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Feat of Clay

Twenty years later, Marilyn Woods is once again up to her elbows in clay - and loving it more than ever
by: photo by David Stroup, Marilyn Woods

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After almost four decades working with ceramics, Oregon City artist Marilyn Woods is ready to have a little fun with the clay.

'I'm not doing this to make a living - thank God,' she said, while getting ready for this weekend's First City Arts Faire at her studio. 'I did that at one time - I don't anymore.

'I'm not trying to sell the most pieces I can,' she said. 'I could make different pieces - and sell more - I don't want to. I want to make the pieces I make, and if they sell, great.'

Woods is one of the dozens of artists - many of them local - taking part in the big annual fair at the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Like many of the artists, she hopes to do well at the popular summertime event - selling her art and meeting new customers. But that's no longer the main reason she creates her quirky, eclectic pieces using a variety of techniques.

She indicated a dusty, streaky, smoke-fired vase: 'Someone could say 'I want another piece like this' - well, forget it,' she said. It's a process that's impossible to standardize through mass production.

'I like the fact that they're all different - it gives each one an element of uniqueness.'

A career in clay

Woods started making pottery in the 1960s; she said she suddenly had an epiphany while visiting a friend in Los Angeles.

Woods already had an art degree - she majored in dress design - but she said it 'didn't stick.' While in LA she was shown some popular red-clay pots from Mexico. They were hot - and impossible to import.

'I looked at them and said 'I bet I could make these.''

She bought clay and books on the process, and found a place to fire them - teaching herself as she went along. 'One thing led to another and I had a business.'

She worked as a potter while living in Chicago in the 1970s.

'I would make little wall weedholders,' she said. 'I could pump out whole bunches of them, and they sold really well. Probably my claim to fame what that I made jigsaw puzzles - I sold every one I made, and I got so tired of making them. My husband now wants me to make them again - I said 'never in this lifetime.''

She did that through the 70s, and did well, but 'I had three kids who needed to go to college, and you can't do that making pots.'

She learned about computers, and had a successful second career, moving to Oregon City in 1999 after retiring. Her husband suggested she try her hand at ceramics again.

'At first I wasn't thinking about getting back in it,' she said, 'although I had kept my wheel, my tools, my glaze recipes. My wheel didn't get turned on for 25 years - it still works, thank God.'

With a little urging from her family she started making pottery again - but with a difference.

'This time around I'm doing more experimentation - and more fun things,' she said. And I think my work is better than it was then.'

Freeform and unique

Although she still has - and occasionally uses - that potter's wheel, it isn't her main tool.

'I don't make a lot on the wheel,' she said, 'because so many people in Portland use them - there's not a lot who do handbuilding.'

Her most popular pieces are handbuilt - like the hollow nude torsos she painstakingly builds up from a patchwork of different-textured clay panels. The simpler pieces she makes - like the few bowls she turns on her wheel - are just a stage for her to experiment with glazes.

She calls the vast collection of raw glaze materials that occupies a wall of cubbyholes in her studio her chemistry set. 'You have recipes,' she said, 'you alter them, you test them with different combinations.'

Her studio is a spacious series of rooms located on her property in a rural neighborhood off Beavercreek Road. In addition to the collection of glazes and shelves of ceramics in various stages of completion she keeps a library of textures - shells, rocks and hand-made rollers and stamps for manipulating clay.

She pointed out a set of drab-looking unfinished pieces streaked with glazes that look gray before firing.

'I was just having a heck of a good time, putting glazes on top of glazes in a painterly manner,' she said. The ceramics are destined for a Raku firing.

'We'll see how they turn out - sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not so good.'

Raku is one of the special techniques she uses to produce one-of-a-kind works. Large kilns - she owns one of those too, as well as an electric kiln for preparing ceramics for glazing - are heated to 2,300 degrees and allowed to cool slowly.

She built her small, Raku kiln herself. It's designed to be heated quickly to 1,800 degrees. The lid comes off, and the pottery is placed - blazing hot -in a can filled with combustible material: 'Straw, sawdust, newspaper - something that's going to burn.'

A tight lid goes on the can.

'The flames become starved for oxygen,' she explained. 'So it pulls the oxygen out of the glazes - and you get these nice lustres.'

The gleaming, pearlescent finished Raku pieces look nothing like the dull gray ceramics that go into the kiln.

'You can't get that in a high-fired kiln,' she said. 'But it's much more unpredictable.'

The same is true of layering different glazes. 'You get some nice results - sometimes they blend together, sometimes they don't.' The colors change as the piece is fired: 'You have to close your eyes and imagine what you're doing.'

She wants to work more with those techniques - and an even more unpredictable one called smoke-firing.,

'You have no idea what you're going to get,' she said. 'You put it in a hole in the ground with sawdust and wood and combustibles… you cover it up and light it, and let it burn down.'

The smoke itself makes the streaked, dusky patters on the finished pieces. 'You never know what you're going to get.'

And that's just the way she likes it.