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Interview with Traudi Thornton, February 1, 2008 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Traudi Thornton, February 1, 2008
February 1, 2008
Interview with Traudi Thornton, a foremost ceramist in the community. In this interview, Thornton discusses her history as an artist, her creative process, and the physical labor and commitment inherent in the artform.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Thornton, Traudi Interviewer:  Hayes, Sherman / Jones, Carroll Date of Interview:  2/01/2008 Series:  Arts Length  120 minutes


Hayes: Welcome. I am here today as part of our Artist Interview series. My name is Sherman Hayes; I am the university librarian at UNCW Randall Library. And I'm interviewing, today, Traudi Thornton. Did I get that right, Traudi?

Thornton: Yes.

Hayes: And how do you spell the last name?

Thornton: T-H-O-R-N-T-O-N.

Hayes: All right, great. And, Traudi, I would introduce you as one of the leading artists in the community, as a potter, a ceramicist, a clay artist; what is your-- ?

Thornton: I think ceramist is the proper term. It used to be a potter, but then it got changed, because at one point when you went to a gallery, they really didn't-- weren't really interested in Unitarian work, so you had to also change with, you know, fancy production things. You had to also change your title to ceramist, and that most people today call themselves ceramists.

Hayes: Ceramist?

Thornton: Ceramist.

Hayes: Not a ceramicist?

Thornton: No, ceramist.

Hayes: All right, good, I got that. And later on you're going to-- we appreciate your sharing some of your own work that we're going to see. And for those who are reading the transcript, they'll have to try to look on a website. There's websites that have your work and some of your work is in our collection, so that will be available. And so some of it isn't a traditional-looking pot, it's almost sculptural. So...

Thornton: Not almost; it is sculptural.

Hayes: It is sculptural.

Thornton: Sculptural.

Hayes: If you use clay and move over to sculpture, do you then feel that you're a sculptor, or you're still a ceramist? In other words, the dominant thing...

Thornton: No, you're still a ceramist.

Hayes: Because it's the clay, right?

Thornton: It's ceramic meaning, basically, "fired earth," that's the word, [inaudible] and it means that. Fired-- ceramist.

Hayes: Okay. That's what ceramist means, is "fired earth"?

Thornton: Exactly, uh-huh.

Hayes: I like, all right, good, we'll talk about that later, so that we know what that term "fired" means. Now, our listeners would pick up something that those reading the transcript wouldn't notice, that for some reason, you seem to have an accent.

Thornton: Yes.

Hayes: And so, why don't we start, instead of going jumping into your art, why don't you give us a sense of where were you born and a little bit of your early years, so that...

Thornton: I was born...

Hayes: we have some perspective.

Thornton: I was born in Czechoslovakia and I was brought up in Germany. I was six years old when we got there, and...

Hayes: Your parents were German, living in Czechoslovakia?

Thornton: Yes. My father was a furniture designer; my mother was a beautician, and we were there in Czechoslovakia because my grandfather was a master weaver.

Hayes: Oh, my goodness.

Thornton: And there was a lot of cotton industry after, I think it was the Civil War, here, that-- you know, there were no more fields and no more preparation for cotton since everybody was shooting each other. So the industry then moved to England and also to the area in Czechoslovakia where my parents and grandparents lived.

Hayes: But they were German by background, and spoke German?

Thornton: They were German by background, and there's also historical thing with the Hungarian Austrian Republic, you know, that was all under one crown in this area, which was Sudetenland, was then Austria-- I think my grandfather was actually born as an Austrian, because he was born in 18-something, I forgot when it was.

Hayes: But your native language was German?

Thornton: My native language was German, and so was my mother's and my father's. They both spoke Czech, and they...

Hayes: Oh, interesting.

Thornton: ...also went to Czech schools like in smaller communities. You know, there wouldn't be a high school just for both of them. So if you wanted to go to high school, you had to go to a Czech school.

Hayes: Now, you recently went back to visit your sister and your brother, right?

Thornton: Yeah.

Hayes: And are they both in Germany or Czechoslovakia?

Thornton: We all had to leave Czechoslovakia, because a stretch of the Sudetenland fell to the Poles. And then the Poles were like, after World War Second, you know, very angry at the Germans because of the persecution of the Jews and the devastation in their own country. Then this, I think is what they did, they said to the Czechs, "We cannot be friends with you. You throw those Germans out," and that's how we had to leave there; all of us had to leave there.

Hayes: So, a whole community?

Thornton: Everybody.

Hayes: Thousands?

Thornton: Yeah, thousands and thousands. At different times, all my relatives were dispersed someplace.

Hayes: Oh, so you grew up in-- the majority of your youth then was spent in what part of Germany?

Thornton: In the southern part, where there's Stuttgart; I don't know if you're familiar, but it's a very wealthy province because it has diverse industry, metal and car industry and...

Hayes: So you would have had the normal high school, but it wasn't called a high school, it was-- what was your public education called? Was it a...

Thornton: It's gymnausium, but just high school.

Hayes: Gymnausium?

Thornton: Yeah, uh-huh.

Hayes: Now, did pottery start that early, or did-- or ceramics?

Thornton: No, I wasn't into pottery at all. I have a degree as in hotel management.

Hayes: Wow!

Thornton: And I had to do that because this, my father deciding for me.

Hayes: Okay.

Thornton: And so I had absolutely no interest, and then I was about 25; I was-- I met American man who was stationed in Germany, and we were, you know, within a year, engaged, and then got married and then I came to the United States.

Hayes: So you married an American soldier?

Thornton: Yes.

Hayes: Do we want to know his name, or...

Thornton: Yeah; his name was Ed Thornton. He worked in the Secret Service, that was--

Hayes: Oh, so that's his-- Thornton is his name?

Thornton: It's his name.

Hayes: So what was your maiden name, then?

Thornton: My maiden name was Beier.

Hayes: B...?

Thornton: B-E-I-E-R.

Hayes: Okay, Beier, all right, well, that's interesting, I just didn't realize it. So, when did the ceramics start, in the United States?

Thornton: You know, since he was in the Secret Service at strategic headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, and that's where we went after we married. We were married in August, and December 1st, we went to Omaha. And I liked it right away, but then I had become ill, and was ill for maybe a year and a half. And then, after that, I decided, you know, "I want to live," and I had this new hope for myself that "I really want to live," and so I would like to go to school. And it was also convenient, because I had an uncle who was a Jesuit and he worked at Creighton University.

Hayes: Oh, really?

Thornton: And relatives.

Hayes: So you had a relative right there in Omaha?

Thornton: Yes. And so since he working there, it's a private institution, so the faculty would get-- what is it, breaks in our tuition.

Hayes: Yeah.

Thornton: So it wasn't really very expensive at all.

Hayes: Oh good; that's a very well known school.

Thornton: I know, it's a beautiful school.

Hayes: But what program did you take then?

Thornton: I just wanted to do whatever, you know, music appreciation, and then I think the second was printmaking, and then I had to do-- well, didn't have to, but I chose pottery, and that was [inaudible]. I really, really enjoyed that, from the very minute on.

Hayes: Wow.

Thornton: And that was that.

Hayes: Do you still remember who the professor was?

Thornton: Well, there was a professor who was in very similar circumstance. He came from Hungary. He was, I think, a chemist, and he was also very devout. And wasn't really qualified teaching us, but did it anyway, because-- but then, after about a year and a half, they hired someone called Jeremiah Horning. He's a famous potter in the United States.

Hayes: Wow, and that was your teacher?

Thornton: That was my teacher, but he was really famous, and so he spent very little time in the studio you know, like, went out, and--

Hayes: Yeah.

Thornton: Big workshops; everybody looked up to everyone but us. And so, after a year or so, I went to talk to Henry Sorinko, which was with my teacher at the state university, University of Omaha, Nebraska. And so, he asked me a couple of technical questions and I couldn't answer them, I said, "I'm coming," and so, the following year, I went there.

Hayes: So you transferred to that school?

Thornton: Yes.

Hayes: Now, you had said-- was your degree in hotel management a Bachelors Degree, then, or...

