By Gina Malone
After retiring from a 20-year career in engineering in 1988, Dennis McAvoy reinvented himself as a studio potter, without the sense that he was making a drastic change. “I was always encouraged to enjoy life, think, continuously improve, learn and follow my heart,” he says. “I was never encouraged to follow a certain path. Although my initial path took me to engineering, it became clear that was a good training ground for me once I threw a mug.”
He first got his hands in clay in 1978, throwing a heavy mug on a treadle wheel in Arkansas and being struck by the revelation that this is what he was meant to do. “One of my earliest recollections is working with my hands,” he says. “Whether it was taking something apart to see how it works or trying to get it back together so I wouldn’t get in trouble, I loved tinkering with stuff.” Growing up on a small farm in Michigan, it was his grandfather who taught him about tools and how to use them. McAvoy was using a wood lathe when he was six or seven years old.
When he began working with clay, he says, “It was like everything I had done and experienced since my grandfather introduced me to the wood lathe led me to that moment.” He spent the next ten years watching others throw pots and developing his throwing skills and knowledge of clay.
After he left corporate life, he moved to Gatlinburg, TN, and established Smoky Mountain Pottery, which evolved into a retail/gallery and wholesale business. In 2015, McAvoy sold the wholesale arm of the business and moved to Burnsville to become a studio potter once again.
His creations are functional. “I get my ideas from what people need and use,” he says. “Whether it be a bowl, a mug, a plate or a lamp, I make it my own and glaze it in a way no one else can. My goal is to develop a distinctive body of work that people will identify as mine.”
McAvoy finds that his background as an engineer informs his creations in clay and the process for making each one. “I slip-cast, press, throw, free form and slab form into shapes. The great thing about clay is the ability to form any shape. Unlike most potters, I once-fire almost all of my pottery to save time and energy. I use white stoneware, porcelain and crystalline glazes.”
His process of “high quality and continuous improvement,” McAvoy says, means formulating his own porcelain and glazes. Since opening his Burnsville studio in 2017, “I have formulated and tested well over 100 glazes,” he says “and never fire a glaze kiln without at least one new test or modification to an existing glaze to improve it.”
Because of the complexity of crystalline glazes, McAvoy keeps extensive notes on formulation and results. A randomness of crystal growth means that no two pieces can ever be the same, he says. “When I am developing or making a new shape or process, I am thinking of the end product and how the glazed piece will look. In my opinion, the finish or glaze on the piece is 80 percent of the sales appeal.”
He was fortunate enough to spend time with a Pennsylvania potter, Bill Campbell, whose work he encountered while in Gatlinburg. Campbell’s crystalline glazes, McAvoy says, are “second to none” and in his studio he was able to learn mold-making techniques.
The methodical work involved in engineering, McAvoy says, has conditioned him to create in a certain way. “Creativity, to me, is not related to only the end product but also relates to determining the most efficient step-bystep way to make it with a high level of workmanship and quality.”
Time away from his studio to relax and rejuvenate is nice, he says, but so is getting back to work. “I have always worked long hours and that habit is hard to change.” The nice thing about clay, he says, is being able to form clay into any shape he wants. “For 30 years I made what other people wanted,” he says. “Now I am able to make what I want and how and when I want to make it. The trick is that other people have to like it.”
McAvoy Pottery is located at 79 Janie Lane, #9, in Burnsville. Visitors are always welcome, but since he does not have regular hours, McAvoy suggests calling to make sure that he is there. Find his work also at In Tandem Gallery in Bakersville and Toe River Arts Council galleries in Spruce Pine and Burnsville. To learn more, call 865.414.6141.