Page Kelly Piccolo is the owner and creative force behind Zephyr Valley Ceramics and Pottery located in Montana. Page makes lovely functional pottery that feature botanical themes and the texture of fabrics.
Please Introduce Yourself:
My name is Page. I’ve long wished that I could just be monoeponymous (I made that word up). If I could legally go by Page, I would do it. Currently, I live in a bedroom community outside of Helena, MT, which is known both as Montana City and Clancy. I’m a fifth-generation Montanan, but I spent a good chunk of my early adulthood moving my furniture from one side of the country to the other and back again.
How did your clay journey begin?
I vaguely remember an art class in sixth grade, or so, where our art teacher, whom I can only remember as Mr. M???? (my brain continues to refuse to fill in the space) had a short ceramic section where we all had an opportunity to throw on the wheel. We also built a bust. Of all the pieces that I’ve lost to the kiln gods over time, that bust is the one I miss the most. My memory of it was that it was really good, but we didn’t carve out the centers, so everything exploded, likely due to residual water. I love figurative sculpture, and want to explore that work more in the future.
When I was a teen, I had the opportunity to do a studio visit with Judy Ericksen. She let me throw a couple of bowls on her wheel and then at some point we did a raku firing. I enjoyed it immensely. Sadly, I didn’t get the support or encouragement to explore pottery further.
Many years later, lifetimes, I left my second husband and returned to Montana to keep my mother alive. We’d lost three immediate family members in the span of two years, and she was sliding down a black hole of depression. We sold her “in-town” house and moved to a twenty-acre property where she, and I, could start over.
The road to our house went by the Archie Bray Foundation and I drove by twice a day for months. I finally stopped in and signed up for a class and I took my first official pottery class July and August of 2003. Jeremy “Jr.” Kane was my teacher. The following January, I had enrolled in Carroll College with the intent of getting some kind of degree. In the fall of 2004, I took a class through the college that was in cooperation with the Bray, and Ben Krupka was my teacher that semester. The semester-end crit was brutal, I was unprepared for it, but in the long run, it has been the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given.
I’ve since taken several classes and workshops at the Bray, and I was a studio tech for Ralph Esposito at the college for a couple of semesters. In 2007, I’d become frustrated with the community firing at the Bray and no longer had access to the ceramic studio at the college. This pushed me to buy a kiln and a wheel which I set up a little basement studio.
By and large, my education has been in my studio – pushing myself to do better, to try something new, and to problem-solve. I’ve had four physical spaces in the last ten years. Between some interruptions of moving and having a daughter, I’ve found those breaks have led to great leaps of improvement in my work. The time off quiets my hands, but not my mind as I constantly obsess about clay.
I’m curious about the name of your clay business, “Zephyr Valley Pottery”. Is this a place or region in Montana where you live?
I’m fuzzy on the timeline, but some time before Montana was a state, my Great-Great-Grandfather had registered a livestock brand with the territory. It reads, “Reversed Hanging Z V.” This brand was eventually inherited by my grandmother who had a ranch in a valley in Meagher County. When I was a teen, Gram made a sign with the name “Zephyr Valley Ranch” which had the image of the brand on it.
I wish I knew what happened to that sign, I’d love to have it. In any case, my grandparents are long dead, the ranch has been sold, but my mother retains a quarter of the rights to the brand. In homage to my grandma I named my pottery business Zephyr Valley Pottery and now it’s Zephyr Valley Ceramics and Pottery. I use an image of the brand inside the jug form as my signature on my pots.
What happens if you ever leave Montana? I ask, mainly, because my creative business was called Colorado Art Studio at one time. In 2013, I rebranded my as ceramicscapes so that I could easily move in the future should I desire. I also really debated whether to use my name, but my last name is so difficult to pronounce and spell. Naming a creative business is more challenging than it seems – have you ever considered using your name instead?
As far as the business name goes, I don’t have any issue in taking it with me wherever I go, because it really is more of a familial connection rather than a geographic one. The problem that I’ve recently come across is connecting my business name with me, the artist, and the work that I’ve been exhibiting.
Last year I began applying to juried shows in earnest, and I’ve been very fortunate to be accepted into many of them. The galleries put Page Kelly Piccolo on the labels, not Zephyr Valley Ceramics so I don’t think the connection is necessarily being made. Fortunately, Google has me covered, but folks have to think to search for me there. This is just one of the areas where being an artist in business can be challenging, there is no clear path or one right way.
I am excited to learn that you (and another friend, Judi Tavill) have both been invited to show your work at the AKAR 2017 Yunomi invitational. I am thrilled for both of you. Did you apply to the show, or did AKAR find you online and invite you?
I can’t even begin to express how excited I am to be a participant in this show. For me, this show is THE ceramics show of the year. I always buy a piece (or three) and sit at my computer hitting refresh waiting for the show to open. I LOVE this show.
