon this time of year - that the vet did elect to euthanize him.

Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger)
I know, from informal surveys of some of the groups for whom I've spoken, that there are a lot of folks out there who don't particularly care for squirrels and would like them to just sort of "go away". I also know there are even people out there who think squirrels are so undeserving that killing them is actually a good idea, whether through the means of a firearm or a motorized vehicle or even poison. I have a slightly (actually, radically) different perspective on the situation.

It has been said that, before the "European Invasion" instigated by Christopher Columbus's landing in Hispanola in October of 1492, a squirrel could have traveled from the eastern bank of the Mississippi River to the Atlantic seaboard without ever touching the ground. The vast majority of the eastern half (this is a geographic/biological, not an arithmetic, term) of the United States consisted of diverse hardwood forest - maples, walnuts, beeches, oaks, hickories and chestnuts. Lots of chestnuts. In fact, 25 percent of all the trees in the eastern half of the United States were... American Chestnuts (Castenea dentata). Now, some tree seeds - including maples and elms, for example - can successfully germinate just sitting on the surface, sending out a small root to burrow into the ground and then sending up its first seed leaves. Other trees - including oaks, hickories and chestnuts - cannot successfully germinate unless their fruit is buried; their hard shells just aren't going to let that little rootlet get a start. And nuts and acorns can't bury themselves - they need someone to do that for them. That's where the squirrel - and some of its relatives - come into the picture.

Eastern Gray Squirrel
(Sciurus caroliniensis)
Here in Michigan we generally deal with three squirrel species. Sciurus niger, or the Fox Squirrel, is our largest squirrel, although a threatened subspecies (Sciurus niger cinereus, or the Delmarva Squirrel) native to the Delaware/Maryland/Virginia penninsula is larger still. The common name may be derived from their reddish coats, like those of red foxes. Next in size is Sciurus caroliniensis, or the Eastern Gray Squirrel. Usually mostly gray with some brown and a light underbelly, a melanistic subgroup is almost entirely black and found in certain geographic areas, including southeastern Canada. Finally, last but not least (except in size), is Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, the Red Squirrel, which is basically the Chickadee of Squirrels: Small package with lots of personality and not too shy about expressing itself. These guys are much smaller than our other native squirrels and are extremely territorial, easily intimidating their larger cousins.

A healthy forest is made up of lots of different plants that flower and fruit sequentially. From a squirrel's point of view, soft-bodied fruits (berries and such, which start bearing in June well into the fall) and soft-shelled seeds (think maple or elm here - the various species of which also fruit throughout the season) make great meals in the moment but they aren't very good for long-term storage. Squirrels bury hard-shelled nuts - which take much of the season to develop fully - in fall as their winter-time larder.

Tamiasciurus hudsonicus (American Red Squirrel)
Now, I realize that a lot of folks out there don't think squirrels are very smart. But they're plenty smart enough to get themselves through the winter, relying simply on what Mother Nature has provided. If you're depending on food you've stored to survive an otherwise very lean season, you're going to make sure you're putting up the very best quality food. In a squirrel's world, this means the very best nuts and acorns, healthy, undamaged fruit with the absolutely highest quality nutrition and caloric value. So, squirrels only bury the very best nuts. An aborted or borer-damaged fruit is not a good investment - too much work to find, bury and find again, for something that, in the long run, may not even really be that good for you. Squirrels can just "tell" an aborted acorn from a fully-ripe acorn or a borer-damaged walnut from a Grade AA walnut. How can they tell they're the best? I don't know. I do know that, if I want to tell a good acorn from a bad one, I have to get a bucket of water and see if they float or not (the good ones sink).

Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus caroliniensis)
Anyone who has ever taken even a moment to observe squirrel behavior in the Fall also knows that the little guys never bury a nut where they find it. Some innate, inborn compass directs them to some unknown spot under a small pile of windblown leaves to bury that acorn or nut someplace else. Although there are large nut-bearing trees that are wind pollinated (including members of the Oak, or Quercus, genus), their fruit is obviously too heavy to be dispersed by anything significantly weaker than your average squirrel. Who carries the fruit away from the parent tree, further dispersing the plant's genetic material.

If you are only burying the very best nuts, and burying those nuts across a squirrel-wide territory, and you bury a lot more nuts than you're actually going to need and the nuts you don't need end up germinating, guess what kind of trees you're going to get? You're going to get the very best trees. And that is what we had here in the eastern half of the United States in 1492. All because of little rodents too many of us seem to despise.

It's true. Squirrels are not the edgiest of thinkers. They are very reactive, depending, in many instances, on the most primitive part of the brain - the amygdala (I call it The Squirrel Brain), where our fight versus flight responses are stored. But those little four-legged, fluffy-tailed squirrel brains have been able to figure out that the cars driving by under that oak tree are going to run over those acorns, and those acorns are going to make great meals today, saving energy that would usually be employed in getting those acorns open for burying even more nuts for wintertime; and they get mighty peeved if you just park your car there - minimizing their opportunities for fast food.

