While working as an illustrator for the military, Helene Fielder took art classes at night.
“When you take art classes, you have to take a pottery class. They want you to try it all,” she said. “I took it and I haven’t stopped since.”
During the day, Fielder moved so far up the career ladder that she couldn’t be an illustrator anymore.
“They made me a supervisor. I had a writer and an illustrator under me,” she said. “I didn’t like it.”
At night, she worked on her pottery, experimenting with different shapes and glazes.
Fielder eventually thought she’d learned enough about clay to sell her work at a craft show. She split the fee with a friend, and barely sold a thing.
A few months later, she paid the full $600 fee for her own booth at another craft show.
“I made $8,000 in wholesale orders,” she said. “I put in my two-week notice.
“I was making more that first year than I did after working 17 years moving up the ladder. But I’d put in my time with the clay. Do you know what I mean?”
Now, the 50-year-old Marietta resident has 28 years of experience as a potter. Her sculptures, platters, vases and other pottery are available in galleries in Mississippi, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Hawaii.
She’ll be a featured artist during the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art’s opening in Biloxi, tentatively scheduled for November 2010. She’s also a favorite at the Cellular South GumTree Festival in Tupelo.
“In 2006, she won Best in Show and this year she won Best in Show,” said Tina Lutz, festival director. “That’s with different judges. Her work stands on its own merit. She’s very consistent in her studio, the quality of her work.”
At the studio
During this year’s GumTree Festival, Fielder and her husband, Ray, a painter, had booths next to each other.
“We do a lot of joint shows together,” she said.
The pair moved to Northeast Mississippi about 11 years ago. They share a studio in Marietta. He paints on one side of the studio, and she turns clay into useful vessels on the other side.
The two work in different media and different ways. He’s a painter, she’s a potter; he keeps regular hours; she works extreme hours.
“I have to struggle to have a life because I work too much,” Fielder said. “I’m out here at midnight. I’m out here all the time. I have this idea and I have to see it through.”
Perfectionism isn’t the right word because there’s room for happy accidents in Fielder’s work. She was delighted to discover a “rain storm” of colors that formed on one of her sculptures.
“Happy accidents, yeah,” she said. “Then you mark down what it took to make it, so you have planned accidents the next time. I love to experiment and try new things.”
And she’s certainly willing to let her work go where it wants to go.
“My work has kind of an ocean theme going on,” she said. “I don’t know why, but it does.”
In the place of perfectionism and control, Fielder relies on a simple formula: “The more you work, the better you get.”
“It’s not something I’m stagnated with. It’s something that grows,” she said. “To me, craftsmanship is so important. The more you develop your skill, the more work you can do.
“I’ve seen other potters who do the same thing for 20 years and never change. You have to change because you have to experiment. You have to test new glazes and new ways of doing things.”
A healthy dusting
Shelves filled with vases, tea kettles, platters and sculptures line the walls of the Fielders’ workshop. Some pieces are brightly-hued, others are muted tones, and others are the dull color of drying clay.
The table, chairs, floors and a CD player are covered with a healthy layer of dust. There’s no way around that.
“I don’t wash my hands during the day. It dries out my hands,” she said, displaying her coated fingers as proof. “Someone will bring me a snack and I’ll eat with clay hands. I don’t mind.”
She’s got a corkboard with sketches of works in progress, as well as reminders and invoices.
“My paperwork is bad,” she said, “very bad, bad, bad.”
Fielder travels to art shows in Mississippi, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan and beyond. They’re business trips, but they also offer a break from the long hours of solitude.
“I love talking to people. I’m here all the time, and there will be two weeks when I haven’t seen anybody,” she said. “When I go to a show, I sit and talk. I can really talk.
“People are welcome to come visit here. If they can find me.”
Toward the future
From hauling around unworked clay to loading finished pieces into her white van, pottery requires more than artistic ability. Fielder and a friend from church workout five days a week. The exercise is an investment in the craft she loves.
“I want to be able to do this when I’m 60 or 70 years old,” she said. “About 10 years ago, I said I wanted to do it until I was 50 or 60. I keep adding time. I want to keep adding time.
“This is what I do all day long. This is my life and I’m not tired of it yet. Hopefully, the work gets better.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or email@example.com.
M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal