Oral History Interview with Gwen Heffner Part II

Kentucky Historical Society


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0:04 - Owning a gallery / Promotion / Kentucky Artisan Center

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Keywords: art fair; Berea (KY); Boone Tavern; Contemporary Artifacts; Guild fair; Kentucky Artisan Center; marketing; music; Public Relations

7:49 - Tour of personal pottery studio

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Keywords: Bill Whitt; biscuit molds; ceramics; Ceramics Monthly Magazine; Dali Llama; electric kiln; glaze; Korean technique; Minneapolis (MN); plants; pottery; teapot; Tibetan; tiles; Waco

24:09 - Tour of house

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Keywords: Bloomingdales; Bourbon; Japanese pottery; oak barrels; Philip Wiggs; Tom Marsh


HEFFNER: When I had my gallery, I worked with, well, I worked with the business associations, and we advertised in the Herald Leader. We did an ad campaign. That was not repeated, and I think it really helped our our traffic regionally. I also pulled three other galleries together and we nationally advertised together. This is something I suggested, and I did most of the leg work. There were the Upstairs Gallery, the Contemporary Artifacts, Promenade and the Log House. All of us, I think it was the Log House, yeah, we all went together, and for a quarterly magazine each one of us would get an ad for each quarterly issue. I did all the layout design. All they had to do was provide an image. Then usually, they used it as an opportunity to promote maybe a special exhibit that was going on, because I was doing exhibitions. Some of the other galleries started doing exhibitions as well, because they figured out it was a way to get people there and advertise. Plus, if you do a colored post card in the mail to people they hang on to it. If it’s a great image they will hang it on their refrigerator, and if they don’t get there for that show they will remember, and maybe get there in the next month or six months from now, or they still have it, and, you know, on the wall somewhere as it was a digital reminder. I advertised those galleries together. Initially, we just did just did each gallery, and then the second or second year we decided to call ourselves the galleries of Berea. Because we wanted to get Berea in it. We wanted, you know, it was a way to try and get people to have awareness. That worked really well, and we did that in American Style Magazine for a number of years. And, how wonderful little ads they were, like 1 by 3, 3 ½ in the back section. And, they have a section of the magazine called the Date Book, and it’s by state and by date what’s going on with exhibitions, special shows. I’ve had people come in the gallery with that part of the magazine ripped out and folded, and in their back pocket, and they are traveling down the interstate trying to catch the places they wanted to go by looking at that date book. Knowing they are going to go through Ohio, Kentucky and North Carolina, and maybe Georgia, all the way to Florida. So, I knew it was a good venue for us to advertise in, and you know, it’s like you got to, you got to promote yourself. You can’t just sit there, you know. I think that is part of the problem for Berea in general, and I think for some of the businesses, too. I think that probably we have stiffened some of audience off, but on the other hand, at the center there are brochure racks where they can put their advertising free. There is a color video that runs non-stop talking about Berea. There’s a full size of this door glass case where they can have their work--free advertised showing. And there is a Berea tourism person now hired out there, and she’s really great, Nancy. Everybody who walks in that door is a potential customer for somebody in Berea. She engages every person who comes in that door if they are hanging. If they even stop at the brochure rack, she is over there talking to them about Berea. Our front desk people with people say--ask if, you know, are you going into Berea--which is just two miles down the road. We’re cross-trained to promote the city as well as what we have there, and that’s something that a lot of people don’t know. That our people--our staff is--actually past four o’clock at night--our front line staff will say, “Are you going into Berea?” If they say yes, well, you should probably go to Berea first because a lot of shops close at 5 or 6 and you can get there. We’re open until 8. Come back and see us after you go to Berea. I mean, I don’t know anybody who would have a customer come in the door, tell them to go away to your competition, and then come back. You know, I mean, that’s just something that people don’t realize that happens out there. When I do my PR I always organize what’s happening at the center around what’s happening regionally. Like the Spoonbread Festival, we’ll do displays of spoon bread, mix and spoon bakers, Tator Knob mix, the traditional music festival weekend we will have musicians at the center, and in my press releases I talk about the traditional music festival at Berea College. And as a result of that, we are doing music at the center, or the Guild Fair whenever there is a Guild Fair I always do a release that talks about the Guild Fair. And, at the Center we have these demonstrators. You know, so and that’s something. And, unless you are part of the media, you don’t know that is coming out, because every time there is a regional event, especially if there is a Berea event I, we the Center, I shouldn’t say I, the Center does a release that encompasses what is going on in the town and in the region. And, then we try to tie-in whatever activities or programming we are doing with that. Regionalism is incredibly important. That’s, that’s something that is probably--is really important to jump on right now. In fact, tomorrow I’m going to a symposium on regionalism. Gallery directors are getting together at U.K., and are going to network and talk about what is regionalism, and how we can share resources, and that sort of thing. So, I think that, you know, part of it is not working hard enough at--at your business you know or advertising. Being used to that, just regular traffic that comes by your door kind of thing, and, and the fact that the Center is probably drawing some people. But, I don’t think that the, you know, I mean, I don’t think that it’s all the Center’s fault. You know, I mean there has been some real dilemmas with the Boone Tavern being closed, and a lot of construction around there, so that I know has hurt traffic a lot at College Square. But Old Town has all those advantages. All kinds of stuff going on with the, you know, the new sidewalks and the lighting and you know lots of improvements down there, so. The story just needs to get out better. You know I think .