Tamiasciurus hudsonicus (American Red Squirrel)
So, the next time you find yourself grumbling about squirrel damage, consider the damage we've done to the squirrel's world in the last 500 years or so. Consider the fact that, although less than five percent of the entire eastern half of the United States hasn't been developed into cities and highways and farmland and golf courses, these little creatures have not only found a way to survive but to thrive. And maybe plant a nice oak or hickory so they'll focus on those nuts instead of your tulip bulbs. And plant those tulip bulbs with some hardware cloth over and around them to deter those digging squirrels. And slow down and let that little fluff ball figure out which side of the road he really wants to be on without you putting your trip to the grocery store ahead of his life.

Give a little respect.

All photos Deb Hall copyright.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House - Meet the Artists: Cathy Dossin

We're quickly coming up on the Second Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House on December 10 (10a-4p), during which we open up the studio to fellow local artists and all of our fans for a day of holiday cheer.  This year, we'll be featuring artisan baked goods and live music, in addition to five unique garden- and home-inspired artists.  I thought it would be nice to introduce them to you so you could get to know each of these amazingly creative and generous folks a little bit better.

Sunflower Stool
The year Cathy Dossin received an art kit for Christmas – a box of paints, brushes and canvases – was the year she discovered her voice. The experience and adventure of creating something from apparently nothing was a heady and uniquely rewarding one. Everything about the paint – how it felt, its smell, the glossiness and malleability – engaged her. One of her first efforts – an attempt at a serious, life-like image of a young farmer boy in a straw hat and jeans – became a touchstone for her continuing evolution as a self-taught artist.

Cathy continued to experiment on her own in conventional formats and traditions for ten to twelve years, at one point turning out a painting a week, some of which are still treasured by their recipients. Constraints of process and circumstance became more frustrating than freeing, as she put down her paints to raise her son as a single Mom.

The turning point came in 2001 when she purchased a piece of painted furniture at a local art event: “I remember buying the coffee table I still have. Someone had painted it and I thought, ‘I love this idea!' I didn’t know you could do something like that, painting furniture, painting anything you wanted. I went home and thought about the piece all night and ended up going back the next day and buying it. It was so far out of my comfort zone – in so many ways – but it was so unique to me that I was willing to sacrifice anything in order to have that piece of furniture in my life.“ With that inspiration, Cathy stepped outside the box and into her own creatively whimsical universe.

Cathy is also a plantswoman. She started gardening in 1994, digging up all the grass in her front and back yards in order to plant 80 rose bushes. Which might be considered as demanding as raising a like number of children. But the catalogs kept coming. And the colors and flower forms and sizes and habits and names – they were all so different! Between having to work a full-time job and raising her son, however, there just was not enough time for 80 more kids.

Now, Cathy has her “Bed of Roses” – a garden bed delineated by an actual iron bedstead – and about ten additional roses scattered throughout her property. Other plants have taken their place, including Clematis, Hydrangeas and Lavender. (Some of Cathy’s roses and clematis are featured in a set of note cards and prints from Don Schulte’s company, Notable Greetings.) Combined with repurposed found objects and her own art work, Cathy has created a “New Wave” cottage garden.

I met Cathy in June of 2008. In addition to working for my own clients, I was doing some work for A Southern Gardener, which also employed Cathy. We ended up working on an installation on the hottest Friday of the year (so far) – and Mil Hurley, the business owner, generously took us all out for ice cream at a local coffee house, now defunct, when we finished. I ended up being scheduled to work with Cathy again the next Friday. I remember that, when I got out of my car at the job site, the first thing I said to her was, “It’s Friday. Do you want to go for ice cream?” And from there a friendship was born.

Words To Live By
We went for ice cream just about every Friday that Summer. Whoever wanted to go went, giving us all a chance to get to know one another a bit better. It got to the point that the soda jerk knew all our orders – Cathy’s Strawberry Chai freeze, Alaine’s Boston Cooler and my chocolate malt. I remember our confusion when another employee, upon returning from leave, observed that it wasn’t special if we went every Friday. And today, if we need to meet, more often than not it’s going to happen at Sander’s in The Village over a Hot Fudge Cream Puff. Even on the coldest day of the year, to date.

Cathy is one of the kindest, gentlest, most generous and imaginative folks I know. Her garden, even as it has evolved, continues to be a key inspiration to her work. Botanical imagery – especially plants and insects – figure prominently in her custom-designed, hand painted furniture, bricks and slates. Old or new materials – both are fair game for Cathy’s aesthetic. Each piece is a new relationship, as a battered dresser or an unfinished stool takes on fresh life.

"I love getting my hands in the dirt and I love getting my hands in the paint. I started gardening and it brought the art back. It seemed I needed some art out there. When I ran out of space in my house and garden, I started giving it away because I just had to keep painting. And now it’s become part of the work I love to do."  - Cathy Dossin