This truly is an invitation only exhibit – I did not apply. I’m not entirely sure how they found me, but a couple of things happened. As I mentioned, I had earnestly applied and been accepted into several shows last year. Two of those shows were pretty big – one at Companion Gallery and one at the Charlie Cummings Gallery. I was so excited to be selected to those shows.
The other thing that happened was a post by ClayAKAR on Facebook that I commented on. I read it as a kind of fun, ‘hey we’re sending out invitations, is there anyone we should be sending invitations to’ post, so I was like “Uh, yeah, ME!” (none of this is the actual quote, but the essence). Maybe three or four weeks later, I received the questionnaire asking if I would like to participate. I might have hyperventilated a little.
You recently moved to a new home after building your (what appeared to be) dream home. As someone who moves fairly frequently as well, I understand the impulse. Why did you make the move to the new place. How has that impacted your clay practice?
Yeah, I really have to quit moving. Where to start…. My husband and I actually built our dream home in 2012. We have another business, BearGrass Homes, which is a construction business, now more property management. When we built the 2012 house, we were in a neighborhood where we could pick which school our daughter could attend.
In 2014, I had a health issue that caused me to quit working in the studio for an extended period, and I had to get a full-time J.O.B. outside of my studio. We set up our life and work schedules based on my daughter going to a specific school. They had an after-school program that the other school did not, which meant that I could go to work and not worry about her after school. We discovered when we went to register her, the school had drawn hard lines, and we were outside of that line by two blocks. They also made a rule that they were not accepting out-of-district kids, no exceptions.
I couldn’t mentally or emotionally get to the place where the other school would work, so I moved my family. My husband couldn’t be convinced to buy a house that was already built, so we found a lot and built another home. And that house was another dream house, one level living with a few bells and whistles with a studio in the basement. But, I was regaining my health and working in the studio again. Also, my husband was unhappy with the location.
As I achieved more success with my pottery business and started getting more wholesale and consignment accounts, the path to being a full-time potter again seems really viable. But the mortgage on the new dream house would never have allowed for that. I started looking for a home that had an outbuilding and needed some TLC, something inexpensive that we could improve on.
I found it. It was back in the old neighborhood my husband and daughter loved, and the school district has different rules for existing students, so we bought this beat-up repo house. Now I have my dream studio and the family is glad to be back in the old ‘hood. I’m closer to being financially able to go full-time in the studio again.
My clay practice has had a lot of interruptions. Emotionally, it’s incredibly challenging being away from the creative process. Mentally, it’s challenging because I’m not producing work, so I get behind on orders or goals. Right now, I don’t have anything to submit for exhibitions because I’m in full order-filling mode.
I work 60-70 hours a week, 40 at my day gig and the rest in the studio. I hope to find balance someday. Strangely, these breaks have a strong positive impact on the quality of my work because it has improved by leaps and bounds. I think a lot of that has to do with all the time I think about the work and the process, and the challenges I want to overcome.
I imagine that Montana has a fairly decent, but seasonal tourist season similar to Colorado. How do you sell your work typically? On Etsy? Or is your best market local such as galleries, shops or craft markets?
This is a tough question. My hometown is an odd place for me. I don’t fit into any specific cubby, and until recently it’s been challenging to find a place to sell my work locally. I don’t really do the Montana touristy stuff – graphics of the state, elk, moose or the like. And, I’m not one of the elite potters that have been through the Bray residency.
I’ve done okay with Etsy, and I think that continues to improve over time. I did the wholesale trade-show circuit in Montana, but I ran up against the “oh you use photography? Can you put a moose on that?” To which my answer was, “Can? Yes. Want to? Going to? No.”
Part of my impetus for applying to the exhibits last year was to see if my work would sell nationally. Now, I’m working on building a portfolio to send to galleries across the country, but I’ve also been developing my wholesale and consignment accounts.
I have a lovely boutique in Bozeman, MT that has led to a wholesale account with a farm-to-roaster coffee shop. Recently, a local gallery has added me to their stable. I’m also a member of Montana Clay, and last year we had our first studio tour. It was very successful and we are hoping to build on that. Helena has a Spring and Fall art walk each year, and I try to participate in that.
One of the primary goals I had with this last move was to have a place that people can come to and be more informed about the process and buy from me directly. I will be hosting studio sales once or twice a year to bring in the larger crowds, but I am always happy to have locals come by. I’m hoping to hold an Open-House style event here in the beginning of June. This is all part of rebuilding the business, and it takes time. At the same time, I hope I can keep up!
You take wonderful photographs of your ceramic work. Photographing work is challenging for a lot of potters, myself included. In scrolling through your Instagram feed, I’m curious about your photo set up that you posted on April 1, 2017. Can you expand on the equipment and techniques you use?