WILLIHNGANZ: Is there anything you haven’t said? We’re down to about four minutes left; is there anything you wanted to talk about?

HEFFNER: Oh, I talk too much . I guess one of the things that I find interesting about how all of this comes back into the work. Since I’ve been working at the Artisan Center, I haven’t been in the studio on a regular basis. I usually work up here on the weekends. And, what I’ve learned to do is--with pottery, you make a pot and you have to let it dry a little bit, and then you trim it, and then you finish it off. And then, there’s all these steps in firing. So, it’s not just straight forward where you just make it and it’s done. Whereas weaving--you could start, you know, and you can come back twenty years and finish it. What I started doing is carving on the surfaces on my pieces. I make them, and then I flatten an area, and use that as a place for a frame for an image. I could carve and come back three days later, carve some more, so it allows me to create work that is not consistently being worked on day after day, and that’s been very helpful to me to figure out a way. I think that probably things have become simpler with my work. The pressure is not there, necessarily, to market like it used to be. So I have a freedom now that I’ve never had before in my work. I have ideas that are really exciting in terms of sculpture work that I’m moving towards now. I have an exhibit--a show in Ohio in April that I’m preparing for. So it will be all hard work. I guess it all--everything is connected, you know. Everything I’ve done has informed my work. You know, no man is an island, so.

WILLIHNGANZ: Yeah. Okay. Let’s take a little tour of your studio here. [Break in tape -- outside background noise] Did you have this built specifically for your purposes?

HEFFNER: Oh yes, yeah.

WILLIHNGANZ: So you designed the layout and whatnot?

HEFFNER: Yes uh-huh. In fact after we had the whole bottom of the flooring down I had--I was looking at my diagram changing where windows and doors were depending on the view .

WILLIHNGANZ: Oh, makes sense.

HEFFNER: I changed some things around.


HEFFNER: It’s not easy to build on a hillside. We had to step the footer twice going downhill. But it’s a great little shop.

WILLIHNGANZ: Okay. Maybe you can tell us about this room.

HEFFNER: The first room in the studio is my showroom. The studio is open all the time, so if people want to come and purchase work they can. Most pieces are marked and I’ve got a little sales ticket over there. This is just a collection of finished pieces. I did a firing with a friend, so I’ve got some wood firing pieces as well as pieces from other people. It’s just nice to have a place to get the work away from the working studio, out of the clutter, to get back and look at it, so. So it’s kind of a nice, nice luxury to have in a studio--to have a clean space to set up the work. So.

