By Gina Malone
Pottery is all about process: placing careful, knowing and intuitive hands on clay. “It starts with wedging the clay, and ends when the piece comes out of the glaze kiln,” says Kelsey Schissel of Plays in Mud Pottery. “At any point in between, it could break.” As her business name indicates, Schissel has learned to have fun with what she does, while at the same time creating imaginative, high-quality pieces. “As a ceramic artist, I have to let go of any expectations of a finished piece until it actually comes out of the kiln,” Schissel says. “Expectations lead to disappointments. To center clay, it all starts with a deep breath and letting go of the outside world and being here now.”
Schissel grew up in Wilkes County, the daughter of Margo Hurd, a bereavement counselor for Hospice of Wilkes, and master chairmaker and blacksmith Lyle Wheeler. She was 11 years old and helping her father set up at a craft show in Banner Elk when she found her calling. “North Carolina heritage potters Glenn and Lula Bolick were there demonstrating on a kick wheel outside,” says Schissel. “I was captivated. I watched for hours that day, and eventually Lula asked if I would like to touch the pot she was working on. I was so excited. I sat up on the stool and reached out and slid my finger across the piece and it was like my soul became electrified. I knew I wanted to make pottery. Ever since then, I have worked to create that life for myself.”
Highlights in her career include earning a BFA from UNC Asheville, setting up her first studio in 2004, establishing Plays in Mud Pottery in 2009 and becoming a member of Southern Highland Craft Guild in 2012. She opened her new gallery and studio space in West Asheville this year and will host a grand opening celebration on Saturday, November 20, from noon to 5 p.m.
Schissel’s design process is uncomplicated: “I actually go for a hike,” she says. “I look at shadows, leaves, growth, movement in nature.” She found a recent hike on a new trail especially inspirational. “I saw the forest floor covered in ferns, but instead of being green and lush they were in the process of changing color for the impending winter,” says Schissel. “They were this golden, burnt umber color that was deep and intense with lighter edges. It reminded me of feathers. I sat lost in the imagination of thousands of feathers waving in the breeze with a canopy of green from the trees above. There was something about the movement of the fronds that drew my attention and inspired me. It’s difficult to put into words, but I use those movements in my pottery when drawing out a new vase.” With images in her mind, she gives her imagination free rein. “I turn things around, flip them upside down in my mind and combine them together with the idea of creating a new vase from a simple vertical line,” says Schissel. “I play with balance. Eventually, I will do a line sketch. To anyone else, it looks like a simple line, but to me it is a vase or mug or pattern.”
The pieces she creates—many of them glazed in the blues and greens of nature—are unique and functional. She mixes all of her own glazes. Her process involves throwing pieces on the wheel and then decorating their surfaces with small handmade stamps. “I decorate the surface of the pot one stamp at a time,” she says. “Once it’s decorated, I bisque fire it, glaze it and fire it again. From the beginning drawing to the finished piece, some of my signature collection pieces take months to complete.”
Schissel also holds classes for those interested in “playing in mud” themselves. The BYOB pottery classes are designed for beginners, with the next starting on Saturday, November 27, and running for four weeks. “Students will be able to make Christmas gifts,” says Schissel. Next year’s classes begin in February.
Besides in her own gallery and studio, Schissel’s pottery is available at regional galleries and shops including Mountain Made, Appalachian Craft Center, Southern Highland Craft Guild’s Folk Art Center, Heather Davis Studio + Gallery and Black Mountain Blooms.
To learn more, visit PlaysInMud.com or call 828.225.4063. Plays in Mud Pottery is open Monday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m., with appointments available on Thursday. Find Plays in Mud on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest at playsinmud. The first ten visitors to the gallery each hour during the grand opening on November 20 receive a free Plays in Mud Pottery wine glass. Plays in Mud Pottery is located at 735C Haywood Road in West Asheville.