Hidden Talents: A Potter’s Art

For Maureen Sonnie from HR, opening her kiln is "like opening a gift"

In the fifth of an occasional series, Tufts Now highlights the hidden talents of Tufts faculty and staff.

One lazy Sunday afternoon some years back, Maureen Sonnie went for a walk. She found herself in front of Mudflat Pottery Studio, in East Cambridge, which was having an open house. She talked to a potter about clay, pottery wheels and glazes.

That stroll some 30 years ago awakened the artist within. Sonnie, who works in Tufts Human Resources, now has her own pottery studio, tucked into a garage at her home in West Medford. She co-founded the West Medford Open Studios, which connects artists to the community; the organization is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.

After visiting Mudflat, Sonnie began taking pottery courses. She even left her job at Tufts as a part-time human resources representative to go back to school and earn a master’s degree in art history at Lesley University, focusing, of course, on pottery. She returned to Tufts in 2008, where she is now a senior business partner in Human Resources, serving as a first point of contact for HR services and addressing policy questions and many other workplace issues.

In her studio, not far from the Tufts campus, Sonnie throws clay on a pottery wheel and also does hand building, enjoying the qualities of working with each technique. The wheel is for functional pottery—dishes, cups and casseroles—while hand building is for tiles, teapots and sculpture.

A teapot by Maureen SonnieA teapot by Maureen Sonnie
“It’s unusual to do both, as they have distinct styles,” she says. “Wheel-thrown work has a smooth finish and is light and clean. Hand-built pieces can be any shape and look more rustic.  I make deep carvings in mine, and use lots of bright colors: rich purples and reds and yellows that stand out.”

When Sonnie moved to West Medford in 1991 she discovered many artists in her neighborhood, including Earl Howard, also a potter. Both of them had gone to open studio events, and many of the other artists they knew had exhibited their work at Boston area galleries. They decided it was time to highlight art right in their own community, but wanted their show to have a different feel from other exhibits.

“Earl and I and the committee that formed West Medford Open Studios felt really strongly that we wanted a walk-around event to let people see this hidden gem that was West Medford,” says Sonnie. For the annual weekend event, usually held at the end of April or beginning of May, visitors receive a map showing the artists’ homes and studios; they have a chance to talk with the artists and see demonstrations of their work.

Experimenting with Clay

Sonnie’s garage studio, long a tour destination, has three pottery wheels, two kilns, an array of glazes and numerous tools of her craft. She has a second studio in the basement of her home, where she works on stained glass, another artistic passion that is quite different from making pottery. With stained glass, “what you see is what you get,” she says. The artist plans what it will look like, and with sufficient skills, that’s what happens.

With pottery, more is left to chance, she notes. She tells people learning how to make pottery, Don’t fall in love until it comes out of the final firing. The things you imagine you are making you sometimes get, but sometimes not. If a piece dries too quickly, the clay can crack, and glazes are translucent until they are fired in a kiln, meaning the color may not be quite what’s expected.

“There’s so much more experimentation with clay, which is the joy and the art of it,” she says.

Glass art work by Maureen SonnieGlass art work by Maureen Sonnie
Sonnie once built  a mythical creature with wings and the crown of a rooster and big, bulging eyes. She soon realized she had added too much to the piece, and sure enough, it collapsed. “Yet it turned out to be beautiful, because it looked like a gargoyle sitting on its haunches,” she recalls. “It was totally unplanned, and I’m not sure I could repeat that.”

The techniques she uses differ not only in style but in approach. Making pottery using a wheel is meditative, Sonnie says, “because you really have to pay attention to what you’re doing in the moment. There’s something pretty Zen about that. And hand building [each piece] offers many opportunities to change as you go—it’s a process of creativity.”

Although she no longer sits on the board of West Medford Open Studios, Sonnie looks forward to the annual event, where she continues to show her own work, as does her husband, Otha Sonnie, a professional photographer. She meets artists new to the neighborhood and invites them to participate. “In some cases, I’ve mentored people to show their work for the first time, and they’ve gone on to show their work in galleries,” she says. “It’s like hatching eggs.”

Sonnie continues to make art, spending a recent vacation week in her studio “covered in clay,” she says. “When you open the kiln, it’s like opening a gift. The clay breaks in a different way, or the combination of the colors is spectacular, or the glaze falls into crevices in a way you hadn’t realized it would. It’s like magic.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

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