Clay and Oysters

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Artist Alison Evans borrows shapes from Maine mollusks to sculpt a stylish and graceful dinnerware line.

By Rebecca Martin Evarts  
Photograph by Nathan Eldridge
Alison Evans stands at a canvas-covered plywood table, a slab of damp, whitish clay in front of her, a wet sponge close by. Like a farm wife whipping up a pie, she lays into the clay with a large rolling pin. No need to measure the right thickness; her hands tell her. “I just kind of wing it,” she says. The sheet will be pressed into one of the large plaster-of-Paris molds that surround her, this one an elongated, beautifully sculpted yet readily recognizable oyster shell.

Overshadowed by its succulent heart, reviled for its tightly sealed lips, at best destined for recycling, the oyster’s shell is finally getting the respect it deserves.

In Evans’ hands, it has become usable art. Lead-free, dishwasher- and microwave-safe, the Oyster Series platters and dishes are the centerpiece of Alison Evans Ceramics’ highly acclaimed handmade tableware line, “Ceramics Inspired by the Sea.”

Less than a decade ago, she had only a degree in ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design, a vision, and a kiln set up in her parents’ Boothbay garage. These days, demand for Evans’ pieces keeps three kilns running around the clock in a fireproof room at the rear of a small ceramics gallery-cum-studio in a nineteenth-century brick building on Yarmouth’s Main Street.

Currently, sales top 1,200 pieces each month. A small fraction of the studio’s output is sold through the gallery, with the majority of the pieces destined for retail stores, both in the U.S. and overseas. Ninety percent of all Evans’ sales occur outside Maine.

High-end retailers, like Hazelnut New Orleans, Stanley Korshak of Texas, and Gump’s San Francisco, whose customers appreciate unusual craftsmanship and demand high quality, have responded enthusiastically to Evans’ oyster riff. Other shell-inspired shapes have been added, such as the Razor Clam Series, a giant sea clam bowl, a traditional oyster platter, sea urchin bowls. Retailers often suggest new directions, one of which became the Round Series, a selection of dinnerware with more traditional forms.

The striking glazes were developed through years of experimentation. A dark edge the color of wet horseshoe crab turns into a crystalline band that dissolves in the center of the platter to a translucent blue-green, like water in a sandy-bottomed tidal pool. The silky surface and minute variations are pleasant to touch; no two pieces are identical. They also photograph well, a boon for Internet sales. Two of Evans’ round plates have already entered dish history in Shax Riegler’s lavishly illustrated book, Dish: 813 Wonderful, Colorful Dinner Plates.

For a fast-growing company in an artisan business infamously prone to production failures — its bugbear is cracking, which can strike at several points in the process — the gallery’s atmosphere is remarkably tranquil, homey, even. Perhaps this is because the company has only three close-knit workers: Evans; her husband, Chris Fritz; and Anthony Mattei, Fritz’s oldest friend (the two met in the newborn ward when Mattei was hours old and Fritz a comparatively giant six-month-old baby carried in his mother’s arms). Fritz handles the business end, Mattei is the “indispensible everything guy,” and the two men apply the glazes Evans concocts for the pieces she designs and produces.

A display area, with two wicker armchairs, a woven cotton rug, and a scrubbed pine table, invites visitors to linger. Through the open-backed shelving that holds tableware for sale, you can see into the studio where the three artists, wrapped in clay-streaked smocks, are working quietly amid plaster molds, wheeled drying shelves that resemble baker’s racks, a hydraulic press, and other big pieces of equipment. Brett Dennen’s “Because You Are A Woman,” plays low over the sound system. No raised voices, no phones ringing off the hook. Orders come in silently over the Internet. The big packing room is out of sight in the basement, where stacked boxes await the afternoon FedEx pick-up.

This is a new iteration of the family business where generations work together in the same space and produce goods made by hand. In this case, the next generation isn’t actually working, though she’s spent her entire life in the business. Shea, Evans’ and Fritz’s daughter, has shown up every day, first in a bassinet, and now has graduated to her own fenced corner complete with toys, a play kitchen, a mat for relaxing, and a pink-striped armchair.