Thornton: Yeah, it's a Bachelors Degree.

Hayes: So were you able to transfer some of that credit, so that you could...

Thornton: No.

Hayes: No?

Thornton: No, I didn't really-- you know, I just wanted to be a potter. I didn't want another degree.

Hayes: So it wasn't about the degree program?

Thornton: It wasn't; well, I did eventually enter the degree program, but I never finished, because we went back to Europe after about--

Hayes: Oh, interesting.

Thornton: Four or five years or so.

Hayes: So now, you're a serious potter. I mean, how did you-- so you used the facilities there at the university, then?

Thornton: No, I took classes there.

Hayes: But I mean to do your pottery work?

Thornton: Oh, yes all of them; nobody, you know-- it costs a lot of money to have your own studio.

Hayes: Right, right, so...

Thornton: And you don't really think you're qualified when you're not qualified.

Hayes: Right.

Thornton: You know, but you have like, at school system, you have machines, you have other people helping you carry the clay. You have machines to mix the clay. You have like a fully, you know, fleshed-out studio for chemicals. You know, you need to-- you cannot be a potter and also live for more than a year, unless you know what you're doing. Like, with all material arts, like, if you're welding, you need to know which alloys go together, which of the rods you need to use to weld it.

Hayes: Right.

Thornton: It's like, really unbelievable. You wouldn't just set off having a studio; that's not possible.

Hayes: Well, this is a good point-- and divert, for a second, because I think that there's some really interesting information you can help with the person reading this. Now, you're an accomplished potter-- ceramicist-- and you do have your own elaborate studio. We're not going to go through it all and so forth. But talk us through some of those problems about the physicality of the work. I think people forget. They see the finished product and think that you just somehow miraculously come out with it. But so the first thing you have to think about, then, is your clay, right? Is that the starting point, or...

Thornton: No; the starting point is to decide what is it you want to produce. And then you start with that. Like, say I want to make bowls; I want to be in stoneware. I want these objects to be-- .

Hayes: Now, what is stoneware? Stoneware is...

Thornton: Stoneware is a high fire clay that is no longer porous; no water seeps through it. It is vitrified.

Hayes: What is that word? What does that mean?

Thornton: Vitrified means it's like become a stone again. It's clay, now just becomes stone.

Hayes: And you do that so that you could put something in the bowl?

Thornton: Yes, you want to make it food safe; you want to...

Hayes: Okay, okay.

Thornton: Like, when you wash it, shouldn't be anything seeping into the cracks.

Hayes: So you have the bowl, and then that dictates stoneware. So those are decisions.

Thornton: Well, then you have to-- once you make the decision to do that, you need to know which temperature, from the temperature you need to...

Hayes: Wait, temperature? I don't understand. What's temperature got to do with it?

Thornton: Temperature, okay, so I also work in Raku; temperature here is 18-1900.

Hayes: Temperature of what, what temperature?

Thornton: Temperature in the kiln.

Hayes: Oh, the kiln, so the kiln is a...

Thornton: It's the mother of all things.

Hayes: It's the baking, final baking of...

Thornton: It's called firing.

Hayes: Firing, okay.

Thornton: Fire and...

Hayes: And that solidifies the clay? So first you have...

Thornton: At a particular temperature, it does.

Hayes: And below that temperature, you have a problem, and above that temperature you have a problem?

Thornton: Yes, exactly, you've got to reach this point, precisely, with like maybe one or two or maybe five degrees over or under, [inaudible].

Hayes: Well, how would you know what that temperature is? Practice?

Thornton: Lots of practice, just lots of practice.

Hayes: But are there also guides and charts that you could learn from to know the temperature?

Thornton: Um-um, no, well, there are guides in terms of, you know, like you make up little things; they're called cone packs.

Hayes: Okay.

Thornton: So you stick those in because after like 15-1600 your eye cannot discern what goes on there, just these shapes. So you start with the temperature, like when you start firing, you go to about 900 degrees, and then what I do, I do reduction firing, which means all the copper glazes turn red.

Hayes: Wait, you use the term "glazes," and we haven't got to glazes.

Thornton: Okay. Well anyway, you need to-- you have a body reduction, and then you have a glaze reduction in that one same set of firing. And it has to be followed exactly, because if you miss the reduction in the first phase, you can never repeat it ever, ever. That's like all the iron that is in the clay supposed to be pulled out of it onto the surface. And if you-- and there's a toasty color that comes with it. If you neglect to do that, you cannot repeat it. In the second or third fire, it will never, never ever happen.

Hayes: All right, so let me walk through...

Thornton: So the glazes become something different than you desired and you need...

Hayes: So the glaze is a chemical, a liquid chemical?

Thornton: No. Glaze is minerals that are basically made out of a very similar ingredient that is already present in the clay like flint. And there's whiting, there's dolomite; those are all ground up, finely ground up stones with precise mineral compositon.

Hayes: And this creates the colors that you want?

Thornton: No, they create the base. You have some of them in the clay.

Hayes: Well, pick up the one that's-- that bright one behind you, there, yeah. No, no, no, the-- yeah, that one, the-- to just show me-- all right, so...

Thornton: This is Raku over here. I cannot show it to you, because Raku is a totally different process.

Hayes: All right, well, go back to you when you want to look at it, and I'm sorry.

Thornton: This is the stoneware.

Hayes: All right, good.

Thornton: This is like, you know, the same material as the bowls would be made of.

Hayes: Okay. So this is, you know, a really good education for me because, you know, I own lots of your work and I love seeing it, but I have no sense of how complex it is to get to the final product. So you somehow shape up the ceramics... and we'll talk about that later; different techniques.

Thornton: Um-hmm.

Hayes: But you have a shape. You're going to put it in this kiln. Do you fire it first and then put the glaze on?

Thornton: Yes, because the glazes are kind of a little bit like a-- runny thin pudding, and they also look like that.

Hayes: Oh.

Thornton: These minerals that are supposed to be applied to the glaze have to be submerged in water, so it becomes like just a kind of a dress over the clay. The clay is fired first, because after the first fire, which is called the "bisque" fire, it can absorb moisture.

Hayes: Okay.

Thornton: So I dip the thing into the glaze, and then it will soak everything up. Because it's drinking... if you put your finger on a piece of bisque, it will immediate drink it up like a sponge.

Hayes: Ah.

Thornton: So that's why you have to use the water, and that's why you want to have the bisque.

Hayes: So you dip it into the glaze?

Thornton: You dip it, or you spray it, or...

Hayes: Brush it, do you brush it?

Thornton: Yes, you can brush things, and I do, on some pieces I do maybe three different glazes. One... first I spray areas, then I spray another area with another glaze, and then I dip it. And then on top of that, I do, and then on top of that, I do. Like the plates you have, they have at least five different glazes on them.

Hayes: Do you fire it between these dippings?

Thornton: No, no.

Hayes: Just one time?

Thornton: One time, um-hmm. The glaze fire is one time.

Hayes: So the portion of the matter is, as much as you-- you can make the final shape?

Thornton: Um-hmm.

Hayes: And you have a intuition, and long years of experience of how you want it to come out with the glaze. But in the end, you still can't guarantee what it will look-- it isn't like a painter, where you can... and you do painting and other artwork, I mean; you know, but I'm saying...

Thornton: Not immediate like that.

Hayes: So you can't, you don't know for sure?

Thornton: Well, you don't know for sure, and that's the point of that I think to most potters, is the fascination.

Hayes: Well, interesting.

Thornton: You know, kind of like-- it's a kind of a holy state once the kiln is loaded, you know, you break it all up and then there's something about the silent, and you want nobody around. You just want to be in tune to-- you know, it's sort of like tending a lover. "Do you have everything? Can I bring you something?"

Hayes: [laughs]

Thornton: Is it enough? Is it too much?

Hayes: So the bisque is the preliminary stage, and then the glazing?

Thornton: Mm-hmm.

Hayes: Then you fire it again.

Thornton: After the glazing?

Hayes: After the glazing.

Thornton: You fire it again.

