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Martha Phinney | Potter and sculptor

  • One of Martha Phinney's completed pieces. 03/28/2017 —GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAY

  • Artist Martha Phinney works in her Haydenville studio on what will eventually become the head piece to a Red Belly Woodpecker. 03/28/2017 —GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAY

  • Some lamps made by artist Martha Phinney. 03/28/2017 —GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAY

  • Artist Martha Phinney works in her Haydenville studio on what will eventually become a Red Belly Woodpecker. 03/28/2017 —GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAY

  • Artist Martha Phinney in her Haydenville studio. 03/28/2017 —GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAY

  • Some examples of Martha Phinney's work on display in her Haydenville studio. 03/28/2017 —GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAY

  • One of Martha Phinney's completed pieces. 03/28/2017 —GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAY


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Though she has been working professionally for over 40 years, Martha “Marty” Phinney says her love of sculpting began when she was a kid. Now 67, the Haydenville artist began her career thinking she would become a “production potter,” spinning out functional ceramic ware. But fairly early on, she started developing more inventive forms, and today she makes animals, pop culture figures and other sculpted pieces — including life-size ones — alongside cups and bowls.

“The techniques of pottery making lend themselves so easily to sculptural applications,” she says. “Handles, with a little modification, can become arms or paws, a teapot spout can look like an elephant’s trunk, or a rounded vase can become a rabbit's torso.”

Hampshire Life: What is your creative process like?

Martha Phinney: I work with several blends of clay, each of which is suited to a different use. I might choose to make a family of rabbits and "throw" (form) some of the hollow torsos and heads on the potter's wheel one day, then assemble the forms — legs, tails, ears — when they’ve stiffened a bit by the next day.

The largest animals I make, and the life-size people, are time consuming, engrossing, demanding, exhausting and exhilarating. I am usually happy, after finishing the "wet clay" stage of these, to turn again to spinning out bowls and mugs in relaxing abundance. 

H.L.: Does it start with a “Eureka!” moment?

M.P.: Motion stops me in my tracks: the fluid motion of a seal, the arc of a horse's neck, the flick of a squirrel’s tail, the suspension of the gliding hawk. It’s challenging to show motion in the stillness of the fired clay form — but it’s an engrossing challenge.

H.L.: How do you know you’re on the right track?

M.P.: I need to be relaxed and at least pretend to have all the time in the world in order to sink into the work. Once I'm “in the zone," I just follow along the path until something throws me off and things begin to look wrong.

H.L.: What do you do when you get stuck?

M.P.: I look at the piece in a mirror, which can make a defect pop right out into the open where it can be fixed. If that doesn't work, I cover the piece with plastic and come back to it later.

H.L.: How do you know when the work is done?

M.P.: When I’ve failed to keep a piece wet enough to work on, or I can't get it any better, or it looks just right. But the firing is the final judge as to whether it flies or falls. 

H.L.: What did you do recently that related to your art?

M.P.: I kneaded together about 50 pounds of two types of clay to make some smaller sculptures; then I threw the shapes for a red-bellied woodpecker, a hairy woodpecker, a downy woodpecker and a bluebird.

— Steve Pfarrer

Martha Phinney’s website is www.phinneypottery.com. Her work will be on display over Memorial Day Weekend at the annual Haydenville Craft Fair, held outside her studio on Grove Street in Haydenville.