Shelley Schreiber at her wheel, 2008.My first exposure to clay was making a slab teepee at the local Jewish Community Center when I was very young. Then in sixth grade, I made a small wheel-thrown vase that was mostly thrown by my teacher. During my last year of high school (in the late seventies), I took a hand-building class in which one of our assignments was to make Chimú- and Nazca-style pots. I started learning the wheel and practiced throwing on my own after school—my ceramics teacher, Mark Zamantakis, gave me an assignment to make twenty bowls in a year, and I couldn’t do it. My first solo firing using a small electric kiln was a disaster; all the pots had cratered and bubbled glazes. At the time, I didn’t know of course that my precious bowls were underfired. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I took all the fired pieces straight from the kiln and threw them against the brick wall of our house. She was more traumatized than I was over by the event and brought up the subject repeatedly for many years. I still have a habit of taking the hammer to pieces I don’t like, but now I wait a few days before I decide to “edit” the results of my firings.

My time spent with Mark that last year of high school turned out to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship with him. After graduating, I bought my first wheel and visited Mark during his lunch hour. In the back of his classroom, he had a small kiln room where he would sit on a stool, near the window, and watch the students doing crazy things on the school grounds. We had a lot of good conversations there.

Before I knew him, he had built a three-chamber noborigama in the mountains of Colorado and he fired it in the summer with the help of former students, friends, and colleagues. I participated in these firings many times, and I was always assigned the overnight shift to help keep the “guys” from overstoking the kiln. Unbelievably, I didn’t get to stoke the kiln until I’d been participating in the firings for more than twenty years, and then only after a studio mate advocated on my behalf.

From that time in high school until Mark died this year, we drank tea together in his kitchen many, many times. He was more of a mentor to me, guiding me through various life experiences, than a teacher of technical aspects of ceramics, though he was always willing to help with that part of learning. His influence on me stylistically—based on his love for beautiful, pristine glazes and forms—still shines through in my work to this day.

 

Taking Two Paths

Shelley Schreiber. Flying Teacups, 2013. Hand-built stoneware (Cone 6 ox.), wheel-thrown porcelain (Cone 10 red.), 8 x 14 x 6 in. Photo by artist.With a plan to go to college, I had to make a choice between two very different career paths: studio ceramics and international studies. I was already interested in Latin America, so I decided to pursue a double major in international affairs and Spanish. During college, I lived in Mexico, learned to speak Spanish fluently, and after I graduated, I was an intern on Capitol Hill. I then went on to earn a master’s degree in international studies. I kept my Soldner kick wheel in my dorm room, and brought it with me to wherever I was living from then on.

During graduate school, I participated in an exchange program in Chile, then went back and worked for UNICEF for four years during a politically turbulent time there. I researched social issues, such as poverty, street children and infant mortality in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. I took classes at the only high-fire ceramics studio in Santiago, and learned about working in a place that didn’t have pug mills, ready-made clay, or even easily accessible raw materials. A hard-working assistant mixed clay from slip that dried outside on plaster bats, and we warmed our throwing water on top of a space heater. It was a lovely studio, Taller Huara Huara, that continues to nurture phenomenal artists.

After Chile, I transferred to UNICEF New York. I took night classes at Greenwich House Pottery, and continuing education classes at the School of Visual Arts, and took advantage of open studio time every weekend. One of my teachers invited me to become a studio member of Flatiron Studios in midtown Manhattan. There I learned to fire a gas kiln and had one of my scariest firing experiences. My very first solo firing didn’t reach temperature. During my second firing attempt on an extremely hot and humid Manhattan summer day, I was having the same problem. After the technician had increased the burner orifices in size, I was sitting on the fire escape of the third-floor studio getting an over-the-phone consultation from him about what to do next. I was told to push in the damper until I got a good flame from the peepholes. That maneuver blew bricks right out the side of the chimney. To put them back, I had to squeeze myself, during the firing, into the shoulder-width space between the chimney and the building wall. I did it, but not without feeling hot, dizzy, and in fear of burning the building down! The Flatiron Studio is where I learned about intuitive firing, that is, how to fire a kiln by hearing, seeing, smelling, rather than relying solely on settings.

 

What It’s Like to Make the Switch

Shelley Schreiber. Reach II, 2015. Hand-built stoneware w/ satin-matte glaze, Cone 6 ox., 23 x 8 x 6 in. Photo by artist. Photo by Wes Magyar.

Changes in my life seemed to come in four-year cycles, and once again I was faced with making a decision about my career path. After several attempts to move up within UNICEF, I began to think about what life would be like with no roots—moving to a different country every three to four years, as is the norm in international organizations. On the one hand, life was exciting. I was part of a large and culturally diverse beneficent organization. I got to see the inner workings of governments, and what international organizations stand for. On the other hand, I loved ceramics and wanted to take the leap of faith required to practice that passion.

