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Artisan of Michigan: Functional art for your everyday life

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Lewis weighs clay before forming them into balls. She'll then put them on the potter's wheel to make plates

Kate Lewis is adding to a big plastic bag of clay balls before she begins work at her pottery wheel.

“It’s easier to get them centered on the wheel. You want it to be kind of a perfect circle. So, I found if I start with a circle-ish shape, then I’m that much closer to getting where I need to be," she explained.

She weighs the clay on a scale before she forms them into balls.

“Today we’re making seven inch plates. So, I found if I weigh out one-and-a-quarter pounds of clay, that’s just about right,” she said. It was a matter of trial and error. With her years of experience, it didn't take long to find the best weight.

Her business is named Kate Lewis Ceramics. She also does ceramic art installations, but we’re here to learn about her functional pottery which includes jars, mugs, bowls, and plates. She smacks down one of the balls of clay on a disk and turns on the wheel. (Story continues after the video.)

Her fingers press, guide, coax the clay into the shape she wants.

“I think with clay you have to find the balance between pushing it and getting it to do what you want it to do and then being gentle with it and just kind of understanding how it’s going to be shaped with your hands. Finding that balance is what I find interesting, where it’s like you have to find the balance within yourself and it kind of helps with your personal practices as well as your pottery practices to find that balance,” Lewis said.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
These plates are still wet clay. They'll have to dry, be glazed, and fired before they're finished. Watch video below to see how Kate Lewis forms them.

She’s making very simple rustic plates for the Sovengard restaurant. They’ll be used to serve up smorrebrod, a Nordic open face sandwich topped with meats, cheeses, vegetables.

This -working in ceramics- is what she’s wanted to do since finishing college.

“But I didn’t fall in love with clay right away. Like, my first project dried out too much and I couldn’t keep working on it. I had to start over. I had this large project explode in the kiln. My teacher told me I could glue it; it was like in a thousand pieces maybe. In the end, she just let me remake it which was nice.”

Prior to clay, she’d worked with jewelry and photography. This was different, but staying with the clay, getting the feel for it, won her over.

“At the end of that first class I had just really connected with the medium. And, when I took the second class which was focused on the potter wheel I thought maybe I’m crazy, but a really feel like a potter, like I feel like this is what I really am.”

But, just being a potter has not been enough. She’s wanted to share her passion and she now has what she calls her dream job: teaching kids pottery at an after school program at a community center.

Lewis graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in fine arts and a second in English. It took her several years before she realized she could combine her love for words with her ceramics by writing things. Writing on mugs. She even does what she calls hip hop pottery with a local hip hop artist.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Just one of many examples of words and ceramic combining at Kate Lewis Ceramics.

“I’ve been working with Dante Cope for a while and even writing his album names on a mug and then he uses that as the album cover. But, the most requested quote from last year, once I wrote it on a mug, was ‘You know that I’m the dopest,'" she laughed. "After I made one of those, I had several requests. You know, people don’t always connect the words to hip hop, but it’s just a fun way for people to discover there’s a thriving hip hop community in this city,” she said.

Kate Lewis says it’s harder for her to sell her products than it is to make her products. She says she’s definitely an introvert. It took a while to learn to engage people interested in her pottery. But now when she’s at street fairs or farmers markets she’s learned to enjoy the interaction. She says there’s one thing she says she has to tell everyone. Yes, handmade pottery, when it’s made right, the way she makes it, is microwave, dishwasher, and food safe.

The final and winning sales pitch is that having handmade ceramics in your home is a way for you to enjoy art in your everyday life.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Kate Lewis in her studio.


Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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