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Potters’ Skin Butter Featured Artist: Sarah Wells Rolland

I am excited to present our very first Potters’ Skin Butter Featured Artist – Sarah Wells Rolland, founder of The Village Potters. This interview is the first in a series featuring accomplished and inspiring ceramic artists.
A few months before The Village Potters opened five years ago, Sarah offered to make Potters’ Skin Butter the official lotion of The Village Potters. I was honored, and of course I said yes!  It has been a wonderfully supportive, fun, and mutually rewarding relationship. In fact, in 2016, The Village Potters sold more of my lotion than any other retail outlet!

I often stop in to their River Arts District space to restock lotion. I also occasionally help out with the retail side of the front gallery, meeting customers and helping them find the perfect pottery to take home. Lately, I have been visiting the Village Potters in a new capacity, as a pottery student in their Teaching Center. When I think of the Village Potters I think of a creative community, a resonant space filled with welcoming, ambitious, self-directed ceramic artists.

One afternoon in late March, I walked into The Village Potters Gallery, Studios, and Teaching Center, as I had many times before. I have come here for many reasons since The Village Potters was founded. This time was a little bit different. I was here to interview founder Sarah Wells Rolland about her personal work and process as well as how The Village Potters got started.
Sarah and I met at Haywood Community College’s Professional Crafts Program 2006 graduate show at the Grove Arcade Arts and Heritage Gallery.
Sarah:  And you said something about your product and I said, ‘Hey you should come out [to my home studio] because I’m going to have a bunch of potters out there.’ And then it was probably sometime in the spring when I had that workshop and I invited you out and you were crazy and did it.”
And that’s how our relationship started.
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Cara:  So, I met you back when you had your own studio out in Haywood County. But I don’t know much before that. How did you get into clay?
Sarah:   Well, I grew up on a lake in central Florida. So, when there were droughts, I would love it when the lake turned into a big pile of muck. And I didn’t realize then, but when I look back on it, as a potter, I’ve been playing with the earth even as a small child. And I would fill the wheelbarrow up with the muck and haul it around and try it out on walls. So, I’ve always been playing with clay.

Somewhere in my late twenties I went into a pottery studio for the first time in my life. I’d never seen pots made. And I could smell the clay. And a friend of mine was there taking a class. So I decided that … within 10 minutes of being there and looking around, that I was going to do that. And I had never had anything resonate that way with me before. And so I went home and told George that night- my husband- ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to be a potter.’ And he said, ‘What?!’ And I said, ‘Yep I saw it today and I just know it in my spirit. It’s what I’m going to do.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ So we figured it out from there. Even when I took my first class, I went into it knowing it was what I was going to do.

So I did it. I worked in a little house that was $100/mo that had been moved out of Cataloochee when they made it a national park. And I rented it and I worked out of it for maybe 12 years. And George was building my home studio in Bethel, NC and it took him 7 years to build it. Then. I moved over into that studio and worked there for another 10              years.
Cara:  And that’s where I met you.
Sarah:  Yes, that’s where I met you, in the really nice studio that George built. If you look what I’m doing now, it’s been a progression. I was hosting those workshops. I was travelling places and teaching. Teaching was becoming more important. Once a year I organized bringing potters together.  I was loving it and looking forward to it. So I sort of eased in to what The Village Potters is. And somewhere in all that I decided that I’d like to change it all up – to have a community studio, teach. I had no idea that anyone else was doing it. I had never gone to Odyssey. I knew they were hosting workshops, but I didn’t know that there were people sharing studios and that sort of thing. I just got lonely and thought, ‘I want to do something that makes this part of my life bigger than it is right now.’ It was a progression.
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Sarah:  And I loved teaching. The little snippets of teaching made me realize that I knew a lot of stuff. Until you start giving away and sharing with people what you know, you don’t necessarily know how much you know. Have you ever thought about that? Unless you sit and talk with someone, you might not realize the wealth of information you have from all of these years. I did not want to work in solitude and take it to the grave. It’s not what craftsmen/makers used to do. They were always giving it up. And so I realized that’s what I wanted – to make sure that I took what was 25 years of experience and be generous and give it away. And I love it. I just love it.
During this part of the interview, Tori DiPietro, an intern at The Village Potters, was slamming clay down onto the slab roller while having a conversation with another potter. And Lori Theriault was making production pieces while listening to podcasts on her headphones.
Cara:  What’s something new you’ve been experimenting with lately?
Sarah:  Well, one of the things that this place has afforded me is -- because so many people have different interests from my own -- one of the core missions at The Village Potters is to be committed to the dreams of others. For example, Karen’s dream is wood fire with wood ash surface. So we found the Kazegama kiln. It is gas fired and you add wood ash to it. I call it an old lady kiln ‘cause you get to go to bed at night. It's an 8 hour firing process. We did a fundraiser. George built it. Now it is influencing my work. I’m insanely in love with it.
Lori Theriault has influenced my work, usually a tight and refined edge, and it has developed a looseness over time. My work has changed so much in the last five years. If you work alone in a studio all the time, you don’t have those influences. So this five years has changed me remarkably.

