By Leah Shapiro
For as long as she can remember, Valerie Bjork Schnaufer has collected objects. Stones, bugs, driftwood, shells, sea glass, you name it. Whenever she discovers something unusual—whether at home or during her many travels around the world—she has just the spot for it. Valerie’s love for nature has been lifelong, as has her propensity for creating art.
Growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, surrounded by a family that valued culture and supported the arts, Valerie recalls visiting museums and galleries as a young girl. She says, “Although I don’t have a formal education in art, art was my favorite subject throughout school and Play-Doh, building blocks, Crayolas, and Prang paints were always available from a very early age.”
After high school, Valerie headed to Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she earned a degree in education, specializing in teaching economically and culturally deprived children. Each summer during college, she worked a job at a pool deck in Daytona, Florida, and developed a fondness for the area. After college graduation in 1973, she applied for teaching jobs near and far, and decided to take a job at a Title I school in Flagler County, Florida. While teaching, Valerie also enrolled in her first ceramics classes at what is now Daytona State College.
She would spend a total of two decades working in the county school system, but not consecutively. In 1978, after five years of teaching, she put that career on pause and it wouldn’t resume until the mid-1980s. As Valerie puts it, “taking a break from teaching turned into a new career and life living at sea.”
For the next ten years, Valerie and her husband Joe, a boat captain, worked as crew and traveled throughout the United States, Caribbean, and Europe. The job that got them started was with famous country singer/songwriter Hank Cochran. (Ask Valerie about the time they were on a boat with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.)
Joe and Valerie signed on to oversee the construction of the private large vessels at Palmer Johnson Yachts in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. “Once the boats were completed we’d sail them out of Wisconsin, usually to the east coast and beyond, and remained as crew.” Among Valerie’s roles were chef and deckhand.
Always interested in architecture, Valerie naturally gravitated toward the design elements of construction. “While there, I enrolled in design classes and ships blueprint reading to assist in the interiors of these vessels.”
Valerie recalls one particular trip while traveling from Greece to Gibraltar on the Mediterranean Sea during terrible weather. “I told my husband, ‘If we ever get off the boat alive, I’m going back to teaching.’” Fortunately, they reached shore and Valerie returned to teaching in Flagler County for 15 more years.
Valerie used many successful alternative methods of teaching in her classroom. “I did a lot of hands-on projects with them. A lot of cooking, a lot of artwork.”
Two years after she left teaching, Valerie signed up for an eight-week concentration course in clay at Penland School of Crafts. She loved the medium and area so much that she and Joe relocated to Spruce Pine within a year. She says, “Thus began my immersion into what has now developed into an almost full-time career.” In addition to taking classes through Penland, Valerie also leads summer tours through 15 studios, which she says has introduced her to many wonderful mediums and artists.
Under the business name Rabbit Hop Studio, Valerie creates hand-built wall pieces and sculptures using high fire clay with oxides and underglazes. While her work is vibrantly colored, it doesn’t have a shiny quality, which gives it a more earthy texture.
“For the past ten years, I’ve been building wall pieces I call ‘dwellings,’ which incorporate found objects from nature,” she says. “Most of these forms have openings for these objects that I collect while hiking in Western North Carolina or on beaches when we’re away. My intent is to draw the observer close to the dwelling to discover the contents and then take a closer look. Hopefully, most of us have a connection to our natural world and can appreciate how varied and interesting the smallest objects appear.”
Each dwelling begins with a rolled out slab of clay. From there, Valerie cuts various shapes and pieces them together in a mold. She likens the process to putting together a puzzle. When her work comes out of the kiln, it’s only two-thirds complete. Next, she inserts the tiny found natural objects, such as sticks or stones, in a small opening.
As with nature, her processes are ever evolving. Valerie has recently begun a new line of pieces inspired by plants and buds that are up to 22 inches in length. Her passion for art in public spaces led her to working on an installation for the Carpenters Union Building in Washington, DC.
For several months of the year, Joe and Valerie spend time on Green Turtle Cay on Abaco Island in the Bahamas. Although she can’t do her clay work while she’s there, Valerie takes this time to collect objects and compose ideas so that when she returns to Rabbit Hop, she can get right back into the clay.
Be sure to check out Valerie’s artwork at the upcoming Toe River Arts Council Tour, June 3–5 (she also serves on the Council’s board), and the Spruce Pine Potters Market, October 8–9. Through July 24, you can view Valerie’s work as part of the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum’s “The Art of Native Plants.”
You can see more of Valerie Bjork Schnaufer’s ceramics online at rabbithopstudio. com, and at the Toe River Arts Gallery in Burnsville and Spruce Pine, In Tandem Gallery in Bakersville, Carlton Gallery in Banner Elk, and 87 Ruffin Street Gallery in Linville. Her studio (visit by appointment only) is located at 2316 Rabbit Hop Road in Spruce Pine. (Photo of the artist by Leah Shapiro)