By Gina Malone
Often, inspiration originates in the details. So it is with artist and potter Kaaren Stoner, who, throughout her 53 years working in clay, has been influenced creatively by the hues and structures of the smallest components of nature. “I am entranced by the intricacy of detail in the veining of leaves, the structure of flowers, the lines composed by tree branches against the sky,” says Stoner. “The colors that attract me most are those of the earth—especially the glorious colors of autumn in the hardwood forests of Western North Carolina. All the many varieties of golds, yellows and oranges, rich browns. But I also love the subtle multitudes of greens as spring bursts forth in the mountains, along with the red of the blooming red maple trees and the bright chartreuse of willow.”
In 1963, Stoner spent a year in Sweden studying at a small school near Stockholm. “That year changed the direction of my life,” she says. “I had the opportunity to do some handweaving, and also touched clay for the first time I can remember.” Back home in the US, she changed her major to art, having been influenced, she says, by “the strong aesthetic of Swedish design.” She was reminded of those experiences while traveling in Europe five years later. An exhibition of pottery in Vienna set her to thinking how she might spend her life with clay. When she returned from her travels, her studies included a month-long intensive in pottery at Penland School of Craft before receiving an MFA in ceramics in 1973. “And here I am, years later, still so happy to spend a day in my studio, manipulating clay either on the potter’s wheel or hand building from slabs,” she says. “I still have more ideas than I find time to try.”
She set up studios in Washington State, Idaho and Ohio before moving with her husband David Erickson to WNC, where they opened Twigs & Leaves Gallery, in Waynesville, in 1998. In 2007, the Stoners sold Twigs & Leaves to current owners Carrie and John Keith.
Since then, Stoner has continued to create, working in her private studio at her home in Haywood County’s Iron Duff community, where, she says, she manipulates clay the same way people have done for thousands of years—either by hand or on the potter’s wheel.
The only modern conveniences related to her pottery work that she owns are an electric wheel and a slab roller—a special table with rollers that allow her to roll out clay in sheets as thin or thick as she wants. “The slabs I roll out, I use for what potters call ‘hand-building,’ forming some pieces around or over a vast collection of various forms that I have saved, scrounged or made for just this purpose,” she says. “Or, sometimes I use the slabs to construct pieces without benefit of a form; this is when I make free-form sculptural pieces.” Using one or both of these methods, Stoner adorns all of her thrown pieces with ceramic leaves made from thin slabs in which she has impressed a real leaf. “The real leaf gives me the outline and the vein pattern,” she says. “No leaves are used twice; therefore, all pieces are unique.”
She calls the creations of recent years mixed media works because the pieces are finished off with grapevine or kiwi vine after the firing process. “In the past, I have made anything and everything for the kitchen or home, including small indoor fountains,” Stoner says, “but for the past number of years, I have focused on vases, baskets and bowls, both thrown and hand-built.”
Stoner finds beauty in rocks, shells, leaves, branches, flowers, fruits, nuts, eggs, vegetables, and their natural simplicity, in turn, influences her designs. The artistry of her pottery making, she says, comes in treating each piece—no matter how small—as unique, individualistic and worthy of being the best it can be.
“My clay work is what keeps me grounded,” she says, “and brings me to a place of inner peace in this chaotic world.”
Kaaren Stoner’s work is represented by regional galleries including Twigs & Leaves Gallery, Waynesville. Kaaren Stoner Design Studio is open by appointment only, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Stoner will participate in the Haywood County Studio Tour, September 24–25. Learn more at HaywoodArts.org.