Hayes: Does it sit for a long time after the glazing? Is there some technique there, or it doesn't matter?

Thornton: It has to be dry, or should be dry. The kiln has an insulating material made out of bricks that are insulating. And if the flames come up, everything gets hot really fast. And it could be that if there's some steam left, and you go a little too fast that it shatters.

Hayes: So a kiln is really an oven, right? It's like a...

Thornton: A kiln is like an oven. It's just called kiln because it's a little different.

Hayes: Right. And so you're now going to raise the temperature up a certain way and...

Thornton: Very slowly.

Hayes: Very slowly, okay.

Thornton: Because it's a big chamber, and it has a chimney in the back and pipes coming through the side with heat and air.

Hayes: And you have a modern one now, in the sense of how it's done. But going all the way back, kilns were always there, right? They might use wood and they might use...

Thornton: But mine is not modern.

Hayes: What you're feeding your power?

Thornton: Gas goes in there and that's that.

Hayes: Right, but I'm saying, even way back in ancient time and people did pottery, they were still using a baking oven, but they might of what? Use wood or...

Thornton: They would use wood.

Hayes: Wood or coal.

Thornton: Or cow chips.

Hayes: Yeah, cow chips, yeah.

Thornton: Shards from old pottery.

Hayes: And of course, they didn't necessarily have the control [inaudible] that...

Thornton: And they also didn't go much beyond, like, 900 degrees. See, that's the difference between a modern kiln, and a...

Hayes: Does that...

Thornton: People used to live where the clay was, no matter what. And they could do so, because they could have these fireplaces, and they could lower the temperature. I mean, they could decide the melting process by adding things to it, like lead.

Hayes: Okay.

Thornton: But that's not, you know-- we now know that we shouldn't be doing that. So we have had these modern things, electric or gas or whatever that go much beyond...

Hayes: Were the...

Thornton: Safer.

Hayes: So the temperature then gives you a latitude for more glazes and different colors and so forth. In other words, as I think back the kind of the high glaze is a more-- is that a more recent trend in the field of...

Thornton: Depends on where you're looking at. In China, you know, they had porcelain.

Hayes: That's right.

Thornton: When my people lived in the trees, they had sophisticated kilns.

Hayes: Kilns.

Thornton: They also made a lot of porcelain, because it was just simply there.

Hayes: And porcelain is just a type of clay, a white clay?

Thornton: Porcelain-- it's the nicest clay. It has the greatest color response. It is also a little... not a little; it's much harder to work with. But if you work it, and-- because reduction glazes, like this piece, here, you know, the red against the milky white.

Hayes: Why don't you get that, so we can see what you're-- you okay?

Thornton: Yeah.

Hayes: That's a heavy piece.

Thornton: No, it's not.

Hayes: Oh, it's not?

Thornton: No.

Hayes: It looks so big.

Thornton: It's very thin.

Hayes: Okay. Sit down and show us that. She's holding a very large bowl; is this what this would be?

Thornton: Porcelain bowl.

Hayes: Porcelain bowl.

Thornton: Um-hmm.

Hayes: And so it's a thinner clay. In other words, I mean I don't mean thin, but...

Thornton: Well, this one is not thrown; this is, like, shaped by a form. I have the form.

Hayes: Now, throwing one is-- well, you use the term "thrown," what does that mean?

Thornton: Thrown means that you sit on the wheel and you throw a clump of clay in the middle, and then you form your...

Hayes: And the spinning wheel gives you the motion to pull against. This one, you formed just on your own without a wheel?

Thornton: Uh-huh, yes, it's rolled out. It's called slab.

Hayes: Uh-huh, interesting.

Thornton: And that is when you-- it's more like carpentry work. You do a lot more cutting, and it's like a thinner layer; you can put it between two sheets of--

Hayes: Now, you were talking about the colors, there. In other words, porcelain gives you more flexibility to get those deep reds, and...

Thornton: Porcelain, it's mostly white, you know, in that it's like painting on a brown piece of paper versus a white one; the colors will be more brilliant. I mean, you can do beautiful things on either one. But if you want color response, then that would be my choice, yes.

Hayes: Interesting.

Thornton: Um-hmm.

Hayes: I love that. That's just so great.

Thornton: And you also get the nuances. See, this and this is the same, so here, it's a little thicker. But here, it is thin, and you can see white all the way through to the...

Hayes: Now, we were talking about how you put the glaze on. Now, what would have been your technique on this one? You would have first bisque-fired it, right?

Thornton: First bisque-fire it, and I spray a copper glaze, and then I use a brush, you know, just one; you get one chance.

Hayes: [laughs]

Thornton: Whoops, moved... and I get in mine, the dribbles here. And then, on top of it, is another glaze, which is the celadon glaze, which is the glaze that is... it has a greenish tinge to it.

Hayes: Oh, so...

Thornton: Like pale jade.

Hayes: When you saw that, though, could-- in your mind happen to anticipate the color that will finally come out, because it wouldn't be the same, right?

Thornton: Oh, I already know the colors, because you do, like, years of testing. You have like, boxes full of what says "December 1st, 1983," and you got, like, 30 tests in there; each test is about made out of a hundred gram-batches, that you then mix up and you have your little tiles with a number on it. And then you set these all over the kiln, so you know exactly what-- unless you make a mistake when you measure it out, that is how...

Hayes: So, every time you're firing something for a final product, you're also doing these tests?

Thornton: All the time.

Hayes: Oh, okay. And are those called something specifically, or...

Thornton: Called "glaze tests".

Hayes: Glaze [laughs]. Glaze test. And you keep all of those, and you...

Thornton: I keep all of those.

Hayes: And I mean, is this common to potters everywhere, or ceramicists?

Thornton: Those who make their own glazes; there's just nothing else, you know.

Hayes: But even if you had somebody else's glaze, you're not sure how it's going to come out, so you probably do the test, right?

Thornton: I would do that.

Hayes: All right.

Thornton: I need to know, and I also think a potter's glazes are his sort of-- you know, his shingle that he hangs out. Like, you can do things; if you design the glazes yourself, most likely, nobody else has the same ones, so you can distinguish yourself by having a particular--

Hayes: And is this kind of blue and red pattern one of your distinctive glazes that you...? I think it is, as we see, some other work. Would you say that's one of your distinctive...?

Thornton: At one point it was, yes.

Hayes: Oh, I see.

Thornton: I'll just move on to different things and, you know, different [inaudible] you can see. Like, this piece is the stoneware, but in addition to it, I fired it in the pit.

Hayes: Uh-oh.

Thornton: And this is how it got dark.

Hayes: What's "fired it in the pit?"

Thornton: A pit is like just maybe a trashcan, you know, metal trashcan filled with sawdust, wire, pots, sawdust, wire, pots and support. And then you knock a hole in the bottom, and you have a hole in the lid, and you set that on fire, and you let it, kind of "glows," I think you would call it, overnight, or however long it takes, just a little, enough oxygen going in so it can-- the sawdust would burn from top to bottom-down. It just gives a particular kind of beauty to some of the pieces; you know, they're just experimental.

Hayes: But that's not Raku.

Thornton: This is not Raku; this is stoneware.

Hayes: But you still use this pit extra firing?

Thornton: On top of that, yeah.

Hayes: To change and get various patterns?

Thornton: You know, at some point, you just want to try different things, because you can, you know, and I have a big backyard and nobody bothered me, and so I just-- decided to do that for a little while.

Hayes: All right; good, that's super.

Thornton: I bring the spool back.

Hayes: All right, good. I love those. And you're saying that that bowl is done in such a sense as-- now, you're using it as a artistic piece of work. And you've got it on the stand. But you could actually use that, too?

Thornton: Oh, yes, of course.

Hayes: Okay. Now are there artists who make things that aren't useable. In other words, they don't care whether it's useable? I mean, everybody has different styles, or...

Thornton: Well, the Raku is not useable.

Hayes: Oh, it's not. Okay, let's...

Thornton: Except for its beauty.

Hayes: Okay. Pick up that Raku, because I don't understand that difference there.

Thornton: I think this one might be.

