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My name is Jayn Avery. I’m a potter, and a resident of Floyd 26 years.
And how did you find Floyd?
That’s the magical question! Someday we’re going to all write a book about it. In this case, I was living in upstate New York in a small town with a woman in a collective household that was a friend of Ellen Shankin’s, one of the 16 Hands potters. And then we decided we wanted to leave the area, we came down here not because of that but because of meeting a woman at a craft fair who lived down in Bastien, Va. We went down to visit her and thought on the way we would drive through Floyd. And we for a couple of years lived outside Wytheville – we found a great place to live – but then kept coming back to Floyd and that’s where we ended up.
Why did you keep coming back to Floyd?
Well, the first time it was because they a had a food co-op with natural foods and organic foods, and that’s where we’ve chosen to eat pretty cleanly as possible for most of my life. I grew up with a dad who gardened everywhere we lived, with homegrown foods, so that’s been really important to me.
Did you have parents who were artists?
No. My dad was a minister. My mom was a minister’s wife – full-time occupation! In fact, even though they encouraged doing art, they never took it, they never considered it a livelihood. I was raised to be a teacher, secretary, nurse or whatever, as most of us women were back in the ‘50s, ‘60s. And in fact, becoming a potter, I could never even make the decision to be a potter – I had to set myself up to be “almost hired” to be a teacher, and not get the job, to decide that I would be a potter [laughing]. So I call myself a potter by default!
Explain that a little bit more.
Well, I was working on a master’s in environmental education up at Cornell University, and at that time, that was a new degree – they didn’t really know what that meant. I had ideas, they had ideas, but none of them seemed to click in well for who I was. So I was just taking pottery in the local student union craft shop to, just to give myself something to do and ‘cause I’d always enjoyed working with clay – in high school I’d made one pot, because that’s all that was available in the high school. So I thought, “Whoah, this is a great opportunity!” So I kept working in the studio, just loved it, and the man who taught in the studio was very good about directing people towards thinking about doing it as a livelihood. I had never even considered that, but he kept kinda at it, and we did a little studio show, and when I first – I sold my first pot and made money for it, that was the thrill of my life – I thought “Wow! I can do what I love, and make money?” [laughing]
So I would keep doing that, and then I walked into this local high school to do my student teaching, to sign up for and see what that was like, and as soon as I walked in, I walked out. And I wasn’t sure why; I just knew this wasn’t right. And then I got really upset, like, well, what am I doing? So I took a leave of absence and had to really rethink things. So I decided to see if I even wanted to teach. And I took an assistantship, assistant teaching job at a little nursery school outside of Ithaca, and really loved it. I loved the kids, I loved doing it, but I was also doing pottery at the same time, and getting more and more into it and really developing that – I’d even put some pieces in a local show up in Ithaca College, and they were well received. So then the position for head teacher at the school came up, and I thought, well, I’m supposed to be a teacher, so I should apply for this. And I liked the job, so I thought, “Okay. If I get this job, I will go back to school, finish my master’s and become a teacher. If I don’t get this job, I’ll be a potter.” [laughs] So, guess what? I didn’t get the job.
So it’s a funny way to get into it, but it’s really the only way I could get to do it, because I wasn’t raised with the idea that that was a viable income, or a way of life. Which is strange, you know, when you think about it, but where I grew up and how I grew up kind of explains it, I guess.
So now my involvement here at the Jacksonville Center is very much trying to give that kind of credibility to it, as livelihood.
Do you think that that cultural pushing of women towards the kind of jobs that they were pushed toward in the ‘60s, in the ‘50s, ‘60s, I guess even into the ‘70s – is that the reason why you think a lot of women are finding new careers later in life? Is it a response to that?
Well, that’s interesting. That’s certainly possible. Most of the people that I’ve noticed that are taking, doing the classes at the Jacksonville Center are older women, retired women, my age or older, and yeah, they’re doing something they love for the first time, you know, which is interesting. Some of ‘em were housewives and, and householders, and many of ‘em had jobs. I had two art teachers in my class lately and one was just retired and she was having so much fun just doing it, without having to teach it! So, um, I’m not sure, but I know things have changed a lot, and trying to work in a field that you really love and feel like you can make a livelihood out of it is becoming more difficult, I think, even though the openings and the opportunities are broader. It’s just interesting… it sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it?
I think because if what you love to do works into the framework of the corporate world or the business world, then great. Or the teaching, the hospital – the healing work – then that’s wonderful, because then you can do something that there is a place for you. In the art and handcraft world, um, we still see that as a culture as a luxury, and so it’s harder to see it as something that you can do as a livelihood, even though, and I’ve had to tell myself this as a potter, often, when things get rough – there’ve been potters around as long as there have been farmers, as long as there have been people who have had food they’ve needed to store. So that’s from the beginning of civilization. So they have been very important throughout civilization – it’s just now with the manufacturing of these things [that] that kind of importance has changed. I feel what’s important now is the individual expression, is the uniqueness of things, and is the personal experience of creating things.
Do you think a sense still exists among some artists that, oh, marketing my work, selling my work, that’s gonna corrupt it somewhat?
I think that’s always there. Um, I think the absolute best advice I was given by this same man who ran this student union craft studio at Cornell was, he said, “if you wanna make pottery as a livelihood, first, you find out what you love to do. Second, you find what about that is absolutely unique from anyone else. Thirdly, you apply that to what is needed out there. And it’s that third thing that has saved me as a potter in terms of livelihood. Yeah, there’s some things I’d rather make in some levels, but I make mugs and butter dishes and vessels and things that people can use.