WILLIHNGANZ: Do you want to tell us any more about some of these particular pieces?

HEFFNER: Well. These three pieces up here were fired with my friend Bill Whitt over in Waco, just past Bybee, really. They are stoneware pots. They are very different from what I normally do. They are paddled in ovals so that they will fit in the kiln nicely. Soft fire. What I’m mostly known for is this white work with altered rims--also, the carved work. I have a tea pot. There is actually going--this piece is going to be shipped this week to the Ohio Craft Museum. There’s a tea pot show and that’s got a rose carved in it. My sister-in-law has a wonderful rose garden. She has hundreds of varieties and my son took our camera and shot a lot of pictures of them. From those pictures I did a drawing. Actually it’s on the other side as well. I think they are fairly similar. Yeah, I tried to draw about--I think that this is a little bit better drawing, a little bit of a color sprayed on that surface, dusky, kind of a dusky purple rose. She had a rose that was actually that color which was phenomenal. I had never seen anything that way before but, yeah. I love making tea pots because of all the parts. And, this again, I was talking about how I paddle a surface and flatten it so I have kind of a canvas or frame area for the imagery. I don’t always do things that are that realistic. That’s very unusual, actually. Usually I do something that is abstract. I will look at like the one pedal of a flower, and abstract the form of it, and that kind of thing. Like say one little section. I’ve always done the carving. I think it goes back to my print-making background. I did wood. I did a lot of wood cuts in undergraduate school and I’ve come full circle with that, too. Actually, the past three years I’ve taken a wood engraving workshop at the Larkspur Press in Monterey, Kentucky. Wesley Bates is an artist from Canada who comes and teaches every October, and I’ve been taking his classes so, it, you know, it helps me with my carving as well. It’s kind of neat.

WILLIHNGANZ: I was kind of intrigued by this little.

HEFFNER: Pedestal?

WILLIHNGANZ: Pedestal piece here.

HEFFNER: Oh funky little piece. It’s just a soap dish. Or, a candle stands either way. That’s the, that’s the sea foam glaze that I told you I put on the work that all of a sudden the women at that craft show noticed my work for the first time, because it had color on it instead of the white. I wish I had more samples in here, and this--I’m really low on inventory. I have actually more work in the studio to look at there. Unfinished. This is a wood cut by my print making teacher; Mr. Redding. I was telling you about--was one of my first mentors. He paid me five dollars a week to clean his house and that’s how I paid for my voice lessons . He was so supportive.

WILLIHNGANZ: Get rid of some of that shine off the windows. No that doesn’t help.

HEFFNER: That doesn’t help at all.

WILLIHNGANZ: Okay let’s see the rest.

HEFFNER: Yeah come on in. Here is another one of my pieces in that wall piece. I should have brought some of the books up I’m in. I’m in nine different books. I actually--I would say probably by being published more people have gotten to know my work that away, than they have by seeing my work in the flesh.

WILLIHNGANZ: Well this is sort of a library over in here?

