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Robert Parrott has a signature design that, depending on the viewer, recalls shoreline, desert, or rolling fields. (Photo by Margaret McNellis/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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Potter Robert Parrott’s sunset-shoreline-desert-mountain design adorns plates, teapots, canisters, and more—and proves the power of the eye of the beholder.
Robert’s signature design combines several colors—whites, oranges, grays, and sometimes blues—with a speckled texture. The beauty of his design stems from the craftsmanship as well as the design’s variable imagery.
Standing in his workshop and warehouse, you might feel like you’re surrounded by hundreds of beaches, deserts, mountains, or setting suns.
“It just kind of evolved,” Robert says. “So many people see a coastal scene in my work.
“Actually, I’m from the Midwest,” he adds. “I wanted to do something that reminded me of the rolling fields…it happened to be fortunate that looks like a coastal scene and a desert scene as well.”
The versatility of Robert’s signature design was fortunate indeed—with imagery that feels like home to so many areas of natural beauty, his pottery became a success.
Robert doesn’t just want his work to be enjoyed by those who love to look at art, though there is much to enjoy, from the colors to composition to texture.
“I like to make things that can be integrated in people’s daily lives,” he says, “to put something in their hands that they take pleasure in using every day, pleasure in looking at every day; I like the notion of that…that’s what I shoot for.”
The design is created with a method known as wax resist.
“I experimented with glazes that would blend well together,” Robert says. “I start with one glaze and I mask most of that with hot wax. [In] each glaze I try to have a slight variation, so the glazes combine with one another to create an additional color.”
It sounds simple, but there’s a lot of work that goes into even reaching that phase, aside from creating the vessel for the design.
Robert uses what’s called granular manganese dioxide to get the speckled texture in his design. After he finally ran out of a five-pound bag he’d used for years, he discovered that current suppliers couldn’t provide the quality he needed.
“I found out I had to refine it myself,” Robert says. “They weren’t sending the refined stuff, so I had to wash it and sieve it out.”
This wasn’t the only time Robert’s had to adjust to keep his design alive.
“My orange glaze disappeared one day. It was just gone,” he says. “They started mining it differently, so I had to find a way of bringing it back.”
In addition to his knowledge of art and pottery, changes in ready supply and the work itself have required Robert to become knowledgeable in geology as well.
One whole wall of his Madison workshop is filled with different minerals, and Robert knows how they will all react together and with different types of clay to produce seemingly limitless results.
Most of the time, Robert’s pottery features light or white clay, but in the past, he’s worked with red terracotta and majolica—which is red terracotta with an over-glaze and paint.
Recently, he and his wife and fellow potter Anita Griffith acquired clay from the Connecticut River.
“[We] enjoyed playing with that,” Robert says.
Robert’s and Anita’s studios share a wall, but the studio space has been an evolution, just like the pottery. Working side-by-side with his wife sometimes results in artistic collaboration, but they each have their own unique styles and products.
“We struck a deal,” Robert says, “that I could do anything I wanted and she could make anything she wanted.”
The couple continues to host an annual open house, usually in autumn.
“[It’s] something I had always done,” Robert reflects. “I think my first event was in 1974. It was outside. This studio was a barn that was almost fallen down.”
The double studio and warehouse building stands just fine now, and it’s not just a place for work.
“It is fun,” Robert says. “It’s fun making things…someone said you’re taking nothing and creating value.”
In addition to creating value, to conjuring that feeling of home and beauty in his signature design, Robert teaches.
“I like the idea of sharing whatever I can,” he says of his 10 years’ teaching pottery at the Guilford Art Center.
“All of the students come with different ideas, different projects,” he adds. “I encourage them all to go their own direction…I help them execute whatever ideas they have. When they have success, it’s my success as well.”
When it comes to success, Robert’s advice to potters can appeal to anyone: “Don’t try to do everything. Zero in on something you really love,” he says.
Then, “practice, practice, practice.”
“People see your work and it either communicates something to them or not,” Robert says. “I’m certainly not out to please everyone, but if I make something that speaks to someone, that’s a success that I can take home.”
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