Hayes: All right, good.

Thornton: See, this is totally nonfunctional.

Hayes: Okay. We're looking at one that she's done, that is-- I mean, is that a birdhouse or a house form, or..?.

Thornton: I think, you know, when I came to this country, particularly when I came the second time, in 1983, I lived here in Wilmington.

Hayes: You came to Wilmington in 1983?

Thornton: Um-hmm.

Hayes: That's good.

Thornton: So I kind of missed-- I lived close to a church; most Germans or Europeans do. There's always churches here and there. And they have large, large bell towers that sit aside from the church. Some of them, in smaller churches, are inside, with one or two bells. But the rest of them have-- are next to the church, a little house, just like that.

Hayes: Oh, interesting.

Thornton: And so, if you like lay there in the night-- and I missed the bells ringing. Because I would wake up in the night as early as I remember, and, you know, as soon as I count time, I would lay there and I would say, "I wonder what time it is." And then the bell would ring, and I knew that it is three times is like after the whole hour, two times, half an hour. And then, on the full hour it would ring, you know, the amount of time there was. And so it was always like a friend that is up with you, and I missed them. And since I came here-- and I never had a Raku kiln until I came here. I decided to just do whatever I wanted.

Hayes: So tell us what a Raku kiln is. Now, it's R-A-K-U?

Thornton: Mm-hmm, it's a Japanese...

Hayes: Oh, it is Japanese, it sounds...

Thornton: Family name, mm-hmm.

Hayes: Okay.

Thornton: It is a process where you, again, shape the pieces, and then you put them in the first tray. And with this process, you have to have a different kind of clay, because after it's fired, you apply the glaze, and then you put it in the kiln. And then you can walk around this kiln and see the glazes melting and bubbling.

Hayes: So it's not in the same kiln that you have...

Thornton: No, it's a totally different kiln. It's a much more primitive kiln with a hole in the top, and you lift-- you know, once the temperature is reached, you have to guess that by looking at it. And when it's smoothened out, and sometimes it looks like ice cubes that have been just sort of like water had run over them, and they're shiny. Like, I cannot see the colors or anything; I can just see the kind of degree to which they have melted. And again, you know, sometimes I'm wrong [laughs]. I go over, or I go under-- even, though-- you know, like these are elaborate pieces here; they take forever...

Hayes: Well, hold that big one up, because that's a wonderful piece. One of your kind of signature...

Thornton: So this is like a lot of work, you know; you have to put all this together, and the lid, you have to cut out the lid, and you have to put the feet on it, everything.

Hayes: Now, lots of your signature works have this kind of... I don't know, almost like an iron or a large music box feel to it. Does that shape mean something to you?

Thornton: Does that remind you of a music box?

Hayes: It could; I'm just saying, you know, kind of a-- with the feet on the bottom and then some of them have kind of a iron type shape. Do you have any sense of where that came from in your head, or does that...

Thornton: Well, I think I like enclosed spaces, you know, because it's like a contrast to the things I do in stoneware. That the bowls are usually generous and open, and I have the feeling of it being an extension of my hands. They're always out loading, but they still have sort of like a good foot, so that I can elevate them. Here I think-- I'm not really sure why and how.

Hayes: Now, you're...

Thornton: Maybe it's just the challenge to keep it all together. I have no idea why and where these ideas come from. Some are from triangular, some of them did look like irons.

Hayes: Right.

Thornton: Yes.

Hayes: I don't know that you started with that, but I mean...

Thornton: No.

Hayes:'s a reference-point for the rest of us who think of that shape is all.

Thornton: You know, I don't even know. No, I did a lot of thrown pieces in the beginning, because it takes-- like, this was really hard for me to figure out. The clay, you know, how to design the clay so-- because you put the pieces in the warm kiln, but you pull them out like nothing else when they're hot. They're like 1,800-degrees hot.

Hayes: And how do you pull them out? With a device, a tool?

Thornton: You have some tongs and have containers, and they're filled with paper or sawdust. And you take-- you have like a second, you know, and pick them out and it comes out. And everybody has its own little box. You close out the boxes while the flames are going here and there and--

Hayes: Oh, I get it.

Thornton: Everywhere, and while the glaze is molten, you know, all these beautiful nuances of color.

Hayes: Yeah, hold that. Let me-- yeah, hold that up.

Thornton: There's lots of glazes sprayed on.

Hayes: I even see there are, like, little slash marks and so forth; did you do that?

Thornton: Yeah, they're there.

Hayes: You did that ahead of time?

Thornton: Yes, yeah, before the box is fired.

Hayes: But then that changes how the glaze flows into those, and...

Thornton: No, I think that the ridges are emphasized by the glazes, yeah, like these are flowing in there; I like that part.

Hayes: But you didn't even put glaze through all of it. I mean, was that conscious, or is that...?

Thornton: Yeah, that's conscious, yeah, because I like it, and sometimes it gets black, see? The clay body itself gets black. See that black foot?

Hayes: Yeah, the black foot.

Thornton: Sometimes it gets black everywhere.

Hayes: Interesting.

Thornton: Depending on, you know, where it was sitting in that secondary...

Hayes: Is this Raku also?

Thornton: This is Raku, um-hmm.

Hayes: Now, let's talk about the dirty little secret that happens for a porous ceramist. Every piece doesn't come out, right? You must have a whole...

Thornton: [laughs] Not every piece gets...

Hayes: No, I mean, but I'm just saying how many people have work that, you know, only a fraction of it reaches the level that you want, right? That...

Thornton: Well, I think I started talking about how difficult it was for me to design the clay while you were-- it wouldn't all splinter, you know; everything used to define the glazes were gorgeous. But there were cracks everywhere, and I don't like that. So, eventually, I did a lot of testing, and I came up with a clay body I liked, and I mixed my own clay. So I know I don't have to worry about that, really. That's no longer a problem.

Hayes: And how do people respond to these pieces? These are truly fine art for fine art's sake, right? There's no attempt to say that this is a utilitarian-- this is a sculpture, this is a, right, a fine art...

Thornton: It's a non-unitarian object.

Hayes: Right.

Thornton: And I don't know if you would want to call it "art" or not; I don't know. That's not up to me, really.

Hayes: Well, but you're doing it for that purpose. You're not...

Thornton: I don't know that I do it to be, you know, famous or appreciated. I think I do it to fulfill myself; I'm rather selfish.

Hayes: Well, but you also do it hopefully to make a living and sustain yourself.

Thornton: [laughs].

Hayes: Uh-oh, she's laughing at that one.

Thornton: No. I don't think potters are potters because they want to make a living. I think when I went to school-- on Friday afternoons, we had philosophical discussions where you mandatory showed up, and then you had to defend your positions. And every Friday, we were told if we want to make money to please go in a different field, because we would not be making money. That is not why you do that.

Hayes: But...

Thornton: Artists aren't like that.

Hayes: Right, but you sell this for substantially more, because of the complexity, right? I mean, this is a very difficult piece to...

Thornton: Yes.

Hayes: be successful.

Thornton: Much more risk involved; much more work goes into that, because it starts out with one, two, three, four, five, six slabs, and then I have to-- this is all closed, and then I have to cut the hole out. Then I have to make the feet; they have to be stuck on later, and then have to be just so. They cannot be too soft, because if they're too soft, since they have to carry the weight, it gets, you know, unsightly underneath. If they're too hard, they don't adhere to the piece going through the firing process. So all of this could be beautiful, but there could be a crack here, or there could be one I'd have to pick it up in haste; I might damage something here.

Hayes: And how many layers of glaze is on this one, to get this different...

Thornton: Let's see; there's the turquoise-- what do I call that? Then, this one, called a-- so my glazes always have names for women, like Rosa, Gerda, Zolda, Lanata, all people that I know in the past. There's probably five glazes there.

Hayes: Yeah. And then how many-- when you, say, fire this the first time, you do lots of pieces? In other words, you don't want to fire that kiln up unless you've got a lot in there, right? I mean...

Thornton: Never fire a kiln half empty, or a quarter empty, because at these high temperatures, especially in stoneware, there comes a point-- like I fire to 2,300 degrees, like the body temperature is 100, the boiling point is 100.

