Artist Spotlight: decorative, but functional local wares

IF YOU HAD asked Alison Flegel when she was a sophomore at Pocahontas County High School what her future in pottery might look like, it would have been a far cry from the pieces she produces today. Flegel wants her pottery to be used, so each piece is thrown with a purpose of functionality in mind. The bowls, plates and vases shown here are just a few of the many functional pots available at the Green Bank Gallery. C. D. Moore photo
IF YOU HAD asked Alison Flegel when she was a sophomore at Pocahontas County High School what her future in pottery might look like, it would have been a far cry from the pieces she produces today. Flegel wants her pottery to be used, so each piece is thrown with a purpose of functionality in mind. The bowls, plates and vases shown here are just a few of the many functional pots available at the Green Bank Gallery. C. D. Moore photo

Cailey Moore
Staff Writer

Pottery is an age-old tradition – a tradition that, much like the traditions of Appalachia, are born of necessity and survival. Over time, these traditions have changed – transforming from a common practice for the betterment of the family to an art form used for hobby and pleasure. Nowadays, beautifully crafted pieces are nestled on shelves or situated in the center of a table to serve various purposes, even as a home for a bouquet of fresh flowers. Their functionality has been forgotten, but Pocahontas County-native Alison Flegel hopes to unite necessity and pleasure through her line of functional pottery.

“I like my work to be functional,” the Cass native explained. “I have some collectors that will buy my work only for it to go right back on a shelf, but I really encourage people who buy my work to use it. That’s what it’s for. I like having the big vase that sits up on the shelf and is a conversation starter. I like that it makes your home beautiful and is still functional, but the mug, the bowl, and the plate – I make functional pottery, and I like for people to hold them, use them, to wash them.”

Flegel was first introduced to ceramics during her sophomore year of high school by retired Pocahontas County High School art teacher Roselyn Leary. According to Flegel, the differences in her work then and now are oceans apart.

The first half of the class dealt with the art of hand-building – which Flegel enjoyed – but when it came time to switch gears and start working on the pottery wheel, Flegel soon discovered that the wheel was not her forte.

Despite her initial experience, the art world had left a positive mark on Flegel, and following graduation, she went on to pursue a degree in art – where she was reintroduced to ceramics. Upon her graduation, Flegel spent time traveling and worked in numerous home studios and art centers, and in 2008, formed her business, Alison Pottery, while in North Carolina.

In 2010, Flegel returned to school as a graduate student at East Carolina University – where she spent the next three years expanding her knowledge of ceramics, garnering experience by working with different kilns, and refining her skills.

Those honed skills have since made their debut in her work, but even with her added knowledge, crafting each piece is not as easy as it looks. A lengthy process is involved when it comes to creating her microwaveable and dishwasher/oven-safe bowls, mugs and vases, but it is a process that Flegel loves nonetheless.

Working with porcelaneous stoneware – a light, buttery clay – Flegel begins each piece on the wheel, using water, her hands and the occasional wooden tool to form the piece’s body and shape it. Once the piece’s ideal shape has been achieved, the bat – the platform on which the pot is created – is set to the side, and the pot dries under plastic bags until it becomes leather hard – a process that takes several days.

Once the desired leather hardness has been achieved, Flegel flips the pot over and trims the foot by removing any excess clay. She then adds a small ring – which becomes the new base – and allows the entire piece to dry completely before placing it into the bisque for firing.

Bisque – or electric – firing is the slow process of drawing any remaining water out of the clay. The time it takes to fire each group of pots varies, but on average, it takes close to 20 hours for the clay to dry completely.

According to Flegel, water boils at 200 degrees, and if there is any water left in the clay by the time the kiln reaches above 200 degrees, the pot will explode.

Once the 20 hours are up and the pots have had time to cool, Flegel begins the process of glazing. Rather than glaze each pot individually, she glazes one kiln load at a time. It takes several hours to get her desired look, but by using an air compressor and a spray gun, glazing each load has become a little easier.

The glazed pieces are then loaded back into the kiln for another eight hours to set the glaze.

“There are so many pieces of equipment and tools that you need,” Flegel explained. “You need building space, kiln space, and all kinds of different tools. Building your studio and filling it with the necessary tools doesn’t happen all at once, and that has been very trying for my personality. I’m the type of person to want it now, but it takes years of saving money and things like that.”

When she isn’t busy transforming mounds of clay into functional household items, Flegel can be found at the head of a classroom – a notion which still surprises her to this day.

“I never really aspired to be a teacher growing up,” she said. “My mother was an English teacher, and everyone thought I would follow along the same path. Becoming a teacher was something I kind of rebelled against, actually, so it was a surprise when I ended up teaching a ceramics course to sixteen undergrads [students] during my second year as a graduate student.”

It was Flegel’s ability to help students – some of whom had never touched a pottery wheel before – cultivate and refine their work in a semester’s time that opened her eyes to a door she had closed in the past.

“That was really eye-opening for me,” she added. “Teaching those students helped me not only realize that, ‘Hey, this is something I’m actually pretty good at teaching,’ but that it was something I enjoyed, as well.”

Since her graduation in 2013, Flegel has taught a number of pottery classes. Upon returning to Pocahontas County, Flegel offered a year’s worth of classes through Pocahontas County Parks and Recreation and has been working on transforming her home studio into a space where she can teach, as well.

Currently, Flegel serves as Green Bank Elementary-Middle School’s art teacher for Kindergarden through the third grades, and is excited for the next school year to start. Flegel plans to implement a ceramics program in the fall, and with the help of GBEMS’s PTO and a $2,000 grant from the Snowshoe Foundation, purchase a kiln for GBEMS in order to fire her students’ creations.

Flegel teaches online art appreciation courses through East Carolina University, as well.

“My goal is to not turn every single student I come into contact with through art into an artist,” Flegel said. “What I want to do is make an impression on their life like my teachers have on mine. That’s my goal. That’s what I want to do.”

An array of Flegel’s functional bowls, mugs and vases are currently on display at the Green Bank Gallery. For a more in-depth look at what Flegel has to offer – as well as a glimpse at her creative process – photographs of her work can be found online at alisonpottery.com.

The Green Bank Gallery is located at along Rt. 28/92 and is open Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. The gallery can be reached at 304-456-9900.

Sixth in a series of articles highlighting artists in the county.

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