story and photos by Ann Cady
Through a door in her kitchen and down a twisting flight of stairs is the partially underground studio of ceramic artist Colleen McCall of Elmira. Converted in 2010 from a dark, damp basement to a warm, comfortable studio, its long counters are covered with pots and bowls in various stages of being formed and decorated. Intricate and vibrant flower patterns cover many of the pieces. It is fitting that they come to life in a studio half buried in the earth.
Colleen has loved art since she was a child. She was born in Kansas City, Kansas, the home of Hallmark Cards. The participants in the company’s artist-in-residence program used to visit the local schools. One year a welder was sent to demonstrate at Colleen’s elementary school; he made animals out of old tools, nuts and bolts. This demonstration first opened her eyes to the idea of a life making art, and she knew instantly that this was going to be her path in life as well.
In high school she took classes in painting, jewelry, sculpture, pottery and photography, and was head of the painting crew for the theater department. Her summer job before her freshman year of college involved painting backdrops for a theater company. As it turns out, the experience was a double-edged sword. Having to spend so much time creating the illusion of three dimensions made her want to simply work in three dimensions, so after one painting class in college she switched her focus to ceramics.
She earned her BFA from Truman State University in Missouri and then her MFA from Alfred University. Her specialty was creating life-size figure sculpture, a far cry from the colorful patterned bowls, plates, and cups she is currently known for.
After graduation, she and her husband Corey moved to southern Illinois where Colleen taught at Southeast Missouri State University. Corey finished his doctorate. It was here that Colleen first began to create her colorful pots. She was inspired by her young daughter Olive, and made bowls and plates in her favorite colors for her to use with animals painted on the sides.
The technique she uses is known as sgraffito, which involves scratching through a surface layer of color to reveal the clay color underneath. It proved to be a good match for her style and talents. When her son was born, she continued the tradition by making him colorful dinosaur plates. These first pieces, made simply to delight her children, were the beginnings of the work she does today.
Colleen’s work is a unique blend of pottery and illustration. Taking inspiration from vintage patterns, wall coverings and cast glassware, she decorates her vessels’ surfaces from top to bottom, inside and out, a practice she’s famous for. Her work often starts outside of the studio – at a yard sale she may find an old glass bowl with an interesting texture or shape. Back at her studio, she makes a plaster mold of it which, once dry, will be filled with a soft slab of clay. Then the fun begins as she uses patterns, glazes and design to enhance the existing shape and give it a new life all its own. Occasionally her family is pressed into service for help with the background painting.
In 2009, three years after moving to Elmira with her family, Colleen was accepted into Handwork, an artisan cooperative in Ithaca. Handwork boasts the largest single collection of her work in one place.
Colleen has also formed a partnership with Chamberlain Acres, a garden center on Elmira’s Southside. In the main building, often with a fire going in the fireplace and occasionally accompanied by a bottle of wine, Colleen instructs her students during workshops on, for instance, gargoyle making, bud vases, ornaments, and plate painting.
She and artists Esther Yaloz and Laurel O’Brien, along with Charlie Todd and Glenn Miller of Chamberlain Acres, have created the Elmira Handmade Market. The juried art and craft show began as a pop-up holiday sale after Cappy’s, a much loved Elmira gift store, closed. Today, it is held twice a year in Chamberlain Acres’ large greenhouse and features the work of more than 15 artists.
If you would like to see Colleen’s work for yourself, check out her website at colleenmccallceramics.com. You can also find her at Handwork in Ithaca, The Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, Gandee Gallery in Fabius, Main Street Arts in Clifton Springs, Chamberlain Acres in Elmira, the Ithaca Artists Market, and Etsy.