Hayes: That's Fahrenheit, right, Fahrenheit degrees?

Thornton: Yeah, so 2,300 is, like, such an extreme heat, so you have to rely on the pieces themselves become so hot that they radiate heat to other-- their buddies around them and underneath them. When you do the first fire, the bisque fire, it is economically-- because to do more, because you can stack them into each other. Because you don't have to separate unless it gets stuck to it, and the glaze fire, you need to have each piece separate.

Hayes: Distance, certain distance.

Thornton: Because it becomes like a glaze. And so, if you were having touching them, they stick to each other in that way, and then you couldn't separate them without breaking them later. It's like molten glass, basically.

Hayes: Oh. And so, first of all, you have to go ahead and make a lot of pieces before you fire.

Thornton: Make a lot of pieces, and you always want to have a lot of pieces, because somebody might ask you to do a show, someplace, and you don't have, you know, like five months. Because it takes me maybe three, four months, to fill my kiln.

Hayes: Oh, okay, that's interesting.

Thornton: I mean, it's a big, big kiln.

Hayes: And these three or four months of work.

Thornton: Yes.

Hayes: Then you, after the first firing, you have fewer in the kiln, but you then fill it up again? Of course, a Raku is a smaller kiln, right? Is that-- ?

Thornton: But you can place them together.

Hayes: Right. But then, if you go to Raku-- but if you were doing a second firing in your big kiln, that's many, many pieces again, right?

Thornton: Many, many, many pieces. Mm-hmm.

Hayes: And then, at the end of that, when it finally cools down and you take them out, you don't know how much success you've had, then. Now you, from years and years and years of experience, you obviously have more than an amateur-- just getting started, right?

Thornton: Yes, you do. And still, and I have friends, and their husbands say, "Well, you've been doing it so long, you should know, by now." And we say they don't understand. Wouldn't we want to have it all perfect? Yes, we would want to. Would we want to do more? Yes, we would want to. But there's a point when you have to give it up and let it do its thing.

Hayes: Right. But some of the power in the art, to me, is that every piece is unique. You're not a production potter. You're, you know-- now you do some utilitarian ware that you have a certain standard that you want to get to. And those you could do, what, a hundred cups? But even every one of those--

Thornton: They're all different.

Hayes: -- is different, right? Now, when we see commercial pottery, that comes out the same every time, it must be a totally different process to get that.

Thornton: Well, I think, you know, that is the case. And that is the case, and I know people who do that, but they probably don't care about what I care about. You know, I care about that mystery. I care about, like, for me, it's exciting, like I said before, to load the kiln, know that I did everything right, put the cones everywhere, you know, close it up nicely, and then I rest, because I've done a great deal of work. And then, overnight, I turn it on one burner, and later in the evening, I come out and do another burner. In the morning, I get up about five. I have a log, there; I write everything down. And then I become very agitated, because there are things you can overlook or misjudge or maybe the cone; sometimes they fall down. Sometimes, when you brick it up, it's not right where you needed to view it. And the things can happen. They can happen, you know. This, often, is fired, there's always a new one for me, really. So, then I have to stay with the kiln. I go there, look at it, maybe every half an hour, walk in and out, try to make sure that, you know, things are positioned right, that it sounds right, that the damper is then, depending on the weather, and in and out and in and out it goes. And I get more and more agitated until the end. [phone ringing]

Hayes: Did you want to get that?

Thornton: No. Not really.

Hayes: Oh, sorry.

Thornton: So then, after the fire is closed down, and then I'm not sure, even though I can see the cones and I've seen the smoke, I mean, what it's supposed to look like, I wouldn't bet my bottom dollar on it. [phone ringing]. So, but then, it's nothing I can do, and then it's a holiday. I go to bed, have, like, a nice dinner or salad or something, a glass of wine. And then the next morning, I'm still kind of hopeful, but sort of like, doubt creeps in there, you know. And then I think, what's the [inaudible] or was it not? And then I have another day to wait, and then I can slowly go; and the first thing I do, is look at the bricks, because if you have a good reduction, you can see it by the entry holes, where the bricks are. You can tell you have a good body reduction.

Hayes: Oh, good.

Thornton: And that's it. And then you wait a little while, because it's too nerve-wracking, and it has to cool down a little bit.

Hayes: Yeah. Well, how hot is it when you take that out? I mean, do you have to get it clear down to just room temperature, or not?

Thornton: It's supposed to be no more than 100 degrees and a safe test. And this is why I like my teacher Henry Sorinko; he always knew how to tell you things so that you could go from Omaha to Europe and you could still be a potter, without, you know, making lots of mistakes. If you take a piece of newspaper and you put it on the top, because the top is hotter, since cold air comes in, hot air has to escape, even though there's no opening, it does escape everywhere. And so, you take a newspaper, stick it in there. If it smells like it would almost ignite, it's too early. And then you have to close it back up, if that is the case, because if you open just, like, that much; a lot of cold air is being sucked in from the bottom, and it can shatter things.

Hayes: Oh, God!

Thornton: You have to be really careful. Like, you've got to know a lot of things. It's amazing, isn't it?

Hayes: It is amazing.

Thornton: Can we take a break?

Hayes: Oh, you bet. Let's take a break for a second. [pause] Okay, we're back after a brief break. I hope those listening understood that, that we do need a break, occasionally. [laughter] One thing I just wanted to reiterate as we were talking about Capra, is the physicality of pottery and ceramics. It's not a gentile world, there. I mean, you talked about that when your clay comes, it's what? Fifty-pound, you said fifty-pound bags?

Thornton: It's usually a ton, because it's cheaper. The more you order, the cheaper the rate becomes. And so, yeah, the truck comes. Sometimes people offer to help. And I have a wheelbarrow, and they have one of those roly-polies, and we roll it up on there, and I lift it in, because I know where I want to have it, and so I don't have to lift it again. And then, sometimes-- the last time the man came, and he was in a hurry. He had to go to Fayetteville or something, and he was just going to-- I don't know what he was going to do. I couldn't do all of it at one point. And I said, "Can you take the pallet and move it down, and we roll it into my yard, and then you can go off, and I can slowly do it?" Because it really was quite a bit. And I think there was something wrong with my foot, and so he agreed, happily, to roll it up into the fence rather than to leave it out on the street. So we did that. Yeah, it's a lot of physical work, and you have to be strong. Kiln shelves weigh about 30 pounds, and you have to lift them in the dark.

Hayes: You mean, once you have your pottery on it?

Thornton: No. You don't have to put it-- the thing itself.

Hayes: Oh, the shelf, itself, weighs...?

Thornton: The shelf, because it's made out of silicon carbide. It's a very dense, very heavy material.

Hayes: Interesting.

Thornton: It's a heat conductor rather than an insulator. It does, like, expanding heat, so it has to be really, really--

Hayes: When you first had the kiln, did you have to build that yourself, too? Or are there people that do that?

Thornton: Well, no; I don't know anybody who builds the kiln for other people; perhaps. I don't think so. I know people in other cultures do. You know, there are kiln builders, like, in Africa or South America where they--

Hayes: Are specialists, you mean, huh?

Thornton: Specialists, yeah. I think most people would build their own kiln. Like in China, where they have those big tunnel kilns that take forever to load, and I think they only fire four or five times a year. That's how big those kilns are.

Hayes: And how often do you fire, try to do?

Thornton: Four, five, six, well, maybe six or seven bisque, and maybe the Raku, you know, I have to do a lot more, because only four or five pieces.

Hayes: Oh, you can only do four or five pieces in there?

Thornton: And that's good, too. The bigger kiln, I probably fire, maybe, six to seven times a year.

Hayes: Wow. And you say yours uses gas as its primary-- .

Thornton: Yes, it's a reduction kiln.

Hayes: Is it cheap?

Thornton: You have to have a solid fuel for reduction.

Hayes: Okay.

Thornton: Versus electricity.

Hayes: Well, some of your friends, I know, have shifted over to the electric kiln, and some of that, just because it's just more convenient-- or is it control?