HEFFNER: Oh, yeah. Actually, you were talking about my shows. These are--here’s Women of Iron. When I would do shows I would have a book that had images and résumé’s, and information about the artists. The wood fire show I did was called Clay Wood Fire Soft; these are the show books from the gallery that I’ve kept. They are, you know, sources of information and resources for people and books, magazines--and this is a catchall place actually right now. I had a lot of things from the gallery that didn’t go with the gallery sale. A lot of records, a lot of information on artists and it’s taken me about five years to go through all of that and get to the bottom. So, I’m just now sort of weeding my way through all of it. It’s been great. It’s been, like very nostalgia, you know, oriented in fact. On top of the refrigerator I’ve got articles about shows, and, you know, newspaper features that covering the exhibits that I’ve done in Ohio and different places, so. This is basically sort of a desk. This is where I do a lot of drawing. I’ve got my sketch books underneath. It’s also just an area I like to use just to--if I’m assembling work or if I have a spillover area. Surface area is really important in a pottery just to have room to lay stuff out. This is where I keep the work that is in process as well as the work that has been fired. Most of the work in here right now has been fired once. Some of it raw--the top shelves haven’t been fired but the bottom shelves are. I have a lot of tiles here. This is a way; I wish I had a piece of these. The Korean’s did this. They made a mold out of clay and did intricate carvings on them. And, I saw--this is the Ceramics Monthly magazine that I found. It was like ten years old magazine. This is porcelain clay that has been carved and then fired to about fourteen hundred to a biscuit temperature, so that it is hard. But, it’s not vetteri--it’s not all the way fired. I make slab clay with a slab roller, or roll it out with a rolling pin, and I drape it over here and pound it into this shape. And then, when it comes off, the image is on the bowl. So it’s a way of making a carved pot quickly, and repeating the same image over and over again, without having to carve each one. And, I’ve been having a lot of fun doing that, this rhododendron. I’ll see if I can find that mold, the one that is back in there. This is a little slab of clay. You can see it picked up the image, a little dusty. Oh, better not do that in front of your camera, sorry.

WILLIHNGANZ: That’s alright.

HEFFNER: But, this is a way I can use the carving and do it repeat work with it. Using these biscuit molds, and that’s been fun to do. My son and I did some plant markers, and I’ve been doing a series of tiles. This one again--I’m interested in plant forms a lot. This is a--I don’t know if you can see it very well. This is a tile that if you take another one of these and put it over here, this hooks in to here, and it repeats. So it’s like this image just continues a vine, and this is going to be for a baseboard molding around a cabinet. So this is the original, and I will cast--that I will make a plaster mold of that and then make originals from it.

WILLIHNGANZ: What are these?

HEFFNER: These are plant markers my son made. This is Santo Lena . A friend of mine closed her pottery business and I got a bunch of her stamps. She had probably ten different alphabets. Different sizes--we have smaller type. You can see the difference. This one’s got curly, and this one is bigger. See how the letters are bigger. She had two different sizes and these are plant markers. I have very expensive borders, so you asked why I lived here. Part of that was so that I could garden. Even though we are on a ridge and the soil is poor, I’ve managed to build up perennial borders, so I have lots and lots of wild flowers that I’ve brought in from the woods, and perennial plants, and shrubs, and every spring for a number of years I did a second sale, the pottery. And I would sale my perennials. After awhile you have to divide them, and if you keep dividing them, and making new beds, you have to keep weeding more borders. So, I got to the point where I couldn’t make any more borders and keep up with them. It’s very hard to keep up with them now. So I started a spring sale, and it was very popular. It was called Perennials and Porcelain. Porcelain and Perennials. Every--I did it every Derby Day because it hardly ever rains on the Derby. So it was guaranteed, pretty much, regularly a good weekend without rain. First weekend in May. I have a dinner order that I am also working on here for a friend, and this is the salad, sort of the soup bowl has a little trailed image on the side.

WILLIHNGANZ: And will you paint this?

