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The Craft: Handmade ceramic tableware with the flavor of France

Doreen Mellen can think of only one artist in her past — a great-aunt who painted on velvet. So it's hard to pinpoint the source of Mellen's talent and desire.

"Somewhere along the way I just had this yearning," says Mellen, a ceramicist who grew up in Tasmania, the daughter of a train conductor and a housewife. "I was constantly doodling in school — even when I wasn't suppose to be. I'm a completely self-taught artist."

After working for seven years in Brisbane, Australia, designing and manufacturing a line of women and children's clothing, she moved with her computer executive husband, Brian, to Canada in 1979. During the next 25 years, she would find herself living in Canada and the United States — moving seven times — before settling in Laguna Beach.

Today the outgoing Mellen has her artist studio, Blue House Laguna, in a 1924 cottage on Maiden Lane in Laguna Beach. Here, in the garage, she fashions her plaster of Paris molds and hand-forms her glacial-white- and ecru-hued ceramics. When she slides open the door, her 350-square-foot workshop doubles as a sidewalk boutique.

Shelves chockablock with her French-inspired ceramics line the garage walls. Finished pieces are kept toward the front — dainty demitasse cups and creamers, chargers and platters, vegetable tureens and salad bowls. Toward the rear, shelves buckle under the weight of more than 100 glass jars of glaze, while others hold ceramic dishes in various stages of production.

Mellen caught the bug for making ceramics more than a decade ago while visiting her daughter, who was studying in Paris. Mellen had brought with her the name of a shop where a friend had bought some dishes Mellen had long admired.

"It was love at first sight, really," says Mellen, recalling the first time she stepped into Madame Zingaro's Montmartre ceramics atelier. "I went back again and again to watch her make them — I was fascinated. I went home thinking, ‘I'm going to teach myself to do that.' "

Stints at the library reading everything she could about ceramic techniques, as well as experimenting with a young artist friend who had knowledge of the process, put Mellen on her way.

Making ceramics is labor-intensive. It can take three weeks — sometimes longer, depending on the weather — to make a single mug.

The artist begins by hauling out a 25-pound block of clay and using a wire cutter to slice it 1/2-inch thick, like a big piece of cheese. She then places it between two sheets of canvas. After setting the slab roller to the appropriate thickness, she turns the bright blue wheel that pulls the clay through the roller. The resultant rectangular strip resembles rolled dough.

"It's almost like making a pie…. That' s probably why I like it so much — I'm a big baker," says the garrulous Mellen, who still speaks with a chirpy Tasmanian accent.

After the clay comes off the roller, it's ready to cut into shapes, but first, she says: "You've got to get the air bubbles out or it will explode when you put it in the kiln."

Today she's making a simple mug as a demonstration. She cuts a 4 1/2-inch-long strip of clay, then wraps it around a small plumbing pipe she's wrapped with newspaper, cutting off the excess dough to the correct cup height. With a serrated knife she cuts a row of tiny diagonal slices along the clay's seam. Adding a bit of slip — a wet liquefied clay — with her finger binds the two ends together.

Next, she sets the formed piece atop a round of clay slightly bigger than the pipe, cutting around the base to create the mug's bottom, again joining the pieces with slip. She cuts the handle freehand, then gently presses it onto the seamed side of the mug, adding a small piece of clay at the base of the soft handle to support it until it hardens.

"It's got to get leather-hard — so you can pick it up and work with it. It can't be too dry or too soft," she explains as she puts the cup on a shelf to dry. The 75-year-old Mellen will run up and down the stairs from her home to the studio several times a day for the next week to turn the pieces so they don't warp. When the mug is completely dry she gently sands the surface smooth, then sticks it in the kiln for its first eight-hour firing.

Finally, it's time to paint a diminutive Parisian figure onto the surface. A notebook filled with her sketches of "les Francais" — a baker carrying a pie, a Parisian with a baguette wedged under his arm, a chubby chef carrying a soufflé — sits on a nearby bench.

"They always make me laugh," Mellen says.

After the figures dry, the glazing commences. Mellen has to paint the inside of the mug three times, letting it dry between each coat, then duplicates the process on the mug's exterior. This takes three days. She's finally ready for the last firing, where she painstakingly stacks the kiln with pieces set on small ceramic blocks — "so they don't touch one another" — a process akin to loading a dishwasher, only much more precarious.

"You could break the whole lot if you're not careful," she says. There's another firing for seven hours at 1,900 degrees, followed by 12 hours of cooling. "I always say a little prayer when I close the lid on the kiln, there can be so many things that can happen."

Although the process for creating handmade ceramics can be difficult, Mellen says everyone should try it.

"It's so therapeutic," she says. "I just come in here and listen to the radio, or sometimes I just sing away to myself, and you just lose yourself."

Although her signature colors are an icy white and warm ecru, Mellen has custom-made plates in forest green and turquoise, peachy-pink and aubergine, with motifs that include grapes, shells, swans and dragonflies. A five-piece dinner set runs $150, a mug $35, all available through her website, Bluehouselaguna.com.

One client, food writer Dennis Meyers, ordered a set of eight dinner plates for his wife for her birthday. Instead of the artist's trademark fleur-de-lis or lion's face, he requested a hummingbird.

"They're amazing dishes," Meyers says, "and the best thing is that after dinner you just throw them into the dishwasher."

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