Evans, radiating warmth and good humor, manages to combine talking, working, and mothering with ease. “I always knew I wanted a child, and to be a huge part of my child’s life,” she explains, while trimming a top for the line’s most complicated piece, a teapot inspired by the giant African sea snail, which sometimes takes her several months to produce. “I have to have my head in the right place to make it,” she says of the pot, but her mojo must be working even though she and Shea have been passing a cold back and forth, and the baby is sleeping hers away in an electronic swing behind a glassed door in a small kitchen area. Shea coughs, wakes up for a moment, squeaks a little, and goes back to sleep. “I like having her around,” Evans says, “and between the three of us, we manage to keep her entertained.”

Evans’ “affair with clay,” as she puts it, began with a wheel-throwing class at Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut. She loved handling clay, hated the required computer class. “I knew even then that I never wanted to work at a desk with computers, in a business world dominated by men,” she says. Looking back, she notes that her strengths — math, science, and athletics — played well to the wet clay career track. “Pottery involves lots of chemistry in the glazes, both algebra and geometry in making the molds, as well as physical strength to handle clay.”

She finished high school in London, where her family resided at the time. “Living in Europe made me realize that there was a place in the world for beautiful objects,” she recalls. Her stint at Rhode Island School of Design taught her not to fear production. “They’d tell us, okay, this week you have to turn out a hundred mugs or a hundred bowls. Those numbers don’t seem so much to me now, but at the time it was overwhelming.”

After graduating in 1998, she landed a job as assistant to Katy Schimert, a well-known multi-media artist with a studio in lower Manhattan. “Katy is an amazing artist with incredible vision, and her mold-making is truly inspired,” Evans says. Schimert’s project at that time, three years before 9/11, was making human body parts of glazed ceramic to be displayed against drawings of the Twin Towers.

Before long, New York’s art scene began to cloy. “I thought I wanted the fancy lifestyle,” she continues, “until I realized that there were about three people in New York who decide everyone’s career. I figured I’d be doing myself a great disservice waiting for those people to decide whether my art was worth it.” A single clay sculpture might take months or years to perfect, whereas making useful objects to sell would allow the whole world to be her critic. “I wanted to make too many things. Besides,” she adds, “there’s something humble about making pottery.”

Searching for a new direction, she left New York two weeks before September 11, 2001, and moved into her parents’ house in Boothbay. An unused, fully equipped pottery studio in Damariscotta served as an incubator for her ideas. For the next four years, she worked there intensely every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., designing molds and experimenting with glazes, then returned to a nighttime waitressing job. The immersion in the sights and colors of midcoast Maine — all those daily drives up and down the Boothbay peninsula, past places like Oyster Point, Salt Marsh Cove, and Sea Mist Drive, plus weekend walks along the shore — influenced her work.

By 2005, she had created an oyster-inspired tableware line in three distinct glazes. Her big break came when she was accepted into the prestigious New York Gift Show, which attracts buyers from all over the world. “I didn’t think I’d get in on the first try,” she says,” but they loved my stuff and felt it filled a void in the handmade area.” She came back to Maine with two thousand dollars-worth of orders, excited but terrified about how to make so many pieces so quickly. With the help of her father, whom she calls “a smart businessman,” she was able to work out the bottlenecks that might impede production.

Having managed his family’s business, Massachusetts-based Rugg Building Solutions, Chris Fritz had the skills to handle the growing company. “The most important thing I learned from my time there was that employees are your biggest asset; treat them as such,” he says. “As far as marketing, production, and shipping go, it always comes back to customer service, product quality, and prompt, punctual delivery.” The twice-yearly New York and Atlanta gift shows are their primary marketing tools. He and Mattei now travel with a booth to the shows, freeing Evans to concentrate on designing, crafting, and mothering.

Things are bound to change at the gallery. New product lines, like lighting fixtures, sinks, and one-of-a-kind sculptural pieces, are in the pipeline. The business may outgrow its space; new employees might alter the atmosphere. At some point in the not too distant future, given how fast children grow, Shea may be spending her days at one of Yarmouth’s church-run daycare centers. But at this particular moment in time, one thing is certain: Alison Evans’ world is the oyster.

If You Go: Alison Evans Gallery, 359 Main St., Yarmouth. 207-847-4007 or 413-695-8036.aeceramics.com. A selection of Alison Evans Ceramics can found in Maine at: the Kimball Shop in Northeast Harbor; the East Boothbay General Store; TJ’s At the Sign of the Goose in Cape Neddick; and the Nestling Duck in Scarborough, as well as through online sources.

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