Perhaps it was chance – or the unrelenting persistence of his wife – that led Eric Stahl to the Pocahontas County Art Guild all those years ago, but what blossomed in the wake of Stahl’s first throw is something else entirely.
“I’m a mud-slingin’ pyromaniac,” Stahl joked, referencing a potter’s use of clay and firing kilns when creating ceramic pieces. “I like to create functional pieces – bowls, mugs, plates and more – that can be used every day – that people can put their hands on and get used to. Decorative pieces aren’t really my style.”
When building each of his pieces, Stahl utilizes two different kinds of clay. The first is stoneware – a hardy clay that is tough, yet forgiving, when being thrown and takes on stone-like characteristics when fired. Stoneware becomes a hard, dense surface and is typically used in industrial ceramics.
Porcelain, on the other hand, is a more delicate clay to work with. Its smooth quality allows the clay to be manipulated into intricate, delicate designs when thin, but that does not mean porcelain is not without its difficulties.
Due to its low plasticity, porcelain is often difficult to work with when being thrown, and a notorious reputation proceeds it for its tendency to crack and become deformed when being fired.
However, Stahl does not let the difficulties hinder him, and he enjoys using both clays when working on the wheel.
To create one of his small pitchers, Stahl uses a process of throwing and altering. He begins by creating a simple vase – manipulating and pulling the wet clay until he has achieved his desired shape. Once satisfied, Stahl pinches the soft edges of the vase’s opening together to form two spouts. One spout is removed, and viola! – a pitcher is formed.
To complete his piece, Stahl adds a handle – the only type of hand-building he enjoys.
A similar process of throwing and altering is used when creating a sugar bowl – only this time, there is the additional step of cutting. Stahl begins by throwing a vase, and once he has brought the clay all the way up, he encloses it. A knob handle is added to the very top of the piece, and the bowl’s edge is notched. Then, Stahl cuts a lid.
“Making a lid to fit is a little bit tricky,” he explained. “The lid has to fit the rest of the bowl just right. If you make them in two separate pieces, they don’t always fit. You can make them to fit, but that’s an entirely different technique.”
As a former engineer, Stahl enjoys the science that is involved with being a potter.
Each piece requires two firings. The first firing removes all the water from the clay and sets the shape, while the second firing sets the piece’s glaze. Stahl uses two types of kilns to do his firing – an electric kiln and a gas kiln – and each one produces a different result depending on the glaze used.
In terms of a copper-based glaze, different colors can be produced depending on which kiln the piece is fired in. When fired in a gas kiln, the copper glaze undergoes the chemical reaction of reduction. The kiln’s fire reduces the oxygen in the glaze to create a beautiful red color.
An electric kiln does the opposite. The copper glaze is introduced to a copious amount of oxygen and the result is something akin to the greenish-blue color of the Statue of Liberty – a copper statue that has been exposed to oxygen for an extended period of time.
Stahl accents his pieces using a bent hacksaw blade and a decorative method called chattering. Chattering is a technique where a flexible metal tool is allowed to jump across the surface of a leatherhard – clay that is damp – piece of pottery, making ditch-like depressions on the surface.
“It looks like I meticulously created each line,” Stahl said, “but I didn’t. I let it spin and put the hacksaw blade against it. It’s cheating, I know, but it looks good.”
Stahl spent 21 years in the Navy navigating submarines before he and his wife, Cyla, made the decision to leave New York for the rolling hills and valleys of Pocahontas County. Following their move to Hillsboro, Stahl’s wife caught wind of the Pocahontas County Art Guild.
According to Stahl, she dragged him kicking and screaming to the guild where Cynthia Gurreri was doing a demonstration and giving lessons. At the time, the guild only had two kick wheels, but Stahl decided to give throwing on a wheel a try – and that was that.
“I’m having a lot of fun with it,” Stahl remarked. “I like to get my hands dirty, and this lets me get into my studio and just play. One of the things I enjoy about this is the creative side – working with the clay and coming up with the different forms. That’s fun. Then there’s working with the science of the glazing that brings out the engineer in me. There are two different sides of the brain at work when you create pottery, and it’s fun – it’s interesting.”
The Pocahontas County Artisan Co-op operates out of the 4th Avenue Gallery – located at 721 Fourth Avenue in Marlinton. During the summer, the gallery is open Wednesday through Monday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and can be reached at 304-799-2550.
Artist Spotlight is a weekly series highlighting artists in the county.