What would you rather make?
At this point, now, I would rather – and I am including now – more sculptural pieces. But I still make them as vessels – I’m not willing to just make them as sculptures. The part of me that is so practical still wants them to be something that holds water and holds flowers, or something. So that’s an interesting choice. I don’t consider it a compromise. I consider it just my personal choice.
Can you give me some examples?
Well, I have moved into a line of – some people are familiar with my herons. I love the bird; the bird represents something that has been a part of my life since I became a potter. I do name my, I named my studio Blue Heron Pottery. There’s something about the presence of those birds, and so I’ve started working on a, um, vessels that are shaped as herons. But then there’s also a number of images that, of big, large pitchers and vessels that are more feminine shapes, that don’t have a specific image involved. I love doing that work, but I still do my, as I call it, my bread-and-butter work, because that’s how I make a livelihood. And I don’t resent that, because actually, you’re constantly learning new skills. I may have made I don’t know how many thousands of little bud vases, but each time, I’m learning a better way to make ‘em. If I pay attention, and I can get a little faster, I can get a little clearer, I can – and I still make mistakes, and mistakes are wonderful learning processes, so, that’ll never stop.
Can you talk a little bit about your process, your materials and your style?
Okay, my particular style that’s unique is that I work with slabs of clay, and so it’s a slab-built or a hand-building process, rather than the wheel-thrown, and most people are familiar with thrown pottery. So the slab pottery – what got me into it, first of all, was because it was very easy to make something very individualistic. You can go into any kind of shape. But I also loved the “clothy” aspect of clay, and I press lace into the clay to give it texture, and once I sort of, I discovered that, and I discovered the consistency of the lace and the way to work the lace into different designs, I found that my, um, my sewing skills, which my mother taught me when I was a little girl, were serving me very well because I developed this planter, or this vessel, where I’m gathering up the clay. And not only does it express the clothiness of clay, but, as far as I know, I’m the only person in the world that does that, you know, which is just because I was playing with it, and I was using skills I never would have imagined would have been applied to me as a potter. And I love that, and I love being able to tell people that story, because that’s how – you never know what you learn as a child, how it’s going to apply to your future, and this is a clear example of that.
Do you use old lace as well?
Yes, I can use old antique laces, because it doesn’t hurt the lace to roll it into the clay. Basically, I’m just printing the impression of the lace onto the clay, I pull it off, then I shape my pot. There’s a lot of stages in hand-building because you need to be able to shape it and have it still fluid a little bit so it’ll fold without cracking, but it has to be able to hold its shape at the same time. So atmosphere in the studio from summer to winter will change, my timing changes, so having the studio next to my house and I weave my gardening and my love of the outdoors in with my studio work. So I’ll work for an hour here, go out there, go in here, you know – it works well with my lifestyle.
Can you describe the place you live and work?
I live in somewhat of a homestead place – it’s the old house that was first built on this piece of property that then I bought with, at the time, three, or two other families. Now we have four families living there, sharing the cost of the land – that’s something – that’s a number of us that moved here back in the – let’s see, it was late ‘70s, early ‘80s. Land was certainly a lot cheaper, but we were coming in on nothing, and living off a pottery or a craft or carpentry, as many of us were doing, um, was not very high income, coming in. So, living very simply, which of course the people that had lived here for generations understood, and I loved my neighbors – this old couple that had raised their kids in our area, and they would come over and visit our little babies and um, they just understood us wanting to live from our gardens, and can, and homestead, and could relate more in some ways to us than their own children who were trying to get away from that ‘cause they had grown up on the farm. We were coming back. We were the third generation coming back to the farm. My grandfather had been a farmer, my husband’s grandfather had been a farmer, and so our childhood memories were wonderful about farming, and we wanted to continue that and yet we knew we needed to do something a little different, and the pottery was very fulfilling in many ways, and it also allowed us to live that rural lifestyle.
So you’re out of town a little ways…
Yes. Yeah, we’re out of town. Actually I wanted to live further out of town, back when we were first looking for land, but this piece came up and it turned out to be good because we were a part of founding the Blue Mountain School, and eventually we were having to carpool our kids into the school and so we’re just about five miles out of town and that was perfect distance for having to go in and out.
Why do you think Floyd draws so many people who are creative – artists, musicians?
You know, that’s a good question that I don’t know any of us will find a simple answer to that, but I know back when many of us were coming here it was an atmosphere of welcome. You know, a quiet welcome – it’s not like with, welcome-with-open-arms – I don’t think any area that’s well-settled in a rural area, especially, really knows what to do with newcomers. And we were, you know, we were a strange lot, with our long hair and our [laughs] flowered skirts and whatever, but we were never treated with any animosity, and the land was beautiful, and like I said, the lifestyle of the people here who lived out in the country and on the farms was not that different.
That independence – and I think that drew us more than anything – people were living their own lives, independently, doing what they felt they needed to do to get by, and that’s really what we wanted to do. And that was the trend in the late ‘60s, in the ‘70s especially, was to climb the social ladder. And in many ways we were climbing down the social ladder, and loving it, because – I call us “the downward mobile” generation, some of us. We’d been through, we’d experienced the comfortable middle class. Many of us that became, quote/unquote back-to-the-landers, had come from a generation who had succeeded quite well, and we had our little house, you know, with the white picket fence, the Dick-Jane-and-Sally world, I call it. We didn’t need to do that anymore. We saw certain values getting lost, and really wanted to have our kids grow up in community, in a village atmosphere, a sense of connecting, connection to each other, and in nature. And that was very important.