A Potter Unearths Joy
Apr 20, 2020 12:41PM
By Lisa Lukecart
Artist Joy O’Conner with EARTHENjoy Ceramics will tell you, pottery molded her life into a new image. Not just professionally, but personally.
A decade ago, she could see the cracks in her stressful life emerging. She knew they would eventually explode, like too much moisture in a piece of pottery. The water turns to a pressure-filled steam which can’t escape until the clay shatters. It finally materialized when O’Conner took her 1-year-old son, Paxton, in for a routine checkup. He was fine; she was not. O’Conner burst into tears.
O’Conner would later be diagnosed with situational depression (also called stress response syndrome or adjustment disorder), which typically occurs after a major life event or specific trauma. O’Conner had a lot on her plate.
Her 3-year-old daughter, Delaney, had been diagnosed with high-functioning autism.
“Most days, I was always on edge knowing Delaney might have a meltdown. I would just be waiting for the time bomb to go off,” O’Conner explained.
After taking a very low dose of Prozac, O’Conner felt better. But pottery would become the real life-changer, helping mold her life into something better…emotionally healthier. Her mother-in-law, Jane Farley, brought over a huge sheet of clay so the two could make Christmas ornaments in late 2013.
Farley said, “I knew when I struggled, I needed that. I needed to go out in the studio and throw things on the wheel.”
The pottery exercise reminded O’Conner of her childhood, when she used to dip her young hands into the natural clay of a stream on her grandfather’s land. She shaped and molded tiny objects which her mother collected.
“It’s super rewarding to [mold] an ugly lump of earth, and the end result is beautiful,” O’Conner explained.
With her father in the Air Force, the family was required to move many times. O’Conner furthered her talents in the fourth grade under Farley’s tutelage inside the “Potter’s Shed” during her time in Omaha. The shed looked like an old chicken house converted into an art classroom where Farley educated children and adults about pottery.
“I taught her all I could, but she could probably teach me now,” Farley said. “She’s just so good with her hands. She is a natural with it.”
O’Conner also met her future husband, Patrick, who is Farley’s son. After connecting off and on for years, the couple married in 2006. O’Conner put all her energy into raising their two children, but realized she needed an outlet after that Christmas making and selling ornaments.
When the children went to bed, O’Conner would put on a movie or podcast and dig her hands into some clay. As she worked well into the night, she felt the worries of the day melt away.
“Art is definitely a coping skill. It pulls people out of depression,” mental health counselor Vera Petersen confirmed. Petersen utilizes art in trauma therapy, knowing it can get people out of bed.
Farley gave O’Conner a tiny kiln for firing and baking pottery. The size seemed perfect for detailed pieces such as earrings, necklaces, and trinkets. She began selling EARTHENjoy, as she called her jewelry, in six shops around Omaha and Lincoln. Her popularity grew so much she bought a bigger kiln and began making vases and hanging pots. She later outgrew the room in her house and opened a studio at artisan workspace Bench in downtown Omaha in 2017.
O’Conner has since scaled back her business to balance her time, but items can still be bought at Wax Buffalo in Lincoln, Made in Omaha, and other retail outlets. Customers can also stop by her Bench studio by appointment. It’s her website, however, that takes most of the hits, and products quickly sell out. Her husband helps her with the marketing on occasion.
“Just watching her excel has been medicine for me,” her mother-in-law said. Breast cancer has kept Farley away from pottery recently. O’Conner is hoping to get her back behind the wheel.
Most mornings these days, O’Conner drops the children off at school before heading to Bench. The maker lights a smoky, wood-scented candle before beginning work. The light is bright, but the room is cold if the kiln isn’t lit, so she almost always wears a stocking cap. She dons an olive-colored apron over her men’s overalls, throws on a TED Talk, and focuses on that day’s task.
If just starting, O’Conner slices the clay like butter with a wire tool, weighs it, and forms it into balls. It’s like kneading hard dough, and time must be given to let it rest in a plastic bag. The artist will sometimes use porcelain, which is smooth and soft but tends to crack. So O’Conner prefers earthenware clay, which feels gritty and sandy as she slaps it on the center of the wheel. She pushes up the sleeves of her bright yellow shirt, rests her elbows on her knees, and assumes a stiff position. As the wheel turns, O’Conner re-wets her hands and pinches the clay to thin down the walls.
Pottery takes time to dry overnight and a few more days to carve it.
“Clay captures my imagination,” she explained. “It has endless possibilities.”
O’Conner will sometimes add glaze first, followed by a surface technique called sgraffito to make a design. Other times, she might apply adhesive dots, which are brushed with wax resist (watered down wax). After another drying period, the clay is fired in the kiln at 1800 to 2200 degrees Fahrenheit for another eight to 12 hours, then cooled down double the time it took to fire. If glaze is applied, it’s fired again. It’s like melting glass.
An ivory vessel dotted with colorful confetti is perfect for a plant or a fun party. Hanging planters, whether a bright red faceted or a light blue chiseled option, are strung with 30 inches of leather cord to add an artistic touch to windows. The planters contain nontoxic lead-free clays and glazes so plants tucked into the deep and wide ceramics are safe.
With her necklaces, O’Conner likes to apply gold luster, which looks blood red before it heads into the kiln. The sol pendant is the result, a blush-colored circle seemingly dipped partly in gold. Each comes in a variety of colors and no two pieces are ever quite the same. A variety of styles lends itself to a choice for almost any earring wearer, whether a large duo-staked piece or a smaller stocking stud. Traditional circular studs contain 22K gold luster in ostrich, smoke, black, and other colors with hypoallergenic surgical steel posts. Sometimes she dabbles in sculpture options, like the half satin, half glossy earrings which resemble a person with a white circular head and a macaroni shaped torso. Bol danglers seem like miniature olive and ivory pottery bowls, held by 14K gold ear wires.
Petersen, who is also part-owner of Bench, purchased 40-plus pairs of EARTHENjoy earrings, which she described as a good weight on her ears. Petersen explained she “feels joy” when seeing the end product.
Like her pottery line name, O’Conner puts that emotion into her work now that her days are filled with happiness. She recently told her daughter, who is excelling, that being inspired “makes life so much more fun” because creating something so beautiful gives life more meaning.
This article was printed in the May 2020 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.