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The artist up close: Charlie Parker

Bill DeYoung

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Charlie Parker at the potters' wheel. Studio photos by Bill DeYoung.

Sure, his recent hip replacement procedure slowed him down, but St. Pete master potter Charlie Parker is on the mend, like a chipped bowl made whole again with some surgical super glue.

“I’m getting stronger every day,” proclaims the 66-year-old proprietor of Charlie Parker Pottery, who’s been getting around his studio with a cane. “I lift weights every morning now. I do stretches. The natural progression of age is gonna take something away anyhow, but this, and age, it’s kinda weird. But I just made one of the best pots I ever made.”

It’s a water pitcher, nearly three feet high, with perfect curves and a freshly-applied coat of chino glaze, which will turn it the curvy piece a warm patchwork of brown and white when it comes out of Parker’s 2,350-degree gas kiln.

Parker and pitcher.

Throwing 35 pounds of clay took muscles he hadn’t used in a while, but Parker felt he needed to “do something that makes me feel good again.” And the plus-sized pitcher did that.

He likes the pitcher because of something his first teacher, Warren Westerberg of Minneapolis, told him years ago.

“He said you should be able to make a piece of pottery that’s an inch, and then make the same pot that’s three feet. Then take a picture and not tell the difference.”

This new water vessel, Parker believes, is just that. “I feel like there’s no size on it,” he says proudly. “You could take a picture.”

The piece will be unveiled Oct. 12 during the Second Saturday ArtWalk – Parker, his staff and teachers are calling their in-studio event Sangria Fest. But the pitcher itself is for show, not function. “You’d really have to have help pouring liquid out of that,” he laughs.

There’s a fine line, Charlie Parker explains, between art and craft. “What I do is make functional pottery, but I also make sure there’s art involved. I always joke that the difference between a vase and a “vahs” is a hundred dollars. It’s the same damn thing.”

His forte: Large, open bowls in a varied combination of color and texture. “A lot of people were saying ‘I have no place for this, because I live in a condo.’ So I started hanging ‘em – I’d say ‘you can take it off the wall and serve spaghetti in it.’ So it’s kind of along that functional line.”

There are, he explains, limitless possibilities with clay pottery. You’re only limited by the boundaries of your imagination.

“If you’re sticking with the bowl theme, imagine all the things you can do,” Parker says. “You can alter it. You can beat it with a stick.”

Over the course of a 50-year career, he’s learned that the functional element of his work is more important to him than the experimental, artistic side.

“I’m a little more geometric,” he admits. “I have to make sure that I’m not very abstract. This side of the bowl over here should mimic that side.”

Years ago, “I tried to do some weird things, but my brain kept correcting it. I couldn’t do it. I’d off-center it on purpose, but as soon as I did that my brain re-centered it.”

Within the context of staying geometric, Parker always goes back to his mentor, Westerberg:

Parker, you make good pots. Do you want to make great pots?

Which means, says Parker: “In order to make something, you have to know where the limit is. And so you push it – if there is a limit, you find out how to take it to its extreme. And once you get to the extreme, then you feel like there’s an accomplishment.”

Parker had his first gallery show before his 18th birthday.

In the 41 years since he moved to St. Petersburg, he’s broken more than a few pots, bowls and cups trying to push the envelope. But every failure is a learning experience to be filed away.

“It always surprises me when I do something that doesn’t work,” Parker grins. “And I’m like, ‘Well … that was interesting.’”

Charlie Parker Pottery debuted eight years ago. He spun it off of St. Petersburg Clay Company, which he and several business partners had opened in the mid 1990s (prior to that, Parker worked as a pottery instructor at the St. Pete Arts Center).

He and wife Nancy own the building, at 2724 6th Ave. South, and the bills get paid via a combination of gallery sales (original Parkers are valued by pottery aficionados), renting studio spaces to local artists and both individual and group classes.

Kayla Harbeitner ran Parker’s classes for more than a year, while he was recovering from surgery. “She’ a great potter,” he says. “She’s gonna be my legacy. When I’m gone, she’s going to be the best potter in America … she can’t be when I’m alive.”

He was the first potter in the area to employ gas reduction kilns – brick fireplace constructs that get heated to more than 2,300 degrees.

He’s always preferred gas kilns to the standard electric variety.

“Think about a toaster,” Parker explains. “You’re burning air. You put the toast in and you can direct the heat, that’s about it. But with gas, you reduce the oxygen – fire needs oxygen to burn. So it pulls it right out of the glaze and the clay. And gives it this toasty look.

“If you put copper in an electric kiln, you’ll get green. You put the same copper glaze into a gas kiln, and reduce the oxygen, it’ll be red.”

And that is where the art merges with the craft. “The serendipity part of the gas is the perfect thing. Because you can make the same damn pot every day. Put it in an electric kiln – there’s people that do that every day, you make a cup, you make a cup, you make a cup. You put the same glaze on it and fire it to the same temperature.

“Or, you can stick it into an atmosphere where the atmosphere itself paints it. Now you got all this stuff happening.”

Soon, he’ll pull the trigger on a just-purchased variation on the gas reduction model: A soda fire kiln, in which a concoction of water and baking soda is sprayed onto the heating glaze, producing a wide array of interesting and artistic effects.

“Now it’s another atmosphere,” Parker enthuses, “and you’re never gonna have the same thing twice.”

He was ready to get the kiln cranked up when the hip replacement came calling. So, he’ll test it once he’s completely mobile again.

“I need to find out if it works,” Parker laughs. “If not, I’m gonna be making some really expensive bread.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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