Learning traditional pottery with Jane Osti
By Lisa Hicks
Phoenix StaffTAHLEQUAH, Okla.
- A short, stubby, big-eared dog with an impressive underbite met me at the door that Thursday evening. He gave me a growl before scooting away to the opposite side of the room and I guessed I deserved that for being late to my first traditional Cherokee pottery class.
"Buster Burnt Sienna Brown! You be nice," admonished a flustered-looking woman in a clay-smudged peach shirt. She was fluttering about, clearing space and gathering tools. "Come on in. Let's get started. I'm Jane."
Buster eyed me warily from across the room. He was going to keep an eye on me.
The ad in the paper didn't mention being supervised by a bulldog. It did, however, promise an intensive Cherokee pottery workshop taught by Jane Osti. Students would dig and process native clay, learn the traditional process of coil building pots, and fire their creations in a pit the way it used to be done in the Southeast woodlands.
These traditional techniques had almost died out among the Cherokee, but were revived by award-winning Cherokee potter Anna Mitchell during the 1970s. Osti met Mitchell in 1988 and studied with her for a few years before she began entering her own coil-built creations in art shows and competitions.
Today, Jane Osti is a veteran of museum shows and Indian markets across the country. She's earned numerous awards and her work is featured in museum collections around the nation. She has taught classes at the Cherokee Heritage Center and at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. I had seen her pottery at the Trail of Tears art show at the Cherokee Heritage Center and at NDN Art Gallery in Tahlequah and decided to give her class a go.
There were seven of us- Rosa and Charlie, Nancy, JoAnne, Denise, Alex and me.
We made introductions and got to it. Osti divvied out small blocks of commercial clay for us to roll into a ball and then flatten into a base for our pot. Next we rolled a lump of clay into a rope like coil to wrap around the base we had made. Using our thumbs, we joined the coil to the biscuit like base and smoothed away the seam. We repeated the process with a second coil, joining it to the first. A smooth oval river rock was used to clean, thin and shape the inside walls. The outside was smoothed with thin flexible metal paddles. By drawing upward with the paddle, the walls are thinned without scraping.
"You want a strong base before you start building up the walls of your pottery. The higher you want to go with your walls, the sturdier you need the base to be," Osti said, showing us the base of a large vessel she was creating. When complete, it would stand nearly two feet tall.
Working a pot adds moisture, and too much moisture makes building up the walls difficult. We set our pots aside to dry a little and strengthen before adding more coils.
Since part of the class was learning how to process native clay, we arranged to meet on Saturday to go do some digging. Osti has a spot outside of Hulbert where she found yellow clay.
"The lighter the color the better. I'm always looking for good clay," she said.
Osti showed us the exposed clay in a small ridge. It looked like rocky muddy dirt. She broke away a shovel full.
"See how it shingles up? Clay breaks up into ridges when you break it apart."
We each filled two five-gallon buckets with the sticky clay and hauled it back to her studio. We would process it during the next class.
Processing the clay was dirty work. Osti had filled the buckets with water and made a sloppy mess of the clay mixture. We took turns using a drill to mix the water into our clay until it had a yogurt-like thickness. The next step was pouring the liquid through a mesh sieve to strain out the bits of gravel. Finally, the clay was ready to pour into shallow bins to dry and thicken.
Once firmed to a workable consistency, the clay had to be "wedged" - formed into a block and kneaded.
"You're not baking bread, Lisa. You need to be working the air bubbles out, not putting them in," Osti corrected me.
This required pushing into the clay with the heel of one hand while twisting the protruding clay lump around with the other hand and repeating until the clay had a uniform consistency. It reminded me vaguely of the motions a taffy-pulling machine makes.
After we had our native clay ready to work with, Osti showed us another technique for creating the base of a pot. We rolled our clay into a ball before flattening it and rolling it out with a rolling pin.
"Roll it out almost like you're making a pie crust," Osti said.
We shaped our round platters of clay around the outside of overturned mixing bowls, gently patting the clay, coaxing it into conforming to the contours of the bowl. This piece would be the base for a larger pot or bowl than we made the first time. We placed our molded clay inside the bowl to ensure it retained its shape while it dried and firmed up. It would be ready to add coils to in a day or two.
In the meantime, we went back to our first pots to refine and decorate them. Designs are best applied when the pot is firm enough to hold. At this stage, the pots had the dull shine and feel of old saddle leather. We chose traditional designs and used various tools to etch the patterns into the clay. The last step was creating a shiny finish using a polished stone to smooth away the thin dull outer film of dried clay. After rubbing and shining, our creations were nearly ready to fire. They just had to finish drying.
"Moisture in the clay will cause your pot to break while it's in the fire. It needs to be completely dried out before we put it in," Osti told us. She then encouraged us to enter our finished pots in the Trail of Tears Art Show.
"I want to see more Cherokees creating traditional pottery and showing their work," she said as she handed out entry forms.
Nancy Enkey, Denise Chaudoin, Alex McConnell and JoAnne Dobrinski entered their creations.
Enkey said she was really excited about the show and the prospect of continuing the craft.
"I've been away (from Tahlequah) for 23 years and now that I'm back, I want to learn the pottery, the language, everything. I'm bringing my mom to the next workshop. It's something we can do together," Enkey said.
The Trail of Tears Art Show and Sale runs through May 29 at the Cherokee Heritage Center. The show features pottery, paintings, graphics, sculpture, basketry and miniatures by contemporary artists from across the country. Previous shows have included works by Osti, Talmadge Davis, Murv Jacob, Lena Blackbird, Joan Hill and Bill Glass. This year, attendees will see debut works from Osti's class in addition to their traditional favorites.
For more information, call Jane Osti at (918) 453-0449.