Tuesday, November 15, 2016

TOP STORY >> Seniors learn the art of making ceramics

Leader staff writer

Carolyn Butts’ instinctively moves her fingers gently across the surface of an unfired, unpainted Razorback, while explaining the progress of cleaning the surface of a ceramic piece before firing it.

“Your eyes can deceive you, so look away and feel for the seam with your fingers,” she says. If the area where the seam was is smooth, then it’s ready for the next step in the process. It’s then fired, or baked in a kiln. After which it’s called a ceramic bisque piece and ready for paint or stain.

Butts brings about five decades of experience to the ceramics class at the Cabot Senior Citizens Center at 600 N. Grant St. It’s one of five senior center facilities under the direction of the Lonoke County Council on Aging headquartered in Lonoke.

In addition to Cabot, there are senior centers at England, Des Arc, Carlisle and Lonoke.

The ceramics room is open every day, but classes are held only on Tuesday mornings, starting around 9 a.m. There’s no charge for the class, but there is a small cost for each piece produced.

At one point, Butts ran her own successful ceramics shop in the 1980s in Cabot, and she hasn’t lost her passion for the art form or her enthusiasm for sharing it with others like Gloria and John Baker.

John Baker, who has been doing ceramics for about a year, is modest about his talent but his wife Gloria sings his praises.

“He’s very artistic,” she says, but adds that there are other benefits to attending the Tuesday morning class.

The whole process, he says “has a calming effect,” while Gloria Baker says, “It’s something we can do together.”

Connie Harden, with 20-plus years experience, says, “We always have fun together.”

Others agree that socialization and friendship are a big part of the experience, but in addition to sharing their knowledge, many share baked goods, or like Butts, bring in bounty from their gardens that is free for the taking.

That early Tuesday morning earlier this month, Butts had brought in extra green onions and loofah pods from her Cabot garden.

Normally there are as many as 20 students crammed into the way-too-small ceramics room, along with shelves filled with drying pieces, paints, molds and brushes, and there are tables, a kilm and a slip mixer that looks like an old ringer-type washing machine with a nozzle, much like the ones at the local gas station.

LCCA Executive Director Buster Lackey, who has fond memories of doing ceramics with his family and cousins as a child, recently helped out at Cabot.

After pouring slip, wet mud that is poured into molds, for a morning, Lackey immediately bought an automatic mud mixer with a nozzle.

“It’s a lot easier than lifting heavy slip and pouring it into the mold by hand…It was hard work. I don’t know how they did it,” he says.

“It’s made a big difference,” Butts says about the new machine.

Like John Baker’s comments about the calming effect of the process, Lackey says ceramics offers a number of mental and physical benefits, including developing or maintaining good hand-eye coordination, socialization and it gives participants a place to go and a sense of accomplishment.

Many, like Martha Richey, make gifts for friends and family members. Each piece is unique to the person who makes it, and how it turns out, depends on the technique used, Butts says.

“Handmade gifts are really special,” adds Linda Rogers, who’s currently working on a centerpiece for her own Thanksgiving table.

Although Richey claims, “I’m just learning.” It’s hard to imagine that’s true because her pieces are painted with detail and a flare for color — the class is a high point of her week. That’s true of other participants, too.

Cherry Godwin, the center’s site director, is stepping down from that position and taking over as its creative arts coordinator, which includes overseeing the ceramics program.

She also has ceramics experience and loves working with the inexperienced.

“They often shocked out how well their pieces turn out,” she says. Sometimes, she adds class members accuse her of replacing their piece with one she’s done but she says, “I tell them, ‘No, that’s your handiwork.’”

Moreover, Godwin says the class gives “our seniors a chance to be creative. For others, it reawakes the desire to be creative.”

When it came to renovating the old Cabot library at 909 West Main Street and turning into the new senior center, Lackey insisted on doubling the size of the ceramics’ activity area.

The new senior center will be about 8,000 square feet.

He expects the need for the program to grow along with the senior population in Lonoke County. From 2010 until 2015, the over-65 crowd went from 11.2 percent of the city’s total population, estimated at about 11,500, to about 13 percent.

In order to meet the needs of the growing population, the LCCA is moving into larger quarters in Cabot and building a new senior center in Lonoke.

At Cabot, the 20-year-old ceramics program remains a “popular with our clients,” he says.

Butts has been the ceramics instructor since nearly the beginning of the program in 1996, and it’s success is in large part due to her efforts, he says.

Richey describes Butts as “an excellent teacher,” and Godwin says, “Carolyn’s been a real blessing.”

Ceramics is also proving a favorite of local school kids and their Facebook customers.

Recently, Lackey posted pictures of the eight-inch and six-inch flowerpots produced by the class, and he says the pieces sold out nearly immediately. He could have sold more.

Butts says there’s still time to order a pot or two for Christmas presents but anyone interested in purchasing a custom-designed needs to place their order ASAP. The entire process takes at least four weeks.

He also says, for a price, the senior center will host a ceramics party for kids or adults. Ceramic pieces can also be taken, painted and returned to the senior center for firing, or individuals can paint pieces there.

“Kids love it,” including his own, Lackey says.

Eventually he would like to produce enough pieces that could be featured at a local business and sold. Also, he says the senior center just received its official University of Arkansas certification to create and sell Razorback products.

Without the university’s blessing, it’s illegal.

Already members are painting mugs with the Hawgs’ signature emblem and small razorbacks.

The class also made trophies for LCCA’s annual Grills and Gowns BBQ Contest.

It saves the agency money, Lackey says.

Cabot isn’t the only center to purse interests and take advantage of members’ talent.

The senior center at Carlisle offers painting, Lonoke specializes in sewing and Des Arc is into quilting. Recently, the Des Arc quilters raised about $1,700 by raffling off a handmade quilt.

Like at Cabot, the money is used to purchase equipment or supplies.

The England Senior Center doesn’t have a specialty yet, but Lackey, who has only been on the job for about nine months, says they’re exploring a few options.

As in Cabot, their programs rely heavily on members’ talents and interests, he says, and in the future, he hopes that seniors from the various centers can take fieldtrips to other centers to explore new activities. For example, members at Carlisle could try their hand at ceramics at Cabot or learn to quilt at Des Arc.

“There are so many possibilities,” Lackey says.

All the LCCA centers are open from Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. There is no membership fee for people 60 and over. Members can also be younger than 60, if married to a member who is at least 60.

For more information about the Lonoke County Area on Aging, a particular senior center or about the activities or programs offered, go to: www.lonokecountysenior.com.