From Canyon To Cove: Getting into the spirit of the clay

Nothing could be more therapeutic than spending a few hours playing with clay.

That's what I did Oct. 22, along with four other women under the tutelage of Walter Reiss, a ceramicist known for his laid-back artistic style and low-key ways.

We were making teapots, which might sound ambitious for first-time clay makers, but these teapots were for art, not for use. Therefore, we were free to use our imaginations to turn them into just about anything.

We were among the first enrollees in the new Sawdust Studio Art Classes, a new program for people who want a quick introduction to the arts, and to be able to make their own finished piece of artwork, be it a teapot, a set of wind chimes, a wrist cuff or another decorative item.

The studio classes are designed especially for visitors who want a "Laguna" experience, but all of those in our class were locals.

Reiss packed a lot of learning into what was supposed to be a two-hour class, but stretched into three hours and even longer for some of the women, who were still carefully glazing their teapots when I left.

You never know what will happen when you apply yourself to a medium you have never tried before. Fortunately, Reiss had given us a head start by presenting us with a simple basic plan that we could embellish within the constraints of time and our own imaginations and facility with clay.

It's safe to say that we all, including the teacher, were very impressed with what we produced. In fact, the clay seemed to mold itself into some intriguing shapes. We had a horse; an abstract; an angel-wing pot; a sweater teapot; and one that could only be called the angry baby teapot. We'll see the finished products in about a week, after they are fired. (Local folks enrolled in the studio classes can pick up their own ceramic works, but visitors will have theirs mailed to their homes.)

Reiss started us off with a flat block of fairly thick clay, which we formed into a T-shirt shape by cutting and folding it. When standing upright, it looked very much like a slouchy torso. Texturize it with various implements at hand, and you have a cool-looking ceramic "T-shirt," which can then be turned into a small, arty teapot by the addition of a spout, handle and a top. Reiss had brought in some molds that created faces for the pots, and all but one of us employed either the angel or the cardinal, which to me looks like an angry baby — on her teapot. I used two angel faces to create a stopper for my teapot, which I had decided might be useful as an urn.

My father, Louis Frazier Sr., had died rather suddenly four days earlier, on Oct. 19, and I was just coming to terms with the reality of his loss, and bracing myself for a large family gathering on the East Coast for his memorial service. Someone had said his ashes might be split up among the closest relatives, because no burial was planned. So I figured a personalized urn might be a good use for my teapot, and decided to make it with my dad in mind.

I followed Reiss' instructions carefully, but for some reason my T-shirt ended up looking more like a sweater — which was perfect. I always think of my dad in big slouchy sweaters because his home, an old carriage house on the waters of Long Island Sound, was always drafty. I began to incorporate knobby, sweatery decorations and textures. I also used a large bolt to make a pattern on the sweater, because he loved home construction projects and over the years — and three marriages — had turned more than one small, cramped house into a spacious dwelling. Then something really magical happened. I accidentally produced a sweater "sleeve" by folding the clay into a crude handle shape and slapping it onto the "torso." Eureka! Sweater-man was formed.

My neighbor Nadine Nordstrom (who teaches a ceramics class herself and is really an expert) pleased me further by asking for advice on how I made the interesting handle. I eagerly showed her what I had done. Instead, she turned her clay piece upside down, and produced a frilly shape that was a perfect match for her abstract teapot.

Now I was on a roll: Grabbing pieces of clay, I fashioned a cozy turtleneck for the top opening, and a spout that looked to me like a sweater-sleeved arm waving a greeting, a "hello" or a "goodbye." Or maybe the arm was wielding a hammer or some other tool, or throwing a stone overhand into the bay. It didn't really matter. All were gestures that I remembered.

I don't know if the teapot will end up with my father's ashes in it, but it certainly has his spirit.

For more information about the Sawdust Studio Art Classes, visit http://www.sawdustartfestival.org.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.

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