Thornton: I think it's also what you have been taught. You know, I think that seems to-- you know, what I like to do comes from being taught, you know, to fire a kiln. First of all, I think the first thing that I was taught, that clay is a material that is abundant, but do not take it for granted. And like, there's a lot of clay in this world. We'll never run out of it, but be always very, very efficient. Never waste anything; never use more than you ought to; never fire more, because, ecologically, it doesn't make any sense. We are working with the earth; and therefore, we need to be respectful. So I start with, actually, where I went to school in Omaha, we had a very big kiln, and a very, very small chamber, so small that when it was firing, most of the students wouldn't go near it. They would go look in there and then back out. They were too scared of the flames going in, smoke coming out. We only had one kiln. I don't think we had an electric kiln at all. We had a small kiln for smaller firings, like if somebody wanted to do earthenware. We did not have a Raku kiln, but we had a fine functioning gas kiln. And I did take a kiln-building workshop at Creighton University. That's one of the benefits.

Hayes: Oh, there actually was a workshop?

Thornton: Well, they didn't have a kiln, so they had to build a kiln. So, and then, in order to justify this, Mr. Horning advertised and people came from, you know, all over Nebraska to learn how to build a kiln. So, together with four or five people, we built a kiln. We had sauce to make a bracket and all that. And so, that's how I know how to build a kiln.

Hayes: And what year did you build this particular large kiln? Was that in the '80s?

Thornton: This was in '83, and I built another one in Germany, in, let's see, 1976, and I build another one in Omaha, Nebraska, in when was that, let's see, 1970, maybe.

Hayes: Wow, so that's kind of unusual that three major kilns in your-- and you're hoping not to do another one, right?

Thornton: I don't think I want to. I'm thinking about maybe reducing mine, from such a large size, to maybe a smaller one, but I'm not sure yet. I can handle it now.

Hayes: Do they have a permanence, or do you always have to do brick maintenance and things like that?

Thornton: Not too much, but you can replace everything. You can take it all apart and put it back together, so you never have to-- like, electric kiln, something breaks down, you have to write to somebody or call somebody until the piece comes. Then they don't have the piece, and I'm not an electrician, and there's a lot of voltage in there. I don't feel that comfortable. But my thing was, when I left Omaha, when I left the school, before I built my own kiln, I got a whole semester credit for building a kiln myself. And the problem there, was, like, when the plumbing things, and anything that goes in there, the nipples and the reducers and the, you know, the openings. I don't even know, to this day, what you call those properly. And I would go to the hardware store and say, "I want this; I want this; and want the reducing nipple and this and this and this." And then they thought, "This woman is crazy." And I said, "Lead me to the bins." And I would go to the bin and put it all together, and then I had to get a permit, I mean, a permit from the gas company.

And people there were so impressed with me. They loaned me their tools. So I have, like, three or four big monkey wrenches, which is something I never worked with, because you have to have two. When you put the two pipes together, you have to have, I think it's kind of a nipple, where both of them get screwed in at the same time, connect them together. So I never learned the proper term, but I knew what size they had to be, what material they're made out of, and things like that. So they would lend me a bunch of-- it was so nice and so sweet-- they lent me their tools, which was nice.

Hayes: Now, when you built the one here in '83, was that like a community effort? Did you have some help with that? Or still had to do it all by yourself?

Thornton: All by myself, yeah.

Hayes: Wow. Listen, I'm going to-- if you don't mind, I think this is a good, logical place to stop and let me change the tape, and when we come back, I want to talk a little bit more about your career here in Wilmington. All righty?

Thornton: Yeah.

Hayes: Hang on a second.

(Tape Change)

Hayes: Okay, we're back. Alright, we're on tape number two with Traudi Thornton, a ceramist, a clay artist here in Wilmington, North Carolina, and Sherman Hayes, University Librarian, on February 1, 2008. Traudi, before we go on to your career here at Wilmington, which will help with our local history effort, I wondered if you had thought about the fact of why you became an artist. It seems to me that your parents were both really-- and you said other family members were really from an artisan, artist tradition. So it isn't very illogical that you eventually became an artist. Were there other-- brothers and sisters, either one of them, go into the arts?

Thornton: My brother's a graphic designer, yeah. But he did not work-- you know, he went to school and was a graphic designer for some time. But then he started his own business. I think he needed money more than I did. My sister is a computer specialist. She, of course, earns a lot more money than I ever would.

Hayes: But your dad, you said, was furniture design, but that's really an art form-- a practical art form.

Thornton: Yes; it's not that much different, because the lifestyle is not much different. Sometimes you have a lot of money; sometimes you have none at all.

Hayes: And you said your mom had been a...

Thornton: My mother is a beautician.

Hayes: Yes, but in some ways, a great beautician sees the finished work as a creative endeavor.

Thornton: But she wasn't a beautician for very long.

Hayes: Oh, okay.

Thornton: She had, a very young age, three children, and that was plenty for her.

Hayes: Oh, she was a mother. Okay, you came to Wilmington in 1983. So, 25 years later-- who are some of the other ceramists that you've worked with over this time period, that you respect and so forth?

Thornton: With Dina, and I think one of my first ...

Hayes: Dina?

Thornton: Dina Roundwell.

Hayes: Okay, good.

Thornton: She's a ceramist. And I met her because she worked down at the art center with Hiroshi Sueyoshi. And Dina left and I got the job there. So Hiroshi and I, we were working together for eight years.

Hayes: Where was that? That was at the Cape Fear Community College Center?

Thornton: Yes.

Hayes: So were you teaching, or were you the artists in residence?

Thornton: No, I was teaching there.

Hayes: And what kind of students were those? Those were just...

Thornton: Non-traditional older people. Non-traditional students, people who had retired and wanted to do something, or people who worked in very responsible jobs, like some of them were dentists. Some of them were electrical engineers. And they wanted to do just do something for themselves in the evening. We taught-- Hiroshi and I taught-- each, like, one morning, and then each two nights.

Hayes: So these were people who were just kind of passionate about clay, and wanted to get into it as a hobby.

Thornton: They just wanted to do something. They wanted to learn something, in addition to their, already, you know, professional field. They just wanted to do something that would fulfill them.

Hayes: Right. Did you enjoy teaching?

Thornton: I enjoy teaching.

Hayes: Yes. Do you still do teaching at all? I mean this was sometime ago that did that? Or do you take private students?

Thornton: I take private students sometimes; not very often. I taught before. I taught in Germany, also. So I really have been teaching for, you know, a number of years, because you supplement your income through that. And it also is good to be with other people, because it's a very isolating existence as a part of you want to be alone or close by it. Usually, potters don't have studios away from their house, for some reason, because it always requires you to be there. It's just like a dog. It has to be covered up or uncovered or whatever. You always have to be around, so it works out better to be close by it, I think.

Hayes: So there's Dina. You mentioned Hiroshi. Were there other potters around?

Thornton: Not really potters that much, because there weren't all that many potters, but my first friend was Pam Toll. My very first friend I made, and I think we met in 1984. And she's always lived down the street from me.

Hayes: And Pam is a well-known painter, right?

Thornton: Yes, she's a painter.

Hayes: And teaches sometimes, part-time at the university, and works with No Boundaries.

Thornton: She teaches four classes.

Hayes: Four classes?

Thornton: She just is not paid full-time, teaching full-time.

Hayes: Okay. Well, we'll be talking to Pam, and we'll be talking to Pam, and we'll let her elaborate on that. But are there other artists that you've worked with?

Thornton: No not worked with. Pam and I never; I don't think worked together, except, you know, I went to the Baltic Island thing where we all worked, but not really together. I never worked with Hiroshi together. We taught together, but we never.

Hayes: And probably in ceramic it isn't a cooperative venture. You mentioned it's an individual art.

Thornton: I don't think painters do that very much. They want to do their own, you know ...

Hayes: They do. Except that as we've interviewed people, we have seen, sometimes, kind of painting groups. Sometimes they go on a field trip together. There can, you know, if you don't do joint work. Although there has been some of the mixed-media people have done two artists together. Fritzi Huber and Jane Baldridge, I know, did some combined pieces.