Thank you. My husband should really get all the credit. I take most of my pictures but he has done all the work on figuring out how to get the effects I’m looking for. He’s the kind of guy that gets interested in something and then has to figure out how it all works.
A few years ago, he became interested in landscape and astral photography, so I challenged him to help me with my pot pictures. We started with a lightbox on the kitchen counter, we had a space in a storage room where I hung a cheap canvas wrapped in tinfoil from the ceiling to use as a bounce light. We tried all kinds of options.
The set up that you mention is now in my new studio. I’ve got a roll of white paper, a piece of foam board to use as a light bounce, and a strobe light with a soft-box. Along with these essentials is the stands to hold everything up and in place. The strobe is on a remote, so instead of a flash, I get a much stronger burst of light. The angles of the light and the bounce board are about 90° to each other. The benefit is a controlled outcome and I can take pictures in my studio and not worry about any environmental light from windows or the ceiling.
I get a graduated background effect when I want it, or I can open up the angle of the light and bounce board, add a light, and have a white or grey background. Because my pots are white, the graduated background helps make them pop a bit more. I love natural light pictures, but my schedule doesn’t allow for me to take pictures on Mother Nature’s schedule.
I’m excited to see what ClayAKAR does this year with the Yunomi Invitational. This year they are posting 360° views of each pot.
I had to delete the Periscope app on my phone last year because I ran out of space. When I replaced my phone I never re-installed the app, because I found the notifications distracting. Are “scopes” automatically archived now to watch later? Are you still active on Periscope? If so, what does it add to your clay practice?
Periscope is awesome. It’s also extremely distracting. (you can turn the notifications off in settings, btw.)
The clay community that has been built around the ‘Scopers and the viewers is amazing. Initially, it was really addicting and I watched and broadcast a lot. There were a few hiccups initially, but Periscope has improved a lot of its features in the last year.
So here’s the bottom line: As a broadcaster, I love it when my viewers interact, ask questions, engage. Hearts are like applause (tap the screen to give a heart). The trolls can be really really super awful, so I limit who can chat to those who follow me. I can look at your profile and see if you are someone who is actually interested in ceramics. Also, when I’m doing throwing demos it’s really hard to split my attention between my pots and the conversation, and it really slows me down.
I’m more likely to ‘Scope these days when I’m glazing or applying decals or the like. The broadcaster has the option to save the broadcasts or delete them, so yes, they can be archived. To conserve space on my devices, I delete the videos. I occasionally upload them to my YouTube channel because I will be referencing that video in a blog post.
And that last bit is really what Periscope has added to my practice. I re-started my blog on my website, because I felt like there was more information to share. Photos of completed work, links to other artists or products or whatever that was discussed in the broadcast. It helps fill in the spaces, and I think sharing information is one of the things that I most love about potters. We tend to be supportive of each other, and I want to pay that forward.
Who or what inspires you?
My daughter inspires me. Mostly to be the woman she can look to as an example of someone who is strong, independent, caring, kind, thoughtful, inclusive. I want better for my child than I had or did, so I try to model that for her.
Beyond that, in my art, I’m a sensory inspired person. I love texture, pattern and love subtlety or things that make me want to engage or investigate. Attention to how things feel is maybe more important than how my work looks.
What do you do for fun outside of pottery?
Right now, I work mostly. I’m intent on getting back into the studio full-time and I’m doing everything I can to make that happen. I’ve also managed to get my arthritis and fibromyalgia under control so that I can physically handle going back to the studio. I study nutrition and am always working toward getting healthier. Recently, I started taking a pilates class once a week.
My mother-in-law taught me some knitting basics, so I’ve done a bit of that. Always looking for balance in life, never quite getting there. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of girl. I also hope to get some camping in this summer.
Where can people find you?
- Website: http://www.zephyrvalleypottery.com
- Etsy: http://www.zephyrvalleyceramics.etsy.com
- Tumblr: http://www.tumblr.zephyrpotter.com
- Twitter: http://www.twitter.zephyrvalley.com
- Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/zephyrpotter/
- Instagram:@zephyrvalley https://www.instagram.com/zephyrvalley/
- Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zephyrvalley/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ZephyrValleyCeramics/
- Pewabic Pottery
- Serving really great coffee: Treeline Coffee Roasters
- May 5, 10 a.m. CST – www.clayakar.com – 2017 Yunomi Invitational
- July 22 – Studio Art Center, Helena – Montana Clay Tour
I publish interviews with artists whose primary medium is clay once a week, every Friday. This regular segment is named “Feature Fridays”. Find past interviews on the Ceramicscapes Blog using the category search function on the right hand sidebar. Interested in being featured? Visit the Apply for Feature Fridays page for more information.