Summer Blues

The more time Amanda Moffat spends on the Vineyard, the more her work seems to reflect the sea and sky.

amanda moffat plates cups bowls

Summer and the Vineyard seemed impossibly far away. It was high noon on a pre–polar vortexy kind of day in an industrial stretch of Brooklyn overlooking the Gowanus Canal. The sky was cloudless, the air painfully brisk, and the bright winter sun offered little heat, but enough light to momentarily blind me when I turned into it. I could see only the silhouette of ceramic artist and part-time Island resident Amanda Moffat, stepping out from the studio door, waving me in from the cold.

Once inside, it took another minute for my eyes to adjust to the slightly-less-blinding whitewashed interior as she led me through her spacious half of New Clay Studios, the artist’s space she and her husband created more than a decade ago. Gut renovated from the shell of a five-thousand-square-foot former food manufacturing warehouse, the other half of the studio is home to twelve artists fortunate enough to rent work space in what most would consider a ceramic artist’s dream, complete with gas and electric kilns, a glaze chemistry room, and, yes, a waiting list. She may own the place, but Moffat is ever mindful of her artistic comrades’ process. “We’ll need to keep our voices down,” she whispered as we tiptoed wordlessly through the shared space and into the hot, desert-dry kiln room, where members of the quasi-collective bake, or more accurately “fire,” their works into final form.

As fabulous as the facilities at New Clay Studios are, these days Moffat is more excited about her new, smaller workspace at her home in West Tisbury. She regularly spent time on the Island with her family in her childhood. After college, gallery work and acting jobs followed, as did marriage, children, and a fateful visit to the Vineyard that rekindled her earlier love of the place. That, in turn, led to years of rentals, and eventually a home and an idyllic Island studio to call her own. There, she plans to spend more and more time creating her distinctive pieces, which mix the charm of French country chic with a dash of Italian rustic and the blues, greens, and beiges of Martha’s Vineyard in the summer.

“It seems like the greatest reward of all to get to do what I love in the place I find most beautiful. Sometimes the fabulous and crazy pace of summer on the Vineyard – with family and visitors and making feasts and endless cookies and paddle boarding – can lure me away from the studio. But the more time I can spend on the Vineyard, the bigger place my work will have in my life there.”

The art of pottery is not for the faint of heart or mind. The essential skills include: the ability to hoist twenty-five-pound bags of dry clay, wet it, throw it, mold it, and form it atop a swiftly spinning wheel. Also helpful: a basic familiarity with chemistry to draw upon when it’s time to mix anywhere from five to twenty ingredients needed to create the glazes that will eventually be hand-painted onto a three-dimensional clay canvas. The eye of an artist, the patience of Job, and perseverance in the face of multiple technical obstacles also come in handy, as does a 2,300-degree gas oven – all of which may explain why those who are called to the potter’s craft tend to be artists with a pragmatic streak.

amanda moffat

The painstaking processes can take roughly three months to complete, but “I just love all of it, I really do,” she says. And although her one-of-a-kind handmade plates, vases, mugs, and bowls wouldn’t look at all out of place in an art gallery, atop a pedestal, dramatically lit and encircled by a crowd of admirers, she doesn’t intend for them to sit around looking pretty. They are designed to be food-safe, dishwasher-safe, and life-ready. “I love for my work to be used and lived with,” she says, adding that as pretty as the various pieces may be, they “must above all be functional. They are meant to be used.”

And used they are by a close cadre of clients and friends – both in Brooklyn and on the Vineyard – who have responded to her passion for pottery since she began selling her work out of her home in the mid 1990s. In November, some of Moffat’s work moved into Manhattan, when prestigious housewares retailer and handmade decoupage impresario John Derian began selling a tightly curated selection of Moffat’s recent work, including cylinder vases, small pitchers, gourd vases, and plates, all in her signature shades of blue.

For Moffat, who prefers the more temperamental gas over predictable electric kilns, part of the joy and occasional heartbreak of the creative process is what happens when water, air, or fire conspire to produce unintended color and textural changes. Often the wildcards wind up enhancing a piece’s beauty, and that, she says, adds to the allure. “You get rich colors and textures and pits, but not too many, and I like the pits.” You also get one-of-a-kind pieces with fortunately no chance of ever being mass-produced. “I don’t do commissions,” she says. “I just sell what I make.”

What you see is what you can get, in other words, and for collectors, it’s exactly what they want – rustic plates, mugs, bowls, and vases glazed in chic earthy shades of blue, green, brown, and black, decked out with free-hand painted waves, swirls, and curls. As I headed back out into the cold, blinded once again by the white sun beaming in a cloudless sky, I couldn’t help but wonder if Moffat hasn’t at last managed to bring a little bit of Martha’s Vineyard to her corner of Brooklyn.

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