Potter Kate Harward devotes her life to kids, craft, and contemplation.
There’s something primal about pottery. Digging fingers in soft earth, joints aching with the effort of hours, cupping water over a hunk of clay and smoothing it to silk—human hands were the first artistic tools and many would say they remain the most expressive. “I love the fact that you’re starting with mud, in essence. It’s something that’s very humble and simple. But you can take it wherever you want to take it. It’s an incredible substance. You can get very refined or you can keep it humble. It just depends on where you want to go,” says Kate Harward, sole proprietor of Tygart River Pottery and a juried Tamarack artisan. “Anyone who puts his or her hands in the clay comes up with something different.”
Kate is tan from hours spent among her thick flower beds, with pure white hair twisted back in a neat chignon. She has a stoic gaze but a brilliant, genuine smile that catches you off guard. Meet her on the gravel path to her secluded home beside the roiling Tygart River and ask her about her children and her eyes will light up. “I raised a lot of children, many adopted,” she says. “They touched my life. That’s a point I try to make. It wasn’t a one-way street. We learned from each other and helped each other.”
A transplant from Falls Church, Virginia, Kate attended Washington, D.C.’s liberal arts-focused Federal City College for a degree in history, but a pottery elective threw her off course and onto a wheel. Hands in the clay, she was swallowed up in the possibilities of the medium. “I never ended up with a history degree, but I built a kiln and started making pots.” Kate had friends who were passionate about the art form and they pooled their resources, learning and discovering together. But when her husband, Tom, graduated from college with his physician assistant degree and got a job in Elkins, Kate piled up the caravan—six cars and a truck full of clay—and moved to a plot six miles from Belington beside the Tygart.
That was in 1976 and they’ve been there ever since. “We liked the freedom life in West Virginia offers as opposed to a more urban setting. I love the beauty. I love the privacy. I find that there is much less distraction for me.” Shucking the urban lifestyle wasn’t easy. “We live down a dirt road on a section of the Tygart River that has Class V rapids, so you don’t see a lot of people on this section because it’s so difficult. It’s beautiful but you can’t see any other houses.” But she’s never regretted the move, despite the relative isolation of her setting. “It was really hard and you missed a lot of things. But I still go back there for those things, and I come back here to live.”
From the windows in her backyard studio, Kate can watch the river swell after a rain and ebb in the summer heat. She coaxes birds out of the trees with a feeder and hangs prayer flags on an arch in the garden. In contrast to the vivid colors of her rural setting, everything in and around her art is covered in muted clay—hardened drips on door knobs, splatters on windows and floorboards, a fine powdered coating on a pile of CDs, punk rock pioneer Patti Smith’s debut album peering out. It covers the walls, the sills, an old office chair turned white. It’s hard to tell what lies hidden under the milky taupe. But it’s her element, a place she uses to learn and experiment. “My training comes from ceramics magazines I get, from seminars, from friends, and from the people I meet. We bounce ideas off each other,” she says. “Being self-taught has its problems. I make every mistake you can. But that’s part of the personality.”
The clay comes to her by the ton, dry. She mixes her ingredients—called clay bodies—and works the pieces on the slab or the wheel, first wedging or homogenizing the material with her hands, then forming it into one of the many functional objects she’s known for—simple yet elegantly fashioned teapots, jars, mugs, pitchers, bowls, mortars and pestles, plates, platters, lamps, sink basins, and tall vases. From there it air dries and is later fired.
Warm brown stoneware clay was her forte for more than 20 years. These days she’s shifted into the realm of ethereal high-fired white stoneware and high-fired porcelain. She fires her pots once or twice, depending on the effect she’s going for, at blazing hot temperatures, around 2,340 degrees Fahrenheit, forming a smooth, glass-hard skin. Kate is especially praised for her use of Shino glazing, a Japanese method that captures carbon during the firing process and produces soft, milky colors. And to get her signature color palette she uses a special reduction firing technique. “This is where you limit the oxygen and that causes a lot of interesting tones in your glazes,” she says.
Over more than 40 years of experimentation, Kate has developed a unique relationship with the fire trapped in her kiln. “After a piece is fired it becomes a whole different kind of thing. I give it over to the kiln and sometimes it does things I don’t appreciate. Sometimes I don’t like it anymore,” she says. For those pieces it’s a quick death in the discard pile. “That’s what makes pottery so different from something like painting. The fire has the final say, not me. I do my best to try and control what’s going to happen there, but there are a lot of times it doesn’t happen the way I want it to.”
She calls herself a “functional potter,” but her work has a timelessness about it, a patient aesthetic reminiscent of traditional Japanese pottery, particularly the work of master potter Shöji Hamada. And the whimsical decoration, organic shapes, and pops of color—bright blues, reds, greens—dip into a Moroccan or South African tenor. Not surprisingly, Kate has traveled extensively to China, Japan, South Africa, Mexico, Guatemala, Canada, and plans to go to Morocco in 2015. She calls her trips field research. “For years you can pick your brain about what you saw. It will really challenge you.”
In business, Kate started small, balancing her responsibilities as a mother with the draw of her chosen medium. “I’ve always structured myself pretty rigidly because it used to be I was raising children. It was so many loads of laundry, something in the oven, and a couple of pots in between naptime and the kids coming home from school.” She sold her work in retail shops in West Virginia and adjoining states and went to craft shows when she could. Back then her studio was in her house, which made it easier to slip back and forth between the wheel and chasing children around the yard. “But clay is dirty and dusty. As soon as I could get it out of the house I got it out of the house,” she says. “The clay was always for me to have something of my own,” she says. “I made a little money but not much. I covered my expenses and bought birthday presents. Today I have a wholesale business and it’s structured very differently.”
These days her detached studio houses a wheel, slab roller, clay mixer, and a compressor for spraying glazes. Under the covered porch four kilns wait to be filled. One of those kilns, she, her son, and her son’s partner built together. Tygart River Pottery is sold at Artists at Work in Elkins and Artistry on Main in Buckhannon. Kate’s work has been represented at Tamarack in Beckley since it opened. And every year she travels to the American Made Show and sets up a booth with samples of her best pieces. Retailers across the country put in large orders and Kate works all year to fill them.
Her kids might be grown but the family obligations still take priority in Kate’s life. She gets up early and walks to the studio with her dogs before the sun breaks over the trees. From 7 a.m. until at least noon she works, then, if her daughter needs it, she babysits her granddaughter. By naptime Kate’s back in the studio. She generally gets in about six to eight hours a day on her pots. But she doesn’t push it. “I want to be able to do this for a long time so I’m very considerate of my body,” she says. Mostly, she’s just grateful for the choice. “It’s mine. I’m in control of it. If I don’t want to sell I don’t have to. If I feel the pieces didn’t come out well, I can redo them. Whatever it is, it’s mine. Most other realms of life, lots of other people have a say. But not in this teeny realm of my life. I like that.”
written by MIKENNA PIEROTTI
photographed by NIKKI BOWMAN