The exciting things for me come out of the collaborative teaching environment. It influences me.  You can’t set up a situation like this and give away what you know and not get more back. I don’t think it’s possible. I get so much. I’m teaching more than I ever have. I have a vision for my life now that is 60% teaching and 40% being a potter. And fading out production pots completely. It’s scary for that to come out of my mouth, but that’s the vision I have for my life. The challenges of production have been peaked out for me. It’s just income. But teaching is a huge challenge, and I love it.”
Cara:  Are you ready for people to know about that, if I wrote about that?
Sarah:  Yes, absolutely. In fact, we are expanding at the end of 2017 and we're going to have two classrooms instead of one. I’m going to be teaching an advanced throwing class as well as an intermediate and advanced handbuilding classes. We do a lot of stuff here. We have an independent study mentorship program [ISM] where people are working diligently on their body of work. And we also have Masters Series Worshops where a professional potter conducts a demonstration style workshop. We have very different things going on. 
Sarah takes me outside and points out where the expansion will take place.  This summer, The Village Potters are acquiring an additional 5000 square feet. They’ve been looking for a space to expand their Laguna clay distribution and Teaching Center.

Sarah:  We will have 8 spaces as an incubator for folks that need a transition. Students who have matriculated through our program would be invited to apply from the ISM program. For maybe 1-2 years. Akira Satake is moving in next door. Helaine Greene is transitioning the whole Riverview Station building into arts buildings. The timing was perfect because we finally talked Laguna into letting us be a distributor and it took years. The space came available as I was getting all these new ideas for classes but our teaching center was maxed out. There can be this wonderful convergence. Whoever goes into the new studios will be matriculating from the program that we have. The mission statement here is very much about raising the next group of potters.
Cara:  So much exciting stuff! So how does the distribution thing work?
Sarah:  We already have people ordering clay and it’s drop-shipped here and they pick it up. Lindsey Mudge handles that whole thing and helped set it up herself. And as soon as we have the expanded space, we’re gonna blitz it everywhere. You can mention it. There are 3 major clay suppliers in the country and Laguna’s one of them. So we’re holding a distributorship in Asheville where there’s a huge community of potters in Western North Carolina and a high quality clay. I’ve been using it for maybe 15, 20 years.
Sarah motions towards the interns.
Sarah:  The majority of the people over there in the ISM need instruction, mentoring, questions answered, but they don’t need anybody to light a fire for them. They’ve already got that. They ignite one anther over there. Like this one, [motions to Tracy]. Tracy Hawkins is a retired industrial engineer. She has a nonprofit that makes water filtration systems for third world communities and she’s a potter. Now is that a fascinating woman or what? And a mom. Yes, she’s doing all the things!

*              *              *

Sarah:  It’s been 5 years. We’ve expanded almost every year but one. Every thing that we do has a life of its own. The independent study students just came and in 6 months it was full. They are from all over the country.

I’m not famous. It’s not like I’m some name in pottery where people will go, ‘Have you heard that Sarah Wells Rolland has got a studio?! We’ve gotta leave from another state and go down there!’ I’m not a name like that. I’m like this person that has schlepped and made pots for a long, long time. But I’ve not done the work to get famous. They send articles out about themselves. They try to get in Ceramics Monthly. I’ve never done any of that. So it surprised me when people came. Because really, I’m just this person out on this mountain that schlepped and made pots for all of those years. That’s just the truth.
Laughter all around.

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For more information:
Learn about Sarah Wells Rolland here.
Learn about The Village Potters here.

Written by Cara Steinbuchel and Michelle Rogers
Originally published 4.6.17

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