Each February — this year, on the afternoon of Saturday the 24th — the Women’s Studio Workshop (WSW) holds its biggest annual fundraiser: the Chili Bowl Fiesta. This will be the 21st such event, and the second time that it’s being held on the campus of SUNY-Ulster in Stone Ridge.
The Fiesta is immensely popular, with the number of handmade earthenware bowls being sold escalating each year, at prices ranging from $10 to $100. Your bowl or mug of choice comes filled with tasty chili, donated by more than 20 local restaurants and chefs. And each year, when we interview attendees at the event, we are told by many people that they come back time and time again to enjoy the festivities and stock their kitchens with unique pieces of pottery.
It’s always a heartwarming success story, but one that doesn’t vary much from one year to the next. So this time we decided to take a different approach: to offer a peek behind the curtain of the WSW Ceramics Studio during the busy weeks leading up to the Fiesta. We got our opportunity on Saturday, February 3 at Community Bowl Day, when volunteers of all ages are invited to get their hands muddy and make a bowl that will be sold at the Fiesta.
It takes a lot of people — WSW staff, interns and volunteers — working over a period of months to crank out the beautiful vessels that will be displayed for sale on Fiesta day. But the big push happens during the final couple of months. The 2018 goal is to have 1,000 bowls and mugs ready, says Ruth McKinney Burket, manager of the Ceramics Studio, who has been working for WSW in that capacity for seven years. “We sold over 900 last year,” she noted.
Community Bowl Day consists of three 90-minute sessions, each one able to accommodate about a dozen wannabe-potters. At the 2 p.m. session that this reporter attended, there were more kids than adults taking part. The youngest was Ruth’s daughter, Tori Burket, age 5; but several youngsters had discovered WSW through its arts-in-education afterschool program with the Kingston Consolidated School District, bringing their parents along for more on Bowl Day.
The group filed downstairs into the two-room basement studio at WSW’s headquarters in a former post office and general store in Cottekill that dates back to the heyday of the Rosendale cement industry. There, Ruth gave a brief overview of WSW’s programs before introducing ceramics intern Breana Hendricks. Bree proceeded to demonstrate how to construct a bowl using the “slab-building” technique, starting with a cutout paper stencil. The paper is folded into four panels, using scissors to cut a pattern into it. She showed the group how to use a plastic scraper called a rib to smooth the prerolled slab of clay, then created a pattern in the surface by pressing a piece of lace doily into the clay with a rolling pin. Next, she applied a colored slip – a dilute slurry of powdered clay, paint and water – with a paintbrush to areas of the design.
Laying the stencil down atop the slab of decorated clay, Bree traced around its perimeter with a metal scribing implement called a pin tool, then pulled away the excess clay from the edges. Lifting each of the four panels of the pattern, she dampened the edges with a sponge and pressed them together, lapping them slightly to transform the square basket shape into a creation more resembling a flower. Rib and sponge then came into play once again to smooth the vessel and remove any burrs.
The group’s second option was to shape bowls by draping them onto wooden molds. Ruth demonstrated that procedure, beginning by compressing a clay slab with a rib “so it doesn’t break when I put it over the mold.” She showed how to apply silkscreen transfers to damp clay: a process reminiscent of rubbing on a temporary tattoo. Once the image is pressed into the slab, one must peel the paper away very carefully to ensure that it adheres. The image is then dusted with cornstarch to protect it while shaping the clay to the mold; the cornstarch simply burns away when the vessel is fired in the kiln.
The clay slab is pressed over the mold and any excess trimmed away from the lip. At this point the exterior of the bowl may also be decorated, whether by painting with slips, pressing lace into the surface or carving into the clay. The finished design is then left to dry in front of a heater for a few minutes before the bowl is detached from the mold and its edges finished with a plaster rasp, which resembles a small cheese grater, and a damp sponge. Ruth encouraged the group not to go crazy trying to make the lip perfectly uniform: “We have factories that can make everything precise,” she reminded us. “I think it’s kind of charming to see some fingerprints.”
It being the day before Superb Owl Sunday, your humble correspondent decided to decorate the inside of my own bowl with a silkscreen of an owl. Using the pin tool, I then incised a pattern of feathers around the outside and outlined them with colored slip. Those looking on mostly assumed that these were supposed to be leaves, but I didn’t mind. Visual art has never been my strong suit, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself not entirely hating the result of my first hands-on experiment with pottery-making. I even decided to mark the bottom of my bowl with the special stamp that indicates, on Chili Bowl Fiesta day, that it’s reserved for purchase by the maker.
Whether they were first-timers like Amalea Spencer, 7, of Kingston, who created a rayed “starfish” design by pressing the center of a doily down against her transfer of a seashell, or old hands like Jayda Taylor, 12, of Poughkeepsie, who carved and painted an elaborate flamelike rim onto her slab-built bowl, most of the workshop attendees decided to come back to claim their creations. The new bowls would spend a few days curing before the first firing – possibly on Tuesday, Ruth said. They would then receive a clear glaze before the final trip to the kiln.
If you missed Community Bowl Day this year, be sure to put the 21st annual Chili Bowl Fiesta down in your day planner: Saturday, February 24 from 2 to 7 p.m. at the SUNY Ulster Dining Hall at 491 Cottekill Road in Stone Ridge. If you arrive between 2 and 4 p.m., you’ll pay an entry fee of $5 and get first crack at the selection of bowls. From 4 p.m. on, you can get in for free. Chili comes in meat, vegetarian and vegan varieties and is served with cornbread. You can buy a serving in a paper bowl if nothing ceramic catches your fancy. And you can dance off the calories to the music of In the Kitchen. Don’t miss it!