After spending quite a bit of time mulling it over, I left New York and my job in the international arena working for an organization with 8,000 employees and moved back to Colorado to join a co-op studio with fewer than twenty-five members and just a few artists working there regularly.

Fortunately—in some respects—when I started, I had blinders on; I didn’t think too long and hard about the financial consequences of this decision. My move back to Colorado eased the financial burden of following my passion. I renewed friendships in the clay world and with college friends. Working in a co-op provides me with access to equipment and interaction with other artists, but I work hard to find the precious times during the day and week that I can work alone, stay focused, explore, and experiment.

Learning to market my work and depending on others’ opinions and decisions in order to get into galleries and shows has been painstaking. Success doesn’t always depend on how much I enjoy my artwork, how hard I work, or my perseverance and passion, and others don’t necessarily share my aesthetic. I’ve had many slide packets returned with no letter and no return address, an experience that has thickened my skin. I’m not concerned about whether “everyone” likes my work, instead I know there are specific audiences for it. As I continue to work in this arena—and forgo the financial benefits of other types of jobs—I’m satisfied by the freedom of making what I love to make and finding kindred spirits who appreciate it, rather than trying to please everyone or follow someone else’s lead.

I recently benefited, though, from showing my work to a gallery owner who let me know that I appeared to be all over the place. “Not a cohesive body of work,” he said. I had made the mistake of showing all my work on my website rather than editing it down to reflect a singular style and thought process.

 

Community

Because I missed the international community I used to be a part of, I started teaching wheel-throwing at the Art Students League of Denver. I saw it as a way of being around other artists and people interested in clay and earning more money. Teaching (and volunteering) eventually morphed into studio management, a role that goes beyond keeping things running smoothly, maintaining and upgrading equipment, and running the studio facility in an organized and efficient manner. In my view, my role is also to promote an understanding of ceramics through good programming. Not all of the students are going to become professionals, but they are going to be ambassadors for our field. I have students who don’t last a week and others who stay for years because they enjoy the learning process and sense of community. Sometimes I’m asked why I stick with it and take the backlash that comes of showing a strong personality in order to improve the program. You know, it’s like that unfounded saying, women are bossy and men are bosses?

Shelley Schreiber. Platter, 2016. Wheel-thrown porcelain with colored slip, underglaze and  glaze, Cone 10 reduction, 1 x 12.5 in. Photo by artist.

Balancing and Survival: Help and Hindrances Along the Way

What does it mean to take on different roles out of financial necessity, and how does one balance broadening one’s social scope with a natural tendency to work alone? It’s a matter of practicality—I need to earn a living and haven’t yet been able to achieve that solely from my studio work. It’s also a matter of understanding—I know and enjoy the world in which I have placed myself. I diversify my income not only through teaching and studio management, but also through selling my work online and taking on the occasional gig as a photographer.

The clay community is an interesting bunch. We are aware of each other, sometimes work together and support each other, but we can be loners struggling to keep ourselves afloat. I’ve heard many say that we are myopic in our approaches to the art world and sometimes don’t give ourselves the credit we deserve so that others will do the same; that we focus on methods and not ideas and thus aren’t included or respected the way we should be. A case in point is when a friend told me that in speaking with someone he’d referred to me as a “potter,” (I had referred to myself that way), who told him the term didn’t have a “high” enough connotation. Now I call myself a “ceramic artist.”

Ceramics studio managers are undervalued. I have faced difficulties in being recognized for my abilities and for having an opinion. I have a strong sense of self and of direction, both supported by my persevering personality, my eye for form, and my understanding of things technical. Interestingly, it has been mostly men who have been supportive of my pursuits, but also mostly men who have great difficulty understanding my assertiveness. One or two have questioned my integrity, my abilities, or my motives, and made hurtful and unfounded accusations, which I perceive to stem from being a “woman” who happens to work in clay. Others, including my high school teachers, have been and continue to be encouraging, and a few women from the clay community remind me when I need it that I’m successful and have accomplished a lot.

 

Shelley Schreiber. Bending Over Backwards II, 2013. Hand-built stoneware with stains; Cone 6 oxidation. 6 x 17 x 18 in. Photo by artist.What Ultimately Matters

I take on many roles to stay in the game and I am willing to navigate the inevitable questioning of who I am, even though it can take an emotional and physical toll. I look to myself and to those people who, like me, strive to create a support system and meet their goals. And, I look to my studio work; it is what feeds me and lets me know that I’m improving while making a contribution to the art world.

My expectations for the future are to be ever changing, ever learning, and to always take an introspective approach to making work. In addressing how one approaches finishing a piece, a ceramic-artist friend once asked, “In a one-hundred-mile race, when are you halfway there?” The answer was, “at the ninety-ninth mile.” I took that to heart—it’s my belief of how to expand my creativity and keep moving forward, striving for excellence.