A Potter’s Process

Valerie Seaberg uses a variety of techniques for a stunning effect.

By Erika Dahlby
Photography by Ryan Dorgan

When Valerie Seaberg finishes a piece of pottery she doesn’t send it out right away. She picks it up again, looks at in different lights and from different angles. And then she goes into one of her states of mind that she has while making pottery: mouse mind and eagle eye.

While in mouse mind she’s hyper-focused on one thing: what’s right in front of her, smoothing clay, drilling holes, trimming frizzy horsehairs, or weaving.

But then she sets the piece down, steps back about five feet and asks herself, “Is this the direction I want to go in for this piece?” After looking at the piece, whether it’s a crackled vase, a decorative wave, or a functional mug, she’ll return to that mouse mind to complete the next task.

“I think it’s very important to be fluid in that way as an artist,” she said. “It’s easy to get lost in the fascination of the activity. You can get stuck on a certain idea and that can be suffering. It’s important to remain curious about what’s happening between me and the material.”

Sometimes when she walks into the studio it’s completely clear what she’s going to make, and other times the piece will transition into something else during the process.

“I have my ideas about what’s going to happen,” she said, “and then I start to shape the clay, and the clay shapes me.”

Wedging the clay like you would knead bread, Seaberg warms it up and smoothens out any bubbles while getting the feeling of the clay body she’s working with.

“They’re all kind of eyebrow-singeing experiences.”
– Valerie Seaberg

She rolls it around and presses into the clay until it forms an orange-sized ball.

Seaberg doesn’t use a pottery wheel, instead she uses her hands to make a hole in the center of the ball and pinches the sides to bring the walls up.
She lets it sit, then repeats.

“Because clay has its own time I might work on it for a few hours, then let it set up,” she said. “For me tracking the clay part of it is really impossible.”

Once the piece is the right shape, look, and leather-hard she applies woodworking tools to give it texture. This may be a foot-tall vase with smooth sides or a sculptural bowl with wavy sides.

If the piece is smooth, she will burnish it either using a highly polished stone or a gold spoon.

Seaberg then applies a layer of terra sigillata, a super fine clay body that helps fill in microscopic irregularities in the surface. It also promotes carbon smoke effects, which she uses in some of her firing techniques.

Before firing she will drill holes into the top of the piece for the weaving process.

To make a piece with a black and white marbled look, she uses a naked raku technique.

Seaberg applies another clay body, one that’s tighter than the original, to the outside of the piece. It’s fired and then once it reaches a certain temperature, is moved into a metal bucket filled with sawdust, newspaper, and needles. The smoke infuses the pot with carbon, creating a black color wherever the extra clay body isn’t and a white surface underneath. Once cooled, she will chip off the excess clay body, re-smooth it and then apply a sealant.

For other pieces she will build a pit fire in her backyard to fire the pieces, which is usually a twenty-four-hour process, or use saggar firing, only an hour-long process. But it all uses a bit of alchemy. Some things will blow up and break, and other times the fire will have a mind of its own.

“They’re all kind of eyebrow-singeing experiences,” she said.

She wanted to use materials native to the area, and after attending the Mountain Man Rendezvous and seeing someone selling horsehair, she thought to herself, “I can weave that.” She also incorporates conchos, turquoise, buffalo nickels, beads, Kennedy half-dollars, and boot spurs into her pottery, in addition to the horsehair.

After the piece is cooled and the clay part is finished, she chooses the color of horsehair and any accessories to add. She then starts to weave the hair into the pre-drilled holes, just as she would a pine needle basket, her first foray into the art world.

She had always been a crafter, carrying around a pocketknife to whittle sticks. But when she moved to northern California to attend the Heartwood Institute it was too far away to get materials. Then she signed up for a basket making class.

“It really caught me,” she said. “I never consider myself a patient person, but the work of weaving baskets really captured me.”

Her background in basket weaving translated easily into pottery, and then the pots turned into waves.

“As I became more skilled at using tools and making tools, my work became much more sculptural,” she said.

Her work is on display at the Ecce Gallery in Bozeman, Montana, and the Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She will have more functional pieces for sale at the annual Mud Pots sale and will have her art featured at Art Fair Jackson Hole during the second weekends of July and August. Her collaborative pieces with painter Shannon Troxler Thal, with Thal’s paintings on Seaberg’s pottery, will be on display at Horizon Fine Art Gallery.