Mistletoe Ornament by Denise Colombe-Frye
By Arwen O’Reilly
Denise Colombe-Frye’s ceramics are lovely earthenware homages to the leaves and flowers she sees around her in southern Wisconsin. Her leaves and plants (and even slugs!) are remarkably true to life; I must admit to being particularly fond of her mistletoe ornament. It has the perfect contrast between the misty green of the leaves and the waxy white berries (which are hard to find these days unless you harvest your mistletoe yourself!). If you’ve ever wished that autumn leaf or bit of holiday greenery would last just a little bit longer, make sure to check out the ornaments and jewelry in her Etsy shop, and read her profile to learn how she does it. Like the best crafters, she’s equally eager to learn and share knowledge, which I find really inspiring.
Arwen: How did you first get involved with crafting?
Denise: If you consider that to be making things with my hands, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making something artsy-crafty. Even as a small child, creating things was a source of pleasure. My home life was less than ideal, but that was one activity that brought some family unity, so the act of creation has a fairly deep meaning for me. From cutting out paper snowflakes as a toddler, to creating digital images on the computer as an adult, to the creation of ceramics, I am always fiddling with the creative process.
Arwen: Why ceramics?
Denise: I had been doing animal portraits on bisqued plates through a friend’s website for a while. When that business decided to close, I purchased my own kiln to fire the finished plates. Since I am always taking classes on one thing or another, I took a wheel-throwing class through the local technical college. I wasn’t too keen on the throwing process, but there was a slab roller in the workshop that I started playing with. I became enamored of the slab building process, and the other types of things that can be made by hand building. I started playing around with how to reproduce natural items. I think this stems from one of my other creative endeavors, being a taxidermist. My favorite thing to do in that job was the diorama reproductions, which included a lot of leaves and natural elements.
Arwen: What processes do you use?
Denise: I use a combination of processes. The most fun for me is figuring out how to come with an original way of doing something. I am self-taught, so everything is original with me :) I do a lot of slab rolling, right now using a big rolling pin. Depending on what I am making, I start with a set height, then cut and roll down to lower heights. When I make windchimes, I have different heights for the different pieces. When I make leaves, I use a fairly thick slab for jewelry, and a very thin one for leaves that will be combined with something else. I also have organic sculptural pieces that I hand form, and are varying thicknesses. I found out that it was too time-consuming to make leaves independently for things like the jewelry and ornaments, so I started making latex molds from some of the best bisqued pieces. I use these to press clay into, and then I can do a better job of making the holes and hangers. Also, they dry a little more slowly, so the edges can be formed. It took a lot of hours in the workshop experimenting to see what worked.
Since I use earthenware, there are a lot of commercial glazes available. I started doing test after test, using the glazes alone and in combination to come up with a look that I thought would mimic nature.
Arwen: So what is slab rolling?
Denise: Slab rolling is just what it sounds like. You start with a big ol chunk of clay. Then, just like you would use pie dough for making a pie crust, you roll it into a slab. There are some great machines that can take the hard work out of it, but they can be pretty expensive, and take up a lot of room. Here is a link to some information. Clay is a lot harder to roll out than pie crust, but it paints an easy to understand picture. Since I didn’t want to spend the money right away, I just kept using a rolling pin. The way to reach different thicknesses is by using thickness strips.
Since I am not very strong, I start with a tall (1/2″) strip, roll out the clay to that thickness, then go to a smaller height strip, and so on. It can get interesting; each clay mixture has its own personality, each thickness of clay has its own feel, and so on. My favorite thing to do is make a fairly small slab, then just start forming it up by stretching and rolling and texturizing until it takes shape. I can end up with some really interesting organic forms that way. I often add leaves or snails or caterpillars then experiment with glazes. I don’t have any of them on Etsy right now, because I have found that I have a bit to learn with taking pictures.
For making leaves, once I have a slab about 1/8″ thick, I lay out the leaves, roll them into the slab, then start cutting them out with an exacto knife. As they start to dry, I can start moving the edges so they don’t just look flat and boring. For the mistletoe, I take clay and roll it into a tube, attach the little leaves with slip (thinned down clay), then make little balls of clay and attach at various places for the berries. And so on. I find this to be more interesting than wheel throwing. I admire the people who do that well. I just tend to like things that are more asymmetric.
Arwen: What inspires you?
Denise: First, my natural surroundings. I can become overwhelmed with ideas just by taking a walk. I am also inspired by the work of others. When I see something that looks just incredible, I know that I can continue to work and upgrade my own products.
Arwen: Where does the name Blackhorse Hill come from?
Denise: Yes, I have 3 black horses. I photoshopped them together to make my logo. We live on a hill, so really, the name is a literal no-brainer. Right now we live in southern Wisconsin, but will be moving to Northern Washington state in 2007, or possibly 2008. Our property there is also on a hill, so I plan on keeping the name. In fact, the banner on the shop home page is the property in Washington.
Arwen: What’s one tip you’d give to other crafters?
Denise: Just do what inspires you. Everyone has their own way of creating, and learning. Go with the flow of what feels right.
Arwen: What are your favorite crafting books/magazines/websites?
Denise: Depending on what “phase” of my crafting life, I like/have liked American Artist, Crafts Report, any books or magazines on pottery or ceramics, websites that have hints and tips, and of course, ETSY.
Arwen: What are some of your most important influences?
Denise: Boy, that is a tough one. My mind is so busy noticing things. Thinking about the question, I would have to say that some of my instructors in college were a pretty big influence. They encouraged thinking outside of the box while trying to use good design principles. I always got my best grades when I tried something different. Also, when I go to art/craft fairs, I look very thoroughly at the best quality work, and see what I can do to improve my own pieces. Very often, the artists are willing to share a lot. These people are very big influences. Not only do they produce nice pieces, but they give of themselves.