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Clay from Family Farm finds New Life at The Art League

For Ted Upton, getting connected with The Art League was a series of seemingly accidental events. The unlikely story of how a pipeline, clay, The Art League ceramics department, and a family reunion yielded a series of beautiful vases is nothing short of serendipitous.

Digging up Art

In 1952, Upton’s parents bought a plot of land – an old, non-functioning farm in rural West Virginia. There, among chickens and the rolling hills, Upton and his 12 siblings grew up. To this day, the land still remains in the family. When the youngest of the siblings passed away last year, Upton started looking for a way gift something special for his siblings at the annual family reunion.

Pipeline construction across the Upton property
Pipeline construction across the Upton property

That March, construction for a pipeline project started across the Upton’s property, and the digging uncovered what looked to be a clay vein. Not a potter himself, Upton packed a bag of clay to take to a local shop to assess the materials. Unfortunately, the shop was closed. Forced to look for a new option, Ted remembered a ceramics offshoot near the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria near where he now lives. Enter The Art League.

The clay vein in the raw
The clay vein in the raw

Concept and Clay

When Upton stepped into The Art League Madison Annex with several buckets of raw clay, he didn’t know what to expect. Luckily, ceramics instructor Ryan Rakhshan, happened to be there that day teaching a class.

Rakshan agreed to test the clay out, “mixing it into a slurry, the raw clay turned a beautiful, mustardy yellow. Aside from the occasional rock and root, it was an absolute dream to throw on the wheel,” he said.

Raw Clay (left), Clay Slurry (center), Pre-glaze vases (right)
Raw Clay (left), Clay Slurry (center), Pre-glaze vases (right)

Since the clay was easy to work with and matured at the same temperature that the clay studio fires at, Rakhshan created a concept for a series of pieces to create for Upton’s eight siblings and his deceased brother’s three children. “If I can do something,” said Upton about the project. “I would like to do it for my siblings and my brother’s three kids for a family reunion.”

The concept: 12 different vases are “simple cylinders that have soft, undulating lines on their surfacean ode to the rolling hills and farmland where [the Upton children] grew up,” said Rakhshan. The pieces, holistically made from material from the Upton property, feature a glaze made of a mix of ash made from wood from the farm as well as clay and Gerstley Borate.  

Unique Clay

Not only was Rakhshan able to create several vases, but Upton also kindly donated extra clay from the farm for the ceramics students in The Art League school to experiment with.

Rakshan at the wheel
Rakhshan at the wheel

“I was able to teach my students about prospecting, mining, testing, and processing raw local clay,” said Rakhshan. “This was a unique opportunity for them to learn about the joys and challenges of using local clay, and an insightful glimpse of what potters would have been working with several hundred years ago.”

Final vase
Final vase

The final vases now sit on the tables and counters of the Upton family siblings and their children, each one unique but similar in its own way, much like the family members they were gifted to.  When asked if he is thinking of taking a class at The Art League soon, Upton says that he would definitely like to take a class with Rakhshan in the future.

If you’re interested in signing up for a ceramics class this Fall Term, registration is still open!

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Did you know: The Art League's Art Camp is the longest running visual arts camp in the area! We've been here for more than 30 years! While sadly we can't find any photos from the '80s (please let us know if you have any lying around), let's take a look back at the last several years of burgeoning kid artists and eight years of fun at Art Camp!

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