Thornton: Well, no, I've never done that.

Hayes: Now, when you did No Boundaries, I noticed that you were actually doing it-- was it prints?

Thornton: I was doing linoleum prints, you know, because I can't really take the clay with me, although I schlepped the clay for somebody else. There was a woman from Turkey, and she stayed at my house and she needed clay. So I helped her transport the clay over there. And I don't know, maybe it had been like 75 pounds. It just didn't feel right.

Hayes: No, you can't export it.

Thornton: You have to move everything back and whatnot. So no, but it's kind of nice to do something else. You know, where you're going to this island and you have-- like, I usually get this kitchen all to myself, and I've got a view of the ocean, and it's just beautiful. And to have that bright light, and just being able to play, and it's not going to be earthshaking if it doesn't come out as you want to, but I think they're very nice.

Hayes: Yes, I know. We have one. Have you dabbled in other parts of art, besides that one?

Thornton: No.

Hayes: I do know that you do do...

Thornton: I do collages which are made out of wood and metals, see, like this here.

Hayes: Oh, God, that's great.

Thornton: Yes, it's kind of like bits you find and I assemble them together.

Hayes: Interesting.

Thornton: Other than that, no.

Hayes: Interesting. Okay, no, I'm just curious, multi-talented, that you're ...

Thornton: As I get older, it, you know, takes everything I have just to do the daily thing with the clay. It is, like, much more demanding now, as I'm getting older. Everything is heavier, it takes longer and the attention span isn't quite-- I used to be able to work a lot, but I can't do that, anymore.

Hayes: It is-- this always is kind of a challenge, as it seems to, when I talk to people who are really-- you're an independent business person and an independent artist; you have drive your own schedule, right? I mean, that's the challenge.

Thornton: You have to be self-disciplined; that is the first, yes. And that comes easy. That comes very easy.

Hayes: That's just your nature, you mean.

Thornton: That's just my nature. I'm responsible; always was. And, you know, I'm also a gardener, and nobody would ever tell me there what to do. So I feel the same about my job. I can-- I'm flexible. If somebody would need me desperately for something, I could say, "Yes, I could do that tomorrow." But there are times when really you need to do what you want to, really. It's a want, more than a duty, for me.

Hayes: So do you do work every day, then?

Thornton: Every day. And if it's not directly related, it's immediately related, like, you know, cleaning things up and sweeping the floor and carrying out bits of clay. You know, I recycle all of the clay. When I'm trimming things, I have clay that I put in the bucket, and from this bucket, I put it in the machine. So there are always things you have to do like a farmer. You know, there are times when you repair your plow in the winter and do all kinds of things, but-- and it's not that much pressure, but you still, you know, devote a great deal of time to it, and it's always there.

Hayes: Yeah, interesting; maintenance. And you have to purchase the product. And how do you keep up, kind of, with the field of ceramics? Are there any methodologies that you use to see what's being done, or talk to people?

Thornton: No. I think, actually, you know, in Wilmington we're quite isolated from other people. And yet, I think this isolation is perhaps good because we don't see other things. You know we don't-- we have, like, a museum, but it is not a major museum. So we, kind of, are isolated, but I think that's good, because we're not sort of trend-oriented, and I really never was. So it isn't bothersome, but I do remember my teacher telling me about somebody he went to school with, who worked in art, and then was totally isolated, just like a family, in his shop and his kiln. And he had the impression, when my friend went to-- my teacher went to visit this friend, and they were talking about things, and this man said, "You know, I think, whatever I do, it is so utterly, utterly ugly." [laughs] And my teacher said, "The pieces were wonderful and beautiful, but the isolation can also bring down that you have-- you're so close to your own work, that you can't even see it anymore."

Hayes: Right. But you have lots and lots of friends. As I look around your house, I see lots of other art of other artists in town. So you must participate in the art community of not-- not necessarily with ceramics, but, you know, Elizabeth Darrow is a friend of yours. And so you had a-- if not a support group, I'm saying...

Thornton: Good support group here.

Hayes: Of other artists of other people who are interested, I know.

Thornton: And some people, more interesting than others, because it is, I think, also sometimes very dangerous to deal, or philosophize with people about not having money, because it should not really be a question, because there's never a solution to it, so therefore, it's a moot problem. So it's important to talk about the work, and not sort of the lack of reward for it.

Hayes: Yes, well, how do you even get your product out to the marketplace? That seems like it's the challenge we've heard so much from these interviews, is that there's no good rewarding mechanism to get your work out.

Thornton: Well, when I first came here, you know, I had a resume what was good in Europe, but didn't matter to anybody here. So I had to start all over again. And while I was teaching, I was working very, very, very hard. And I would like have shows, you know, any university, magazines, it says, you know, looking for artists wherever, and you just send lights in plan. I did that, maybe once a month. It was a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure. And then, you know, and then you have to drive the things. And sometimes they would bring them back. Some universities would offer a show and a nice gallery, also talk to the students, and maybe go to their existing facilities, and, you know, share with the students about your techniques and things like that. It was a lot of work and exhausting, you know, to teach like 12 or 16 hours a week. You know, build up your own resume.

Hayes: And make work, right.

Thornton: Make work. You know, get better and better; it was exhausting. And then, eventually, you know, I always have had the gallery, here. I do not know who used to be in the gallery here. And listed other galleries everywhere. And some places never sold anything. But two years ago, when I least needed it, a gallery in Chapel Hill just closed and went off with my work, with $2,800. So-- and this happened to other people and other fields as well.

Hayes: Because, a gallery-- it's tough to find the dependable gallery.

Thornton: Dependable, and it's also...

Hayes: And a promoting gallery, right.

Thornton: Yeah! And it's-- you have to do all of the bookkeeping. You have to do the delivery; you have to keep track of your pieces, and it just seems like another level of, you know, another level of agitation that you don't really need; at least I don't.

Hayes: Now you've had success with your kind of a holiday show, with all of the people that support you and come and work, and that's worked out fine for you. How long have you done that?

Thornton: For as long as I've lived here.

Hayes: Really, so that's-- you built that up over the years of people coming and ...

Thornton: I've done that everywhere I've lived.

Hayes: That's good.

Thornton: And I learned that from my teacher. He did that every year, once a year, even though he had a good salary at the university, he still did that once a year. And I did that when I lived in Omaha, and then I did it in Germany. And when I came here, I think, it was in '84, '85.

Hayes: Good. You might tell us about-- I thought a very innovative one that you were part of, was the "eight artists, six houses" event. That was kind of an interesting technique to...

Thornton: Well, that was really interesting, and I think everybody would like to do that more, but the opportunity isn't always there. It would be ready...

Hayes: Well, explain what that is. I mean, I know what it is, but that was ...

Thornton: My friend Elizabeth is a painter, and she lives on Castle Street, which is the historic district. And then Hiroshi was the other potter next to Dina, was asked to exhibit or asked if we could exhibit in the house next door, which Elizabeth also uses as her gallery, and their friends-- Denise Miller is the woman's name. And then, they asked the woman across the street, and she offered her house. And then the woman next to her offered the house.

Hayes: All of a sudden you had an event?

Thornton: We had art-- eight artists in three or four houses.

Hayes: Six houses, you had six.

Thornton: Six houses.

Hayes: Because then see, Virginia Wright-Frierson added her...

Thornton: They were separate.

Hayes: Right. I think they were all part of embed-- was it Margie Worthington?

Thornton: Margie Worthington who lived on Chestnut Street.

Hayes: Right. So they had two houses and then you had four.

Thornton: Yes, that's right. It was eight artists in six houses.

Hayes: And then we had an evening event, was great, the kind of kick-off where all of your friends came out.

Thornton: We had an opening and we had all of this wine, and there were hundreds of people. I mean we had, like, lots of wine. Yes, and friends helped. Our house was staffed by a friend of mine; he's a history professor. And he was serving the wine there, like he used to be a waiter. You know, when he was younger, he was very good at it. He had a cummerbund. It was really lovely. And the hostess...

