AUGUSTA  — For Lori Watts, the fun of pottery making is in the fire.

Even after more than 25 years of making pottery, Watts, operator of Fine Mess Pottery in Augusta, still looks forward to the colorful surprises — most but not all of them good surprises — that await when she opens her kiln to see what was created when her handiwork meets fire and soda ash.

“I get a surprise every time I open the kiln. That keeps it fun for me,” Watts said Saturday as visitors checked out her pottery on display as part of the weekend-long Maine Pottery Tour. “There’s no point in doing it if it’s not fun.”

Watts uses a propane-fired brick kiln in a shed behind her home, and a process called soda firing, which adds color and somewhat unpredictable variety, to her stoneware plates, mugs, dishes and decorative items. In the process, soda ash and baking soda are put into the kiln when it is nearing its hottest temperature. Watts uses an old piece of angle iron, filled with a mixture of soda ash, baking soda and wood flakes that she said looks like tuna salad, to slide the mixture through a narrow slot into the kiln and dump it through the flame and onto the items inside. The mixture interacts with the heat and calcium carbonate in the items inside and any glaze on them to form a layer of glass in unique, irregular colors and patterns.

It takes about 12 hours to fire the kiln, which reaches 2,400 degrees, then another couple of days for it and its contents to cool down so it can be opened back up and its treasures revealed. Watts opened up the kiln Saturday morning and unpacked the batch of pots and other items she had fired a few days earlier.

Some pieces break, and some pieces don’t turn out the way Watts had hoped. She estimates the process she uses results in roughly a 10 percent  loss.

“That’s just a sacrifice to the kiln gods,” she said. “It’s inevitable. You’re going to lose some stuff.”

At a table set up for children to decorate plates and cups Watts had formed from clay but had not fired in the kiln yet, Eddie Schmidt, 11, of Chelsea, who with his parents was checking out multiple stops on the pottery tour Saturday, painted a plate with a yellow background, adding his painting of Thor’s hammer in the middle of the plate. He painted their phone number on the back of the plate and Watts said she’d give the family a call after she fires the plate in the kiln, so they can have the plate with their son’s artwork.

“We’re creating little potters here,” Watts said.

Among the items made by Watts, who has six cats, that were for sale Saturday were cat dishes she sells for $15 each, with the proceeds going to Kennebec Valley Humane Society, the animal shelter in Augusta. She said for every 10 plates she sells she will sponsor a cat at the shelter, covering its adoption fee. She said last year they sponsored three shelter cats, all of which were adopted.

Watts, other than during the pottery tour, doesn’t sell directly from her studio but does sell through her Fine Mess Pottery website and her works are available in some stores.

Martha Hoddinott, of Wayne, one of two other potters who joined Watts at her Cony Street home and studio to display her work for The Maine Pottery Tour, uses red clay in her pieces, which include handmade mugs with whimsical smiling faces carved into them.

“The faces bring me joy,” she said. “You never know how they’re going to turn out. And they’re something different, because there are so many potters in Maine.”

Hoddinott, who uses an electric kiln and has her own studio in Wayne, A Lakeside Studio Pottery, but she hasn’t opened it up for the season yet, so she joined Watts in Augusta.

Hoddinott and Watts are part of a group of about a dozen clay artists, Central Maine Clay Artists who, ahead of the Christmas season, open a pop-up pottery shop  to sell their wares together.

Watts started the Maine Pottery Tour in 2011 to help educate the public and provide an opportunity for Maine potters to open their studio doors and share what they create with visitors, and shoppers. Now in its eighth year, 37 studios are taking part and are spread around central, southern and coastal Maine.

She doesn’t consider other area potters to be competitors, in part because their works tend to be different from each other, and there is a cluster of potters around the Augusta area who are friends.

She said the pottery tour is in May because that’s usually when seasonal pottery shops would be opening anyway, so many of them now join together to create some publicity and interest via the pottery tour.

“With things like this, we work together to lift each other up,” she said.

Julianna Warren, 9, of Brunswick, said she’d had some pottery lessons from an art teacher in school. Saturday afternoon she painted a plate Watts had made in blue, with a design featuring green polka dots.

“I’m excited, I’m going to make the most beautiful plate,” she said. “I like glazing the best, it’s really fun.”

The Maine Pottery Tour continues Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

 

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