Merging the functional with the sculptural at Portland Pottery

The way Karen DiCenso describes pottery, it sounds a bit like dating. It’s fun and social. It takes as much time as you’ll give it. There’s chemistry involved. There are a lot of steps where something can go wrong. But if everything goes right, you end up with something you don’t want to live without.

“I tell students not to fall in love with a piece until it finally comes out of the kiln,” says DiCenso, studio manager at Portland Pottery. “People don’t realize how difficult throwing is. A piece can take weeks before it comes out of the glaze kiln.”

The desired red color might instead look yellow. Or the piece might explode in the kiln. Or it might simply fall apart. Or it might be the best thing you’ve ever made.

“It’s like Christmas,” DiCenso says. “We open the kiln and see what we have, and hopefully you get what you wanted.”

DiCenso’s first ceramics class was as a student at Thornton Academy in 1996. She completed a dual major in ceramics and art education at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, studying in-depth topics like clay and glaze chemistry and how to build a kiln. Then she came back to Maine and started working at Portland Pottery in 2002, starting as summer camp instructor.

When it comes to her own work, DiCenso has certainly gotten good at getting what she wants. She makes mostly mugs and bowls, because who doesn’t love a cup of coffee or a bowl of ice cream served in something beautiful?“I want each piece to look handmade,” DiCenso says. “And I love a unique surface on the outside.”

In additional to functional pottery, she does some sculptural work inspired by the coast. As inspiration, DiCenso collects shells, observing their textures and designs closely enough so she can  re-create them in clay.

“I’ve made sea urchins, and I get as detailed as I possibly can with them,” DiCenso says, adding that it’s fascinating to think about the real sea creatures and the functional purposes of the shells that house them. “I try to work the surface as much as I can to age it like a shell would look.”

Perhaps DiCenso’s most authentic signature pieces result when she merges the functional with the sculptural, such as adding a textured starfish on the outside of a mug. These pieces are available at the Portland Pottery Store & Café, next to the Washington Avenue studio where she teaches students of all ages.

“I enjoy teaching adults,” DiCenso says. “It’s great to see people come in and think that they just can’t, and then watching them progress over time.”

Student work from a pottery class.

Eight-week classes meet one day a week for three hours, and it’s a bit of an all-you-can-make scenario. With a $265 class enrollment, you get up to 50 pounds of clay and the opportunity to come create in the studio any time during the eight-week session.

“You can really spend quite a bit of time here if you want,” DiCenso says. “I feel like I live at the studio, but there are some students who spend just as much time here as I do.”

There are 48 weeks of classes available per year, and some students just keep coming back for more. After months or years of creating side by side, tight friendships form.

This, DiCenso says, is part of why Portland Pottery is a community as much as it is a studio or a store or a café. Though she also has a studio in her basement in Steep Falls, she loves the creative collaboration that happens at Portland Pottery.

There are bachelorette parties, girls’ night out parties and couples’ parties (perhaps inspired by that romantic pottery wheel scene in “Ghost”?).

But most often students come in as strangers. And, eight weeks later, they walk out with a bowl, a mug or two, and some new friends.

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough who thinks it must be great fun to play with wet clay on a wheel, but probably doesn’t have the patience involved with an eight-week session.

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