Hayes: But what I liked about the concept, which was interesting, is that your art-- you put it into these people's houses and took out some of their decorative elements, right? And so you had a gallery, but it was in a private setting. And I think that's one of the real challenges, particularly for people to see art and for them, in their mind. How will this, you know, what will this be like? How does it fit? And when I went, I just loved seeing in those houses. Now, they were interesting houses, too. And you seemed to hit a chord, of both a house tour, right, and see the artists, which is important, and then see the artwork. It just was a wonderful combination.

Thornton: Well, it was sort of like, direct. You know, I think, sometimes, when people go to galleries, they're intimidated. Some gallery owners are very snobbish. You know, sometimes I have had appointments with gallery owners who approached me and asked me to come on the 26th at four o'clock, and I get there, and, "What do you want? Who are you?" And I said, "Well, it's four o'clock, I think I have an appointment." Very rude, and not very friendly at all. And I think, some of the patrons must experience similar things. So this was nice. People were not obliged to buy anything. They were not obliged to act in a certain way. And there was food and hors d'oeuvres in every house, all of the time, so they could just go in and out.

Hayes: But you get to meet the artists. I think that's so important too. Don't you find people want to talk to you about your work?

Thornton: Oh, yes. And they feel less intimidated under those circumstances, I think.

Hayes: Now, the only dilemma it sounds like, a grand scheme, except that was a lot of work, right.

Thornton: It was a lot of work, but it was worth it. I think it was very much worth it. Yeah. And we could share the cost for the postcards. Whenever you have more people slicing up the cake, it's better, because not everybody had to pay. I think we split the postage. We split the printing. Everybody had to pay for their own slides, so whatever we had was electronic images.

Hayes: Now, I noticed there's another piece that you wanted to show us, to speak to. You might bring that fluted sculptured over. And the reason I mention that, is this: a piece like this was in a major book that came out. And I can't remember what the name of that book was. I thought that was a interesting; it had kind of a term that I had never seen before.

Thornton: It's called "Extruded Ceramics: Techniques, Projects and Inspirations."

Hayes: And what is that-- what does the word "Extruded Ceramics" mean?

Thornton: "Extruded" means we have a machine where you put the clay in, and then, on the bottom, you have a disc, and you push the clay through that disk.

Hayes: And get different shapes?

Thornton: Well, it doesn't come like that, but I had somebody make a disk where I got...

Hayes: OK. So hold that up just a second.

Thornton: So, usually, this would be solid, but I wanted them hollow.

Hayes: So these are kind of tubes that you've put together.

Thornton: Yes.

Hayes: And, but, if you had hand mold that, that wouldn't be called extruded, then.

Thornton: No. I used to do them, hand-wash them.

Hayes: Did you?

Thornton: Yes. It's...

Hayes: So that means, "use of a mechanical assistance"? Is that what "extruded" means?

Thornton: Well, "extruded" is usually where you have some material and a restricted opening. You have a bigger opening and you restrict it somewhat on the bottom. These extruders do come. There's a plunge and you plunge that through and you squish it through that. But they don't have the-- they're all solid forms. I wanted them to be hollow. So they become lighter.

Hayes: So, this is a title. I mean, did you have...

Thornton: No, it don't have any title.

Hayes: It strikes me almost as coral-like.

Thornton: Yes, ocean-like culture and things.

Hayes: It just occurred to me: maybe that's just because we live near the ocean.

Thornton: Yes, I never-- well, I did live in the North Sea, once, but I have never lived in the southern climate, where it's warm. I don't even know if-- how does-- I think what happened, as when I came from Europe, here, in '83, I have no galleries. I could start afresh; I could try at anything. And it gave me no clients, nobody wanting to buy anything, hard work building the kiln and all of that, but I could start anew with a fresh slate. And I think this is where these Raku pieces and all of that, and the different fire techniques come from that I now was free to not-- no longer locked into whatever.

Hayes: Now you, with such a long career you've had different thrust, different type things. You know, we haven't seen the wall pieces which are kind of, I don't know how you would describe those. They're plates, but they're not plates; different shapes. You've had the extruded. You've had different ones. What triggers a change? Do you have any sense of why, all of a sudden, you head in one direction or another?

Thornton: Well, the change, you know, like I said, for me, was the freedom not-- the binding thing with galleries is also, they wanted to sell the same thing, over and over.

Hayes: That's right.

Thornton: So like, in advance, you know two years ahead that you have a show, let's see, at the museum downtown. They already have an image of what it is they want you to do. They would never say, "I will force you," but they knew you do this type of work.

Hayes: And they want that work, again.

Thornton: Because that's what they commit themselves to. So you cannot just, willy-nilly, go anywhere you want to. You do landscapes, and people say, "Yes, we let you have a show" and then you come with nudes; well they don't like that. Even though the artist is supposed to go through changes, galleries are not very kindly disposed to that. So, this is why I think I was free, then. I have galleries in Europe, and I have clients, and they were used to a particular kind of style that I was known for. And now I had nobody. I could just start all over. You know, I could say, "Would I like to do that? What fascinates me?" Another thing is, like, I made a lot of these; I never sold one, not even one.

Hayes: What?

Thornton: I think I sold one to somebody in Durham once, but that was that.

Hayes: And that's the problem that isn't-- . You could do something that is fulfilling and wonderful, and if it doesn't find a market-- .

Thornton: It's very stifling not to have a market. You know, when people view galleries, it's there forever and it doesn't sell, it doesn't just feel good. It's just a reality. You know it would be better if you would be rewarded for it, some appreciated.

Hayes: Now, do you think that there is a certain mindsets that people come with, what pottery should be? I mean it as you move to an edge of that, you do get a resistance from people who think, "Well, a pot ought to look like a pot," or something like that. Has that been a problem for sculptural...?

Thornton: No, not really. Actually, galleries prefer nonfunctional things.

Hayes: Oh, interesting.

Thornton: No, you wouldn't go with a bowl to a gallery. That's what you've seen hundreds.

Hayes: Okay. All right.

Thornton: That's not art.

Hayes: I see.

Thornton: But something that's not recognized-- let's say, unitarian object. It's also better to raise the price, perhaps. I don't know, I really don't know. I like to be involved in both, because I think without the necessity for a unitarian object, we would not have--

Hayes: Utilitarian.

Thornton: --Utilitarian. It's a hard word to say. Utilitarian object-- a ceramic would never be there, I think.

Hayes: Right. That's right.

Thornton: Because people did start with making objects where they could put their grain. And so, the rats would have a harder time getting to it, or they could put liquid in it and keep it away. Where, before, then, I think, we had baskets; that was about it. And so, without...

Hayes: Yeah, in every culture it's interesting that the creativity almost always comes through as people try to expand that, or add images to it and so forth. I mean, I think that's part of human nature, is that the artist component, even in ancient cultures, came through in pottery. You know, the Incas, much of the African pottery that I've seen. They didn't just keep it simple. There's been kind of an interesting...

Thornton: They need to elaborate.

Hayes: Elaborate, yes. That's great. Is there some particular trend that you're heading to next, that you want to give us a clue to? I just wondered if there's anything on the horizon?

Thornton: There's just always a desire to-- you know, before you, before I start, I have like images in my head that I then perhaps put on paper. And I see them in my head as gorgeous and beautiful, I mean, more beautiful than I can imagine. And the opposite is sometimes true. You know, sometimes the objects are very beautiful to me. They're so beautiful, and then "Gasp, you did that, I'm astonished." Now, that's just my relationship to my work. It may be irrelevant to anybody else. But you always have better and more beautiful things in your head. I think I would like to have more reliable glazes, more-- glazes that have-- all of the glazes I have are mine, I all designed them and they all can blend together with few exceptions. But I'd like to add some more-- I don't know. I just want my pots to be better, a bowl or whatever I want them, just to be more beautiful. More beautiful.

Hayes: Yes. I think they are beautiful. And I want to thank you for talking to us today.

Thornton: You're welcome. You're welcome.

Hayes: All right, great.

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