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    Feats of clay

    A former closet at the Beach Art Center has been transformed into a sunny, functional pottery studio that holds three classes a week.

    By EILEEN SCHULTE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2001


    INDIAN ROCKS BEACH -- This time last year, it was just a little closet illuminated by a bare lightbulb, not a place for pinch pots or slump molds.

    The room at the rear of the Beach Art Center held an eclectic collection of old chairs, tables, clay molds and stretchers.

    The art classes were held in other, more open rooms.

    To Betsy Schoepf, the center's executive director, the closet seemed like a waste of space.

    She wanted to build a pottery studio there.

    About a year ago, when Gwendolyn Gutwein moved here from Indiana and approached Schoepf for a job teaching painting classes, Schoepf instead asked her if she would like to be the manager/instructor of the pottery studio.

    But the studio, funded by a donation from Beach Art Center member Bob Gray, had to be built first.

    So Gutwein, her husband, Don DeBurger, and others cleared out the clutter and transformed the closet and a kitchen next to it into a sunny, functional pottery studio where she holds three classes a week.

    It took three months, but finally, on Jan. 9, the first pottery class was held.

    During a recent three-hour Tuesday afternoon session, Jane Erickson of Largo, Lois Lasater of Indian Rocks Beach and Arlene Barian of Madeira Beach were learning to make a casserole dish and watch Gutwein "tool" a chip and dip dish that looked somewhat like a sombrero.

    Before the lesson began, Barian reached up and removed a delicate blue dish and a greenish candle holder -- both recently fired -- from a shelf and inspected them.

    "I'll have it for a little while, then I'll share it," she said of the candle holder.

    An experienced potter who used to sell her creations on the art show circuit in Wisconsin, Barian knows how to throw a pot.

    So why does she come to classes? Well, one reason is to "catch up on new techniques," she said. But there was a more compelling reason.

    "You get lonely working by yourself," Barian said.

    "Clay's a lonely business," agreed Lasater.

    And expensive -- not to take the lessons, but to equip a studio.

    The women who started taking the pottery class a month ago throw clay on $1,000 wheels with speed control foot pedals, and fire it in the $3,000 silver-colored kiln.

    Gutwein called clay "an addiction," something "you get into and you just can't get out of."

    She has not been able to extract herself from its grip for nearly 20 years, ever since she was a fine arts student at Indiana University, where equipment was primitive and the artists were a bit weary of the kiln.

    "It's like Christmas when you open the kiln. You have an expectation about what it will look like, but the kiln has a lot of influence," Gutwein said. "When I was going to school, we made kiln gods with happy faces and big noses," hoping to ensure success.

    So far, Erickson, who did hand building (a clay forming process) for a year and wanted to learn how to throw on the wheel, seems to be having good luck with the Beach Art Center kiln. She has even sold a couple of her creations at the art center's gift shop for $25 each.

    "If you make pots and keep all of them, it's like you're living in King Tut's tomb," she said.

    She enjoys learning glazing techniques, and called Gutwein "a good teacher."

    "I like the facility, the space. It's comfortable," Erickson said, watching Gutwein use a Folger's coffee can to help create the chip and dip plate. "It's really fun."

    If you go

    Gwendolyn Gutwein teaches potterymaking from 1 to 4 p.m. and from 6 to 9 p.m. Mondays, and from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays. More classes may be added. The Beach Art Center is at 1515 Palm Bay Blvd., Indian Rocks Beach. The cost for a four-week session is $40 for center members, $50 for non-members. There is a $20 materials fee that will buy you 25 pounds of high-fire white stoneware clay. For information, call (727) 596-4331.

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