HEFFNER: This will be glazed. This has been bisque fired. This is the backside which is trimmed, and this is my mark. This is how I sign my work. When I’m--when I left my--see it’s a lower case G and an H. I also have a business card with that on. When I left undergraduate school I worked for a year in a production pottery in Minneapolis, and the pottery had its stamp, and the production potters that were hired had their own stamp. So, when I was hired there I had to make my stamp. And that’s the same stamp I still use. I--it’s just drilled into the bottom of a little dowel rod with a dremel tool. I’ve been grateful every since, because it’s a great easy way to sign your work rather than scrawling a signature across. So I work on a potter’s wheel, and this is my original wheel here. It’s a kick wheel that I’ve turned into a table now, the flywheel is still there. And this is my electric wheel where I throw most of my work. The glaze pantry is over there. Lots of little chemical jars and glaze ingredients. I spray my work. See the compressor down underneath the table? There is where I house my compressor. The glaze is sprayed on the surface of the pots. Because I am firing in an electric kiln, the surface of electric fired pots--In a gas kiln, where there is actually flame and an atmosphere, the surface of the glaze melts and sort of blends really well. In an electric kiln there is no flame, there is just heat. And if you have a dribble of glaze on your pot when you glaze it when you apply it, that dribble shows in the finished piece. So the surface has to really--for my forms that are sculptural anyway, has to be a real skin--has to be a really precise skin of glaze on the pots. So, I turned to spraying my work and I use a compressor. It is about ten pounds of pressure, and a little spray gun. I shot out that window. There, that’s where I work. It gives that sort of complete surface. If I had my rather, I wouldn’t put glaze on my pots at all, because I just love the way it looks and feels. But, anyhow. I was going to try and find a cup piece for you. You were talking about the flower arranging containers. These are all going to be carved, but here is one of these, if I can get it out of here without breaking it. One of these cup pieces--where it starts out as a cylinder completely round, and then I before it is completely dry I paddle it into an oval, and then I take a knife and cut this area here. And for me, it has to be visually interesting as well as function. Now, if you put a stem in here, you can pull it right down in here, and it will hold it. And I just do millions of variations on these forms. Sometimes they’re taller, sometimes they are narrower; sometimes there are several slits. My graduate thesis professor Leon Driskell, who is in the English department, who has passed away now--but he looked at me one time when we were talking trying to work my thesis out. He said, “Let’s face it Gwen. Symmetry really bugs you” . And, I made things on the potter wheel which makes every thing symmetrical, because it goes round and round, and perfect symmetry. So, I thought that was pretty funny we laughed about it for years, you know. I’m always altering the symmetry of a potter’s wheel when I work, I don’t always do that, but I enjoy, you know, shaping the pieces a little, you know. But, I do just straight forward stuff like just a simple bowl. You know, and we can see some pieces in the house, too. I have a lot of--these pieces are done in two sections. It’s through unto here and then another section is added. This one was thrown all the way to here and then this part was added. Then I paddled areas here. These are going to keep for the show I was telling you about. I’m going to be carving on these areas here. I got lots of drawings that I have to figure out which ones I’m putting where, and what goes on them. Here is a smaller one of these altered bowls. You can see which one has been mucked up a little hasn’t been fired yet. You can see I even push the bowls into another bowl. This little cut here is mimicked in the rim. You know the sort of eclipse of the moon when it’s on the way when it’s a slit; somebody once told me that that was the shape I used when I cut my pots a lot. I don’t know if it’s true or not but I like the shape, I like that curve a lot. So, and again, tiles I’m working on--some tiles--I don’t know what else to tell you about, really, other than I also tried to put pots around me that I enjoy, and that one actually I’ll show what that came from. This is a Tibetan a friend of mine, is the son of Dr., President John Stephenson of the Berea College, he’s passed away now, but his son is David. David went over when his father met the Dalai Lama. And when David was over he got a bunch of these wood blocks which were inked and used to make prayer flags to print and images--a lotus image. I need to get this back to David. Actually, this is made out of wood, and I press this into clay and made a clay mold. Here is the clay mold. And then, I pressed the clay into that and I get--see these are the three stages. Here is the wooden carved piece from Tibet. I made a mold of it here, and when I press clay into this I get that. And then, I have some finished ones in the gallery that are glazed. I put a little hole back here in the back so that they can be hung on the wall. I don’t know. Its one of those things that I printed some of these on some hand made paper show that David did at the Upstairs Galleries, and it was a fun little collaborative project. And, these tiles, everybody loves them, and there must be something universal about this image. It’s not very sophisticated in terms of how it’s carved or cut, but people respond to it. I’ve sold a lot of them. It’s a way of having a small little clay piece nearby.

WILLIHNGANZ: Okay. Well. Would you like to go down and take a look at the house?

HEFFNER: Yeah, sure.

