by Nancy E. McCarthy
In 2006, pottery artist Julia Dean and her husband Reverend Tim Dean vacationed in Ithaca, drawn to explore the Finger Lakes community after reading EcoVillage at Ithaca by Liz Walker. Julia recalls they were eating by the lake at the Farmers Market when they concluded Ithaca was different from any place they’d ever been to before – in a very good way. “We looked at each other and said ‘Where are we?!’” says Julia. The area’s “natural beauty and progressive culture within a small town atmosphere won our hearts.”
At that time, the Deans were living in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Julia, a new mother, had taken an extended break from teaching ceramics and making pottery. It was awkward to work “at the wheel” when she was pregnant and after their daughter was born in 2004, she found it difficult to balance pottery and caring for Ella. “Clay is pretty demanding, a little needy,” Julia explains – the irony not lost on her that a baby could be described the same way.
A year after that Ithaca visit they moved there, making the decision before either had work lined up. In retrospect, it didn’t hurt that the community embraced the arts. As the family settled in, Tim accepted a position as a Cayuga Medical Center hospital chaplain, Ella began preschool and Julia dived back into pottery making and began creating a new body of work.
Today, the potter has hit her stride. Julia opened The Clay School in 2015, a community teaching studio which also houses her own separate pottery production studio. Julia’s output is prolific: her original hand thrown pottery is sold at over 60 retailers nationally and through her online Etsy store.
“Julia’s work is distinctive and lovely,” says Andrea Bellavigna, who manages the Watkins Glen State Park Gift Shop. The shop carries mugs, wine chillers, ornaments and other items from her rustic Woodland Collection. Woodland pieces feature Julia’s signature rich blue glaze and surfaces decorated with leaf impressions. Other Finger Lakes outlets selling her pottery include the Busy Bee Market in Sheldrake and Ithacamade, an Ithaca gift shop.
Molding an Artist
When Julia was 10, she and her mother visited Colonial Williamsburg. Julia was mesmerized by an artist working at a potter’s wheel, forming a lump of clay into a pitcher. That singular exposure made a lasting impression, but she would not have the opportunity to explore the clay medium until college. Growing up in the small town of Marion, Kentucky, Julia drew and painted (and played piano) but she didn’t take art classes. In high school, she had to choose between advanced academics or art.
While there was a dearth of formal art education, Julia was deeply influenced by the skilled master stone craftsmen employed by her family’s monument business. Henry & Henry Monuments, established in 1881, was run by her maternal grandfather during her childhood years.
“I was around people who worked with their hands and were making things,” Julia says. With a proud nod to the talented legacy of the stone workers, she considers herself both a clay artist and skilled craftsman.
Though she focused on pursuing a degree in education at Murray State University in Kentucky, Julia also took art courses – and finally got her chance at the pottery wheel. “It felt like I had imagined,” she says. “Familiar, like I already knew what I was doing.”
In 1998, Julia and Tim (who met working in a youth camp) married the day she graduated and they moved to Fort Worth, Texas. He attended Brite Divinity School to attain his Master of Divinity. Julia started teaching reading to middle schoolers by day and, at night, took ceramics classes to hone her skills. She was hooked on clay!
The young couple moved again in 2000, after Tim graduated and accepted a youth ministry position at a church in Charlotte. Julia didn’t return to a traditional classroom setting. Instead, she worked at a clay supply store and taught ceramics there. She established her own home studio, too, and began selling her work at art shows.
Life in the Finger Lakes
After the family moved to Ithaca, Julia set up her home studio and later started teaching at Cornell University’s pottery studio. When it closed in 2011, Julia recognized the resultant void in the arts community. After scouting an appropriate location, she opened The Clay School in 2015. The 2,000-square-foot space at the South Hill Business Campus in Ithaca houses a teaching studio offering classes, workshops, events, and shelf rentals for independent potters. Staff instructors teach all ages and levels, including after-school and home-school sessions for children. Julia fills in as needed and occasionally leads specialty workshops. Most of her time is spent in her own ceramics production studio, also at the school, creating her pottery collections. Two employees assist with surface decorating, glazing and loading kilns, plus packing and shipping items. The school’s kiln room is used by both studios.
Judy Hoffman, with a ceramics degree and 50 years of experience “throwing pots,” connected with Julia over a year ago when both volunteered for the Empty Bowls benefit dinner for Loaves & Fishes (a local community kitchen). Hoffman was impressed with Julia’s artistry, passion for her pottery, school and her commitment to helping others. “Her love of art and people is evident in her pottery and in the community of people who use The Clay School,” says Hoffman. “I cannot help but feel happy when I am there!” Hoffman now teaches classes at The Clay School and is its program coordinator.
The school is a welcoming space for would-be and experienced potters to work and learn side by side. Its goal is to “foster a sense of community among students of all ages and enrich their continuing education through shared experiences around making art.”
Not all artists pursue art full-time but Julia has advice to those considering an art career. “Don’t give up … just keep walking,” she says. “An artist’s journey evolves – there is nothing linear about it.”
Visit juliaedean.com to view the artist’s work and clayschoolithaca.com to learn more about The Clay School.