I was beginning to think that Urbana was the “hotbed” of pottery in Maryland … but now it’s taken off 35 miles from Urbana in Harpers Ferry.
For the past two years, Urbana potter Dennis Stark has joined together with studio art potter Phil Berneburg to create a complete studio and gallery to support the ceramic art community—“a gym for potters,” Stark said.
A government contractor for 32 years, Stark retired in May. He had no art background, but his love of pottery emerged about eight years ago when he began training for a marathon with a colleague who was a potter and runner. Visiting the friend’s home and seeing his manual potter’s wheel sparked a curiosity in Stark and he signed up for classes with his daughter at Frederick Pottery School. He fell in love with it and kept at it with Phil Berneburg, who was his first instructor. Working together, the two decided to create a pottery haven.
Washington Street Studios (WSS) was formed to provide ceramic artists an affordable, fully equipped studio space to share their creative energy and knowledge in an environment designed to support their needs. Fourteen members from Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia hand build, throw on a wheel and sculpt using the equipment in the community studios with access to a library of books and related videos. A ceramic arts classroom was recently added where classes in all facets of the ceramic arts as well as workshops on various topics are held. The partners believe that the forum will improve the quality of art and increase the appreciation of it within the community, helping to fulfill their mission to grow as a family of artists. The Potters’ Round Table is one of the ways they share their passion for ceramic arts. On the second Saturday of every month from 10 a.m. to noon, WSS provides a free and open to the public venue for artists of all media to share their experience and knowledge with other artists and art lovers.
Stark manages the business side and Front Porch Gallery, which features art exhibits, and the retail shop. His own work is primarily functional pottery—bowls, plates, cups and mugs. Most are created on the wheel, but some are made with hand building as well. His pieces are fired in wood, gas and electric. His pottery wheel of choice in his basement studio is a Leach treadle wheel, an intriguing, manually operated wheel built by a company in Minnesota. It features a comfortable, high padded seat and is operated by a foot pedal. “Throwing on this wheel is a very calming experience, and I become one with the wheel. I don’t have to think about speeding up or slowing down—it just happens naturally and I think it’s reflected in my pots.” Examples of his work and that of his daughter as well as members of his church fellowship group who come for a pottery get-together every Monday evening decorate the perimeter of the studio. His enthusiasm for working with clay and introducing it to others was evident as I watched him intently create a pot on his unique wheel.
Berneburg is a studio art potter with more than 20 years of experience, a geologist and ceramics engineer, and a professor of ceramics in the master’s program at Hood College. He manages the education side of WSS. His main interests are in creating sculptural ceramics, both functional and nonfunctional, and in contributing to education in the ceramic arts, in particular teaching the technical background of ceramics and its importance and relationship to art pottery. He currently teaches classes on hand building and wheel techniques, as well as workshops and intensive classes on technical aspects of ceramics such as clay properties, glaze chemistry and kiln technology.
Stark and Berneburg hope to create an art district in Harpers Ferry through their education and visual art offerings. Berneburg is focused on WSS being recognized as a resource for the ceramic artist and potter, available to provide support and a venue for sharing ideas, providing education and solving problems. To that end, he created Art Works for Good that sells donated ceramic pieces from various artists to create a fund to support art educators. Proceeds of sales will go toward funding art supplies in local public schools. They also have a cooperation with area art educators who come to them for assistance with supplies.
Visit the website at www.hfclay.com to check class and event schedules and for more information on exhibits. The next exhibit, “Smokin’ Hot,” will present the raku and functional pottery of Janet Greer, Ann Hobart and their students from VisArts in Rockville. Visit the exhibit Feb. 22 through March 23, and don’t miss the opening reception on Saturday, Feb. 23, 6 p.m. with an artists’ talk at 7:30 p.m.
Register and RSVP for the reception at www.hfclay.com/smokin-hot.
Learn more by visiting or contacting:
Washington Street Studios and Front Porch Gallery
1441 West Washington St. Harpers Ferry/Bolivar, W.Va.