WILLIHNGANZ: Can we do that? [Break in recording]

HEFFNER: I haven’t done--been real successful at it, but this piece here, the sea urchin piece, is one that I managed to hang onto. I had a couple of double bowls that where published and got talked out of . Your best work always sells, you know. The things are to try and hang on to a few of them, so I did do a retrospect in my gallery a number of years back. And, I put all of the stuff that I’d saved together. That was my--so this is a collection of just pots from all over. Probably my favorite is the smallest. This is from Chemisette from Japan. He is a national living treasure. It’s a beautiful little Saki cup. You can see how small it is by my hand. I bought this at Bloomingdales.


HEFFNER: They had a show there and I recognized his work because, this is another one of his pieces, but I think the little one is more attractive somehow. This is a rope that he has rolled into the clay. And that pattern comes from--his father was a rope maker, and to honor his father, even though he choose to become a potter, he wraps the rope around a stick, and then rolls it around the pot, and the depressions are filled with white slip. That’s his work. These are--I have some Japanese pieces, and this is a repay which is a famous period in Japanese pots. This is a little mustard dish that came from that. I found this at an antique store in Danville, of all places. This piece here--this is made by Cho Chi Hamada when Tom Marsh went to Japan. That I told you, I stayed at his house when he was on sabbatical. He brought this back to me. My cat knocked it over and broke it, and I repaired it with gold leaf, and in Japan when a piece is valuable, if it breaks, they repair it, but they don’t repair it in a way that they’re trying to hide the cracks. They extenuate the cracks, because what that says to their culture is, that it was good enough that I took the time to fix it and keep it. So, as in our culture we try to repair things so you can’t tell that they were broken, whereas in Japan--so I did, I honored that tradition and put gold leaf in the epoxy to accentuate. That’s probably my most valuable piece even though it is broken. Oh, these are pots that Matthew made in shells. I love shells and rocks. And, as you can tell, we went to Maine and Massy, and I practically brought the ocean back with us. Wonderful rocks in Maine. Granites and stone washed, and ocean washed. This is a piece of granite from Deer Isle, Maine. That’s kind of pink granite now. The Smithsonian in Washington are made from this marble, granite.


HEFFNER: Let’s see if I can find another pot. I don’t have that many, actually, I have to look around unless I have other people’s pots. I have a number of pieces out right now. I don’t have another piece of mine out here. Sorry. I am really short on work. So I could talk about this. This is a carved piece I am working on. I have it down here at the house so I can work on it some down here, and this is bourbon--is made from an oak barrels, in particular Woodford, and some of the other distilleries in our state. So, I’ve drawn--these are oak barrels--they are kind of hard to see oak leaves over top of it. And I’m doing this for the next bourbon bottle show. It will have a stopper with a leaf on the top of the stopper. And this side hasn’t been carved yet . I don’t know it took a lot of time to do this side, so I’m not sure what I will do on the other side. I might just do a bottle of bourbon imagine. Some Maker’s Mark or something. This is Phillip Wigs. He is a Berea potter. This is his piece there. Potters collect other people’s other potter’s pots. We’re the best--some of the best clients for your work are other potters --we support each other. It’s kind of addictive, I suppose, but if you like clay you tend to want it to be all around you. So, I have a lot of it in here. I’m trying to look here at other pieces. Wow--lots of other potters’ pots. This is a wood fire piece from called Caliph.

WILLIHNGANZ: This wood piece up here?

HEFFNER: No. Actually, right up there, it was fired with wood--a great big pot. It’s a wonderful wood fire piece. Quite large and you can see the flame pattern going around the pot. That’s the color changes. There is no glaze on it, its just this is where the pot was sitting in the kiln. So the color of the clay is still there. I love this piece. I have one in my gardens. I don’t know if you saw it when we came down the hill. There is some another one of his pieces. I have out in the garden as I took up an architectural garden pot. It’s beautiful.

WILLIHNGANZ: Okay. Well thank you very much.

HEFFNER: Is that it?

WILLIHNGANZ: For your time, I think that’s probably it.

[End of Interview Part II]

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